Seasonal shows have a reputation for providing a much-needed boost to theatres’ income. David Brownlee analyses UK Theatre’s annual data to assess the impact of pantomime on the financial health of the sector
There was no need for a fairy godmother, benevolent genie or a salesman dealing in magic beans to boost pantomime’s performance at the box office last year.
The traditional British festive show is going strong and hit record income around Christmas last year, led by Cinderella, Dick Whittington and Jack and the Beanstalk.
Last year, The Stage busted a few myths about theatregoing during pantomime season. Crunching UK Theatre’s raw sales data for the first time, it emerged that Cinderella wasn’t, as had been thought, the fairest of them all – Aladdin and Snow White both sold more tickets.
A bigger surprise revealed by the stats relating to 2015/16 was that while panto was the most popular genre over the holiday season, more than half of all tickets in the 10-week period around Christmas were actually sold for other genres.
A year on, pantomime’s performance was generally impressive, with theatres closer to capacity and patrons paying more for their tickets.
Average yield rose by £1.31, helping cumulative income from panto surpass £60 million for the first time. It was also a record year for the percentage of seats sold, which hit 76%.
Seven titles accounted for more than 94% of sales. Cinderella topped the table for numbers of tickets issued and box office revenue, but Dick Whittington achieved a significantly better yield and houses for Peter Pan were on average 5% more full.
Aladdin’s lamp lost its sparkle as he toppled three places from last year’s top spot and Snow White also had an ‘annus horribilis’, as she fell from second to sixth place.
UK Theatre is about to release its second Benchmarking Report comparing sales for the four years from 2013 to 2016. To get an accurate picture of panto’s performance, The Stage has analysed the 10-week season – the last six weeks of the calendar year in that data, and the first four of the next – for the past five years.
Some interesting trends emerge, although UK Theatre pointed out that the fluctuating membership means that comparisons with previous years will never be exact. The organisation has had more success in encouraging more of its members to provide more detailed sales information more frequently in recent years.
Despite its impressive market share of 45% during the festive period last year, the second highest, it marks a two percentage point drop from 2015/16.
Yet panto’s importance to festive sales is increasing. What else sells at Christmas? Across the study period, sales for musicals accounted for between 23% and 29% of all revenue. Last season, plays accounted for 8% of income, concerts 7% and ballet 6%.
The number of panto tickets issued in 2016/17 dipped slightly compared with the impressive 3 million figure recorded the year before to 2.9 million.
The drop in attendance numbers came because UK Theatre recorded sales from 200 fewer performances, meaning there were 216,000 fewer panto tickets on sale.
Panto producers should not take to rubbing the magic lamp quite yet. In the context of the five-year study period, sales dipped in 2013/14 before rising again in both the following years. Again, the overall trend is positive.
Last year, much time was spent unpicking the complicated factors around what a panto ticket costs. The average price paid varied hugely by scale of venue, where audience members chose to sit and when in the run they went.
Measuring the mean price paid across all venues for the entire 10-week period really tells us very little about how affordable panto is or isn’t to the average family in the UK.
More interesting is the gap between the average price asked compared to the average price achieved. Between the start and the end of panto season, if every ticket available had been sold at full price for every performance, the average yield per ticket would have risen by £3.76.
The average price the public actually paid rose by £3.67, almost the same. So, despite significant rises in average prices there was not significantly more discounting and families weren’t deciding to trade down to cheaper seats.
The mix of rising prices and growing audiences has had a marked impact on revenue. There has been growth in income in every year of the study period with leaps of over £5 million in both 2014/15 and 2015/16.
In 2016/17, panto contributed almost £14 million more to theatre box-office income than it did in 2012/13: a rise of almost a third. Panto’s appeal on the wane? Oh no it isn’t.
• More than 2.9 million – number of tickets issued (3 million in 2015/16)
• £60.2 million – total box office income (£58.6 million)
• 76% – average paid capacity achieved (74%)
• 23 – productions that took more than £1 million (21)
• £21.34 – mean ticket price paid (£20.03)
• More tickets were sold for productions of Cinderella than any other title (Aladdin)
• The highest proportion of available tickets sold was for productions of Peter Pan (Cinderella)