Tag Archives: box office

A call for people to poke each other in the eyes at British comedy clubs

Lewis Schaffer – ever scandalous

Last night, I went to a meeting at the long-running Monkey Business comedy club about “the crisis in comedy” where a packed room of comedians, promoters and club owners discussed what most comedy club owners, it appeared to me, seemed to think was no crisis in comedy. But comedians like talking and they can talk entertainingly, so everyone was happy.

Sometimes I have seen comedian Bob Slayer pretend to be drunk on stage. Last night, when I arrived, he was pretending to be sober in the audience. He was very convincing, though he had spent the entire afternoon talking to a brewery about sponsorship.

The “crisis in comedy” seemed to boil down to the perceived fact that box office takings have dropped perhaps 10%-20%.

David Mulholland, who runs the Soho Comedy Club, said: “I read a report about seven months ago that the median household income – the segment of the household income that’s left over for arts and entertainment – had fallen by half. And I have noticed that the amount of effort that goes into getting each person in has doubled. It’s just harder to get people in.”

A former accountant who is now a stand-up comedian and who muttered his name inaudibly (perhaps a good thing for an accountant but certainly not for a stand-up) said wisely:

“I have two clients, fish & chip shops, opposite each other. One is making over £500,000 a year; the other, less than £80,000. One is providing good service and good food; the other is not. Comedy is a business like everything else.”

American comedian Lewis Schaffer’s opinion was:

“I think people can make a living at comedy here in London. But that’s not going to be the case much longer. When I started comedy in 1993 in New York, people were just beginning to not make a living. A few years before, it was a similar situation to this, where people could make a reasonable amount of money. But what happened was, basically, the quality of the performers increased to meet the level of demand from the clubs and then surpassed it. So, in New York, you got a huge number of comedians who were good enough to work in comedy clubs – as we have here.

“But there are too many OK comedians who can go and do any club’s show on a Saturday night. The problem is that the product being put out there is extremely dull and that is not attracting people to come: there’s nothing exciting going on because the quality is set at a certain level.

“Obviously, there’s a limit to what can happen in a comedy club. But I went to see Dr Brown and some punter poked the guy in his eyes. It was mental. But I thought Fuck it! I’ve seen something amazing! I’m not soon gonna forget that shit.

“At the end of the day, in a comedy club, if you don’t do well, you’re not invited back. But it should be something amazing, not just three guys or girls doing the same shit that they’ve done at other places.

“What’s happened is that club owners want repeatability. They should not want people coming out of shows and saying It’s always good. No, they should want ‘em to say Oh my god! Something fucking amazing happened there!”

The mumbling ex-accountant whom I mentioned at the beginning of this blog (actually Vahid Jahangard) had, perhaps, the most pertinent line of the evening.

“One of my clients” he said,” told me If you sell shit, somebody will buy it and, if you make a success of it, then other people will start selling shit.”

Walking back to the tube station after the meeting, I bumped into ever-analytical comedian Giacinto Palmieri.

“What did you think of it?” I asked.

“I think it was one of those occasions,” he told me, “when people get together and try to become a community. The last time I felt the same about the comedy community was, sadly, at a comedian’s funeral… Funerals sometimes do work in building new social bonds, to the point that some people go there to woo the widows.”

“Only you,” I told Giacinto. “Only you.”

8 Comments

Filed under Comedy

I criticised the BBC shows first! Plus today’s other Edinburgh Fringe tales.

You read it first here (Photo by Kat Gollock)

This morning’s Scotsman newspaper carries an article saying that the pay-to-enter venues at the Edinburgh Fringe are having a bad time with ticket sales down anything from 7% to 30%. This is rather odd as, at the start of the Fringe, I seem to remember the same venues were saying sales were 70% up – a figure that always smelled of bullshit to me.

Interestingly, part of the blame for lower ticket sales is being put onto the BBC which, this year, has been staging a veritable cornucopia of free shows.

Coincidentally – remembering that self publicity is what keeps the Fringe going – the new issue of Three Weeks hits the streets today. That means I can publish on this here blog the column which I wrote in last week’s issue of Three Weeks, which was headlined Is Auntie Stealing Your Bums on Seats?

In it Mervyn Stutter, who has been staging his Pick of the Fringe shows for 21 years, criticised the BBC for putting on so many free Fringe shows this year. Remember, dear reader, that you get the news and views first by reading my columns and blogs! Among Mervyn’s comments last week were:

“Their (the BBC’s) shows are free. They have stars in. And you don’t have to pay. Why is the BBC doing so many shows here? It spreads the audience energy too wide. In the past, there have been only one or two BBC shows and there have been queues round the block. Performers think: ‘Oh, that would have been nice for an audience at my show’. But it’s free and it’s famous and it’s the BBC. It’s an attractive deal. I would go. Brilliant… if there were only a couple of shows. But this year there are acres of BBC shows. I’m sorry. It’s irritating. It’s the Fringe… It’s hard enough already. It’s a legitimate complaint. I’ve nothing against the BBC, but why are they here putting on so many shows?”

You can read what Mervyn said to me in full here.

But now back to yesterday and the genuine PBH Free Fringe and Laughing Horse Free Festival shows.

I bumped into Paul B Edwards flyering in the street for his show Songs in the Key of Death outside the Banshee Labyrinth venue. He said he had not bothered to put a listing in the main Edinburgh Fringe Programme this year because it was not worth forking out almost £400 to list a free show.

Not listing a show in the main Programme has the upside that you save almost £400 but the downside that you cannot expect to get reviewed. Paul does not care about that. But he shared with me an interesting idea about reviewers.

With Fringe shows often being reviewed by unpaid 20-year-olds, he suggested that starting-out reviewers should only, at first, be allowed to review 5 or 10 minute open spot acts. Then, like the acts themselves, reviewers with a bit of experience under their belts could progress to 20-minute acts. Then they could start to get paid to review longer acts or whole club shows and, after 5 or 6 years, once they knew what the were doing, they would be allowed to review 60-minute performances at the Fringe.

It is, indeed, odd that one publication this year is actually printing blurbs like: Cynthia Smyth-McTavish has written 4 reviews since joining our team in 2012.

Well, at least they are being honest that she has no experience!

Half an hour after bumping into Paul B Edwards, I walked into the Gilded Balloon to see Doug Segal’s How To Read Minds and Influence People.

After the show, I told him (I saw his show last year too): “It was a bloody amazing show, Doug. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful audience manipulation. Really jaw-droppingly impressive.”

So far, it has garnered two 5-star reviews and six 4-star reviews. I would have given it a 5-star last night.

Doug told me in all seriousness: “You came to the worst show of the run. I’m really sorry.”

What can you do with performers?

As I went in to see Doug’s show, I bumped into my chum Laura Lexx rushing between her two shows. She had just strutted her energetic stuff in the excellent comedy sketch show Maff Brown’s Parade of This at the Gilded Balloon – a very funny show in which she is oddly and erroneously teased for being a boy, something visibly untrue… She was rushing to get over to TheSpace @Surgeon’s Hall to appear in a serious drama show which shall remain nameless as the production company turned down my request for a free ticket. Petty? What’s the point of having a blog if you can’t be petty?

On the other hand, their show is inspired by Chekhov and I am getting free tickets under the banner of the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards. Perhaps they thought I wasn’t serious.

“I’ve only got 40 minutes between shows,” Laura told me, “and I just fell off my stool in a moth suit.”

“I might mention it in my blog,” I told her – my now automatic reaction to anything anyone tells me. But then I stopped and thought. “What?” I asked. “A moth suit? Why we’re you dressed as a moth? I don’t remember a moth sketch when I came to see the show.”

“A MORPH suit,” she said.

“A moth suit is funnier,” I said.

“Then say that,” she told me. “You can say I have a slightly broken leg if it helps!” and then she disappeared into the crowds.

Breaking a literal leg is the sort of thing Bob Slayer would do on a whim to get a single line of publicity. I have told him I am going to charge him rent for appearing in this blog.

In his latest attempt to get a plug, he told me:

“I have now come up with this new Fringe show concept mid-Fringe… My show Bob Slayer – He’s A Very Naughty Boy – at The Hive – has become a Trilogy! Each part is self-contained and can be seen in any order or in isolation…

“When I did some previews for my show, they ended up about two hours long, but I figured, if I removed the distractions and tangents, it would boil down to under an hour. Unfortunately, after my first week up here, I realised that I love a good tangent and distraction and I am simply unable to remove them! So, each night, I was failing to get beyond the first third of my story of getting banned and my other problems in Australia and beyond…

“And then the answer came to me when stepping out on stage and seeing a bunch of people return from the day before. Why not just start off where I left off yesterday? I did this the following night and it went a cracker! People bought tickets for the next part of the show on the way out of the venue, which is always a good sign! Mervyn Stutter’s scout signed me up for his Pick of the Fringe show and Bernard, the comedy editor of The Skinny who, earlier in the Fringe, had given me a generous one star review… took me out on the piss for the night…”

Still trying to assimilate all thus, I rushed across to the Pleasance Courtyard to see Jon Bennett’s Pretending Things Are a Cock which does what it says on the label but has an interesting amount of story depth to it. As I rushed past three men drinking outside a bar, I heard one say to the others (and I am not making this up):

Adam Smith, yes. David Hume, maybe. But Henry Dundas? You must be joking!”

I then proceeded to Pretending Things Are a Cock.

Edinburgh is an interesting city.

The latest issue of Three Weeks – in Edinburgh

My latest Three Weeks column is on the streets today. It is about publicity stunts. If you are not in Edinburgh – and why would you not be? – you can read it online here or download the whole Three Weeks issue as a PDF by clicking here.

I will be posting my column on this blog in a week’s time, once it has disappeared from the streets of Edinburgh like a used, discarded and doused fire-eating busker.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy

“Star Wars”, the ladies and the $350 million Disney disaster “John Carter”

John Carter loses Walt Disney’s shirt

What’s in a title? Well, in the case of Disney, maybe a $200 million loss on their movie John Carter after they inexplicably dropped the second part of the original title John Carter of Mars.

One theory about why the movie has been such an utter box office disaster is that no-one knew who the character was nor where or why he was fighting aliens. According to some reports, people coming out of screenings did not even know the film had been set on Mars. Oh! – and, in Hollywood’s post mortem, it was felt potential women punters had no idea there is a central romance in the movie. And the little ladies only love a war movie if it has romance, says Hollywood (e.g. Gone With The Wind).

Writer Edgar Rice Burroughs created the John Carter character before he created Tarzan but today, while everyone has heard of Tarzan, culturally no-one knows John Carter. This is a fact which seemed to bypass the Disney publicity team, who sold the movie heavily on the name.

Titles are, of course, not unimportant.

Star Wars was originally going to be called The Adventures of Luke Skykiller (sic). When producer Gary Kurtz and director George Lucas decided to re-title it The Star Wars, 20th Century Fox researched reaction to the title in shopping malls and came back saying: “Women will not go see a movie with the word ‘War’ in the title.”

The studio, according to Kurtz, always disliked the title (until it made mega-millions) but could not come up with a better one.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books on John Carter of Mars influenced many sci-fi movies from Star Wars to Avatar and many books and movies in-between and before, which also ironically means the new Disney movie feels slightly derivative. John Carter may have been the original, but, by now, audiences have  seen most of it before in other films.

Disney’s strange removal of all reference to Mars in the title John Carter may be because the studio took a bloody nose Mars Needs Moms last year. The movie’s budget was a reported $150 million + marketing costs; its worldwide box office gross was $39 million. The old rule-of-thumb (not altogether true today on mega-budget movies which require additional mega marketing budgets) was that, to break even, you had to gross 2.5 times your negative cost. So, roughly speaking, a $50 million movie had to gross $125 million to break even.

Mars has been doing badly of late. Columbia Pictures are currently re-making the 1990 movie Total Recall with Colin Farrell in the Arnold Schwarzenegger role and someone working on the special effects tells me it is not set on Mars. And let us not mention the normally superb Brian De Palma’s 2000 aberration Mission To Mars (budget $100 million; box office gross $110 million) nor Tim Burton’s 1996 Mars Attacks! (budget $80 million + marketing $20 million; box office gross $101 million)

It might be cheaper to go to Mars itself. In a BBC Radio 4 documentary last Tuesday, rocket entrepreneur and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk claimed he could send people to Mars for $500,000 per person.

Me? I prefer Edinburgh and I am here this weekend for a two-day event organised by the Guardian newspaper in which both Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and 20th Century Fox’s former vice president Sandy Lieberson explain how the original Star Wars movie was made.

According to Gary Kurtz, one of the inspirations for Star Wars was – yes – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books about John Carter of Mars.

Getting down to figures, the Disney movie of John Carter, based on Burroughs’ first (1912) John Carter book A Princess of Mars, cost $250 million to make and $100 million to market… and last week Disney announced they reckoned they would make a $200 loss on it.

“None of it worked on any level,” Sandy Lieberson said yesterday afternoon in Edinburgh. “Not on the marketing, the production, the casting, the chemistry. So it’s a perfect example of talented people, lots of money, the sky’s the limit and you come up with a dud.”

Before the original Star Wars was made, Gary Kurtz had tried to buy rights to the John Carter of Mars books as well as rights to Flash Gordon and to Akira Kurosawa’s movie The Hidden Fortress, but negotiations failed. So George Lucas made up his own story which, originally, was about a courier taking mysterious substances from one place to another.

Until a late stage in the scripting, robots C3PO and R2D2 were bickering bureaucrats, as in The Hidden Fortress.

George Lucas and Gary Kurtz had wanted to cast Hidden Fortress star Toshiro Mifune in the Star Wars role of Han Solo (eventually played by Harrison Ford), but Mifune’s English was not good enough. For the briefest of moments, according to Kurtz, Lucas suggested: “Why don’t we make it in Japanese with sub-titles?”

According to Kurtz, Lucas would snip tiny little bits of his own hair off when he had trouble writing. If Kurtz’s secretary arrived in the morning to type-up what Lucas had written (in long-hand on yellow paper) and found lots of little bits of hair lying around, she would say, “Boy! That must have been a bad night!”

Gary Kurtz agrees with the oft-quoted (by me) famous movie-making maxim of William Goldman in Adventures in The Screen Trade that “Nobody knows anything”.

“You never know in advance,” Gary Kurtz said yesterday afternoon. “This is one of the troubles. I don’t envy studio executives at all. I never wanted to be one I was offered a couple of times to be a part of the production team at a studio, but I couldn’t see it, because it is very difficult to predict about projects.”

The example he gave was director Robert Wise and Julie Andrews. “They put together The Sound of Music,” said Kurtz. “It was a famous musical on the stage but it worked brilliantly as a film. The very next project they wanted to do together was another musical that was really well-received on the stage – Star!

“And it didn’t work at all. Yes, the music was different. But on the stage it had worked. Why didn’t it work as a film? It’s one of those things that’s impossible to analyse. It’s almost like a chemistry experiment. You put in all the ingredients, you mix it all up and you stand up and put the burner under it and see what happens. Sometimes it turns into the most beautiful liquid possible. Other times, it just blows up in your face and you don’t know why.”

To hell with philosophising about movie-making, though. Were there any ‘romances’ among the crew and cast during the making of Star Wars?

“No,” according to Gary Kurtz. “Everyone was too tired. On the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, yes. But on the first film, no.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Marketing, Movies, Science fiction

The Edinburgh Fringe? – “It is called show business and not show charity”

In yesterday’s blog, I wrote about two types of show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

In normal ‘paid’ shows, the audience pays for its tickets before seeing the show and reviewers and talent scouts for the media/showbiz industry mostly get free tickets because they potentially may publicise the show or further the performers’ careers.

At ‘free’ shows, people do not buy tickets in advance, but are encouraged to pay on exit and reviewers/talent scouts may be scowled-at if they do not pay. In yesterday’s blog, I suggested the fact that ‘industry’ people ironically do not pay for ‘paid’ shows but may be expected to pay for ‘free’ shows might discourage reviewers and talent scouts from attending free shows. They would, in effect, be paying to promote the shows/further the performers’ careers.

I quoted Peter Buckley Hill, organiser of the PBH Free Fringe in Edinburgh, as saying: “This is not something that concerns me greatly… Our performers are strongly advised to concentrate on entertaining the people in front of them, whoever they are, and not to entertain unrealistic dreams of discovery and sudden fame… What happens at paid shows is nothing to me either.  But in my view, both (the employers of) reviewers and competition judges should pay for their show tickets.”

There has been some reaction from other Fringe veterans to yesterday’s blog.

Kate Copstick, doyenne of Fringe comedy reviewers, ITV Show Me The Funny judge and a Malcolm Hardee Awards judge, Facebooked me: “Shame on you, you skinflint Fleming. I make a POINT of seeing as many free shows as I can and, yes, they are the only ones I end up paying for but, to coin a literary term, SO THE FUCK WHAT ? It is the right thing to do. If we don’t review goodly numbers of free shows then we are saying that money WILL buy you reviews. Not mine it won’t.”

American comedian Lewis Schaffer has used the Fringe’s ‘free’ show model in his twice-weekly Free Until Famous shows which re-start in London’s Soho tomorrow and in a mini-tour of UK arts centres which I blogged about recently. He says:

“Whether or not to let reviewers in for free is such a minor point and one easily addressed: give the promoters and industry people ‘get out of show free’ passes to drop in the performers’ jars. Simple. If a performer doesn’t want to accept them, he can post a notice at the entrance.

“Acts are willing to lose massive amounts of money just to be seen by entertainment industry people in Edinburgh. That’s always been the main benefit of putting on shows at the Big Four venues. Industry people are corralled, cuddled and coddled at the Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly. Is it worth it? Well, for many shows, yes.

“Why shouldn’t the free venues do the same?”

Alex Petty, who organises the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe (separately from PBH’s Free Fringe) says:

“I like the idea of tokens. It would be good to come up with a zero maintenance solution to this.”

Bob Slayer, who ran the Hive venue as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival last year and who, this year, will be running his Alternative Edinburgh Fringe at the Hive with a mixture of ‘free’ shows in the afternoon and and ‘paid’ shows in the evening says:

“As a promoter I think, if this really is a problem, the free shows should look at a low-maintenance way to address it. Personally, I only really know one of the reviewers that ‘does’ my Fringe shows – Kate Copstick from The Scotsman – and she always drops in a fiver and buys me copious amounts of Jagermeister. I think the other reviewers may have heard how expensive it is to review me and sneak in quietly.

“Copstick is one of the good people. But the question is Do you only want to be reviewed by good people?? I am more than happy for evil, tight-fisted people to enjoy and review my show too. (I fear they might be my target audience.) So this year, instead of paying for PR I will offer a bottle of whisky and/or a hand-job to anyone who reviews my nonsense. And, just to keep this creatively pure, I will give extra for bad reviews.

“However, I think your blog has opened up some wider and bigger questions beyond reviewers.

“I cannot agree with your statement that, at the Fringe, performers (quite rightly) assume they will not make any profit. This is the biggest single problem at the Fringe today.

“Two million tickets are sold at the Edinburgh Fringe every year, so someone is making money. A lot of money. This myth that performers should expect to lose money has been very successfully spread by the people who are making the cash in order to protect their annual golden goose. If there is not enough money left for performers – after venues, PR people, poster people, publications, marketing services etc have taken their cut – then the obvious solution is that we cannot afford all these services and we should re-structure everything so that all the money doesn’t disappear into these people’s pockets.

“That is what we are aiming to do with the Alternative Fringe – paid shows with no rent/guarantee or other hidden costs, plus low ticket pricing and efficient marketing so that the performer earns from the first ticket sold.

“I also find myself totally agreeing with PBH and have very little to add when he says performers should concentrate on entertaining the people in front of them, whoever they are, and not to entertain unrealistic dreams of discovery and sudden fame. The former leads to satisfaction in a job well done; the latter to frustration and the sort of nervous breakdown behaviour often associated with Fringe performers.

“However, as admirable as PBH’s non-profit stance is, this is still a business model that needs to be sustained and it is hardly wise to ignore the industry and reviewers altogether. Performers want to be able to keep performing and/or build a career.

“Reviews, along with word-of-mouth, recommendations, online activity, marketing etc, can all help them put bums-on-seats. But it is a question of balance and priorities. Find and develop an audience and the industry will come – Kunt and the Gang proved last year that, if you create a buzz amongst ‘normal’ people, then the industry and press will follow, no matter how inappropriate your act or name is!”

Lewis Schaffer adds:

“Someone in Edinburgh is certainly making money out of the free shows. It is the pub owner who sells alcohol to the punters coming in droves for free entertainment. The ‘free’ shows hinge on punters drinking. How British is that!?

“No punters drinking mean no shows, no PBH Free Fringe, no Laughing Horse Free Festival, no Lewis Schaffer is Free until Famous, 18th Year, Again, at the Counting House this August.

“Peter Buckley Hill provides entertainment that draws punters to the pubs, which makes Peter Buckley Hill a promoter for pubs in Edinburgh.

“I don’t have an axe to grind with the dude. His existence doesn’t hurt or harm what I do enough for it to matter. I am just a participant doing a free show. Though it does hurt me a little when he calls what he does a charity and holds benefits and makes free shows seem like charity cases, which my show isn’t. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me any more than is necessary!

“All performers at the free festivals are just alcohol salesmen, really. If PBH wants to sell himself as some saviour of entertainers or some charity for lost performers, that is one thing. The truth is something else.

“Everyone involved has a business model: the acts who want a venue at the lowest cost, the pubs who want drinkers in their pubs, the promoters who need money to conduct their businesses and live (… Oh, PBH isn’t doing it for the money? But the Free Fringe needs money to operate. And PBH has a ‘business plan’ to have his needs met as the saviour of entertainers and the liberator of worker artists.)

“The Fringe is part of show business. It is called show business and not show charity.”

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Marketing, PR, Theatre

Do Edinburgh Fringe performers need to suck-up to reviewers/talent-spotters?

(This was also published in the Huffington Post and, in part, on the Chortle comedy industry website)

A lot of performers at the Edinburgh Fringe are there simply to get publicity, not to get big audiences. Getting bums-on-seats is a secondary, though still important, aim.

They (quite rightly) assume they will not make any profit. They want to gather review quotes and/or, with extreme luck, get talent-spotted by the media – especially by radio and TV people – and/or by promoters/producers/agents.

For the last few years, the Fringe has comprised two types of show – especially in comedy.

One is the traditional theatrical ‘business model’ in which people pay to buy tickets and then go see the show. These are the so-called ‘paid’ shows.

The other, newer model is the one pursued by the PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival, in which the audience does not pay in advance to see shows. Instead, after the show, there is a bucket or similar financial receptacle and the audience members throw into it what they think the show was worth – or they can pay nothing. These ‘free’ shows have the same ‘business model’ as busking in the street.

I only really became aware last year of a problem for Free shows who want to get reviewed in the media or head-hunted by talent scouts.

I have reviewed comedy shows at the Fringe. I have attended shows as a researcher/producer for TV programmes. For publishers, even! And I currently organise the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards (which have no outside sponsor providing financial backing).

If I go to a ‘paid’ show as a reviewer, as a media person, as a promoter or as an awards judge, I get a free ticket from the Fringe Office/venue/producers. I hand that ticket in at the door to see the show. Everybody is happy.

If I go to a free show, there are no tickets. So I go into the show without a ticket.

I just walk in and, at the end of the show, the performer usually stands at the door to collect money in a bucket.

If I put nothing at all in the bucket, I feel like a schmuck and/or the performer looks miffed or both. After days of this constantly happening, it wears you down. It is less embarrassing simply to see only paid-for shows – or certainly to see far fewer free shows.

Yes, you could put money in every bucket. But having access to free tickets means you can take a bigger chance on going to see less high-profile shows which may or may not turn out to be utterly appalling. Having to pay for shows potentially means less risk-taking.

This holds true for promoters, would-be stage producers, and radio & TV researchers/producers. They, of course, have budgets, but…

Another fact to take into consideration is that many reviewers for Fringe free-sheets, websites and magazines are not paid.

As a reviewer, you may see 5 shows a day over 25 days. That is 125 shows. If only a third of those are free shows and if you put only £1 in each show’s bucket, that means forking out around £40. It is far easier – and cheaper – not to see free shows. There is no shortage of higher-profile, probably-very-good paid-for shows.

I do not know what the solution to this is.

It would probably be too expensive for the shoe-string free show organisers to start printing/administering press passes.

I suppose media people could drop into the bucket their business cards or bits of paper with their details on. But few reviewers have business cards and the last thing you really want is performers hassling you after seeing a show (which may have been crap).

I asked the opinion of Alex Petty who organises the Laughing Horse Free Festival; and Peter Buckley Hill who started the free show concept in Edinburgh and runs the original PBH Free Fringe shows.

Alex’s response was: “I hadn’t thought that it may be like that for reviewers. We certainly seem to have got our fair share of reviews but, if it’s putting people off, it’s something to look at, definitely.”

Peter Buckley Hill’s response on behalf of the PBH Free Fringe was a little more complicated and surprising. He replied:

* * *

This is not something that concerns me greatly.

Traditionally, performers have been desperate to gain the attention of the press, and many people have exploited that desperation. Even now, many performers are briefed that they ought to be desperate for press attention, and ought to value the opinions of one reviewer more than those of hundreds of audience members.

The consequences have been obvious and deplorable. A number of publications exist merely for the purpose of reviewing Fringe shows, and young people are recruited by these publications, sometimes without knowledge or appreciation of the genres they are sent to review.

The result is a climate of over-deference to reviewers, leading to a culture in which entertaining the audience is not given first priority. When a reviewer is known to be coming, many comedians pack the audience with their friends, on free tickets and with instructions to laugh particularly hard. These are stupid games.

When a man (as it would have been in those olden days) worked hard in the shipyards or mines six days a week, and spent his hard-earned money taking his family to the theatre or music hall on a Saturday, there was some merit in reviews which helped him choose his entertainment; his shillings would not be wasted on inferior shows.

These conditions were not present at the Edinburgh Fringe until recently, when ticket prices started exceeding £10 for a one-hour show. With or without reviews, these prices are too high.

At the Free Fringe, no hard-earned money is wasted. If you don’t like the show, you don’t give (and often you sneak out early, thus leaving an audience who is on the wavelength of the show). If you do like the show, you don’t have to give either. Some don’t. Most do. The choice to give or not is always theirs.

And in choosing shows, the audience is free to be guided by its own instincts, not the second-hand views of others. They can experiment without financial penalty.  And experimenting — watching something without recommendation, almost at random — is the essence of a festival calling itself Fringe. Among our achievements has been the restoration of the Fringe to the people of its host city.

Our policy has always been that entry to shows is first come first served. Reviewers queue with the rest and there is no special treatment. There are no tickets and there never will be. In situations of particularly high demand we have issued tokens to the queue, thus allowing it to wait in more comfort and not stand for an hour; this is still first come first served.

In our world, the interests of audiences come first and those of performers second, followed by the legitimate need of our venues to profit from having our shows.

Our performers are strongly advised to concentrate on entertaining the people in front of them, whoever they are, and not to entertain unrealistic dreams of discovery and sudden fame. The former leads to satisfaction in a job well done; the latter to frustration and the sort of nervous breakdown behaviour often associated with Fringe performers. The danger of the latter, however, is greater when the performer has poured £5000-£15000 of his/her own money into the show, as he/she does not have to with the Free Fringe.

If reviewers are commissioned by publications, in my view they should be paid for that work. But it is nothing to me if they are not.  That is between them and their employers. What happens at paid shows is nothing to me either.  But in my view, both (the employers of) reviewers and competition judges should pay for their show tickets. Otherwise, this is money taken from the pockets of performers.  When restaurants are reviewed by most reputable publications, the reviewers remain anonymous and pay for their meals.

Our shows get audiences with or without reviews. I am not convinced that the public read them anyway. Certainly the additional numbers that came to my show in 2009 following its five-star review in The Scotsman had not read the review itself; they merely followed the stars like the three kings of legend. If there are to be reviews, abolition of star ratings would be a very positive step. It would at least make people read something about the show itself, and teach them that excellence is subjective.

The Free Fringe is not a ‘business model’. It is a model for the liberation of performers from the chains imposed on them by others making profit on their labour. Thus, we must be a non-profit organisation. The Free Fringe is free in many senses. Among those freedoms is freedom from the (perceived, not real) need for reviews.

We will continue to do what we do.

It is right.

* * *

(There was reaction to this in later blogs here and here.)

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Marketing, PR, Theatre

Exclusively revealed here: plans for an Alternative Edinburgh Fringe in 2012

(A version of this blog was published later the same day by the Huffington Post)

The Edinburgh Fringe does not happen until August, but performers – and especially comedians – start planning for it now – in late-December.

The big problem, of course, is the cost. I have reckoned for the last few years that, to stage a professionally-promoted show at the Fringe, costs a performer around £7,000 to £8,000 and you have to assume a 100% loss.

I may be out-of-date, though.

Comedy whirlwind Bob Slayer, formerly in the music business, reckons it now costs £12,000+ to run a show over the Fringe’s three-and-a-half weeks in a ‘paid’ venue. That means the performer pays to hire the venue and the audience pay to see the show.

This week, on the Chortle comedy industry website, he wrote about the opportunities for building a comedy career in a new way.

Now he has gone further.

“The Edinburgh Fringe is a wonderful thing,” he tells me, “but few punters realise the extent to which it is bankrolled by the performers themselves. The vast majority of so-called ‘promoters’ at the Fringe rent rooms to performers just like a landlord. And they sell marketing packages like an agency. What they do not do is take the same financial risks that a real promoter does.”

It is even worse than that. The major venues, in effect, force performers to pay around £500 to be included in their own printed programmes on top of the £295-£393 all performers pay to be included in the main Fringe programme. And then there are unavoidable PR and ticket-handling costs.

“By passing the actual financial risk on to the performer, they are effectively making the performer act as the promoter with a limited upside,” says Bob. “In the music industry this would be called Pay-To-Play and something that you only really find at the lowest level. What performers need at the Fringe is the opportunity to put on shows without risking ridiculous amounts of money.”

For this reason, the last few years has seen a gigantic increase in the number of free Fringe shows, with the PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

The performers do not pay any money to hire a free venue and the audience do not pay for tickets. At the end of the show, they can give as much or as little (or no) money to the performer as they feel the show has been worth. In effect, it is like busking.

American comic Lewis Schaffer – as I mentioned in a recent blog – has brought this ‘free’ performance concept to London with his Free Until Famous show – it is now the longest-running one-man comedy show in the West End and he is taking this free show on a mini-tour of UK arts centres in 2012.

“The huge growth of free shows,” says Bob Slayer, “highlights the increasing demand for an alternative to shelling out so much money to put on a Fringe show. These shows are becoming the place where acts can grow an audience without getting into debt. But there remains a huge gap between the free and paid shows.”

That gap is mainly the gigantic advance cost of paying venue hire. The traditional paid-for Fringe venues charge the performers to hire their venues and also take a percentage of the box office returns (usually split 60/40 in the artist’s favour). The free venues, on the other hand, charge no rental fee and take no percentage of the voluntary donations that punters put in the performer’s bucket.

A couple of years ago, there was hope that the so-called ‘£5 Fringe’ could bridge the gigantic gap between traditional and free venues, but it could not be made to work economically.

Bob reckons he has another model, though, halfway between the free and paid models.

“If a venue did not charge performers rent, had a fair deal based on a profit split, did not waste money on poster sites and set reasonable ticket prices, it could succeed. That is why, during the 2012 Fringe, my Heroes of Alternative Comedy company is linking up with Laughing Horse (who run the Free Festival) at The Hive venue in Edinburgh. We will co-promote paid shows that do not charge artists rent to hire their venues.

“I will be booking four paid shows in the prime evening slots (hourly 6pm to 10pm) in the main room of The Hive.

“They will run alongside free shows during the day and in the second room. All income from the first ticket sold will be split 70/30 in the artist’s favour. As well as shows running throughout the three-and-a-half weeks of the Fringe, we can also accommodate second shows and shorter runs of one or two weeks.”

At The Hive, both the free and the paid shows will run under the banner of The Alternative Fringe, with listings in both the main Fringe Programme and the Free Festival programme.

It is an interesting idea and might, indeed work.

Performers will have a box office income related to the number of people they can attract with a guaranteed payment per-bum-on-seat. But they will not have to pay the standard up-front costs at all: in particular, no venue hire and no enforced publicity charges.

There is also a problem, of course, with rapacious agent/management companies. I was told a story this week about an Edinburgh Fringe show several years ago which took £33,000 at the box office. I believe the pre-arranged box office deal was the standard 60/40 split in the performer’s favour. After deductions – and several months later – the performer received a cheque for £400 as his split of the profits.

But that, as they say, is another story.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Marketing, Theatre

A Broadway success story for anyone staging a show at the Edinburgh Fringe

There are two things which will make people queue round the block to see a stage production.

Great reviews.

Or widespread press coverage saying it is a catastrophe.

I am allegedly a creative consultant to US theater promoter Calvin Wynter’s company Inbrook based in New York.

He phoned me last night. One of the most interesting things he told me were the Broadway box office figures for Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.

Inbrook handled PR and general management services for Spider-man producer David Garfinkle at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and, after that, I had followed the increasingly OTT production stories of Spider-man in the US trade magazines.

You know a show is going to be interesting when the opening line of the New York Post’s review is:

Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark pulled off a miracle this week: it opened…”

Spider-man took eight years of pre-production, its premiere was postponed five times and, at a reported $65 million (or possibly $75 million), it is the most expensive production in Broadway history. The previous most-expensive-production Shrek only cost half that to stage on Broadway.

Spider-man has 41 cast-members, an 18-strong orchestra, complicated mechanical sets and 27 aerial stunts including a battle over the audience between two characters.

It has music by Bono and the Edge of U2 and it has been described – and indeed promoted – as one of the most technically elaborate Broadway musicals of all time. Which was what caused a lot of the problems in pre-production. That and the soaring budget, cash flow, cast problems and the fact it managed to knock up four accidents in one month.

It reportedly has a weekly running bill of $1 million.

Last week, of the 24 shows on Broadway, only seven grossed over $1 million at the box office. They were:

Wicked – $1,882,731

The Lion King – $1,854,764

Spider-man – $1,811,432

The Book of Mormon – $1,256,830

How to Succeed in Showbusiness – $1,223,226

Mary Poppins – $1,111,911

The Phantom of the Opera – $1,026,795

The previous week, Spider-man also stood in the No 3 position.

Why are people going to see it in droves? Because of the overwhelming publicity.

It’s spectacular, it got varied reviews, but – hey! – it might be a car crash or – literally – someone might fall on top of your head. The one thing it is unlikely to be is dull.

In the UK, I remember stories of the legendarily catastrophic 1980 Old Vic and touring production of Macbeth with Peter O’Toole – tales of rickety sets sometimes falling down, totally OTT blood and Peter O’Toole virtually eating the scenery with his over-acting – It was a show which got worse reviews than the Third Reich… and yet you couldn’t get tickets for it anywhere – I tried to buy tickets to see it in London and Manchester myself – No chance. It was a sell-out.

Stephen Pile wrote: “Eradicating the unnecessarily tragic aspects that have always weighed the play down, the cast sent the first-night audience home rocking with happy laughter.”

The Daily Mail wrote: “It was, of course, the rottenest luck for him (Peter O’Toole) to run smack into a wall on his third bravura exit (so much of the play takes place in the dark).”

The Independent reckoned: “the sheer quantities of stage blood reduced audiences to hysterical giggling”.

The London Evening News claimed Lady Macbeth “greeted her husband by leaping at him and achieving a leg-encircling embrace of the kind which illustrates helpful sex manuals” and that her antics “would have woken the whole castle”.

In an admirably odd interview several years later, Peter O’Toole said: “My nose bleeds as I think of it”.

So, if you are staging a play and want to get lots of bums on seats, either get great reviews, horrendous pre-publicity or truly awful reviews.

All publicity is good publicity.

If you can kill a member of the cast or audience, you will sell out at the box office.

I am still looking for worthy nominees for this year’s Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, PR, Theatre