Monday, November 9, 2009

Did NYT's Unusual, Restrictive New Advertising Scheme Help Force Closing Of Broadway's "Brighton Beach Memoirs"?

It used to be that the NYT review could make or break the future of a Broadway show.

But in the case of "Brighton Beach Memoirs," an unusual, highly restrictive business deal between the NYT and the Broadway revival's producers -- one that offered substantial, heavily-discounted NYT advertising in exchange for exclusivity until after opening night -- may have hastened the show's quick demise.

In return for what was described to The NYTPicker by sources as a "three-ads-for-the-price-of-one" arrangement, the NYT deal dictated that "Brighton Beach Memoirs" couldn't advertise anywhere else. Those restrictions even included the far more powerful pull of local radio and television, and direct mail marketing.

A meager $500,000 in advance ticket sales led "Brighton Beach Memoirs" to close on November 1, after just 9 performances. The closing came despite rave reviews -- including a mostly-positive review from NYT theater critic Ben Brantley -- and a Neil Simon's long track record of success on Broadway.

And while the "Brighton Beach" producers don't blame the NYT arrangement entirely for the show's closing, they believe it was an important factor.

"We neglected the very audience we needed," one highly-placed "Brighton Beach" production source told The NYTPicker, referring directly to the NYT deal. "Direct mail builds a solid foundation and a healthy advance. We had neither."

The unusual arrangement was first reported last Wednesday in the New York Post, and has been confirmed to The NYTPicker by sources close to the production with first-hand knowledge of the NYT deal.

One production source told The NYTPicker that the NYT advertising deal involved a "very deep discount" for the full package, and identified Sharri Kaplan as the NYT advertising representative who presented producers with the so-called "pilot program" deal.

Diane McNulty, the NYT's spokeswoman, responded to questions from The NYTPicker Sunday afternoon with this emailed statement:

We don't discuss details of conversations we have with our advertisers. What I can tell you is that your sources' estimates are inaccurate, their description of the arrangement is inaccurate and their description of how the plan came about is inaccurate. In addition there are many factors which impact the success of Broadway plays including: ticket prices, reviews, subject matter, competitive alternatives etc.

No one disputes McNulty's last point. Reporter Patrick Healy's fascinating NYT page-one post-mortem on "Brighton Beach Memoirs" accurately noted other possible factors for its demise: changing audience tastes in comedy, the lack of any big-name stars, and the missing "wow" factor that sometimes turns flops into hits.

But unmentioned in Healy's account -- even though sources say the reporter was told of the arrangement by "Brighton Beach" producers -- was the NYT's advertising deal with the show.

For decades, the NYT generated a considerable portion of its advertising revenue from Broadway producers, who would routinely take out page after page of ads in the Sunday Arts & Leisure, Weekend and Arts sections to promote their shows. But in recent years, as producers seek a better return on their investment, much of that money has moved to television, radio and direct-mail marketing -- leaving the NYT with a tiny fraction of the theater advertising revenue it once commanded.

Now, the NYT may get even less -- as Broadway producers have been able to observe, via the "Brighton Beach" debacle, just how little influence NYT advertising has on advance ticket sales.

"Producers on other shows have seriously questioned this deal," the "Brighton Beach" production source told The NYTPicker. "While no one will abandon the Times, you will notice a huge reduction in the amount of theater advertising....I would seriously doubt anyone will ever take a deal like this again."

The results may already be evident. In yesterday's Arts & Leisure section, there wasn't a single full-page ad for any of the 35 shows currently on Broadway -- and less than two full pages of theater advertising in total, including the NYT's paid "Theater Directory" listings.

Broadway insiders blame the shift away from NYT advertising on the paper's exorbitant rates -- which are higher for theater than for some other forms of entertainment, and which don't deliver enough returns to justify the price.

"These days, a New York Times ad is a vanity thing, a way for producers to show off to their friends," one top theater advertising-agency executive told The NYTPicker. "It doesn't sell tickets."

The "Brighton Beach" insider told The NYTPicker that the lack of direct-mail advertising and radio -- specifically prohibited by the NYT deal -- helped doom the show.

"Theatergoers tell us that they choose the shows based on a variety of things: what they read, what they've heard from people they trust and some blend of advertising and press," the insider said. "They may not know the difference."

That may explain why, even with this exclusive arrangement in place, the "Brighton Beach" producers weren't able to reach today's target Broadway ticket buyers, those who attend at least three shows a year and are accustomed to getting direct-mail discounts.

"If you don't get the Westchester housewife to buy tickets for her and her husband, your show is going to close," the theater-advertising executive said. "She's listening to the radio in her car or reading her direct mail flyers, not flipping through Arts & Leisure."

Beyond that explanation, even simple logic suggests that the NYT arrangement was counterproductive to its revenue goals. Had outside advertising generated enough ticket sales to keep the show running, the NYT might have eventually gotten enough advertising to justify the discount. Think about it, guys!

Sadly, this arrangement appears to reflect, in part, the NYT's delusional arrogance about itself as an important player in the Broadway community. It appears the NYT myopically convinced itself that if the "Brighton Beach" arrangement worked, it could conceivably market the approach to other reluctant theater advertisers.

Now, no such luck.

And in a somewhat bitter irony for both sides, the NYT's arrangement included running a full-page ad for "Brighton Beach Memoirs" in the Arts & Leisure section on Sunday, November 1 -- the day the show closed.


Anonymous said...

I actually believe that this unusal advertising with the NYT was a BIG mistake. I dearly love theatre and was it not for TalkinBroadway Chat [which I am devoted user since its inauguration several years ago], I would not know BB was having a revival. I love reading the 'entertainment' section of the Times but not living in NY, I cannot afford to purchase that newspaper every weekend just for one section. I feel very sorry for Mr. Simon and the producers of his show because I feel he is a great playwright. I wish they would have taken that show and the second one to off-Broaday and plulled some strings to have it done there. They already had the actors, costumes and half the work accomplished and from what I am reading on Talkinbroadway--it was a huge success. I hope this does not turn away people from Simon plays in the future. Bob Stempin

Anonymous said...

"Those restrictions even included the far more powerful pull of local radio and television, and direct mail marketing."

I received at least one piece of direct-mail advertising for this show. Why do people keep saying there wasn't any? I couldn't have been the only recipient.

Anonymous said...

Interesting! I wondered about the impetus for the Healy article - seemed like it was making an excuse for something, but one couldn't tell what.