How My Troupe Made the Money It Did at Capital Fringe
That's how much revenue my sketch-comedy group, Orbit Chef, needed to scrape from the Washington-area masses to break even with Apocalypse Picnic at this year's Capital Fringe Festival. That number used to be $2,500, but that was before an opening week panic attack drove us to splurge on an ad in Express. Bye-bye, $117. Then our prop wagon was hit with a $100 parking ticket as we loaded into our performance venue. And then further panics led us to buy another ad ($99) after the first one may or may not have goosed our opening night house to near-full capacity. We'd do a marketing study to find out for sure, but the fact is, we simply can't afford it.
Although those extras add up to only $316 in additional expenses, you'll notice that our revenue target grew by more than $500. That's because our cut of the gate amounts to just 60 percent of sales. Fringe gets the rest. And before I consider whether or not this is a good deal, let me throw out an obvious point: For each full-priced, $17 ticket, the artist receives slightly more than 10 bucks in revenue. So when we pulled a budget number from the part of our brains that wanted to sound both cost-conscious and serious—$1,500, to include the $825 bundle of application, participation, and insurance fees required to be in the festival—we figured that we'd need to sell 150 tickets to break even. That meant we'd have to fill slightly less than half of the chairs in our 70-seat venue for each of our five shows.
But this back-of-the-napkin shorthand omitted a basic consideration: a great chunk of any show's sales will come from discounted tickets. Fringe has a bunch of bulk-ticketing options, from the Foh-ty Pack four-pack to the dreaded, no-revenue VIP Pass, all of which depress the price of a production's average ticket sale. Throw in producers' comps—which can account for up to 10 percent of all tickets—and press seats and your average ticket can drop to as little as 10 bucks a pop. And with four singletons headed to Fringe, that leaves a mere six bucks going back to the production.
After seeing the trends on opening night—and with our average price close to that $10 Mendoza line—our sales target by necessity jumped from 150 tickets to 250 in order to reach our $2,500 revenue goal. Now we had to play to 70 percent-capacity houses if we expected to break even, and we couldn't expect our friends to push us into the black. We had to earn a gentleman's C, not the F that we thought would get us by. Gulp.
There is, thankfully, a savior in all of this. She is The Walk Up. The customer who, like so many in our last-minute society, thinks nothing of paying full price for something that's supposed to be good. If the bulk-ticket buyer is a true Fringe theater fan—one who finds value in both volume pricing and the joy of discovery—The Walk Up is his antithesis. She's not entirely committed to the enterprise. Maybe she's still scarred by a Fringey clunker from yesteryear or down on the dodgy A/C that is a Fringe-venue hallmark. But whatever the reason, she's interested only in sure things and, for that, she will buy a $17 ticket, a button, and whatever else it takes to say that she was there. She's the type of person you can't help wanting to take home to Mom.
Apocalypse Picnic opened on July 19th to an audience of 65, five short of capacity, including 22 walk ups and 11 other full-price patrons. Total revenue was $803 and we started thinking crazy thoughts: Maybe, if this kept up, we could pay our actors! Date two—a 12:30 p.m. Saturday slot spit from the Fringe Random Schedule Generator—revealed the fallacy of extrapolation, as we brought in only half as much cash as opening night. Apparently, the fumes from positive mentions in the Huffington Post and ScoutMob entertainment blogs, and the enticing power of our buoyant preview in DC Metro Theater Arts, had already begun to wear off. Word of mouth, up and down reviews, and the strange, unpredictable influence of social media, perhaps, were starting to hold sway.
But the next day, after many hours talking up the show at Fort Fringe (very unobtrusively, I must add), we made a comeback. That night, we played to a 59-person house, followed by houses of 61 and 70 over our last two performances. All told, 289 people saw our show and half ponied up for full-price seats, driving our final average ticket price to almost $13. Our total revenue came in at $3,702 ($2,598 from full-price and artists tickets plus $1,104 in accounted revenue from discount passes), which after the Fringe bounty means $2,221.20 will accrue to the Orbit Chef account. After expenses of $1,809which includes $668 spent on costumes, props, and rehearsal space in addition to those lunatic Express ads and the parking ticketI expect that well clear around $400.
(After a brief and depressing number-crunching interlude, I see that our profit breaks down to about 50 cents per person hour contributed by our 12-member cast and crew. Workers in remote Chinese factories make more, but then again, I suppose the utility of cheap consumer goods is beyond reproach. Sketch comedy is an altogether different proposition.)
Still, as Fringe goes anyway, that is the sweet smell of success. But is it worth it? From a purely financial perspective, an established artist with dedicated fans might do better going out on her own. That way, she can get a venue of her choosing, set her own ticket price point (and push discounts and promotions as necessary), and avoid the scattershot showtimes (see ya Wednesday at 5:45!) that can transform the festival into an obstacle course cluttered with hoops set ablaze. And this says nothing about the teeny load-in and tech rehearsal windows allotted to participants or the always suspect air conditioning that can add unintended drama to any Fringe performance.
These inconveniences—on top of the strict Festival rules and its unceasing button fascism, which can inflate the price of a theater entry to $24—can drive a producer mad. Yet somehow, almost inevitably after a fortnight-plus, they become endearing. Because Fringe, at its unjuried core, isn't really about making a buck (though bucks may be made) or boosting the bottom-line of this or that company. More than anything, it's about the debutantes: the new artist hoping to get noticed, the experienced hand trying out new things, and the strange swirl of elements, concepts, and themes that can only unite on a Fringe stage.
Fringe does something just short of miraculous: It welcomes shows into the festival on the strength of a 20-word description, if even that. Post-apocalyptic sketch comedy blah blah blah blah blah. If only the rest of life worked this way. Fringe takes its 40 percent, sure, but it does so in defense of the unexplored artist in all of us. It trumpets the right of everyone to have an audience and a chance to illuminate the pains and pleasures that lie locked in the human heart. All of that, and you don't have to deal with annoying theater negotiations and ticketing and such. Art, or something quite like it, is paramount. For me, that's compensation enough.
The article originally miscalculated a couple of numbers. Math's been fixed, promise!