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How Show-Score Aims to Become the Rotten Tomatoes of Broadway

No theater producer or creator likes to face the critics. Even worse? Seeing their Broadway baby, the show they’ve slaved over for years, rated with a number.

Which means that Show-Score, the website that’s gaining traction as the Rotten Tomatoes of theater, still faces some hurdles in the theater industry. Operating on the review aggregator model made familiar by Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and TripAdvisor, Show-Score assigns each production a number (between 1 and 100), calculated by an algorithm that encompasses user reviews, critics’ notices and, in some cases, the scores from previous productions of the same play or musical.

In a business where word-of-mouth is widely considered the most important factor in selling a show, some producers see Show-Score as a word-of-mouth megaphone. Others are more ambivalent about the idea of reducing audience response to a number.

“A number that comes from an algorithm of influences is different from someone you know telling you about their experience at a show,” said Kevin McCollum, the producer whose current Broadway outing, “Something Rotten!,” is ranked highly at 90. “I appreciate trying to create a quick reference tool, and in context with other things it can be fantastic. But word-of-mouth should not be lost.”

While prior attempts at creating a one-stop theater-review aggregator have stumbled (R.I.P. StageGrade), Show-Score, led by entrepreneur and former CNET exec Tom Melcher, hopes to stay in the game for the long haul by winning over the industry, the critics and the audiences at large.

Here’s how the site hopes to stick around:

By developing in conversation with the industry.

A lot of players in the business seem to appreciate the fact that Show-Score’s user reviews supplement individual scores with further details, including “See it if”/“Don’t see it if” blurbs that assume there’s an appreciative audience out there for every show. But there remain elements of the scoring and aggregating process that raise questions (one of the most frequent being how scores for previous productions are weighted into the number assigned to a new one).

To hear Melcher tell it, the model is constantly under refinement — and, in a move likely to encourage an industry embrace of the site, he’s enlisting the business as an ally in that task. He tells multiple stories of the ways in which discussions with the industry, often in response to issues raised regarding a specific production, have helped hone how the site, and its scoring, works.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re perfect, because there’s always an exception,” Melcher said. “But we’re trying to get it right.”

By tailoring to the avids and anticipating that general audiences will follow.

According to Show-Score, membership currently tops 80,000, yielding more than 120,000 member-generated reviews. According to the site’s data, its prime users aren’t teenagers with their heads buried in their phones. It’s women between the ages of 45 and 65 — which matches up perfectly with the prime demographic of Broadway ticketbuyers.

For producers and marketers looking to reach exactly that audience, that’s good news. For Show-Score, the hope is for the site to grow the way TripAdvisor did, which first attracted a niche crowd — the work-travel warriors eager for a forum  — and then, as the breadth of its user reviews reached critical mass, began to turn the heads of general-interest consumers.

By acting as a discovery tool.

Show-Score is geared toward the theater hobbyists who know what they like, but can get overwhelmed by the massive array of shows that play New York on any given evening. (The site, which encompasses Broadway, Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway and other venues, is currently focused on New York, but would expand to other cities in success.)

This year the organizers of FringeNYC, the New York International Fringe Festival, partnered with Show-Score specifically because of its potential as a discovery tool. FringeNYC’s slate of 200 productions over 16 days can look like an onslaught for even the most experienced theatergoer. The festival’s producing artistic director, Elena K. Holy, said she saw real value in matching its theatergoers with the site’s guidance in navigating an overwhelming number of shows. By encouraging Fringegoers to review shows on the site, the initiative also has the potential to deepen audience engagement — and, potentially, ongoing interest.

“It’s a way for us to hold onto that audience who came to a show because their roommate directed it,” she said. “Show-Score helped us create a way in to the festival, to make it as easy as possible for ticketbuyers to get swept up and see more.”

By taking critics at their word.

Think theatermakers get touchy when their work is compressed down to a number? Critics can get grumpy about it, too.

After a production opens, each review from a media outlet is read and given a number by three different Show-Score staffers. The three-person approach was instituted to insure an even-handed score assignment, but sometimes the site hears from a critic who thinks the number’s wrong. When that happens, the number on his or her review is changed to what the critic wants it to be, no questions asked (beyond verification of the critic’s identity). That alone seems likely to soothe reviewers who might bristle at the scoring system.

By generating revenue via four different streams.

For a site like Show-Score, a big part of longevity lies in achieving profitability. The site has a four-part plan for that:

  1.  Advertising, both through display ads (where ad buys are sitewide, and much larger than usual banners) and through targeted emails to users.
  2. Ticket commissions, received when links to ticket sellers like Telecharge and Ticketmaster are clicked through from the Show-Score site.
  3. Consumer fees, the $5-a-pop charge a user pays for tickets to member-night offers at individual shows. A production makes a block of tickets available free in exchange for the potential benefit of getting a group of avid theater enthusiasts reviewing the show.
  4. Research. Bolstered by its growing data set, Show-Score can offer producers market-research services for all phases of a production, ranging from the workshop stage to the media-campaign launch to the preview period to later in a production’s lifespan.

“We’re a media company, and media companies aggregate an interesting audience and then help other companies reach that audience,” Melcher said. “We do that same thing with a twist.”

By aggregating by taste.

What’s the twist? Taste. Show-Score’s data reaches beyond the usual demographic data — age, residence, profession, theatergoing history — to include a clear picture, numerically quantified, of what each user likes.

Which means that producers and marketers can reach an audience that seems most primed to respond favorably to the show they’re selling. Got a new tap-dancing musical on the boards? Show-Score can send an email to the theatergoers that seem poised to appreciate it.

The site also has a price-alert option that solicits a user’s ideal price point for a show they want to see. When Show-Score has registered a significant block of theatergoers who’d like to see Show X for $75, producers can team with the site to send out a private ticket offer directly to only those consumers.

“It’s all about leveraging our ability to know the taste of the audience,” said Melcher, who sees advantages both for theatermakers and for consumers. “Make it so audiences know what they’re going to see. They see it, they like it, and then there’s more likely to go back.”


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