Advertising Theater on Television -- What Works

What brings people to the theater? I talk a lot about that each day with various producers and press agents. Of course, if anyone really knew an exact answer, many more shows would be successful. Instead we all try our best to guess. A star really helps, sure. But what else? My spring preview will deal with a show's art work, but for now I'd like to talk about commercials.

When I first started covering theater, not every show had a substantial TV buy. Shows that were big hits out-of-the-gate sometimes didn't have them. I have often thought Hairspray would have lasted longer if it had a television campaign earlier. Why? Because when hit shows have television commercials it reinforces the idea that they are hits. People call at some point to buy tickets, they learn they can't buy them until 9 months later, they make a mental note that this is a hit show. They tell their friends: "Make sure to get tickets to this early!" When a show waits until it needs ticket sales to do commercials, it already feels like an also-ran. "Oh, great, you have a complete row on March 16, okay, then I can always book last minute. Meanwhile I'll try to get tickets to The Book of Mormon. If that fails, I'll come back to you."

That is not to say that I think many people see a commercial and buy tickets right away. That is not the case with most ticket buyers I've polled (and I have polled ticket buyers outside theaters on such things). But the commercials help a show stay in someone's mind so when that person does want to go to the theater, that show is in the forefront of his/her mind.

Anyway, somewhere along the line, whether it can be credited to the Disney media onslaught or Scott Rudin, it became the norm for every show (in-demand or not) to blanket local airwaves with commercials. (Note, those that grew up in New York will point out that decades ago many hit shows advertised on television. That is true, and I'm not arguing that. But now it seems to be almost a necessity for new shows, rather than an option.) I remember thinking on Book of Mormon: "Seriously? Another one of these commercials with the Jon Stewart quote? Why aren't the commercials just -- 'A show you can sell your kidney and then afford to see!'?" But while it was too much for me (a TV addict), that sort of promotion is useful because it helps keep up the buzz.

Of course television commercials are hard. There is an art to it, well beyond my comprehension. All I know is what I like. Matilda and Kinky Boots -- both from two seasons ago -- have great commercials.

The Audience, as far as I am concerned, has pretty much the best commercial of the season. Congrats to the advertising agency, AKA, on it. Why is it so good? I know a lot about The Audience, having read all the UK reviews of it. But I don't even think I internalized the scope of it. Plus, I'm pretty sure most people (who didn't read about it overseas) think it is just Helen Mirren talking to the audience. The commercial does a great job of making it seem like a fully realized production. Again, I know about the show, and, still, the first time I saw the commercial, I thought: "Wow, I have to see this. I didn't realize it was so big. Maybe I should do something on a prime minister. I do love Dakin Matthews." (Those are actually my thoughts verbatim.) Now The Audience doesn't need to sell a ton of tickets at this point -- it was pretty much sold out when someone uttered the words, "Helen Mirren playing the Queen." But for those few people on the fence, this commercial I think puts them into the ticket buyer category. Some people are reluctant to spend $150 on smaller scale projects. (And then some people are reluctant to spend that much on anything, but that's beside the point.) This commercial stresses the opulence of the production. It seems worth the money.

On the Town originally had these commercials that were, I think, supposed to be evocative of old MGM musical movies. I hated them. I love old MGM movie musicals and, yet, I just thought the commercials seemed so tired and passé. Recently they've decided to promote their excellent reviews in what is a solid spot. It hasn't turned around their box office yet, but it's a good advertisement for the show. On The Town is a dance spectacular and a real tribute to the New York of old. That is now what this commercial shows.

With Constellations, which likely would have been a ticket-seller on its stars alone, SPOTCo delivered what I thought was its best work for Manhattan Theatre Club.

Worst campaign? Honeymoon in Vegas or Finding Neverland.

For Honeymoon in Vegas, their last ad was much better than previous ones, but they still need help. This is a show that got rave reviews and has fun numbers. Like the show itself or not (and I know many people who hate it), they have things to showcase in a genius television ad. The romance storylines aren't it.

Finding Neverland is to be forgiven because they so far just have a teaser. The teaser looks great -- and I've seen it a ton. The issue is that the song used is sleepy. There are upbeat numbers in that show, but the song playing in that background seriously made me want to sleep, not buy tickets. I'm hoping when they have B-Roll it will be much improved.

But all of this is just my perspective, and I'm not exactly the average ticket buyer. Read my spring preview later this week for a sampling of what random New Yorkers think about the posters promoting spring's shows.