As the offspring of immigrants and a first generation Brit, I never really got my head around pantomime as a child. It was only really as a theatre manager that I began to comprehend just how important a phenomenon it is, both in terms of box office income and introducing new audiences to their local theatre.
Given this importance, I’m surprised how little research there is available about the economic and social impact of panto in the UK. Is this down to snobbishness? Possibly, but if so, it’s misplaced. When reading Looking Back, Harriet Devine’s excellent book of interviews with playwrights at London’s Royal Court, I was struck by how many had been introduced to theatre and fallen in love with it after a visit to the local panto.
So let’s take a serious look at panto and nail down some facts about ticket sales in the UK. To do this, I have been given access to UK Theatre’s sales database, a repository of weekly sales figures provided by almost all its members. Of course, that means this study does not cover all pantos in the UK, but I estimate at least 90% of tickets sold last year for a professional panto would have been at a UK Theatre venue.
UK Theatre has released data in the past on panto in its annual benchmarking report. This compares figures for different types of venues and different genres for every calendar year. As a result, most panto runs are split across two years of reporting. For this article, UK Theatre has given me access to the raw data for 2015 and 2016, and I have combined both years’ data to analyse the 2015/16 season.
How important is panto to the total annual income and attendance at UK Theatre member venues? The last benchmarking report showed that in 2014, 12% of overall income and 16% of all seats sold were for panto. Looking at the most recent figures for 2015/16, in the 10 weeks from November 23, 2015, UK Theatre venues sold 2.9 million tickets and issued a further 133,172 complimentary tickets for panto, giving a total of more than 3 million admissions. During that period, £58.6 million was taken for panto alone.
While these are impressive figures, it’s time to bust our first myth. During that 10-week period, panto accounted for only 47% of overall box office income at UK Theatre venues. Looking across all genres, bookings are strong at this time of year – and phenomenal for two weeks. There are just four weeks when panto income exceeds combined income for all other genres. Christmas is a great time for all theatre, not just panto.
We all know what the biggest panto of them all is, don’t we? Received wisdom says Cinderella sells the most, but it didn’t in 2015/16. Aladdin sold 100,000 more tickets than Cinderella, and Snow White beat her to second place. Of course the titles that are most popular in any given year are those that are playing the biggest, most successful venues and there were some very big Aladdins in 2015/16. I would still have expected a higher proportion of Cinderella tickets to be sold and this was the case last year: Cinders topped the table on 78% capacity achieved last year, with Snow White on 76% and an average of 74% across all titles.
Some pantos are bigger than others. In the UK Theatre data set for 2015/16, 75 productions took more than £100,000. Of those, 21 took more than £1 million. This is an incredible statistic – I would guess no more than a handful achieved this level of revenue a decade ago. The top 17 pantos last year accounted for 50% of all box office income.
So how much did a ticket to panto cost last year? The overly simplistic answer to this would be £20.03 – the mean price paid across all venues during that 10-week period. Looking at the following table, only seven of our 75 productions achieved an average yield of between £20 and £22. The median price paid across the productions was £18.56. And at 10 venues the average price paid was less than £14.
• More than 3 million – number of tickets issued
• £58.6 million – total box office income
• 74% – average paid capacity achieved
• 21 – productions that took more than £1 million
• £20.03 – mean ticket price paid
• More tickets were sold for productions of Aladdin than any other title
• The highest proportion of available tickets sold was for productions of Cinderella