September 29, 2011
Every autumn, the New York Musical Theatre Festival, now in its eighth year and running through Oct. 16, has to compete with Broadway openings, the start of off-Broadway seasons, the New York Food and Wine Festival, even the Jewish high holidays.
"Certainly it gets harder every year to break through that buzz, and more expensive, too," said the festival's executive director and producer, Isaac Robert Hurwitz, who plans to open next year's edition in July, a quieter month for theater—after the Tony Awards and before the start of the New York Fringe Festival, when more real estate is available. "If we had a massive marketing budget, we could do it. But we don't and neither do any of our shows."
It's a fact that the creators of the musicals featured in the NYFF are all too aware of. Whatever challenges the festival itself faces, they have to distinguish themselves from the other 29 musicals with marketing budgets of around $7,000 or less (and in many cases, much less). Mr. Hurwitz said the task is possible if shows can establish a consistent identity, get the word out early and often, and find partnerships outside their own team to help with promotion.
And casting a celebrity always helps—even a minor one. "Greenwood," a show about old summer-camp friends who reconnect decades later, stars Andrea McArdle, who made her Broadway debut in 1977 as the original Annie. The writers, Tor Hyams and Adam LeBow, are also tapping their industry connections.
"We have these advisors that work in the business in some big capacities," said Mr. Hyams, who is no stranger to festival producing himself, having created Kidzpalooza, the music festival within Lollapalooza. "They told us that one of the most important things for NYMF is to work with as many people as you can that have done NYMF before, because it's its own beast."
So that's what they did. Their director, general manager and executive producer all have NYMF credits. Yet even with an experienced team, a clear theme, Ms. McArdle, and a promotional budget, they reported that, as of Wednesday, only two of their seven shows had sold out.
Other shows are finding it harder to draw crowds and resorting to more creative promotional strategies. "Just Like Magic" a one-man magic show set to music featuring puppets. So its one man, Christopher W. Barnes, decided to use one of theater's most recognizable names to generate publicity. In a series of YouTube videos called "Operation: Sutton," he asks Broadway diva Sutton Foster to be his date to the festival's opening night. (She declined.)
"It's like, 'Congratulations, you're in the festival,' and then it's every man for himself," said Mr. Barnes, who estimated that he spent a third of his budget on marketing. The YouTube videos, some shot on his iPhone, have generated as many as 1,100 hits each, but have little to do with his show. And now that opening night has passed, he'll need a new strategy. "It's really difficult to stand out in any festival," he said.
Mr. Hurwitz said there are always several shows that struggle to balance the creative and producing aspects and require additional guidance from the NYMF staff. He considers it an integral part of his job to teach these artists the basics of creative promotion and to connect them with others in the industry.
"There are always writers who come to us and say, 'I am not a marketer. I don't know anything about this,'" he said. The NYMF provides a certain degree of mentorship, but the nonprofit doesn't have the budget to market each show individually. "Still, for every one thing that would be better if we took care of it ourselves, there are probably 10 things that we wouldn't even know how to do. We wouldn't know how to reach people's networks."
One such show, "Cyclops," was created by Los Angeles-based Psittacus Productions. Mr. Hurwitz explained that out-of-towners are at a disadvantage when it comes to promotion, so he was happily surprised when the "Cyclops" team quickly defined itself as downtown and edgy, the "Hedwig" of this year's NYMF.
Ticket sales have been relatively strong. How did they do it? "Most of the company is originally from the East Coast. So we're mustering all of the hometown support we can, all of the friends and family that we left behind that are still here," said Louis Butelli, the executive director of Psittacus Productions. They also focused on attracting a specific audience. "We wanted to attract a gay audience. We wanted to attract an academic audience because we're a piece of ancient Greek theater, and we wanted to go for music fans. We've been most successful with the gay audience and the academics," he said, adding that "Cyclops" has attracted students from Princeton and Columbia.
Mr. Butelli has also leaned on social media not just for marketing, but for fund-raising and collaborating. "The Internet has almost been sort of hard-wired into the spine of the show," he said. He created a trailer and sent it out to about 3,100 subscribers, and he hopes to stream the live NYMF performances on UBroadcast.com.
New to the festival is the ability to record rehearsal and performance footage, which comes as the result of a negotiated three-year contract with Actor's Equity Association that raised actors' pay for their work in the festival to $670 from $500, plus pension. "If we're going to move in this direction and increase the costs for the producers," Mr. Hurwitz said, "what are the most important things on the other side of the negotiations to help these shows have successful runs and lives beyond the festival? The b-roll media component was an important piece of that not just for marketing this show, but for ultimately having some sort of record to promote the product down the line."