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Good Tweets Are Nice, but Group Sales Fill Seats
By PATRICK HEALY
Published: April 18, 2011
More than 55,000 Facebook users “like” the new Broadway musical “Sister Act,” which, like most major theatrical productions today, has its own page, as well a Twitter account (1,300 followers), YouTube channel (30,000 uploaded views) and set of apps. (Photoshop your face into a nun’s wimple and win free tickets!)
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Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times
Staff members at Group Sales Box Office, from left, Matt Austin, Peggy O'Connor and Stephanie Lee, president.
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Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times
Shawn Campbell, a sales agent at Group Sales Box Office. Ticket brokers target shows to longtime customers based on their past purchases.
Yet how many 50-year-old white female tourists — the average Broadway ticket buyers — are plunking down money for “Sister Act” because @MzzzD17 wrote on Twitter that seeing it “made me want to go back to church! :-)”? Ask Broadway insiders to say how many tickets have been sold as a result of all this social networking, and the look on their faces reads, “Server not found.”
“You hope these sites generate good word of mouth, but they’re not the thing that is still, in this day and age, the best measure of our show’s potential popularity and financial return,” said Jerry Zaks, the veteran director of “Sister Act.” “That’s group sales.”
If Facebooking Broadway is all the rage for shows, the real economic engine remains the sales agents wearing old-fashioned headsets and tapping through decades-old databases to pitch group buyers working with churches and synagogues, schools and businesses, and the “theater ladies” who have kept the Wednesday matinee in business since before Steve Jobs founded Apple.
This season these ticket agencies are exercising more muscle than usual. They are the first line of arbiters for groups in a product-packed spring, when nine plays and musicals opened in March and 13 more will have opened by the end of April.
Take Group Sales Box Office, founded in 1960 and today one of the most profitable group ticket agencies on Broadway. The company projects sales in excess of $30 million this year, with “Sister Act” (its current top seller with groups) accounting for more than $1 million in tickets so far. With offices just off Times Square and across the street from the Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard​’s “Arcadia” (a show that has not been a group magnet for the company), Group Sales Box Office and its 22 sales agents may still be version 1.0 in Broadway discounting and promotions, but in terms of results, they are the hare to social networking’s turtle. Ticket orders were up 43 percent from Feb. 1 to April 1, compared with the same period in 2010.
Among the staff of several retired performers (one of whom appeared in the original “West Side Story” and another in the first “Hello, Dolly!”) is Shawn Campbell, a 35-year-old former actor who is known around the office for his knack with cold calls. Like the salesmen out of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” who followed the maxim “always be closing,” Mr. Campbell veered from show to show one morning this winter trying to make a match.
On the other end of the line was Thelma Kaltbaum, a group organizer for Jewish Women International.
Sitting in his generic office cubicle on the company’s trading floor, Mr. Campbell almost had a sale with the new musical “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” (three drag queens on a tour bus; a widow landing a man) until one detail halted the deal: Wednesday matinees, popular with older theatergoers, weren’t on offer. He pivoted to highlighting the jazzy score of another potential crowd-pleaser, “Catch Me If You Can,” and then the character Florence Greenberg in the new Shirelles musical, “Baby It’s You!”
It wasn’t until he mentioned the actress Sutton Foster — “Broadway royalty at this point,” Mr. Campbell made clear — starring in the revival of “Anything Goes” that his ship came in.
“So what you’re saying,” Mr. Campbell said to Ms. Kaltbaum, “is that Sutton Foster plus ‘Anything Goes’ equals an easy sale to your group? All right, Thelma! And know what? Joel Grey is in it too!”
The four-minute phone call was enough to induce mental whiplash, but Mr. Campbell and his fellow brokers were pros at the chief duty that some Web sites have only begun to master: aggregating details about the 39 Broadway shows this spring and then differentiating them for longtime customers whose preferences are reflected in databases listing their past purchases. (For example, past groups for the drag musical “La Cage aux Folles” are the prime target for “Priscilla” sales calls.)
“Sister Act,” based on the 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg​, has been competing hard against other new movies-turned-musicals like “Priscilla” and “Catch Me.” The “Sister Act” producers prospered, according to company executives, by setting a lower group minimum for discounts (10 people, versus 15 or more for other shows) and continuing an “early bird” discount offer (of $79) longer than most shows.
The producers of “Priscilla,” based on an Australian cult favorite film from 1994, have countered by offering $500 gas vouchers for groups, while the sales pitch for “Catch Me” is that its creative team also made the hugely popular movie-based musical “Hairspray.”
Sales agents for the new “Book of Mormon” musical, meanwhile, have pursued devotees of past hits with irreverent humor, like “Spamalot.” Those pushing “Baby It’s You!” are describing it as “ ‘Jersey Boys’ with girls.” The big-budget musical “Wonderland” is promoted as “Alice in Wonderland” for grown-ups, and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is the chance to spend face time with its wildly popular star, Harry Potter (also known as Daniel Radcliffe​).
“In most seasons the rule of thumb is that the show that has the widest charm would sell best to groups,” said Stephanie Lee, president of Group Sales Box Office. “That’s helping ‘Sister Act,’ no doubt. But group organizers know there’s a huge number of shows this spring. So they’re shopping around, seeking a lot of answers — Whoopi Goldberg is not in ‘Sister Act’ — and the best-selling shows will be those that find ways to stand out.”
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A version of this article appeared in print on April 19, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Good Tweets are Nice, But Group Sales Fill Seats.
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