The Playgoer: Producer-Landlords

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Thursday, August 09, 2007


Jeremy Gerard's excellent analysis, for Bloomberg, of the impending stagehand strike contains this illuminating digression on the true business of Broadway--i.e., real estate--worth quoting at length:

Every time a producer mounts a Broadway show, he or she has to rent a theater and then start from scratch: Renting lights, building the sets and the equipment that controls them. Some of these are unique to a show, but others an outsider might think ought to be part of the theater package.

The practice is called ``four-walling,'' and it means that the producer is renting a theater as if it had been stripped bare. The producer also pays for the theater's box office personnel and front-of-house employees, among a host of other costs. Half a show's weekly running expenses are related to paying for the house, not the production.

It's been this way ever since the three Shubert brothers wrested control of the commercial theater from the Theatrical Syndicate at the turn of the last century and gained iron-clad control over more than 1,000 theaters nationwide and the shows that went into them. (In London's commercial theater, where union costs are considerably lower, the same rules apply.)

This setup is a gift not only to those 350 stagehands, but to theater owners, who don't have to invest in equipment and who get producers to pay the salaries of their employees. Another wrinkle: Sometimes the theater owners also are the producers or co-producers, in which case they're more likely to give themselves and their partners a break on, say, rent. Other times, they're just landlords, looking, not unjustifiably, to generate the most income from their property, no matter how much pain that causes.

If you are an independent producer struggling to keep your show alive, the weekly rent is a lot more daunting than the cost of your stagehands. That's the chief reason why the current makeup of Broadway management, which includes both independent producers and theater-owners-slash-sometime-producers, is so completely dysfunctional. There's so much hollering between them it's clear they hate each other nearly as much as they hate the unions.

By the way, note that "union costs considerably lower in the UK" bit. The welfare state sure can help out in that regard. In this country, the unions pick up the slack and become their own welfare state. So Americans are adamant about not paying for other peoples health care and such in their taxes--but if only they knew they were paying it in their 3-figure "Jersey Boys" tickets instead!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just referenced this in a post on my site . . . we should all be talking about this more, I think . . . it really needs to be examined . . .