Venue deals blamed for drop in regional tour bookings

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Touring theatre companies have warned they face an increasing threat of closure because growing numbers of regional venues can no longer offer financially viable contracts for visiting shows.

One producer who spoke to The Stage said negotiations with venues were becoming harder. He said he had seen a 25% drop in bookings because profit margins offered by receiving houses were so low.

Max Lewendel, artistic director of Icarus Theatre Collective, said his company visited 80 theatres during its last tour, whereas this year’s run would include just 60.

He said: “Many venues are now saying, ‘We love your work, if you want to come here on a box office split we can take you, but we can’t afford to lose money’. So many theatres for years have taken us [in the past] because sometimes they do lose a bit of money but find our work interesting. But they just can’t do that anymore.”

Producers have said more venues are resorting to a box office split – whereby takings are distributed according to a negotiated amount between the venue and producer – rather than a guaranteed fee where the touring company knows it can cover its costs.

Small to mid-scale touring companies are claiming this trend could put them out of business.

Hilary Burns, tours manager of Northumberland Theatre Company, said that in recent years venues had become so concerned about making a loss that they had asked the company to agree to a box office split.

She said: “The worry is that if we go on a split with a theatre and they are losing money as well – and they reduce their staff – they don’t have enough people to do marketing. That means the audiences are less. It means it is just not viable for us. That’s what we are really worried about – that we won’t be able to break even.”

She said the accepted model for a box office split was also changing, leading touring companies to lose out financially.

Burns added that some venues were straying away from deals in which a producer takes 70% of the box office and the venue has 30% – and were now pushing for 40% of the takings.

NTC has now joined a consortium that aims to help companies in the north-east increase their fundraising efforts.

Meanwhile, Adrian McDougall, founder of Blackeyed Theatre, said he could no longer negotiate the same level of guarantee fee that he used to.

He said: “About two or three years ago, all [venues] would have paid a guarantee. The majority still do, but those guarantees have been squeezed down. About 12, if not more, of our 50 venues have had to say, ‘We can pay a guarantee fee but it will be lower’ – 25% to 50% lower in some cases – because they can’t justify the risk.”

McDougall said this was understandable because venues were also being squeezed due to cuts from public funding. But he warned that, if this trend continued long term, he would no longer be able to run a theatre company because it would be “too much of a risk”.

Mark Makin, programme manager of House, the Arts Council England-  supported scheme that helps venues to increase audiences in south-east and eastern England, said that companies were now taking more of the risk. Consequently, some tours were not going ahead or failing halfway through due to lack of income.

Makin said one of House’s main initiatives had been set up to address this situation. The programme offers theatre shows on a box office split to its member venues by covering the per performance cost to the touring company.

“This takes away the risk from both parties so venues can concentrate on selling work to an audience and growing the audience,” said Makin.

Greg Ripley-Duggan, chair of the League of Independent Producers, said that for commercial producers, the circuit for touring drama had “pretty much dried up”.

He added that there was less risk when touring musicals on a box office split basis, because venues would work harder to sell the show.

He said: “You used to do tours because they were relatively low risk, but equally it was understood the [financial] rewards were not what you would get from a successful production in the West End. Now it’s no longer safe and no longer lucrative.”