Your local HugeBigTheatre offers one hundred percent online ticket sales, right? And there’s nothing wrong with that, right? So offering one hundred percent online ticket sales is natural and healthy for all types of theatre productions, right?
Last year, the Toronto Fringe Festival only offered 50% of tickets to a show online. This year, the Toronto Fringe Festival started making 100% of all tickets available online, before the show. It has sparked some lively debate amongst my theatre colleagues. I wanted to more closely examine the issue, because I think it’s an important one.
The requirements set forth by the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals say nothing about ticket sales.
If you are interested in becoming a member of CAFF, consider your responses to the following questions:
- Will your Festival be primarily based around indoor theatre productions?
- Will your Festival be completely uncensored?
- Will applications from theatre companies be accepted through a lottery or on a first-come, first-served basis?
- Will your Festival return 100 percent of the money generated from ticket sales to the artists themselves?
If you answered “yes” to these questions, then CAFF would love to see a proposal from your Festival.
It’s Becoming Common Practice
I did a quick search through some of the major Canadian Fringe Festivals this morning. In all cases where I have 100%? beside a festival, it is because I couldn’t find anything saying that there were limitations on tickets sold online beforehand.
(All Fringe festivals have some sort of time cut off after which you can’t purchase tickets for a given show online. I was looking for a statement similar to “We offer x% of tickets online.”)
- Winnipeg — 50% online
- Vancouver — 100%? online
- Calgary — 80% online
- Hamilton — 50% online
- Montreal — 100%? online
- Edmonton — 100%? online
It’s Good For The Fringe
Tickets sold online do a few things for the festival itself.
- It lessens risk of theft in handling actual cash. We’ve all heard stories of venues getting robbed. If all that money is electronic account information, then you need a better class of thief to get at it.
- It smooths out the revenue stream. Each ticket sold has a two dollar processing charge on top of the ticket price. The ticketing provider of this years festival doesn’t disclose how much it takes from that, but it could be none: http://tytix.com/ticketing-solutions/ticketing-solutions-features/#web-sales. If HST gets taken from the $2, that potentially leaves $1.74 per ticket sold in the pockets of the Fringe. And as we see from the CAFF requirements, none of the $10 ticket fee can go to the Fringe itself.
This is much preferable to having your volunteers stand in line with plastic watering cans asking you to “tip the Fringe”. That particular revenue stream can be highly variable. Although I confess I would be curious to see comparisons of both numbers on an annual basis going forward.
- It gives nice auditable numbers for government arts agencies. Arts grants are going down, but giving nice statistics is always appreciated and required, and reporting automatically provided by your ticket host is an easy way to do this. (NOTE: I am not suggesting the Fringe is engaging in activities that require an audit. I am suggesting governments love to audit the arts.)
Is It Good For Audiences?
If as an audience member, your goal is to see the biggest hits as validated by the excellent Fringe critics roaming the festival, then this is a perfect system. Without leaving the comfort of your air conditioned home, you can browse the reviews, call up your calendar, review your schedule outside of the theatre, then with a few mouse clicks, a credit card, and some typing, you have got all the tickets you will ever want or need.
If, like me, you are old fashioned and like to chat with people in line ups for shows and discuss the hits, then it gets a bit problematic. There is a certain thrill with talking about a hit show in line and then pumping your legs like hell to get to the next performance of that show before someone else gets your ticket.
So now, word of mouth is more valuable in that it validates you made a proper mouse click. But this seems like a very minor thing to get upset about. Only theatre types seem to find this irksome.
Is It Good For Artists?
For artists who manage to latch onto the cachet of “hit show”, this is great! Easy to sell tickets, easy to collect money, and once your know our show is sold out for the rest of the Fringe, it gives you more time to relax and socialize. Because why would you need to go and hand out flyers and postcards if you are pretty well assured of an audience?
For artists who do not manage to latch onto the cachet of “hit show”, well, what happens to them? Of course they have to work the lines like they always had to. Probably even a bit harder. Adrenaline is a wonderful motivator. Fight or flight, as an artist, the correct answer is almost always fight.
The implied assumption in all this is that there will still be enough people left over as an audience to support all Fringe productions.
Now, I’m no expert on Fringe productions, But, given my general experiences as an audience member, I know some shows do not click for many reasons, despite the best intentions of the production company behind it. Word of mouth and reviewers quickly point out the things most people will not enjoy seeing.
So, here I am, an average audience member. The hit show that got NNNNN and my friends have told me is so good is sold out on the only day and time I can go. What do I do?
I would probably, as an average representative of the theatre-going public, work my way down the list. Can I see this show on another date and time? Can I see a NNNN or NNN show instead? If not…do I want to go see a NN show? Probably not.
Would I have gone to see a NN show if I was at the venue (because I had no prior knowledge of whether my NNNNN show was sold out or not), my car was parked, there was money burning in my wallet for a show ticket anyway, and there were people in line talking about other, more entertaining shows?
Theatre relies on a stable production milieu. The production company and the artists try to provide this, and to put on a pleasing production tor a large number of audience members. Revenue from these audience members in turn pays expenses for the production company and the artists, and hopefully some profit as well. This gives both the theatre and the audience a reason to continue engaging in a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Of course, this is a highly idealized model. Competing entertainment sources like movies and the Internet (e.g. Netflix) mean that the competition to obtain a steady audience is more difficult. Past governments seemed more willing to help fund the arts, but recent governments have shown that even established festivals (e.g. SummerWorks) are not immune to having their funding reduced or totally abolished.
So, with respect to offering 100% of ticket sales online, I am torn. I understand that keeping a stable and valued production company alive (Toronto Fringe) is very important. To that end, 100% online ticket sales is very useful.
For the artists involved in the Fringe, I don’t know. Of course, you always gamble in mounting a production anywhere. And an unpopular show will be unpopular whether you offer 0% or 100% tickets online beforehand.
There’s a general idea that art needs to conform to Darwinian ideals, now that survival has become more difficult, and that bad art should naturally be weeded out.
The danger is that you go too much in the opposite direction and we only see assorted riffs on romance stories between a man and woman with two and a half children, and three quarters of a dog,
I don’t know. When I started this, I was totally against this new policy. When I thought through it, I still didn’t like it, but I can see maybe why it happened.
I do know that the Fringe does need to exist as per the CAFF guidelines up at top of this post, and that artists are very adaptable, because they need to express themselves. I’ll be curious to see any Fringe particpants’ experiences that come out of this.