TeleCourse Raw Notes
War Stories: True Tales of Producing
March 24, 1998
Guest speaker: Bill Repecci, producer, SPRINGTIME CANTEEN
Topic: War Stories: True Tales of Producing
THE BEGINNING In 1988, Bill Repecci was a regular guy working as a psychologist in Alaska. Not for long .... Bill moves to NYC and becomes friends with Stuart Ross (FOREVER PLAID, CREEPS), and he speaks at the Commercial Theater Institute (CTI). Bill also meets Linda Dorsen-Bond (HOME FIRES) and goes to a one-night production of a show she’s developing called SPRINGTIME CANTEEN. He begins to work on the show with her, following a similar path to FOREVER PLAID. He pares down the actors, updates the music, etc., to develop the show. Script, storyline, and music are completely redone.
THE FIRST PRODUCTION
Linda raises $37,000 for a workshop production at Actors Playhouse over three or four weeks of Monday and Tuesday night shows. The American Stage Company in NJ picks up the show in 1992: it receives mixed NJ reviews.
THE SECOND PRODUCTION The show still needs work. At this point Linda turns the show over to Bill and goes back to Texas. Bill rewrites it again and raises $45,000 in front money for another workshop production in November 1992. He hooks up with a not-for-profit theater, Light Opera of Manhattan, who were looking for a vehicle to restart their company. (Non-profits will often agree to produce for no profitsharing in order to get a show they want to do.) Bill purposely keeps critics away from this production, feeling it is still not quite ready for them. He does a TDF (Theatre Development Fund) offer, selling tickets to groups of people at a deep discount several weeks in advance. They make enough on the TDF offer before they ever open to pay for the weekly running expenses! (No subsidy; they pull in $10 - 15,000 per week on TDF alone.)
THE THIRD PRODUCTION Bill feels the show needs more artistic changes. He brings Charles Busch in on book writing. Egos are kept even more in check than ever; they continue to work on show. They do a production at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Finally, they raise capitalization and move to NYC. They need to raise $300,000 more for a total of $392,000. They get seven associate producers who raise between $20,000 and $50,000 each. Each associate producer gets billing. Everyone is offered the same deal: if money is available to use pre-formation of the limited partnership (i.e.,high risk), they get 1 for 2 (for every two units purchased they get an extra one out of general partners’ pie). Those that put in their money later (i.e.,less risk becasuse couldn’t be spent until full capitalization) get a 1 for 3. (Bill ends up with about 22% of the 50% after all the giveaways.)
ASSOCIATE PRODUCERS Bill has not met many of the associate producers before this show. They end up coming from different levels of the productions they did along the way; they saw one of the productions, or met him when he spoke at CTI. Often people you think will invest don’t; those you wouldn’t expect to or didn’t even know are the ones who invest. You attract the kind of people who like to work the way you do: Bill’s associate producers want an active role, they’re interested in billing, they realize they don’t have final word but want to play an important role in the show. All are in love with the show; they don’t go into it blindly. This commitment and passion ends up saving the show. He keeps producers involved and raises even more money from them by: having passion himself, having a plan that makes sense to investors, having great potential in subsidiary value, having an open line of communication so associate producers could make suggestions. Keep associate producers involved, invite them to meetings, let them make a real contribution (or at least feel like they’re making a contribution): keep them a part of the process. Bill’s associate producers come to rehearsals, give comments, have regular meetings and reports, help with marketing, lend their area of expertise to the show. His associate producers are almost like a board of directors.
THE FOURTH PRODUCTION (THE BIG TIME!!) ... AND THE DISASTER Everything is going well. The money is all together by the fall of 1994, they have a theater (the Blue Angel) ... and suddenly everything falls apart. The theater renegs on the space; a friend of Bill’s who had asked a lot of questions about the space has meanwhile offered to buy the theater. They lose $200,000 in capitalization, they can’t find another theater, and they lose their star (Mary Claire Herring). Bill is finally totally broke >and disillusioned. Some investors drop out when star dropped out.
ETIQUETTE AND GUTS A word to the wise: be careful who you make enemies with along the way because you may have to face them again in the theater business. Don’t be self-righteous no matter how deserved because in the future you will need these people someday. Bill is polite to Blue Angel when they reneg on him, and he contacts them when he hears the sale of the theater is bogus and not going through. They immediately take him up on his offer to rent the space; he regroups, contracts for the theater and begins rehearsals in January even though he doesn’t have the money for it. The only way he could get money was to go ahead and do the show; potential investors kept saying “Let me know when it’s real.”
The day before previews he doesn’t have all the capitalization. He pulls in $60,000 in capitalization that day.
THE BATTLE FOR REVIEWS
Allison Frasier (a Tony nominee for "Romance, Romance") comes into the show. It opens March 14th. At this point the New York Times decides to start a new policy: they don’t want to even list Blue Angel shows in the ABC’s, and they won’t review the show, because they say it is cabaret and not really off-Broadway. After battling this for a few weeks, the Times finally cancels the new policy. Finally a Times reviewer comes, but day after day the review is not printed. Clive Barnes (NY Post)comes and basically writes a dissertation on the nature of "camp". Howard Kissel (Daily News) comes and pans it. Finally they call the Times and ask it when it will run the review. They refuse to run it on a Friday; finally on Monday the review finally comes out. It’s a rave. A few weeks later it gets a rave in a Sunday Times. Finally they’re in business although they’ve used up a lot of reserves. Other reviewers come and are positive.
A NEW STAR SAVES THE BOX OFFICE In July, box office drops off. Probably they would have died at this point, but their star, Allison Frasier, decides to take a few weeks off. Charles Busch goes into role in drag: they feel reluctant about this move, but figure what the heck. The box office quadruples. Charles Busch surprisingly makes the show less campy; he comes straight from the heart and brings a warmth to the show that everyone falls in love with. TIME magazine comes and gives it full-page love letter review. The Times sends another reviewer and gives a huge Friday feature article with a photo; the Times keeps sending more reviewers at the suggestion of Carol Coburne. Allison lets Charles stick with it since it’s going so well. Howard Kissel from the Daily News comes back and makes them Theater Pick of the Week. (Before he’d said thank God for the OJ Simpson trial because it was better to watch than SPRINGTIME CANTEEN.)
TIME TO CASH IN THE CHIPS They bring in Maggie Andrews from the Andrews Sisters to do a cameo. More great publicity. However, Maggie passes away during the run, in November. They decide they’ve done what they set out to do, subsidiary rights would definitely fly; they close the show.
You have to ask yourself: am I being reasonable to try to raise more money? They felt they had a small musical that could be done in many venues across the country like FOREVER PLAID and others. They knew they needed a run of many months in NYC to get momentum for those subsidiary productions. It is now running all over the nation and in other countries. Film rights have been optioned. A national tour beginning in 1999. NYC show was not actually profitable, but it has made a couple hundred thousand dollars in royalties. Bill's Advice: Think of producing a show as creating a product, like Coca-Cola. You have to market it more than just in one store in New York, right? You have to keep sending out letters and tapes and calling theaters, do a website, keep a presence with theater throughout the country to keep the value. The marketing process never ended with SPRINGTIME CANTEEN.
TO PRODUCE A SHOW: MONEY, COMMITMENT, AND A SUPPORT SYSTEM Unfortunately, producers have to remember that people sit at home looking for reasons to stay in the house. You have to sell in a million different ways to get people in. Most producers go in without enough reserve for advertising with a hope they’ll be the next RENT, get a great review, and fly. This usually does not happen. Have a big reserve.
When it looks the darkest you have to keep going forward; keep your commitment. Your commitment will attract others. Know the difference between when you have something you should be insanely committed to and when you should close.
Know that things will show up along the way that you can’t prepare for -- e.g., someone called the day before SPRINGTIME CANTEEN opened and threatened to close the show because they claimed to have exclusive rights to the songs in the show. (It wasn’t true; they didn’t have exclusive >rights.) Have a support system in place so you can deal with the unexpected.
STUDENTS’ RESPONSES The main thing some students took away from tonight’s discussion:
– Knowing where you’re trying to get: paring number of cast down, targeting popular songs of a particular era with a built-in market, keeping a close eye to bottom line
– Giving silly ideas a chance (like putting Charles Busch in for Allison Frasier); consider ridiculous ideas
– Until one is committed, nothing happens. Once one is committed, the universe moves in your favor -- information, people, resources, become available. Put your ass on the line and show up; others will then show up with you.
- Bill is currently producing JODY’S BODY, a one-woman show at the Gene Frankel Theater on Bond Street. The actress does the show in the nude
– she’s a live art class model and ties in this to issues of apartheid.
Next Week: Tom Vertell on Marketing and Sponsorship opportunities – producer of Smoky Joe’s Café and Sound of Music
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