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The Stage 100 2014: the year of bricks and mortar

The Apollo Theatre
by -

One of the notable, ongoing features of The Stage 100 list has been the interplay between theatre producers and theatre operators.

Since its launch in 1997, the list has largely been dominated by two men – Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yes, both these men own West End theatres, but primarily they are known as creatives – Mackintosh as a producer and Lloyd Webber as a composer.

The last few years have marked a sea change, with the emergence of the Ambassador Theatre Group as the UK theatre industry’s dominant force. Yes, ATG is a producer, but primarily it has built its power base on bricks and mortar, as a theatre operator.

Indeed, 2013 has been the year of the theatre operator, thanks to two separate events.

The first was the private equity buy-out of ATG by Providence Equity, for a figure thought to be in excess of £350 million. In fact, some commentators put the figure nearer £500 million. On the face of it, it might have been tempting to dismiss this sale as less significant than the deal that passed ATG into private equity ownership in the first place, back in 2009 when it hoovered up Live Nation’s UK theatres thanks to funding from private equity firm Exponent.

[pullquote]Not only is it the biggest theatre trans­action that has ever taken place, but it is also a marker of the potential that major private equity firms see in the UK theatre industry[/pullquote]

But, as Howard Panter, ATG’s joint chief executive, remarked at the time, the deal is a “game-changer”. Not only is it the biggest theatre trans­action that has ever taken place, but it is also a marker of the potential that major private equity firms see in the UK theatre industry. For make no mistake, Providence is a major player in the private equity world and this marks a significant step up from Exponent for ATG. It is the theatrical equivalent of Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea in 2003.

With Providence’s backing, ATG will have access to a war chest that puts it on a completely different footing to every other player in the UK market. To mix metaphors, it is the Tesco of the theatre industry. Perhaps of concern for the rest of the market is that, presently, there is no Sainbury’s.

This means that we now have an industry whose leading player is streets ahead of the competition in terms of financial clout. Since the Providence deal, ATG has already started buying up other operators. Note especially its expansion into the lucrative ticketing market with the acquisition of the Ticket Machine Group. Expect to see further growth this year, specifically internationally, where ATG believes there to be the greatest opportunities for it to roll out its “vertically integrated model”, in which it produces shows, runs venues and sells tickets.

Short of another private equity buyer entering the market – and it would be no surprise if other companies were sniffing around after the Providence deal – it is hard to see anyone challenging ATG in the foreseeable future.

The other reason 2013 was the year of the theatre owner came as more of a surprise.

On the evening of December 19, part of the ceiling of the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, owned and operated by Nimax Theatres, collapsed during a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Around 80 people were injured, seven seriously, although thankfully there were no fatalities.

At the time of writing, the precise cause of the accident is uncertain, although we do know that the Apollo’s safety checks were all up-to-date.

Still, it did underline one of the major risk factors for West End theatre operators – for the most part, the buildings of which they are custodians are old, sometimes very old, and sometimes protected by their listed status. This means their constant upkeep is difficult, time-consuming and, of course, expensive.

Whatever the cause of the accident at the Apollo, it has thrown into sharp relief the question of the physical state of the West End. Industry insiders – including the theatre owners themselves – have been complaining of the physical state of the West End’s historic theatres for some time now.

Back in 2003, the ironically titled Act Now! report called for £250 million of investment – some of it from the government – to help bring the West End up to standard. That money was not forthcoming and, despite the introduction of restoration levies and private investment from some of the theatre owners themselves, the unfortunate truth is that there is still much work to be done.

If any good comes of the incident of December 19, perhaps it will be that – after the full results of the investigation into this specific accident are in – the industry can embark on an open, transparent and honest conversation about the physical state of the West End and what needs to happen to ensure that the industry thrives in the centuries to come.

Finally, a usual bit of housekeeping about the list itself.

The Stage 100 recognises the people that this publication believes to be the most influential working in UK theatre over the last 12 months. You will notice that we have begun recording company turnover in this year’s list, but while this is a factor in deciding the order of our list, it is not a defining one. We list only those who are directly involved with the creation of the work we see on stage. This means no politicians, PRs, marketers, critics, agents or funders. We also generally don’t list multiple entrants from companies with a single figurehead.

The Stage 100 is compiled by The Stage and edited by deputy editor Alistair Smith. We always like to hear your thoughts on The Stage 100 – please email your responses for publication to editor@thestage.co.uk

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