U.K.'s Ambassador Theater Group has plans to expand its foothold in the U.S.
If theater owners are the most powerful figures on Broadway, then there’s a new power player in town.
The purchase this week of Broadway’s largest venue, the 1,930-seat Foxwoods, reps the first real foothold in Main Stem real estate for Ambassador Theater Group, the Brit legit giant that across the U.K. owns 39 venues (including a dozen West End houses), the largest stable of buildings of any theater owner in that country.
A number of factors will prevent ATG from having an immediate and obvious influence on what gets seen on Broadway — not least of which is the fact that current Foxwoods tenant “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” consistently one of the Rialto’s top-grossing attractions, isn’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon.
But the acquisition nonetheless makes for a notable shift in that the Foxwoods, one of the few theaters not owned by Gotham’s dominant triumvirate of Broadway landlords or by a nonprofit, is now owned for the first time in years by a company whose core business is theater. (ATG purchased the venue from Live Nation at an undisclosed price that legiters hear came in at more than $60 million.) Besides, Howard Panter, co-topper of ATG with wife Rosemary Squire, has long made no secret of his ambitions for the company in the U.S. and around the world.
“The model is a classic Hollywood model,” Panter said of ATG’s business strategy, which combines ticketing, marketing and theater ownership with production activities that include partnerships with producers and creatives. “We want to try to replicate the successful integrative model that we have in the U.K.”
ATG has been circling Gotham real estate for years now, and Panter said he’s still eyeing a couple of potential venues (he wouldn’t specify, but probably Off Broadway) and North American theater businesses (think ticketing and touring firms) to add to the fold.
The Foxwoods — which may revert to its original name, the Lyric, in advance of an eventual rechristening to a new name yet to be decided — is brought under an ATG umbrella that already includes U.K. assets such as ATGtickets.com as well as frequent transatlantic producer Sonia Friedman Prods. (“The Norman Conquests,” “La Cage aux Folles”) and director-led shingles Jerry Mitchell Prods. and Jamie Lloyd Prods., which launched earlier this year with the West End production of “Macbeth” that starred James McAvoy. The company has also maintained a small New York office for the last five years, producing Broadway shows including “Guys and Dolls” and “Elling.”
Given a Foxwoods pricetag of more than $60 million, a lot of New York industry types believe ATG overpaid for a difficult-to-book venue with a spotty track record (although on the other hand, the valuation of every other theater on the Rialto just shot up). “Spider-Man” may be raking it in most weeks, but prior shows in the Foxwoods, including “Young Frankenstein” and “The Pirate Queen,” have struggled and eventually closed in the red. Even the technically ambitious “Spider-Man” comes with such high running costs that recoupment looks a long way off.
Panter refuted the theater’s rep as audience-alienating and acoustically challenging, arguing that the distance from the stage to the farthest seat is about ideal. Besides, he added, the public spaces are bigger and better appointed than in many older venues. (The theater opened in 1998 as a refurbished combination of the old Lyric and Apollo Theaters.) There are also two studio spaces to be rented for readings, rehearsals and other events.
Booking becomes tougher when you have just a single theater to rent rather than a whole roster of them, as does, for instance, the Shubert Org, which owns 17 Rialto houses, the multiple venues making the Shubert offices a unmissable stop for any producer hawking a show that needs a home.
With its big stage, large auditorium and up-to-date tech specs, the Foxwoods is primed to accommodate a big, technically ambitious spectacle along the lines of “Spider-Man” or, perhaps, the Oz stage adaptation of “King Kong” soon to begin previews in Melbourne. That seemingly limits the number of potential suitors for the house.
Seasoned Stateside legiters also caution that business operates differently in the U.S. than in the U.K., where, for instance, production costs tends to be quite a bit lower on the West End than on the Rialto. Besides that, not everything that works creatively on one side of the Pond translates over to the other side. Those factors, too, could hamper Panter’s plan to establish a real overlap between his U.K. network of theaters and the U.S. market.
On the real estate front, it’s also worth pointing out that unless one of the big Gotham theaterowners (Shubert, Nederlander, Jujamcyn) makes the unlikely decision to sell, ATG’s Broadway footprint doesn’t have any obvious opportunities for expansion. And with ATG owned by private equity firm Exponent, how long will it be before the majority stake holder decides, in the way of private equity, to flip the company or to go public?
ATG and Panter, however, remain undaunted by the potential challenges.
“It’s a big psychological thing to have a venue in the city,” he said. “We’ve made a commitment to New York and to the industry. Just by the fact we’re here, we’ll increase our focus and activity.”