Monday 5 April 2010

Free entries (II) Theatres

Still regarding the issue of free entries, and moving on to the performing arts, the situation becomes a bit more complex. According to Alexandra Prado Coelho´s article (available here in portuguese only), based on statistical data recently made available by OAC and GPEARI, paid entries to the two national theatres (D. Maria II and São João) were, in 2008, slightly higher than free ones, while 66% of the spectators of the Companhia Nacional de Bailado attended the performances without paying.

In what concerns theatres and performing arts halls, it is important to distinguish between free entries that relate to invitations and free entries that relate to events, activities and performances where people don´t have to pay to attend. The data made available by the D.Maria II National Theatre did not allow for this distinction. In the case of São João National Theatre, though, among the 49% of those who attended without paying, 85% had made use of an invitation. Moving on to the Companhia Nacional de Bailado, among the people who had attended without paying in 2008, 62% had an invitation for events with paid entry.

We should clarify here who are the people that have access to invitations. In the majority of the cases, they are not low-income or new audiences; offering invitations is not part of a marketing plan that targets them. The big majority of those who have access to invitations are people invited to premieres, government and local authority dignitaries, performing arts professionals, as well as a vast number of collaborators, friends and acquaintances of theirs. Considering the invitations for the premiere a means of promoting the show - through what is still the most best and most trustworthy channel, the word of mouth -, we should think a bit more about the invitations given for the remaining sessions of a long-run show or, and above all, for short-run shows or shows taking place on a single day. In these cases, the objective not being the show´s promotion, what´s the reason for giving invitations? First of all, it´s the habit among us. Why pay if, through friends and acquaintances, we can get tickets for free? It is also a concern in having the room full, a certain fear or discomfort in admitting that a show is not selling. It is also, in some cases, not the majority, an interest in facilitating access for people who don´t have the financial means to pay for a ticket.
In the meantime, the institutions that offer the invitations are obliged to pay the corresponding VAT tax. Thousands of euros paid in VAT so that certain people can attend performances, many of which have already been subsidised by the State. In other words, we produce and on top of everything else we pay so that people come to see. People perfectly capable of paying for their ticket. Does it make sense? What´s the purpose of this practice? What objective or strategy does it serve? Couldn´t the money paid in VAT be invested in a better way? Nobody questions the loss of revenue?

So, contrary to the case of museums, free entries in theatres and performing arts halls are not usually related to audience development. But pricing policies in general are, namely the importance of offering cheap tickets so that the public comes to the performances. The majority of the institutions in this field offer the usual concessions (young people, senior citizens, students, etc.). Culturgest was the first to introduce €5-tickets for the under 30s and its example was followed by many more institutions. I don´t know of any visitor study aiming to evaluate the efficiency of this option. Nevertheless, I would be interested to know if these young people developed the habit of attending performances thanks to the €5-tickets; if they attend more performances than it would be expected because the ticket is cheap and if they would see less if it was more expensive (say €10); in which other events and activities they invest their money and time and how much they pay for them; and, finally, if the measure contributed to audience development.

Based on my experience in this field, I would say that, once again, cheap tickets alone do not the means for developing new audiences. They make access easier for people who attend frequently, but they are not an incentive on their own so that new people come to the theatre. Just as it happens with museums, audience development is the combined result of the artistic direction, the action of the education service and of the marketing strategy that aims to create the right ‘package’ for the offer. People are willing to pay to attend performances they feel they cannot miss. Even at this time of economic crisis, sold out shows are not rare.

Thus, concluding, I would say that, on one hand, it is necessary to know our market and establish the right price for each product. And the right price is the price people are willing to pay. On the other hand, we should question the efficiency of free entries as a means of developing new audiences. Both visitor studies and empirical observations point to a different direction in order to reach this end.
Special thanks to CF and RC for their previous comments on this text.

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