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Richard Jordan: Capping producers’ Olivier statuettes could drive away theatre investors

Come from Away at the Phoenix Theatre, London, which had more than 50 named producers. Photo: Tristram Kenton Come from Away at the Phoenix Theatre, London, which had more than 50 named producers. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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A few decades ago, investors – or ‘angels’ as they are also known – may have been happy to stay in the shadows. Today, those writing the big cheques for a show often want to be listed as producers.

While not a new phenomenon, it has significantly grown in the past 20 years, particularly on Broadway. This is partly because being named as a producer, rather than an investor, brings the chance to win a piece of exclusive silverware in the form of Tony and Olivier awards.

In the UK, the practice recently attracted the attention of the Society of London Theatre, which has considered limiting the issue of Olivier statuettes after being inundated with orders following the 2019 awards. That bulk order has predominately come from the 50 and 19 named producers of, respectively, Come from Away and Company.

US investors could pull funding for West End shows over Olivier Awards plans

But before we are swept up in a wave of outrage over how many statuettes producers on such big musicals expect, it’s worth considering what this issue says about today’s escalating costs and the increased challenges involved in raising commercial funding.

While it has always been more expensive to produce on Broadway, does this volume of named producers on certain West End shows suggest a considerable and concerning rise in production costs?

It’s important to remember that Come from Away started out with neither a big star, nor was it written by a famous composer. On paper, its subject matter – planes are diverted to Newfoundland, Canada on 9/11 – sounds inherently uncommercial.

Then there’s Company. Stephen Sondheim is a musical genius, but his musicals have frequently failed to recoup financially – especially in the West End. Commercially producing these works (and others like them) is no small risk.

Why was a limit on Olivier statuettes not raised by SOLT when the musical Spring Awakening played the West End 10 years ago? While Company has 19 producers, Spring Awakening had 23, and a further eight associate producers. Despite winning best musical, it was a flop and producers lost a lot of money, but at least their ambition and commitment were rewarded with an Olivier award.

Risks for commercial producers have particularly increased in drama. Today, shows often have fixed runs playing 12 to 16 weeks without the ability to extend. If the play opens and it’s a hit, theatre owners seem to have less interest in encouraging recasting and extensions. It is more likely that they will have already announced the next production before the first has opened.

Denying the producer-investor a statue that they’ll most likely pay for themselves will risk lessening investment

In June, there was a party in London to celebrate 30 years of The Woman in Black. Investors in that show have received more than £8 million in profits during its long run. However, if it was to open today, there would be two large differences: firstly, the production would, more likely, only play a fixed season; secondly, the investors might seek a producing credit.

With higher costs and shorter runs, investors may want to put in less, so it’s necessary to find more investors. At the same time, the returns are also smaller. Here’s where the licenses for subsequent productions become important: producers have a greater investment incentive if they will be among the ongoing beneficiaries.

Despite the higher costs, musicals still offer a better investment opportunity. Producers are looking for a brand where the title sells the show – regardless of who is playing the lead. But trying to find a musical that lands is far from easy: for every Come from Away, there are many more Bernadettes.

A common commercial model is for a lead producer to let a producer-investor in on a potential hit with a major star, while requiring them to invest in a less familiar title they’re also producing. In this case, one investment cancels out the other, hopefully making it “even” in the end.

But this changes an investor’s potential for profit, begging the question: would it be better to call such investments ‘donations’? This model has certainly helped propel greater commercial risk taking on Broadway.

Richard Jordan: Broadway, predictable? It’s taking more risks than the West End

However, while the biggest cull of Broadway shows in recent history takes place – producer-investors face accumulated losses of more than $110 million this year as a result – there are concerns about if (and how) investors will be encouraged to keep coming back. The survival of commercial theatre depends on them.

There are far better places an investor could put their money, as this year’s Broadway losses reflect. Denying the producer-investor a statue that they’ll most likely pay for themselves (and for which, if it wanted to, SOLT could probably name its price) will risk lessening investment, could damage relationships and leave lead producers with some very difficult conversations.

This will inevitably lead to questions over who gets a statuette – maybe it would go to a renowned international producer or company that needs encouraging to come back. A famous actor or singer credited as producer would be good news for the awards telecast, but an unfamiliar name may be judged as less important even if they are more dedicated and have invested significantly more.

Such a decision would be tough on new producers, future West End impresarios need to build their reputations – the sector’s future depends on them. Worst of all, this proposed change to the Olivier Awards risks reducing the amount of more ambitious commercially produced works, many of which have subsequently proved to be the biggest winners.

Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan

Editor’s View: The row over Olivier Awards statuettes is a transatlantic culture clash

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