The world of theatre subscriptions changed forever in 1977, when Danny Newman’s Subscribe Now! was released. The book, a marketing bible for how to effectively “sell” theatre, followed Newman’s decades-long strategy for filling theatre seats with subscribers. Newman opined that theatres should pitch to everyone, leaving no stone unturned, and focus on the subscription brochure. The tome had reached 10 editions and was used in 31 countries at the time of his death in 2007. But that was then.
Newman was a press agent of the old school promotion era, working at the Lyric Opera of Chicago for decades and eventually touring the world as a consultant for both the Ford Foundation and Theatre Communications Group. Any organization willing to follow his instructions to the letter, he believed, would see vast growth in their subscription base. And Newman’s argument—that the “saintly subscriber,” as opposed to the single-ticket buyer, provided greater artistic freedom—was not without merit. Each patron would buy a pass to all productions in a season under the premise that some productions were for them and others would be new experiences. Those “new experiences” were how a theatre could educate and enlighten their audiences.
During the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, theatres that implemented Newman’s techniques saw tremendous growth in their attendance. It seemed as if Newman’s scheme, with its strong foundation in the usage of nonprofit bulk postal rates and the distribution of sales brochures, was going to forever silence the centuries-long cry that theatre was dying. But to paraphrase Mark Twain: News of theatre’s rebirth was greatly exaggerated.
As early as the turn of this century, the growth began to shift. By 2011, Theatre Communications Group reported a drop of 18 percent in theatre subscriptions nationwide in the four years prior. And while there are reports and statistics that make some numbers look better than others, and determining national trends and patterns seems to be more difficult than predicting the future from peering into a crystal ball, any practitioner will tell you that the growth of the Internet has changed how we consume information, and it is affecting how we buy theatre tickets.
“As Newman’s results diminished, we shifted to year-round telemarketing and social media as the foundation for subscription sales, and it managed to increase brochure sales,” says Joseph Henson, president of Theatrical Arts Foundation in San Bernardino, Calif. “But the shift to individual ticket buyers has been less than gradual, and while our sales are still quite good, the percentage of subscribers has dropped. That means we are always at the mercy of the marketplace. If a theatre picks one title that fails to perform as they plan, the result could be devastating.”
For the past decade or two, theatres have seen the writing on the wall and have begun toying with the subscription model. Instead of simply requiring the purchase of all events in a given season, “mini-subscriptions” began popping up, which offered a selection of some of the season’s fare. “Build your own” seasons allow subscribers to choose which events to include in their discounted subscription. The thinking seemed to be that maintaining some sense of loyalty was better than leaving it all up to what Newman called “slothful, fickle single-ticket buyer.” Membership approaches also seemed to show some promise: Theatres would sell a membership, which would provide an audience member the opportunity to purchase countless tickets at the old subscription discount. But those memberships never seemed to gain tremendous traction.
But something else was occurring in the world of discretionary spending. The subscription was finding a new definition in other markets. Television, which was entirely free when Newman first honed his sales pitch, is now sold to consumers via cable or streaming subscriptions on a monthly, recurring basis. Annual country club dues were replaced by gym memberships, also purchased on a monthly, recurring basis. Cell phones and Internet providers joined the legions looking for those discretionary dollars, providing free phones and DVRs in exchange for our promise to make—do you see a pattern here?—monthly, recurring payments. Even apps and Microsoft Office are hopping onto the monthly-fee train. By all accounts, the monthly bill seems simple: We hand over a card number and see a slight charge each month, if we’re paying attention. Let’s face it: We all know (or are) someone who complains about how they need to cancel their Hulu or Netflix account they never use but just keep on paying.
Even Hollywood is dipping its toe into the proverbial monthly, recurring charge waters. MoviePass allows customers to subscribe to the movies with twice-a-month subscriptions starting at $14.99 and unlimited monthly movie viewing costing as much as $49.99 depending on the subscriber’s zip code. That’s $600 a year—a price far higher than all but the most expensive of theatre seasons. Even at $14.99 a month, a consumer is shelling out almost $180 a year for a handful of movies. Perhaps there is something to this strategy.
If nothing else, it means there is never an annual requirement to resell the product. Once a customer is signed up, they have to be proactive and ask to be cancelled. That may seem distasteful when we are talking about the sale of art, but it is what American consumers have come to expect. Maybe it isn’t the theatre that has been dying for centuries—it’s just the way we have been charging for it.
I recently conducted a study on subscription buying patterns that proved telling. Almost 80 percent of subscriptions in the country appear to be paid for on a monthly, recurring basis. When accounting for things like gift subscriptions and reward subscriptions, the number of once-a-year subscription payments seems to be a bit of an outlier—it’s simply not how we spend our discretionary income anymore. The small monthly payment (and sometimes not-so-small, if you consume lots of data on your cell phone or watch all the premium cable channels) allows you the flexibility to use the service when you want it. In that same study, 16 percent of respondents indicated they had purchased a subscription to the arts, and in every instance they had to make that purchase on an annual, one-time payment.
You see where I’m going with this: Could we get people to pay monthly for the freedom to show up at our theatres whenever they want? The study showed that rather than a $300 annual subscription, 54 percent of respondents would prefer to make monthly payments of $30. (Twelve months at $30 would yield $360, a premium of $60 over the $300 one-time payment.) Even more interesting: The number of likely subscribers in the study jumped to 29 percent from 16 percent when they were offered the option to buy subscriptions on a monthly, recurring basis. That option not only almost doubles the subscriber pool, it also adds a 10 percent premium.
Sounds like a win-win. So why hasn’t anyone tried this?
Well, someone has, sort of: For the past 10 years, A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle has offered ACTPass, a monthly, recurring subscription of sorts. ACT’s customer service manager Scott Herman defines their ACTPass as a “subscription alternative,” and admits that “it’s not a model that works for everybody.” In fact, the past decade has been a period of change for theatres nationwide, and ACT has used that time to learn how best to implement the ACTPass. “It’s grown in fits and starts as we’ve figured out how best to run and market the program,” adds Herman.
He is quick to point out that the ACTPass is still an experimental offering. ACTPass functions both as a stand-alone monthly, recurring subscription to some events, and “as an alternative to our traditional subscription model,” he says. “We treat it as a completely separate program.” But the core function of the subscription—that loyalty component—seems strong in this monthly, recurring model.
“Loyalty is the primary benefit of the program that we’ve seen so far,” says Herman. “Our ACTPass members tend to be extremely loyal to the theatre, and many use it as their primary cultural outlet. We’ve grown to know many personally through attendance over the years, and their familiarity with our work over the years has made them trust us with more risky programming. They love the flexibility it offers, as well as the opportunity to see so many different types of performance throughout the year. As an example, we have several monthly/quarterly reading series that look at more esoteric works in various categories, and these are some of the most popular programming with ACTPass members, and routinely sell out.”
Like most theatres, ACT doesn’t have enough resources to research why things work when they work, but Herman does know the ACTPass is working. “ACTPass members definitely tend to skew younger than the traditional subscriber, and probably slightly less affluent,” he explains. “I would say that the ACTPass demographic is more diverse than the traditional subscriber.”
Either way, subscription remains theatre’s lifeblood. Making any change to its current structure is to risk failure and potential collapse. As subscription sales have declined and precious marketing dollars are more precisely carved out to promote single-ticket sales, leaping into the unknown seems imprudent. But as the ACTPass show, taking the leap of faith is not impossible.
Perhaps Newman’s methodology has not ceased to be effective—it has simply not kept up with the market. Newman never spoke of social media use, or ripples in global productivity, or strategies for different payment structures, but when Newman began fine-tuning his zeal for the “saintly season subscriber,” cash was king, and credit cards were a futuristic dream. What seems clear is that Newman advocated catering to the needs of the subscriber’s buying habits without pandering artistically. Might the monthly, recurring subscription model be the answer?
Anthony Rhine is a professor of theatre management at Florida State University and the author of the upcoming Palgrave McMillan textbook, Theatre Management: Arts Leadership in the 21st Century.