When the rock musical Footloose opened on Broadway last fall, the reviews were devastating. "Flavorless marshmallow" and "theatrical nowheresville," groaned the New York critics. A few years ago, that would have been more than enough to kill a show. But today, Footloose is a runaway hit, with 90% occupancy and weekly sales topping $500,000.
Credit savvy marketing for the save. Footloose producers crafted an ad campaign especially for MTV, full of music, dance, and eye-grabbing video imagery. "We got around the critics by appealing directly to our compatible audience--young people and their parents who want to see a fun show with lots of rock music and dancing," says Margery Singer, the show's marketing consultant.
Footloose is hardly alone. While Broadway has never exactly been free of hype, today it's employing a far more sophisticated approach to consumer marketing. Inspired by the trailblazing efforts of Walt Disney Co. and Livent Inc., Broadway producers are looking to cash in on the same sorts of marketing, licensing, and sponsorship programs that have long made movies and TV into national franchises. They've embraced everything from direct marketing to focus groups to fast-food tie-ins, drawing raves both in New York and on the road. "We're moving from plain old promotion of a show to brand marketing," says Evan Shapiro, a partner at FourFront Press & Marketing Inc., which helps promote shows such as Fosse and Ragtime. "There's no reason great theater shouldn't be a great brand."
Indeed, all up and down the Great White Way, shows are adopting tactics straight out of the Procter & Gamble Co. handbook. Producers of The Sound of Music employed focus groups to help them craft a TV ad campaign full of nostalgia--not clips from the show--to lure baby boomers. Grease, during its mid-'90s run, used New York City hot-dog vendors as billboards. Disney mined its vast database of theme-park visitors for a New York-area mailing list to promote its shows Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. It also distributed coloring books in schools and placed hundreds of ads atop taxi roofs. "We traded on the shows' powerful association with hit movies that families watch on video," says Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Studios.
Why all the new moves? Beyond the obvious goal of selling more tickets, such marketing tactics have also allowed many shows to bypass once all-powerful theater critics. Movies have long spent lavishly to enjoy that luxury. Now, Broadway wants to speak directly to the consumer as well. "Marketing levels the playing field," says Jed Bernstein, the former ad-agency executive turned chief of Broadway's trade organization, the League of American Theaters & Producers Inc. "If a new cheese product gets a bad notice in Progressive Grocer, do you pull it? No way." With a little marketing stardust, he adds, "shows can make themselves critic-proof."
TIE-INS. Moreover, the marketing of Broadway extends well beyond New York City. Individual shows have learned new tricks to promote their road shows. Rent distributes book covers in high schools to lure students to its traveling productions. Sunset Boulevard is preceded in each of the many cities on its tour by a free screening of the 1950 movie version of the story. Corporate sponsorship has also become part of the touring experience. The Theater League has arranged large-scale corporate tie-ins. Last year, Visa International created a Broadway credit card drawn from a list of 15,000 theatergoers nationally and mailed information about local show openings with monthly bills. Continental Airlines Inc. now has an in-flight video about touring companies, plus theater schedules in its magazine.
Historically, Broadway hadn't marketed itself as a venue for big corporations, says Bernstein. But big marketers say they like the new arrangements. Many of the most heavily promoted shows are aimed at kids and their families. That push has consumer marketers more interested than ever in theater partners. "Positive association with a quality pastime like the theater, which often is family-oriented, is good for our image," says Patricia A. Yonchek, field marketing director for Wendy's International Inc., which has promotional deals this season with Footloose and The Sound of Music.
Box-office tallies say the new marketing is a hit. Attendance both in New York and on the road has risen sharply. Broadway will rake in 1998-99 revenues of $580 million, up a third from five years ago, says the Theater League. For the 34 touring shows, this season's revenue made a similar leap over the past five years, to $754 million.
Theater producers have also set their sights on the entertainment jackpot--licensing. While most shows still sell only T-shirts and programs, a few are more ambitious. Jekyll & Hyde's CD has sold a respectable 500,000 copies thanks to marketing that began before the show opened, with radio play and a prime spot for ballad This Is the Moment in the 1996 Summer Olympics ceremonies. Livent's Ragtime boasts a 500-square-foot shop in its lobby, peddling dolls, books, clothes, and CDs. The store sells about $30,000 worth of merchandise per week, vs. the average show's $4,000.
"VULGAR CRAP." Not everyone in the house is applauding. Many of the theater's old guard think such catering to the consumer dilutes the art. Alexander Cohen, a veteran producer who is working on a Noel Coward revival, refuses to use any marketing other than the old-fashioned critic-blurb ads. "This is vulgar crap," he says. "I don't want my poster in your bathroom."
But for those less interested in high art than hard sell, the payoff is clear. This past winter, shows ran special discount offers--nicknamed White Sales by some after their retail-store predecessors--using corporate tie-ins. For Footloose, Bell Atlantic Corp. did a 200,000-piece mailing to customers that yielded 5,000 additional ticket sales--enough to fill the theater five times over. As a perk in Bell Atlantic's loyalty program, consumers who bought a $20 calling card picturing Jekyll & Hyde could also could buy a discount ticket to the gothic musical. Says marketer Singer: "Those are [ticket] sales that wouldn't have happened otherwise." And that's sweet music for the Great White Way.