New kids theatrical players take the stage

Over the last five years, theaters and arenas across the U.S. have been opening curtains to a rising number of new live theatrical productions spun off kids properties. Bear in the Big Blue House, Franklin, Blue's Clues, Scholastic's The Magic School...
February 1, 2001

Over the last five years, theaters and arenas across the U.S. have been opening curtains to a rising number of new live theatrical productions spun off kids properties. Bear in the Big Blue House, Franklin, Blue’s Clues, Scholastic’s The Magic School Bus and Barney have all made their on-stage debuts. And it’s not just tot-targeted properties getting into the action-licensors and producers are also aiming for school-age kids, tweens and teens with older-skewing licenses and hot pop acts.

‘Since it’s exploded so much in the past few years, there is somewhat of a sense now that a [TV] show has to have a live show element,’ says Joe Diaz, group president of Sesame Workshop’s products and international television distribution group. Sesame Street Live, produced by Minneapolis-based VEE Corporation, is in its 21st touring season.

Whether properties are hitting the road with full stage productions or smaller live performances in malls or major retailers, ‘the touring element is increasingly becoming a strategic linchpin in the marketing of children’s programming,’ adds June Archer, VP of licensing in North America for Sesame Workshop.

But Bruce Davidsen, president of Toronto-based Tanglewood Family Entertainment and executive producer of Franklin’s Big Adventure, which kicked off its North American tour in January 2000, doesn’t believe that the number of live theatrical family entertainment productions has increased during the 12-plus years his company has been in business. Instead, he says ‘there has been a move away from the live concert driven by a [human performer such as] Sharon, Lois & Bram or Eric Nagler, and you now see more theatrical presentations produced around a character established by a literary or TV base.’ Nelvana and Tanglewood are looking to launch theatrical shows for Nelvana-produced block PBS Kids Bookworm Bunch and Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear as early as this fall.

So why are more properties unveiling live theatrical events? ‘There’s nothing like the live theatrical experience’ and ‘the excitement of just sitting in a room with 2,000 other people,’ says Stuart Rosenstein, VP of Nickelodeon Theatricals, which has teamed with New York-based SFX Family Entertainment for Blue’s Clues Live!, Rugrats-A Live Adventure and All That Music & More Festival. Particularly in the case of Blue’s Clues Live!, this may be a child’s first time attending a live theatrical performance.

‘It’s a wonderful way to reach your fans in a different way and expand the experience with your property,’ says Leslye Schaefer, senior VP of marketing and consumer products for Scholastic Entertainment. A live show for Scholastic’s The Magic School Bus, for which Scholastic partnered with New York-based The Brad Simon Organization (which brought on Strawberry Productions to help produce), is on hiatus after a four-year run; Goosebumps-Live on Stage, produced by Vienna, Virginia-based Feld Entertainment in collaboration with Goosebumps rights holder Parachute Entertainment and Scholastic, ran for about a year; and Scholastic is in discussions to create theatrical productions for Clifford the Big Red Dog and Dear America.

For Nelvana, the live theatrical show Franklin’s Big Adventure, as well as the shorter production Franklin’s Magic Fiddle (also by Tanglewood) for malls, fairs, zoos, theme parks and other special events, offer ‘the benefit of bringing children into Franklin’s world,’ rather than kids mostly observing it on TV, in videos or in books, says Jay Udow, VP of marketing with Nelvana’s licensing division. It was also important for Nelvana to get a lot of exposure for Franklin last fall when all 850 Sears stores across the U.S. featured Franklin boutiques.

And for Sesame Workshop, live theatrical shows provide another outlet to help to achieve its mission of ‘educating and entertaining kids,’ says Diaz. For example, Big Bird’s Sunny Day Camp Out, one of three Sesame Street Live productions touring North America, weaves in lessons about counting and teamwork.

Beyond these brand-building benefits, live theatrical shows can be successful revenue sources. ‘We would definitely see it as a profit center,’ as well as a promotional vehicle, says Glenn Grabski, tour promoter for Lyrick Studios, referring to the company’s Barney production. In its first leg, Barney’s Musical Castle (produced by Lyrick unit Leach Productions) drew more than 910,000 attendees to 243 performances in the U.S., Canada, Mexico City and Puerto Rico, and saw US$17.5 million in ticket grosses. Blue’s Clues Live!’s first year in 2000 attracted more than 800,000 attendees in 41 markets, grossing US$17 million to US$18 million from ticket sales, and the show is also receiving about US$2 million in sponsorship.

But, says Jonathan Hochwald, president of SFX Family Entertainment, which also produced Arthur: A Live Adventure with Arthur creator Marc Brown, in addition to working with Nickelodeon, ‘the nature of our business is that it’s a very, very expensive proposition.’ Sources say production costs alone can be from US$1 million to US$4 million, and developing a show from concept to its first performance typically takes a year. Per performance, cost of the venue-that is rent, box-office staff, ushers, ticket-takers and stage hands-can come in above US$15,000, equaling on average 30%-plus of your gross, and advertising more than US$6,500, says Lyrick’s Grabski. While SFX’s Hochwald emphasizes that costs vary widely by show, market and venue, once a theatrical show begins touring, tour operating costs-including cast, crew, management, trucks, and sound and light rentals-generally range from US$150,000 to US$250,000 per week, as can local costs such as theater rent, advertising, ushers and stage hands.

On the revenue side, streams can include ticket sales, on-site merchandise sales and sponsorship. Ticket sales account for the biggest chunk-at least 70% say sources, citing average ticket prices from US$12 to US$20. ‘There is an extreme amount of ticket price sensitivity [in family entertainment],’ says Hochwald. That means that since costs such as rent remain the same regardless of a show’s ticket price, ‘we have to sell that many more family show tickets on a revenue basis to offset those kinds of costs.’

There’s more than one box-office revenue model, says Brad Simon, president of The Brad Simon Organization, which acts as the U.S. theatrical sales agent for Tanglewood, as well as being a producer of the live Magic School Bus theatrical and special events shows. The models include: the producer receiving a flat fee from the venue for putting on the show (or flat fee plus percentage of the box office); the producer renting the venue, handling marketing and all other aspects of the event, and receiving box-office returns; and the producer and venue jointly presenting the event.

Producers’ break-even formulas also vary. Tanglewood’s Davidsen, for example, says he doesn’t factor revenues other than ticket sales into the equation, particularly since it’s common for a theater or arena to look for 25% to 40% on average of gross merchandise sales. SFX’s Hochwald says given the weekly tour operating and local costs above, a typical maximum capacity for most family shows in a theater of 20,000 to 25,000 tickets per week and an average ticket price of US$20, roughly 65% of seats would need to be sold to hit break even.

But for Lyrick, merch sales ‘definitely [are] in the figure of your profitability,’ says Grabski. While Barney’s Musical Castle has Luvs as national sponsor, sponsorship is not a necessary revenue stream, he says.

And in another scenario still, ‘having that corporate underwriting can really be the difference to a show’s success or failure, in my experience,’ says SFX’s Hochwald, adding that the revenue split is typically 70% ticket sales and 15% each merchandising sales and sponsorship. ‘The reason sponsorship is critical is that 15% may be the entire profit on a tour or the portion that gets you to the break-even point. It’s a big and important piece of the equation.’

On top of these financial challenges, ‘with this many shows out right now, it’s really hard to stay away from each other,’ says Lyrick’s Grabski. Sloan Coleman, executive producer with Lyrick, adds: ‘You have to really pick and choose when to go out.’ Lyrick’s approach is to run each Barney theatrical tour-Barney’s Big Surprise was the first, starting in 1996, with Barney’s Magical Castle beginning in September 1999-for two years and only hit a market once during that period, with a one-year break between shows in order to keep excitement high for the next tour’s visit in a city. Plus, it takes two years to hit all the viable markets, says Grabski.

Given this landscape, what then are the pros and cons when targeting different demos?

With the younger set, ‘it’s very difficult trying to keep the two-year-olds entertained because they have a very short attention span,’ says Lyrick’s Coleman. ‘You’ve really got to keep [a show] moving quickly.’

Popular and familiar characters or stars, music and kid participation (singing and dancing along) are the key ingredients for success with shows aimed at wee ones, says Nelvana’s Udow. People go to its live theatrical shows ‘because they want to see their favorite character in person,’ agrees Vincent E. Egan, president, executive producer and founder of VEE Corporation, whose Sesame Street Live has been seen by more than 46 million kids and their caregivers in 11 countries worldwide, and whose Bear in the Big Blue House Live’s Surprise Party, developed in collaboration with The Jim Henson Company, launched last fall. Barney’s Musical Castle, for example, features 30 songs throughout the 70-minute production. In Blue’s Clues Live!, each kid is invited to help Steve keep track of the clues revealed during the performance by using a notebook he or she receives at the show.

Music is no less important when appealing to school-age kids. Pokémon Live!, co-produced for US$4 million by 4Kids Productions and Radio City Entertainment and launched last September, features musical segments from Latin dance to tango to pop, says Norman Grossfeld, president of 4Kids Productions and producer of the show. Aimed at Pokémon’s core six to 11 audience and a younger fringe down to age two, the production adds an edginess for older children by tying several plots into ‘a very complicated story line,’ says Grossfeld. During the presentation, for example, a new character is created by Team Rocket leader Giovanni with the power to learn and return any Pokémon’s attack. These battles are brought to life using a lot of pyrotechnic effects, and Pokémon fans learn information that extends the franchise, such as Ash’s mother’s secret past association with Giovanni. Interactivity is toned down to two instances when performers either address the audience directly or ask audience members questions, as opposed to the play-along/sing-along participation common to preschool-skewing productions.

A challenge in marketing Pokémon Live! is ‘most people think these live touring shows are preschool,’ says Grossfeld. TV spots featuring testimonials from kids in the upper range of the property’s core audience and their parents were created to overcome this perception. On the other hand, says Grossfeld, a show that brings in school-age and younger children may benefit from a larger audience than preschool shows.

When it comes to tweens and teens, piquing their interest in a live presentation demands a different approach. Last summer, Nickelodeon and YTV Canada both tested the formula with shows headlining hot up-and-coming pop musicians.

In its second event last summer, Nickelodeon’s music tour for tweens, All That Music & More Festival, spotlighted LFO, B*Witched, a rotating lineup of festival bands, and the stars of the TV series All That.

But is the tween-targeted music tour approach less risky than a live theatrical stage show for preschoolers or school-age kids? ‘Yes, [tweens are] into music,’ says Rosenstein, ‘but which music, which artists?’ He believes this age group’s music preferences change ’10 times faster’ than younger kids’ interest in properties.

For this reason, ‘we try to create something where it’s an entity beyond just the music,’ says Rosenstein. Produced with TV show creator Marquee Tollin/Robbins Productions, the five-hour event offers a three-hour concert and two hours for activities such as autograph booths to meet the artists, auditioning for All That and Double Dare, and a Game Lab where kids can participate in stunts from Nick shows.

When it comes to merchandise, Rosenstein admits that it’s harder to sell festival T-shirts since tweens would rather buy products that give them a connection to their fave artist.

Similarly, YTV is looking to build PsykoBlast Tour, a co-venture with SFX Entertainment in Toronto (formerly CORE Audience) that kicked off last July in seven Canadian cities after being held since 1995 on a smaller scale at theme park Paramount Canada’s Wonderland outside Toronto, into its own brand. ‘We hope that PsykoBlast itself becomes a reason kids want to come out,’ says Tim Cormick, director of co-marketing at YTV. ‘They may not even know who the bands are, but we want them to trust in the PsykoBlast brand to feature top performers.’ The 2000 event included Grammy Award winner Christina Aguilera, The Moffatts, soulDecison, mytown and McMaster & James.

Another key element to YTV’s strategy is to tie in with and enhance its on-air programming. Leslie and Exan from the channel’s video countdown show The Hit List hosted the tour, which was targeted at ages 11 to 15, and top videos from The Hit List played between acts.

To recoup costs of the venue, artists (who received a guaranteed minimum with a percentage as the show approached sellout) and producing the tour, sponsorship was crucial, says Cormick. YTV brought on three sponsors-Kellogg, Bell Mobility and Polaroid-and sponsorship accounted for about 10% of total revenue. At a ticket price of US$26.45 for the more-than-four-hour concert, Cormick says break-even projections were about 70% of seats at a maximum capacity of 70,000 for the whole tour, as well as sponsorship.

For companies looking to connect with audiences locally without mounting a full-size theatrical show, touring shorter live shows in malls, fairs, festivals, zoos, theme parks and other events is an alternative that is ‘probably less than half the cost just because lighting and staging [for a live theatrical production] is very expensive,’ says Brad Simon of The Brad Simon Organization. Producers would typically receive a fee of between US$5,000 and US$10,000 a day from the venue for putting on three shows a day. These special events shows can also ‘stimulate interest for the theatrical productions,’ generally spaced at least six months apart, says Simon. But Tanglewood’s Davidsen says the mall tours business ‘is drying up across North America’ as malls are looking to productions that will tour for free, as opposed to paying for events. Business at festivals and fairs is still going strong because these are family events.

In another kind of live production, Disney on Ice, produced by Feld Entertainment (also producer of 131-year-old Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus), ranks with Sesame Street Live among the longest-running live family entertainment productions spun off kids properties. The ice show began with one unit in 1981, and today, has eight units playing in up to 45 countries a year, with productions including 75 Years of Disney Magic, Toy Story, Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s Jungle Adventures on Ice and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO, says Disney on Ice presentations have their own unique advantages. Because Disney stories are enduring and ‘work around the world,’ a show can run up to seven or eight years worldwide, helping to ‘amortize your production costs over a longer period, thereby hopefully increasing [the show's] profitability.’

Another benefit, says Feld, is ‘internationally, in many of the countries that we play [in], we may be the only Disney live event in those countries. We can then have a great effect on the sales of other consumer products when we go into one of those markets.’

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