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"Producer's Corner"
by Bruce Lazarus

Getting Your Act Together and Taking it on the Road -
How a Show Becomes a Tour

Recently our guest was Glen Poppelton of  D-Tours, the division of
Dodger Productions that books national and bus-and-truck tours across the
country.  For the 1998-99 season, D-Tours is booking the ongoing tour of
Beauty and the Beast, the first national tour of Titanic, a tour of Peter
Pan starring Kathy Rigby, and the pre-Broadway tour of the highly
anticipated Footloose. Before joining The Dodgers seven years ago, Glen was a
company manager on such shows as the off-Broadway interactive experience
Tamara.

Glen began by explaining who the key players are in the tour of a
show. In short, there is the producer (or producers) of the national tour,
who hires the booking agent, whose job it is to contact the presenters at
theaters across the country and "book" the production into their theaters for
specific weeks during the season.  Presenters on the road range from
individual entrepreneurs who rent theaters, to performing arts organizations who
own and operate their own theaters, to municipalities who own and operate
their own theaters. Every year, Glen is in touch with presenters in over 60
U.S. cities.

Next, Glen took us through the different aspects of his job,
explaining how he puts together a tour as the year progresses.  First, in the
spring and summer, he and other agents at D-Tours, as well as the booking
agents at other agencies such as CAMI, The Booking Office, and Pace
Theatricals, take a look at shows they may be interested in booking.  They go see
Broadway shows and pre-Broadway tryouts, as well as workshops.  By the fall,
they have generally decided what shows they would like to book.  D-Tours
books the tours of Dodger Broadway shows, but they must book others as well
in order to remain a lucrative part of the company.  Occasionally, a
bidding war erupts for a popular Broadway show, and the producers who are
going to take the show on the road (sometimes the original Broadway
producers, sometimes not) must decide which booking office to hire.

By September, Glen usually knows what tours he and D-Tours will be
booking for the following season.  Through the fall and into January, he
speaks with presenters to gauge their interest in the shows and offer the
shows to them for their subsequent season.  He stressed that one cannot
always rely on the presenters to know what will appeal to their audiences,
so in putting together the tour he must also rely on surveys and
marketing data as well as his own knowledge of the various markets.  The number
of cities he will have to contact also depends upon whether the tour is
a national tour, which stops for approximately 2 to as long as 6 or 8
weeks in each city, or a bus-and-truck tour, which is usually comprised of
one-week stops in a larger number of markets.  Some cities, he explained,
simply lend themselves better to longer engagements than others.

The way in which Glen described the actual building of a tour's
schedule is similar to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.  At the outset, Glen
knows what the show's capitalization and weekly expenses will be, and from
that how many weeks the tour will need to be on the road to break even,
based on the weekly "guarantees" it will get from the presenters.  The
"guarantee" is the weekly figure the presenter promises to pay the production no
matter what the box office intake for that week is.  For example, the tour
of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying asked presenters for
a weekly guarantee of $300,000.  It had weekly operating costs and
expenses of $275,000, so each week $25,000 could go back to the
capitalization.  In 50 weeks, getting  just the guarantee, it could make back its
$2,000,000 capitalization.  Of course the production also gets a percentage of
the box office profits above and beyond the weekly guarantee, as
described in a previous Producer's Corner which discussed how box office
receipts are distributed on the road.  A normal arrangement, to restate from
that article, in a "guarantee" situation, is 60% to the presenter and 40%
to the producer of what is left over after weekly expenses and operating
costs are deducted, or "weekly operating profits."

Armed with the knowledge of what the weekly guarantee should be and
how many weeks the tour will need to run, Glen then has to work with his
presenters to fit the show into their season schedule.  He also wants to make
sure his show is in each presenter's season at an appropriate time, not
too close to a similar show such as another comedy play or musical drama.
 He also must keep in mind that the company of the show must travel to
each city as quickly and inexpensively as possible, so he tries to book
east coast engagements as close together as possible,  Midwest engagements
together, and west coast engagements together. As if that weren't enough, he
must work in vacation time for the stars of the show, and any other
scheduling factors.

Glen explained that in addition to the "guarantee deal" discussed
above, in which the production comes intact and the presenter provides the
weekly guarantee money, the theatre, ad placements and everything else,
there are two other kinds of deals that a booking office may work out with
a presenter.  One is what is known as a "four wall deal," in which the
production rents the theatre itself and supplies everything.  The other is known
as a "modified four wall," in which the presenter takes approximately
10% of the financial risk by supplying the theatre, ushers and box office
staff.   These are much less common, especially with national tours.

Because tours are so expensive to produce, Glen must "fill the weeks"
as quickly as possible.  One "open week" in between cities can mean a
loss of 5 weeks worth of operating profits.  Time is of the essence,
because by February of each year, most of the presenters across the country
have their schedules set for the following season,
and they have begun the design and printing of their marketing and
advertising materials.  This is particularly true of presenter theaters that have
subscription seasons, as they start selling their subscription seasons far in
advance. The presenters plan these subscription seasons carefully, because
they need to have a couple of highly anticipated musicals in their season
to lure in new subscribers, which will offset the loss when a lesser
known play fails to sell single tickets to non-subscribers.

However, there are exceptions to every rule.  Every year, at least
one tour fails to book as many weeks as it needs and will never go out,
or will close early due to poor sales.  In such cases,  presenters find
themselves looking for shows to fill the gaps at "off" times, as late as the
spring and early summer.  Also, a particularly appealing production can
always be squeezed in, even if it means it's too late to make it a part of a
subscription season, because it will sell single tickets and everyone will profit.
 As an example, Glen told us that there was a time when Whoopi
Goldberg was considering headlining the national tour of A Funny Thing
Happened on the Way to the Forum, and the presenters from coast to coast were
ready to sign on the bottom line, even though it was "late in the game."
Unfortunately, when Goldberg decided not to do a tour, D-Tours could not get a star,
and the presenters were not sold enough on the title or the raves the New
York production won to commit to an engagement.

All of this educated us as to why it may be a mistake for a producer
to try to book his or her own tour.  A good booking agent knows how to
put a tour schedule together, and, even more importantly, has an ongoing
relationship with the presenters.  The presenters of any production D-Tours has
booked for this season know that they cant skip out on a weekly
guarantee on that show if they want Footloose next season.  Therefore, as a
producer of a tour, your best bargaining position may be your booking agent's
bargaining position.

That's show biz.
 
 


Bruce Lazarus the former Director of Business and Legal Affairs for Walt Disney Theatrical Productions and producer of the current off-Broadway show Shakespeare's "R&J."

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