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West End eyes Olympics

Brit producers divided on potential gains, losses from Games

The massive summer influx of U.K. and foreign tourists traditionally spells bonanaza at the London legit box office. But this summer all bets are off – thanks to the London Olympics.

Of all those fans flooding into town for the Games (July 27-Aug. 12) and the Paralympics (Aug. 29-Sept. 9), how many want to see West End shows?

Initially, the mood was grim. Andrew Lloyd Webber was the first to fire warning shots, telling the BBC in late December, “I think the theater will have a bloodbath of a summer.”

According to him, the expected tourist audience was already down by 10% and he would have to close some of the theaters he owns. “That’s partly because people can’t get into hotels, partly because the hotels are so expensive – they’ve all put their prices up – and people who want to go to the theater or concerts are not the same sort of people who really want to go to sport.”

Cameron Mackintosh, also a theater owner in addition to being a producer, was more circumspect. “You sort of veer from fear to optimism depending on who you talk to. I mean, producers are worried,” he says.

The Society of London Theater, however, has built a marketing strategy to capitalize on the influx of foreigners. According to figures projected last December by the government-funded national tourism agency VisitBritain, there will be 30.7 million visitors to the U.K. in 2012, the same as the previous year. But a chunk of the Olympics tickets sold went to overseas buyers.

Additional pop-up TKTS booths will appear across the West End, and Olympics guides and staffers at information centers have been given free tickets to shows over January and February in order to encourage sales.

“The message is that you haven’t really seen London unless you’ve been to the theater,” says Julian Bird, SOLT exec director. The preparations aren’t the only reason some legiters have been taking a more upbeat view. The National Theater’s exec director Nick Starr announced in January that the West End production of “War Horse” had already experienced a spike in sales over the Olympics period. That’s underlined by Sarah Hunt, the National’s director of marketing, who notes that the advance business for the Olympics-Paralympics period for “Horse” is almost double that for the same period in 2011. Hunt cannot report figures for the same period at the National’s home, since booking has not yet opened. But she sees potential crowd magnets in the building’s starry programming for the period, including legit fave Simon Russell Beale headlining a new production of Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens,” Julie Walters starring in a new play, and “War Horse” co-director Marianne Elliot helming a hotly anticipated adaptation of international bestseller “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

Another reason Hunt remains upbeat: “I cannot believe people will come here and only see, say the 100-meter final,” she says. “Why not take in London’s attractions and culture?”

At the moment, nobody knows what the effect of the Olympics will be on theatergoing – and that’s because no real model exists. “There is no precedent for an Olympics in a capital city with the kind of nighttime economy that we have,” Bird says.

He remains, however, convincingly confident. “The vast majority of London theaters will be open,” he notes.

The only exception thus far is “Sweeney Todd.” However, its prdoucer, Matthew Byam Shaw, explains that the two-week Olympic break is due in part to the contractual necessity to give stars Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton a statutory paid holiday. “We realized it would be best for the show if they took their holiday at the same time,” he says. “It made sense to do that over the Olympics.”

The other key focus of SOLT’s strategy has been to address widespread fears about potential transportation chaos. “We know from customer feedback that this is a fear that people have,” says Bird. “But we’ve now seen the detailed planning and it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Detailed traffic mapping for each Underground station has been done for every day of the Olympics. According to these projections, the two stations closest to the majority of London theaters will experience no problems at all. And even if audiences avoid the subway, 95% of theaters are less than a 15-minute walk from an above-ground train station.

All of which suggests a potential to maximize sales. Everyone recognizes that audiences for legit and sports may not traditionally overlap, but looking across the sector, legiters are cautious but hopeful.

As happens on Broadway during big holiday frames, it may be the highest-profile properties and actors that benefit most during the Olympics. “Big titles or shows with big stars may fare very well,” Byam Shaw suggests. “Homegrown stuff with less international appeal may struggle.”

Bird points to this year’s record advances. “We have every reason to be optimistic,” he says.