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B’way goes online and boots up biz

Tarantula lures legiters into Net by spinning sites that snare auds

The Internet has gone legit, and theater producers are embracing Web sites as an efficient way to market and sell tickets to their extravaganzas.

After recent successes with online ticket sales, show producers are now discovering that a well-designed dot-com not only builds buzz and B.O. but fills seats as well.

A Times Square billboard for the hot Mel Brooks tuner “The Producers” prominently displays a Web site address under the stars’ names, instead of the usual TicketMaster or TeleCharge numbers, while “Seussical” has used its site to keep the buzz upbeat while glossing over bad reviews.

By the time the show decamped from its Boston tryout and hit Broadway in November, the Web site for the $10.5 million production had already sold $500,000 worth of tickets. It has only grown from there, attracting roughly 350,000 visitors per month — an enormous figure considering the show isn’t even six months old.

Whereas ticket sales on the Internet usually lag behind sales logged via telephone, the imbalance has evened out for “Seussical,” a difference of hundreds of thousands of people now choosing to place orders online. Compare that to a 40% Internet and 60% phone sale split for tix to stalwart “Phantom of the Opera.”

“The Web has always been an afterthought,” says David Risley, director and executive veepee of Tarantula Entertainment, a small 15-person Internet design outfit in New York’s SoHo that launched the sites for “Seussical” and “Producers.” “Everybody always had the impression that you throw up a brochure — a logo, ticket link, and history of the show. But the sites didn’t do anything. When ‘Seussical’ launched, we did something that had never been done before,” opting to include music, flashy graphics and point-and-click interaction with material.

Reaping the rewards of Broadway’s embrace of online technology, Tarantula has become one of the most sought-after firms to create the flashy sites of the industry’s biggest spectacles.

Besides “Producers” and “Seussical,” Tarantula is launching and redesigning the sites for “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “Chicago,” “The Witches of Eastwick” and “The Rocky Horror Show.” This fall, it has secured sites for 10 of the 17 new shows to hit the stage on and off of Broadway, as well as London’s West End.

Although the dollar signs it generates for others are definitely the secret to its success, so are the theatrics Tarantula is trying to stage online.

“Each production deserves its presence on the Internet to be as entertaining as the show itself,” says Risley, an enthusiastic theater lover. “You go to any film site and they’re very entertaining. Broadway needed that.”

Says Scott Moore, veep of marketing for National Artists Management Co., the production company owned by Barry and Fran Weissler, the high-profile producers behind “Seussical” and “Producers,” among other shows: “In this day and age, the majority of large Broadway musicals have Web sites. The real issue is the quality of the site and whether an increase in a site’s quality will be reflected in a corresponding increase in sales.

“Broadway shows absolutely need to maintain a presence on the Web. … It’s a business reality — even in the theater, a business which basically operates the same way that it did a century ago.”

Tarantula’s tricks to creating a successful theater site:

  • Creating an easy way for auds to buy tickets.

  • Including the key selling points of a production that will draw ticket buyers, such as plot descriptions and cast listings, and making the site fun to visit.

  • Never taking the “obsessed fan” for granted because these are your word-of-mouth people.

  • Updating the site frequently, including reviews, cast changes and other info to encourage repeat business.

While it considers its Web sites to be “small productions,” the flashiness of the site depends upon the play: A computer-animated opening details the Holocaust for “Judgment at Nuremberg.” The tone of the site is dark. “Seussical” shouts fun and whimsy. Its site for “The Rocky Horror Show” is loud and interactive, a site Tarantula hopes “will represent ‘Rocky Horror’ to all the fans around the world.”

But new media’s biggest benefit to Broadway is the buzz factor. When “Seussical” bowed in Boston last October, the expensive production got many negative notices.

“There was a huge buzz on the Internet for the show, whether it was good or bad,” Risley says. “The producers were put off by the Internet. Our challenge was to come up with something magical that overshadowed all the stuff that had happened so far.”

Tarantula began in 1995, creating corporate sites for healthcare, financial and consumer electronics clients. But the company switched over to solely entertainment sites six months ago and hired Risley to head the venture. “Seussical” became its first Broadway dot-com, with additional work coming from producers Alan Wasser Associates and Cameron Mackintosh Inc., where Risley created sites for “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon.”

For Broadway, Tarantula has taken a page from Hollywood’s marketing playbook, teasing the opening of a new show on the Web long before it opens, with animated trailers for “The Witches of Eastwick” six months prior to its London bow. Several teasers were also created for “Seussical’s” site.

“If you start teasing them early,” Risley says, “you can generate buzz for your productions. It’s about selling your show and selling tickets.”

But it’s also about continuing to educate Broadway on the value of the Web. There’s still convincing to be done.

“It drives me mad that some people put $50,000 to $100,000 in the New York Times for ads that run only a couple of days, but they won’t put that same kind of money into a Web site that will last the duration of that show,” Risley says. “But people are starting to get it and invest in the Web. It’s an educational process.”

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