NT aims to reduce reliance on commercial transfers in bumper year for home audiences

Thomas Dennis, Tom Stacy, Lucas Button and Lewis Howard. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg Thomas Dennis, Tom Stacy, Lucas Button and Lewis Howard in the UK tour of War Horse. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
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The National Theatre has detailed its attempts to move away from using commercial transfers to balance the books, admitting that it had become “very reliant” on income from successes such as War Horse.

It comes despite a bumper year for audiences at the NT, with the theatre enjoying its best-attended season on the South Bank in more than a decade. Its three theatres had an average capacity of 93% in 2016/17, the highest since 2004/5.

The theatre also increased its box office income for shows at its London home, from £20.1 million last year to £23.8 million in 2016/17.

However, the NT’s annual review shows a £13.9 million drop in box office income from West End and UK touring productions, following last year’s closure of War Horse, which ran in the West End for eight years.

Fellow West End long-runner The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time also closed in June this year.

In the review, the NT said earnings from commercial transfers had helped offset the 24% cut to Arts Council England funding it has received since 2010/11, but such income streams were “very uncertain” and it needed to reduce its reliance on such a source.

NT executive director Lisa Burger told The Stage: “We’ve been talking about this for a little while, that the NT had become very reliant on commercial transfers to make the books balance, and we could see that wasn’t going to last forever.

“We needed to reduce our reliance on commercial income so that going forward we could treat that income as windfall… [not] write it into the budget so that it’s paying for basic wages and salaries.”

To do this, Burger said the NT had pushed to increase fundraising – up £1.8 million this year – as well as income from front-of-house trading, NT Live and the box office at the South Bank, where both attendance and revenue have risen.

“We think we’ve turned the model around. It’s looking promising, but it’s a struggle,” she said, adding that the theatre’s ambition for another War Horse-like success was “completely undimmed”.

The annual review also pointed to increased dependence on theatre and film tax credits, of which the NT claimed £3.8 million in 2016/17 and which Burger described as a “crucial” part of its financial model.

The NT’s total income for the year was £104.7 million, down from £118.5 million as a result of the smaller total box office revenue.

The review also revealed the NT’s updated diversity statistics.

In 2016/17, 42% of new work was written by female playwrights. This is down from 47%, moving it further away from its 50% target.

The proportion of female directors was also down on last year, at 32% (from 43%).

In terms of performers, the NT has a target of achieving 50:50 gender balance as well as ensuring that people of colour make up more than 25% of actors.

Over the past year, these figures were 45% and 29% respectively.