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Beyond the Box Office

Christine Sparta • Feature • December 11, 2006

Regional theatres have realized there are more ways to bring in extra revenue besides selling liquor and other beverages at intermission. Many entertainment establishments have found innovative ways to generate dollars and, often at the same time, become a community center.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve opened ourselves up to a lot of exposure to the community, including leaving the lights on when we’re not home,” says Marty Schiff, an actor/producer/ director who is now the executive director for the State Theatre Center for the Arts in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. It’s easy to notice the theatre because of the snazzy new marquee that cost a quarter of a million dollars to create.

Schiff builds interest in his theatre by speaking at community mainstays like the local Rotary Club. “All of a sudden, there is a face to go with a name,” he explains. “As a non-profit theatre, we’re asking people to give money, but often we forget to say thank you.” His outreach has bolstered his box office. Ticket sales are up 70 percent over the last two years. Schiff’s industry contacts have helped draw big names like Bob Newhart to his stage.

Schiff has many TV credits, including roles on Dallas and Newhart. He had great success with Newhart’s appearance because it attracted a legion of patrons, some of whom traveled from as far as Toronto just to see the comedian. Schiff hopes to eventually put a music series on the roster.

He also literally keeps the doors open more with ballet performances and classic film showings, like a September double bill of Easy Rider and The World’s Fastest Indian to coincide with a local motorcycle event. He would like to attract more performers who could incorporate his venue on their tours.

Collecting Dollars from “Shotgun Weddings”
John Hemsath, the director of theatre operations at the Playhouse Square Center in Cleveland, Ohio, an operation that encompasses a number of theatres and performance spaces, has found several ways to increase revenue. Visitors to the Web site can see that they promote space rental on the first page. It’s been a popular location for corporate events, weddings and other fetes. Theatre lobbies are available for $185 an hour for wedding photos.

Working for the organization for 32 years, Hemsath has discovered that advertising the space wasn’t really necessary after the first year because it had become so popular. “We specialize in shotgun weddings,” he half jokes, because weddings are planned around the theatre schedule.

A lot of couples like to reserve their weddings at the Palace Theatre because of its dramatic grand staircase. They can also rent the stage, and that can hold 500 seats. The Palace has sentimental significance for Hemsath because he met his wife there in the lobby and eventually married her there. The good thing about events is that they are generally guaranteed revenue, whereas a show may or may not sell out.

Tour groups also contribute a few dollars to the outfit. Private tours are available for $80. These visits are popular with seniors, conventioneer spouses and social groups — people who may not have otherwise visited the theatre.

The Playhouse Square Center has also been used as a movie location. My Summer Story, the sequel to A Christmas Story, was shot there. This made-for-TV movie was a good revenue boost for the community in general. Though Hemsath says they got involved to help stimulate the area’s economy rather than bring in funds, this idea could be good for theatres.

Becky Hancock, general manager of the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, Tenn., a venue that has been used for political gatherings and as a rental for the Knoxville Symphony, has allowed artists to record a performance for DVD distribution. She charges a flat fee up front. In addition, she outfitted the space with a sound and lighting infrastructure to make it easier for film and TV people to use it.

Movie premieres raise the visibility of a space to help get eventual donors. The Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe, N.M., has premiered such films as North Country with Charlize Theron.

Brick, Balls and Bars
People can leave a literal legacy by purchasing a seat in an arts center. The Tennessee Theatre has a Take a Seat Program as part of its capital campaign. More than 1,300 of the 1,600 seats are adorned with brass plaque name plates on the arm rests. Each tribute costs $500 or $1,000 depending on the location of the seat.

Balls can also be a fun way to bring patrons through the door. Hemsath’s venue does an annual Jump Back Ball that invites people to jump back to a different era. The theme could be Camelot or 42nd Street, but it must have some sort of thread. “People are interested if a party has a theme,” he says. The idea is a moneymaker — he says they make about $100,000 a year on these events.

One big way Hemsath brings in revenue for his arts institution is through corporate sponsorships like Coca-Cola, which contributes a five figure donation annually. They stock plastic bottles of the products. Thirsty theatregoers easily down 10 cases a night. People like bottled beverages because they can bring leftovers home. The organization has a relaxed policy regarding drinks in the venues, with the exception of certain performances.

“You triple the amount of money when you do that,” he says, noting that the concrete flooring makes cleanup a lot easier than a carpeted space. Occasionally he’s gotten some grumblers, but he’s got a history-laden reply for them: “Tell that to Bill Shakespeare. Drinks and the theatre have been going on for centuries. We’re theatre for the common man.”

In the end, the concession proves to be a fail-safe income generator. Hemsath may have been keen to rent spaces at his venue, but he also knows that “it’s not a huge money maker. It’s not as big as the bar.”

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