The Playgoer: British Invasion: UK Perspective

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

British Invasion: UK Perspective

"There is not a business model that says, 'Have War Horse, exploit War Horse, repeat.'"

- Nick Carr, Executive Director, Royal National Theatre.

Fascinating, and long, piece from Financial Times'

[One] profound change has been the decision of a generation of entrepreneurial managers in the subsidised sector to act more like their commercial peers and to take a leading role in bringing their shows to Broadway. Traditionally, subsidised theatres with a hit would hand it to a commercial producer for a royalty and a share of any profits when the play transferred to the West End or on to Broadway. Now, many are deciding to take the risk themselves, to stay involved both creatively and financially.

War Horse, which opened in London in 2007, has been the most successful production in the National's history, making more than £2.5m a year, a significant level of profit for a subsidised theatre to earn from a show, according to Harbottle & Lewis, the entertainment law firm which advised on its New York transfer. When the Lincoln Center looked to bring the play to New York, the National decided for the first time to stay in as co-producer. Similarly, the Royal Court had never co-produced a Broadway transfer before Jerusalem, and in London is acting as lead producer for the first time on a transfer of Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris's Pulitzer Prize-winning satire on race and class, from its Sloane Square theatre to the West End, raising 60 per cent of the budget from investors.

...Patrick McKenna, chairman of the Young Vic. [says] financial pressures are a spur..."We also have to start thinking about how we're going to create new funding sources as government grants start to slow down. We have to be less dependent on the state."

However, while there's promise of greater return in USD, note how much higher the cost is of producing here:
[F]ar more travels from the UK to the US as London has a huge cost advantage over Broadway. When budgeting for a New York transfer, Friedman explains that she typically converts the British costs into dollars and then multiplies by three to account for higher theatre rents, bigger marketing budgets and tougher demands from unions. In Jerusalem's case, the production that had taken £350,000-£400,000 (about $600,000) to mount in London cost $3.1m in New York. (That is modest compared with War Horse, which cost a reported $6m in New York.)
And War Horse is at a nonprofit here! (Lincoln Center)

Notice, too, how the appeal of certain London transfers lies in that nexus where financial safety meets artistic experimentation and/or unorthodoxy:
US and UK producers stress that British theatre attracts American attention for artistic as well as financial reasons. Arts Council subsidies allow theatres from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the National to test risky new material with few of the pressures felt by a commercial West End theatre that must survive on ticket sales alone. "That means you can experiment, be bold, even be allowed to fail sometimes," says Elliott. "We look for the most interesting choices, not the safest. I can't tell you how liberating that is." Kate Horton, the Royal Court's executive director, is clear about where her priorities lie: "We're not here to produce hits. We're here to push tastes forward," she says. 
I like that phrase "pushing taste forward." (Even if it is partly PR b.s.) But here's the kicker.
Such innovation is welcome in the US where, as Nick Starr, the National's executive director, notes, the philanthropists who help finance productions at many smaller New York theatres may have more dyed-in-the-wool tastes. "Those donors, however brilliant they are in New York, tend to be lagging rather than leading indicators," he says tactfully. 
Oh, snap!  Actually I couldn't agree more. I often feel our nonprofit sector here may be artistically hipper than our Broadway culture (not saying much) but the work they produce often seems so conventional and middlebrow compared to what comes out of their counterparts in the UK.

Then again, keep in mind this is a British article so there is some tooting of their own horn going on...

(And are Jerusalem or War Horse really that risky or edgy?)

Other highlights and nuggets:

- Book of Mormon will play London in 2012.

-Jerusalem will recoup its investment by closing time in August.

-"In uncertain times, says Annette Niemtzow, who produced Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon on Broadway, 'Everyone tries to find as many outlets as possible for what they have. You're constantly measuring what kind of multiple you can create for the play. Can it become a movie? Will it do well in the regionals?'" "Multiples"? Ugh...

-With London box office sluggish and Broadway's booming, might we see their theatres start to cater to our "lagging" tastes a little more...?

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