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Is crowd-funding the future of theatrical investment? Or just a PR gimmick?

Heidi Range plays Pinky Tuscadero in Happy Days the musical. Photo: Paul Coltas.
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With ticket prices now breaching the £100 mark for some West End musicals (and for The Book of Mormon now hitting £152.25, with tickets in the very back row of the stalls for this Saturday’s performance going at £127.25, not bought through touts but directly from the box office), theatregoers are not so much ticket buyers as investors themselves in the product that they’re gaining access to. You could call this it a novel form of crowd-funding.

But crowd-funding for theatre projects is, of course, nothing new. The old system of getting armies of ‘angels’ to invest in a show is a form of crowd-funding, too, though as costs have got higher, the entry point has got higher, too: producers need more than loose change to give you a stake in their show.

But can crowd-funding work on a more localised level? Earlier this week it was announced that a new musical version of David Baddiel’s 2010 film comedy The Infidel has been greenlit to open at the Theatre Royal Stratford in October, “after members of the public secured its production by pledging more than £55,000,” as The Stage reported here. “A Kickstarter campaign launched in March this year reached its target funding of £55,110 in just 26 days thanks to pledges from 145 backers.”

That’s an impressive endorsement of interest in the show, though of course the £55,000 is only seedbed money on a much bigger investment that will be required to actually put it on. But visiting the Kickstarter page for the show here, you will find out just how the individual stakes in that £55,110 are broken down — and they vary from pledges of £1 (ten of those) and £5 (twelve) all the way up to £5,000 (five).

A friend who understands money matters rather better than I do duly crunched the numbers, and came up with a fascinating spreadsheet that shows that some 90% of the overall investment – £49,865 – came from just 16 contributors. That’s rather less of a crowd than the 145 backers boasted of overall. (The remaining 129 investors between them raised £5,235).

That’s not to underestimate the show of support that has been made here: even those spending just £1 are registering an interest, after all, that may translate into a ticket sale. (That level of investment, called the View from the Cheap Seats on the Kickstarter page, promises regular e-mail updates on the show – so those ‘backers’ effectively signed up to a mailing list to be told about the show.)

Earlier this year, the producers of the current tour of Happy Days – the Musical raised some £250,000 through a crowd-funding initiative that brought in some 345 investors, according to a story in The Stage at the time. I’ve yet to catch the show, but I’ve heard reports from the road of very poor audiences and cancelled performances as a result. Even my brother, who is totally unconnected to the theatre (except through me), told me that when it visited Cambridge where he lives, he was offered comps to try to fill the place.

Jamie Hendry, the lead producer of a new stage version of The Wind in the Willows also announced a crowd-funding scheme when he launched the show, with investment opportunities in amounts from £1,000 to £5,000. In a press statement at the time, he said,

Kenneth Grahame’s classic is such an iconic piece of British literary heritage that we are thrilled to have created the means for as many people as possible to own a stake in this new adaptation. Traditionally commercial theatre investment has only been available to a small group of individuals from whom significant funding has already been secured. Crowd funding has become a growing trend in the arts, however this scheme converts the idea into a financial investment with potential for return. Given the national ownership of the piece, I am delighted to reserve a limited 10% of the Capitalisation for individual investors in amounts from as little as £1,000.

According to the investment website, the scheme is now closed. The Stage reported in February that it raised some £1 million towards the show’s capitalisation, with Hendry saying he had received investment from 400 individuals – more than 90% of them first-time investors. He hoped, too, that they would act as ambassadors for the show, helping to sell it.

We all, of course, make an investment – in time and money – every time we go to the theatre. But the novelty here is to persuade people to invest in an idea, not just a ticket, and help bring it to fruition.

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