THE 1 STEP TO BECOMING A BROADWAY PRODUCER
Should you want to attend the opening night of a Broadway show, have access to the best seats in the house and take selfies with cast members, you face multiple paths to joining the ranks of producing on Broadway. The easiest path, write a check! Today’s vast majority of producers fill the role of co-producers. They invest X amount of dollars and in exchange join the producing team at one of the predefined levels.
Should you want a more active role then one step becomes an infinite set of choices that define a life in the theatre.
I’m a producer.
We often follow this statement with a list of credentials (mine are: producer of the Tony Award winner Hair, the Tony Award winner Memphis, and the most awarded show of 2015 An American in Paris). Credentials are all well and good, and I’m proud of them, but that doesn’t tell you much about what I do.
What does it actually mean? How do you become one? What does a producer actually do? That’s not as easy to answer as showing off a list of credits, but I’m going to break it down for you.
There are four categories of producers
- Lead Producers
- Above the Title Producers
- Associate Producers
We will define the producer, associate producer, and above the title producer roles before we dive into the details on lead producer (which will take up most of our time today).
ABOVE THE TITLE PRODUCERS, ASSOCIATE PRODUCERS, PRODUCERS
As with many things, it starts with money. Becoming a producer can be as simple as writing a check. That’s the fast and easy way if you have several thousand or million dollars on hand, you can take on the role of above the title producer, associate producer, or producer. The amount of money invested determines the type of producer role. The amount needed to reach each level varies from show to show.
Bear in mind though, that many Broadway shows can run for 1 day or many years and never recoup (break even on) your initial investment. Some shows can return massive amounts of profit that dwarf many other investment vehicles. If you invested in the original Phantom of the Opera you are singing Music of the Night each time you deposit a check. However, that show and others such as wicked, the book of Mormon and recently Hamilton prove the exception to the rule. Therefore, the combination of risk and escalating capitalization costs increase the need for an expanding team of investors. In addition to a share of the show and certain types of billing there are a variety of “perks” that each level of producer also gets to entice more people to invest in the show.
The majority of these producers invest without taking an active role in the day-to-day operations. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of the lead producers. However, any producer no matter what their title may still play an active role. The amount of involvement relates to the needs of the lead producers in the skill set of the co-producer. Optimally, this provides the symbiotic relationship that supports the show. Like any other multi-million dollar corporation, Broadway shows need a unified team to keep the doors open. With such a risk, why would someone choose to invest in a Broadway show? A small group Love the risk and hope for one of the box office giants. The majority wish to be swept away through story, song and dance.
We shall now breakdown the different levels and billing at the co-producer level:
ABOVE THE TITLE PRODUCERS
Exactly what they sound like: on the poster for the show they’re named above the title of the show, just below the lead producer. Above the title producers may put in their own money, or they may put together an investment group. There is also something called “slashing” (no, not the horror movie kind) where two people invest jointly in a show to reach the level of investment needed to be considered above the title producers. Their names are displayed with a slash in-between.
Typical Perks: invitations to producer meetings, reports, limited memorabilia, invitations to company events, billing above the title, and if the show wins an award they can purchase a statue for their mantle.
Still billed on the poster, but below the title of the show. The amount of money invested is lower for associate producers than it is for above the title producers.
Typical Perks: Similar to the above the title producer, with the major exception being that they do not receive a Tony Award
Anyone else who has invested money in the show, but who has not invested the level of money needed to be billed on the show poster. They still get to call themselves producers because they are still taking a great financial risk.
Typical Perks: Attending the opening night party, able to order house seats for the show, and they get the pride of calling themselves a producer (which is pretty cool)
While the Broadway producers we’ve listed here are what used to be called investors, in older shows there’d be one name: The Producer, people such as David Merrick and Hal Prince. A large part of their job description entailed raising money, but investors invested the money for a share of the show while entrusting the Producer with all other aspects. When people talk about wanting to be a Broadway producer, most people mean that role which these days we call the lead producer.
Being a lead producer can encompass many, many aspects of a show and acquiring skill sets to become a lead producer on a show can take some time. Here are the basic areas of a show a lead producer is involved in and some ways to get experience in those areas.
The creative aspects of producing involve working with the creative team in cultivating and creating a new musical work for the stage. In some cases, a producer may join on with the creative team that already has an idea or maybe even a musical, and in other cases a producer may be the one with the idea and then enlist the help of one or more artists to make the idea a reality. There are multiple permutations of how all this can work but it starts with finding a community of like-minded storytellers and then finding a way to create value within that community.
Pro tip: Find people with stories that emotionally move you. You work way too hard to spend your time producing something that you don’t believe in. If you take a project purely because you think it’s going to make a huge amount of money, more times than not you are in for an overwhelming amount of distress.
But how do you find a community to learn the creative aspects of producing?
Option 1: Hop on a bus to New York City and wander around the great White Way hoping that you bump into somebody in the same situation. Probably not the method your parents would suggest but you must find a way to join the game. You need to understand the world of Broadway. You can do that by either coming to New York or by understanding the culture of New York from a distance. Because of our interconnected world, the possibility to be part of the community without physically being there has become much more feasible. The moral of the story is know the culture.
Option 2: Produce locally. Whether it be a theatre with 20 seats or 2000 seats the process of cultivating an idea into something tangible that an audience will devote their time to emotionally experience remains the same. Finding a local community before you make the trek to New York City enables you to gain valuable skills without being in the spotlight of Broadway (not to mention delaying the need to pay New York City rent).
The creative aspects of producing are a life journey. Understanding how to work with creatively emotional human beings takes years and patience and practice. The big key is to always keep the project moving forward by focusing on the project instead of the people. As a producer you must manage the process and surround the creativity with boundaries that enable story evolution.
Just as important as the creative portion of any show is the financial portion. You need to secure enough money to give the show life. That life might be a one-night reading or an open-ended run on Broadway. Either way capital is needed to get to every next step in the life of a show. Your job is to create a developmental path that gives the creative process enough latitude while at the same time minimizes cost so that you’re creating a RECOUPABLE investment.
Pro tip: What about nonprofit theaters? Nonprofit theaters face their own set of financial constraints. They still have budgets, expenses, and bills to pay. They too need to keep the doors open. Besides ticket sales, they leverage financial support through grants, donations, possible royalty participation and sometimes bake sales.
If you’re a person who loves to obsess with spreadsheets and find creative ways to help projects in their financial journey, then align with a fellow producer with the same skills or take an internship or job with the general manager to break into the lead producer world. The line between what a general manager and lead producer do is significant, but it’s a great starting place. Here are a couple additional tips to prepare you for this type of role:
- Read as much background as you can on deal structures and contracts. These will impact all the creative, artistic, and functional components of the show. Although your first shows may not include unions such as equity and IATSE, it remains important that you understand how these all work together. One of the most important qualities in this aspect of producing is the ability to make decisions that move the show forward without damaging relationships. The more upfront work that you do in creating budgets and process the better chance you have for success. Sometimes these variables are unknown but you can refer to other shows as examples for estimates.
- Develop your negotiation skills, you’re going to need them. In this role, you’re often going to be the bad cop. A big chunk of your job will be to say no. If you’re able to say no and have your team understand why, they may not be happy about it but at least they understand where you are coming from and that you were thinking about the show and not trying to hurt them personally. This goes back to the advice I gave on the creative aspects of producing which is, make everything about the project not the people.
MANAGING THE TEAM AND YOUR TIME
Shows are a large team, full of creative people. A huge part of being a lead producer is understanding how to manage a team and work with creative personalities. To get an idea of this aspect of producing, consider the general manager which manages the company manager, the stage manager, the box office manager, and on and on. In short, you need to understand what every department is doing to be successful.
You also need to understand what you should do yourself and what is better done by someone else. It’s a lot about time management and strategy. Two factors determine your success: time and money. How much time do you have versus how much would you spend to have somebody else do something (and who is the best person for that job). You learn by doing or collaborating.
Therefore, aligning yourself with as many productions as you can and asking questions so much that people become annoyed is honestly the best method to get the skill-set for this role. Should you see eyes rolling or people huffing and puffing you’ve probably crossed that line.
TICKET SALES AND MARKETING
Wherever you decide to find your theatrical path, one of, if not the most, important aspects should be getting people to see your work. That work may be in the traditional theater or it may be online. On Broadway, we have anywhere from 1 to 2000 seats per show that we need to fill. I find this challenging, inspiring, and something that I align all my other decisions around. I am not a “build it and they will come” gut instinct person when it comes to managing large Broadway budgets. In my humble opinion, that is one of the reasons why 90% of Broadway musicals lose money. Even a good show may not be suited for Broadway. This boils down to knowing your audience and understanding how to communicate with an audience in an engaging manner so that they attend your event. There are two aspects to this equation.
Aspect one, PRICING: The term dynamic pricing meets with different emotional responses. Some disdain the term and feel it is an evolution of technology exploiting the masses. Others embrace the term as a way to help more shows develop and reach a broader audience. I will have a whole separate blog on this topic, but to summarize: dynamic ticket pricing is about finding the price points and creating a mechanism so that your show can run at a weekly profit. Should you want to break into this aspect of producing you need a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and Albert Einstein. I personally use a number of different analytic tools and an endless supply of yellow pads to create hypotheses, tests, and validations.
Aspect two, MARKETING AND ADVERTISING: Almost a distant cousin to ticket pricing, but deeply related. You need to communicate to the public why they should come to your event. Most Broadway shows will align with an advertising company, a press rep, and other vendors to help provide both insight and content into the increasingly difficult process of communicating with the consumer. If you don’t like math but you like making videos you might align more with the communication side rather than the ticket selling. Sometimes there maybe two different people assuming this type of role as producer.
To break into the marketing and advertising stream you need to think like a storyteller. There’s a TED talk I suggest you watch called Start With Why. In summary, many people spend a lot of time on the how and the what. For example: “You should see this show because it won a lot of awards.” Not bad, but not the only reason that somebody’s going to see a show. Most people make a purchasing decision based on some form of an emotional reaction. Why will this show touch my human spirit? As the producer if you can help tell that story you’re creating a path for your consumer to enjoy the product that you have worked so hard to create. There are many avenues to becoming proficient with these techniques. You may choose to work at one of the big Broadway agencies or any other marketing and advertising agency or my suggestion is to find a small example of something that you want to help reach a broader audience and work on that. Both are good but the more hands-on you can get the better chance you have at succeeding.
How do you become a Broadway producer? There are lots of paths and the only way to get to the right one for you is to find what you love to do, a story you think is important, and to dive in and do it.
The Commercial Theatre Institute offers amazing courses on producing and becoming a producer. Check out their Guide to Producing Plays and Musicals. A couple other great books to take a look at are Creativity Inc and Producing Theatre.