The inner workings of Broadway production budgets

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Sports fans have baseball box scores and NFL draft rankings. Broadway fans have the weekly grosses. Show business is, after all, a business, and the true fanatics pore over weekly box office with every bit as much obsession as sports nuts lavish over their March Madness brackets.

 

It's one thing to be an ardent fan of a show, but something else entirely to be able to tell if the show has legs enough to last the season, or beyond. The weekly Broadway numbers can help you do that, and are available from a variety of online sources, including Playbill and BroadwayWorld, as well as The Broadway League, the actual source for these numbers. Each of these sites also allows you to sort the data by different criteria.

Total gross - This is the overall amount of money that the show has taken in over the week, from the box office, online sales, and a variety of other avenues. Now, bigger is clearly better, but as any accountant will tell you, just because money is coming in doesn't mean you're making a profit. (As the producers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark know all too well.) Shows have weekly operating expenses, too -- performer salaries, royalty payments to authors, theater rentals, marketing and advertising, costs for behind-the-scenes staff, etc. Which means you also need to consider the following:

The "nut" - Here's something you won't find in the reported grosses, but it's really good to keep this in mind while you're considering the grosses. The "nut" is the total weekly running cost for a show, which comprises all of the show's operating expenses. The average weekly running cost for a Broadway show these days is somewhere around $600,000 for a musical, $250,000 for a straight play. (Based on 2011 data, source: The Producer's Perspective). Any money that the show takes in over the nut goes toward paying back the investors, which can certainly take a while, considering the average average cost of producing a Broadway musical is somewhere around $10 million, versus around $2.5 million for a play. Once the investors are paid back, that’s when people really start making money.

Percent capacity – Percent capacity refers to how many people are actually in the theater as a percentage of the total seating capacity over a typical week. This is the number that really makes a difference to the performers, who love to perform to a full house. But just because the house is full, or at near-capacity, that doesn't mean the show is doing well. That's why it's also good to look at:

Average paid admission – This gives you a sense of how much the producers are selling tickets at a discount, and how much they might be “papering” the house with free tickets. Clearly, a higher average ticket price is better for the long-term prospects of a show. The average regular ticket price on Broadway right now is about $150. (I know. Yikes.) So if a show's average paid admission is below $100, there's some major discounting going on, it's very likely the producers are papering the house, or season-subscriber discounts are bringing down the average.

Top ticket price – Not really an accurate indication of anything, because it seems there's always someone with too much money who just wants to walk up to the box office and pay the premium price, despite the fact that numerous discounts may be readily available. But it is sort of fun to see that someone is willing to pay $300.00 to see Wicked, or even $477.00 to see The Book of Mormon. Personally, I get a charge out of seeing someone pay $186.00 to see Chicago, which has been running for some 18 years and has discounts aplenty. That is one lazy rich person.

If you're interested in the business side of how Broadway works, don't miss our post on why shows close.

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