The Business of Theater

Earnest Shackleton

I have become quite interested in analyzing theater, in particular, Broadway and Off-Broadway shows for two reasons:

  1. I’m struck by the fact that revenue for the show Hamilton is shaping up like a Unicorn tech company
  2. My son Matthew is producing a show that is now launching at a NYC theater, and as I have been able to closely observe the 10-year process of it getting to New York, I see many attributes that are consistent with a startup in tech.

Incubation

It is fitting that Matthew’s show, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, was first incubated at Theatreworks, San Francisco, as it is the primary theater of Silicon Valley. Each year the company hosts a “writer’s retreat” to help incubate new shows. Teams go there for a week to work on the shows, all expenses paid. Theatreworks supplies actors, musicians, and support so the creators can see how songs and scenes seem to work (or not) when performed. Show creators exchange ideas much like what happens at a tech incubator. At the culmination of the week, a part of each show is performed before a live audience to get feedback.

Creation of the Beta Version

After attending the writer’s retreat the creators of Shackleton needed to do two things: find a producer (like a VC, a Producer is a backer of the show that recruits others to help finance the project); and add other key players to the team – a book writer, director, actors, etc. Recruiting strong players for each of these positions doesn’t guarantee success but certainly increases the probability. In the case of Shackleton, Matthew came on as lead producer and he and the team did quite well in getting a Tony winning book writer, an Obie winning director and very successful actors on board. Once this team was together an early (beta version) of the show was created and it was performed to an audience of potential investors (the pitch). Early investors in the show are like angel investors as risk is higher at this point.

Beta Testing

The next step was to run a beta test of the product – called the “out of town tryout”. In general, out of town is anyplace other than New York City. It is used to do continuous improvement of the show much like beta testing is used to iterate a technology product based on user feedback. Theater critics also review shows in each city where they are performed. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (Shackleton) had three runs outside of NYC: Seattle, New Jersey and Boston. During each, the show was improved based on audience and critic reaction. While it received rave reviews in each location, critics and the live audience can be helpful as they usually still can suggest ways that a show can be improved. Responding to that feedback helps prepare a show for a New York run.

Completing the Funding

Like a tech startup, it becomes easier to raise money in theater once the product is complete. In theater, a great deal of funding is required for the steps mentioned above, but it is difficult to obtain the bulk of funding to bring a show to New York for most shows without having actual performances. An average musical that goes to Off-Broadway will require $1.0 – $2.0 million in capitalization. And an average one that goes to Broadway tends to capitalize between $8 – $17 million. Hamilton cost roughly $12.5 million to produce, while Shackleton will capitalize at the lower end of the Off-Broadway range due to having a small cast and relatively efficient management. For many shows the completion of funding goes through the early days of the NYC run. It is not unusual for a show to announce it will open at a certain theater on a certain date and then be unable to raise the incremental money needed to do so. Like a tech startup, some shows, like Shackleton, may run a crowdfunding campaign to help top off its funding.

You can see what a campaign for a theater production looks like by clicking on this link and perhaps support the arts, or by buying tickets on the website (since the producer is my son, I had to include that small ask)!

The Product Launch

Assuming funding is sufficient and a theater has been secured (there currently is a shortage of Broadway theaters), the New York run then begins.  This is the true “product launch”. Part of a shows capitalization may be needed to fund a shortfall in revenue versus weekly cost during the first few weeks of the show as reviews plus word of mouth are often needed to help drive revenue above weekly break-even. Part of the reason so many Broadway shows employ famous Hollywood stars or are revivals of shows that had prior success and/or are based on a movie, TV show, or other well-known property is to insure substantial initial audiences. Some examples of this currently on Broadway are Hamilton (bestselling book), Aladdin (movie), Beautiful (Carole King story), Chicago (revival of successful show), Groundhog Day (movie), Hello Dolly (revival plus Bette Midler as star) and Sunset Boulevard (revival plus Glenn Close as star).

Crossing Weekly Break Even

Gross weekly burn for shows have a wide range (just like startups), with Broadway musicals having weekly costs from $500,000 to about $800,000 and Off-Broadway musicals in the $50,000 to $200,000 range. In addition, there are royalties of roughly 10% of revenue that go to a variety of players like the composer, book writer, etc. Hamilton has about $650,000 in weekly cost and roughly a $740,000 breakeven level when royalties are factored in.  Shackleton weekly costs are about $53,000, at the low end of the range for an off-Broadway musical, at under 10% of Hamilton’s weekly cost.

Is Hamilton the Facebook of Broadway?

Successful Broadway shows have multiple sources of revenue and can return significant multiples to investors.

Chart 1: A ‘Hits’ Business Example Capital Account

Since Shackleton just had its first performance on April 14, it’s too early to predict what the profit (or loss) picture will be for investors. On the other hand, Hamilton already has a track record that can be analyzed. In its first months on Broadway the show was grossing about $2 million per week which I estimate drove about $ 1 million per week in profits. Financial investors, like preferred shareholders of a startup, are entitled to the equivalent of “liquidation preferences”. This meant that investors recouped their money in a very short period, perhaps as little as 13 weeks. Once they recouped 110%, the producer began splitting profits with financial investors. This reduced the financial investors to roughly 42% of profits. In the early days of the Hamilton run, scalpers were reselling tickets at enormous profits. When my wife and I went to see the show in New York (March 2016) we paid $165 per ticket for great orchestra seats which we could have resold for $2500 per seat! Instead, we went and enjoyed the show. But if a scalper owned those tickets they could have made 15 times their money. Subsequently, the company decided to capture a portion of this revenue by adjusting seat prices for the better seats and as a result the show now grosses nearly $3 million per week. Since fixed weekly costs probably did not change, I estimate weekly profits are now about $1.8 million. At 42% of this, investors would be accruing roughly $750,000 per week. At this run rate, investors would receive over 3X their investment dollars annually from this revenue source alone if prices held up.

Multiple Companies Amplify Revenue and Profits

Currently Hamilton has a second permanent show in Chicago, a national touring company in San Francisco (until August when it’s supposed to move to LA) and has announced a second touring company that will begin the tour in Seattle in early 2018 before moving to Las Vegas and Cleveland and other stops. I believe it will also have a fifth company in London and a sixth in Asia by late 2018 or early 2019. Surprisingly, the touring companies can, in some cities, generate more weekly revenue than the Broadway company due to larger venues. Table 1 shows an estimate of the revenue per performance in the sold out San Francisco venue, the Orpheum Theater which has a capacity 2203 versus the Broadway capacity (Richard Rogers Theater) of 1319.

Table 1: Hamilton San Francisco Revenue Estimates

While one would expect Broadway prices to be higher, this has not been the case. I estimate the average ticket price in San Francisco to be $339 whereas the average on Broadway is now $282. The combination of 67% higher seating capacity and 20% higher average ticket prices means the revenue per week in San Francisco is now close to $6 million. Since it was lower in the first 4 weeks of the 21 plus week run, I estimate the total revenue for the run to be about $120 million. Given the explosive revenue, I wouldn’t be surprised if the run in San Francisco was extended again. While it has not been disclosed what share of this revenue goes to the production company, normally the production company is compensated as a base guarantee level plus a share of the profits (overage) after the venue covers its labor and marketing costs. Given these high weekly grosses, I assume the production company’s share is close to 50% of the grosses given the enormous profits versus an average show at the San Francisco venue (this would include both guarantee and overage). At 50% of revenue, there would still be almost $3 million per week to go towards paying the production company expenses (guarantee) and the local theater’s labor and marketing costs. If I use a lower $2 million of company share per week as profits to the production company that annualizes at over $100 million in additional profits or $42 million more per year for financial investors. The Chicago company is generating lower revenue than in San Francisco as the theater is smaller (1800 seats) and average ticket prices appear to be closer to $200. This would make revenue roughly $2.8 million per week. When the show ramps to 6 companies (I think by early 2019) the show could be generating aggregate revenue of $18-20 million per week or more should demand hold up. So, it would not be surprising if annual ticket revenue exceeded $1 billion per year at that time.

Merchandise adds to the mix

I’m not sure what amount of income each item of merchandise generates to the production company. Items like the cast album and music downloads could generate over $25 million in revenue, but in general only 40% of the net income from this comes to the company. On the other hand, T-shirts ($50 each) and the high-end program ($20 each) have extremely large margin which I think would accrue to the production company. If an average attendee of the show across the 6 (future) or more production companies spent $15 this could mean $1.2 million in merchandise sales per week across the 6 companies or another $60 million per year in revenue. At 60% gross margin this would add another $36 million in profits.

I expect Total Revenue for Hamilton to exceed $10 billion

In addition to the sources of revenue outlined above Hamilton will also have the opportunity for licensing to schools and others to perform the show, a movie, additional touring companies and more.  It seems likely to easily surpass the $6 billion that Lion King and Phantom are reported to have grossed to date, or the $4 billion so far for Wicked. In fact, I believe it eventually will gross over a $10 billion total. How this gets divided between the various players is more difficult to fully access but investors appear likely to receive over 100x their investment, Lin-Manuel Miranda could net as much as $ 1 billion (before taxes) and many other participants should become millionaires.

Surprisingly Hamilton may not generate the Highest Multiple for Theater Investors!

Believe it or not, a very modest musical with 2 actors appears to be the winner as far as return on investment. It is The Fantasticks which because of its low budget and excellent financial performance sustained over decades is now over a 250X return on invested capital. Obviously, my son, an optimistic entrepreneur, hopes his 2 actor musical, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, will match this record.

Lessons Learned from Anti-Consumer Practices/Technologies in Tech and eCommerce

One example of the anti-consumer practices by airline loyalty programs.

As more and more of our life consists of interacting with technology, it is easier and easier to have our time on an iPhone, computer or game device become all consuming. The good news is that it is so easy for each of us to interact with colleagues, friends and relatives; to shop from anywhere; to access transportation on demand; and to find information on just about anything anytime. The bad news is that anyone can interact with us: marketers can more easily bombard us, scammers can find new and better ways to defraud us, and identity thieves can access our financials and more. When friends email us or post something on Facebook, there is an expectation that we will respond.  This leads to one of the less obvious negatives: marketers and friends may not consider whether what they send is relevant to us and can make us inefficient.

In this post, I want to focus on lessons entrepreneurs can learn from products and technologies that many of us use regularly but that have glaring inefficiencies in their design, or those that employ business practices that are anti-consumer. One of the overriding themes is that companies should try to adjust to each consumer’s preferences rather than force customers to do unwanted things. Some of our examples may sound like minor quibbles but customers have such high expectations that even small offenses can result in lost customers.

Lesson 1: Getting email marketing right

Frequency of email 

The question: “How often should I be emailing existing and prospective customers?” has an easy answer. It is: “As often as they want you to.”  If you email them too frequently the recipients may be turned off. If you send too few, you may be leaving money on the table. Today’s email marketing is still in a rudimentary stage but there are many products that will automatically adjust the frequency of emails based on open rates. Every company should use these. I have several companies that send me too many emails and I have either opted out of receiving them or only open them on rare occasions. In either case the marketer has not optimized their sales opportunity.

Relevance of email

Given the amount of data that companies have on each of us one would think that emails would be highly personalized around a customer’s preferences and product applicability. One thing to realize is that part of product applicability is understanding frequency of purchase of certain products and not sending a marketing email too soon for a product that your customer would be unlikely to be ready to buy. One Azure portfolio company, Filter Easy, offers a service for providing air filters. Filter Easy gives each customer a recommended replacement time from the manufacturer of their air conditioner. They then let the customer decide replacement frequency and the company only attempts to sell units based on this time table. Because of this attention to detail, Filter Easy has one of the lowest customer churn rates of any B to C company. In contrast to this, I receive marketing emails from the company I purchase my running shoes from within a week of buying new ones even though they should know my replacement cycle is about every 6 months unless there is a good sale (where I may buy ahead). I rarely open their emails now, but would open more and be a candidate for other products from them if they sent me fewer emails and thought more about which of their products was most relevant to me given what I buy and my purchase frequency. Even the vaunted Amazon has sent me emails to purchase a new Kindle within a week or so of my buying one, when the replacement cycle of a Kindle is about 3 years.

In an idea world, each customer or potential customer would receive emails uniquely crafted for them. An offer to a customer would be ranked by likely value based on the customer profile and item profile. For example, customers who only buy when items are on sale should be profiled that way and only sent emails when there is a sale. Open Road, another Azure company, has created a daily email of deeply discounted e-books and gets a very high open rate due to the relevance of their emails (but cuts frequency for subscribers whose open rates start declining).

Lesson 2: Learning from Best Practices of Others

I find it surprising when a company launches a new version of a software application without attempting to incorporate best practices of existing products. Remember Lotus 123? They refused to create a Windows version of their spreadsheet for a few years and instead developed one for OS/2 despite seeing Excel’s considerable functionality and ease of use sparking rapid adoption. By the time they created a Windows version, it was too late and they eventually saw their market share erode from a dominant position to a minimal level.  In more modern times, Apple helped Blackberry survive well past it’s expected funeral by failing to incorporate many of Blackberry’s strong email features into the iPhone. Even today, after many updates to mail, Apple still is missing such simple features like being able to hit a “B” to go to the bottom of my email stack on the iPhone. Instead, one needs to scroll down through hundreds of emails to get to the bottom if you want to process older emails first. This wastes lots of time. But Microsoft Outlook in some ways is even worse as it has failed to incorporate lookup technology from Blackberry (and now from Apple) that always allows finding an email address from a person’s name. When one has not received a recent email from a person in your contact list, and the person’s email address is not their name, outlook requires an exact email address. When this happens, I wind up looking it the person’s contact information on my phone!

Best practices extends beyond software products to marketing, packaging, upselling and more. For example, every ecommerce company should study Apple packaging to understand how a best in class branding company packages its products. Companies also have learned that in many cases they need to replicate Amazon by providing free shipping.

Lesson 3: The Customer is Usually Right

Make sure customer loyalty programs are positive for customers but affordable for the company

With few exceptions, companies should adopt a philosophy that is very customer-centric. Failing to do so has negative consequences. For example, the airline industry has moved towards giving customers little consideration and this results in many customers no longer having a preferred airline, instead looking for best price and/or most convenient scheduling. Whereas the mileage programs from airlines were once a very attractive way of retaining customers, the value of miles has eroded to such a degree that travelers have lost much of the benefit. This may have been necessary for the airlines as the liability associated with outstanding points reached billions of dollars. But, in addition, airlines began using points as a profit center by selling miles to credit cards at 1.5 cents per mile. Then, to make this a profitable sale, moved average redemption value to what I estimate to be about 1 cent per point. This leads to a concern of mine for consumers. Airlines are selling points at Kiosks and online for 3 cents per point, in effect charging 3 times their cash redemption value.

The lesson here is that if you decide to initiate a loyalty points program, make sure the benefits to the customer increase retention, driving additional revenue. But also make sure that the cost of the program does not exceed the additional revenue. (This may not have been the case for airlines when their mileage points were worth 3-4 cents per mile).  It is important to recognize the future cost associated with loyalty points at the time they are given out (based on their exchange value) as this lowers the gross margin of the transaction. We know of a company that failed to understand that the value of points awarded for a transaction so severely reduced the associated gross margin that it was nearly impossible for them to be profitable.

Make sure that customer service is very customer centric

During the Thanksgiving weekend I was buying a gift online and found that Best Buy had what I was looking for on sale. I filled out all the information to purchase the item, but when I went to the last step in the process, my order didn’t seem to be confirmed. I repeated the process and again had the same experience. So, I waited a few days to try again, but by then the sale was no longer valid. My assistant engaged in a chat session with their customer service to try to get them to honor the sale price, and this was refused (we think she was dealing with a bot but we’re not positive). After multiple chats, she was told that I could try going to one of their physical stores to see if they had it on sale (extremely unlikely). Instead I went to Amazon and bought a similar product at full price and decided to never buy from Best Buy’s online store again. I know from experience that Amazon would not behave that way and Azure tries to make sure none of our portfolio companies would either. Turning down what would still have been a profitable transaction and in the process losing a customer is not a formula for success! While there may be some lost revenue in satisfying a reasonable customer request the long term consequence of failing to do so usually will far outweigh this cost.

 

Soundbytes

My friend, Adam Lashinsky, from Fortune has just reported that an insurance company is now offering lower rates for drivers of Teslas who deploy Autopilot driver-assistance. Recall that Tesla was one of our stock picks for 2017 and this only reinforces our belief that the stock will continue to outperform.