Fringe Town Hall

Last night was the Toronto Fringe Festival’s first annual town hall, which was an opportunity for some dialogue between producers, volunteers, and staff. Although I’m retired from Fringe this year, I was curious where the festival is going and happy to share some of my ideas and experiences with staff.

It was a pretty small turnout for the meeting – it was a Friday evening in December, long before a lot of producers are even thinking about the festival after all – but that did give us the opportunity to have a more intimate and in-depth discussion of the issues.

The set-up was organised around four big issues that the Festival is thinking of – box office/web site, participation fees, marketing/publicity/reviews, and the Fringe Club – with staff moderating, posing questions to the audience, and allowing us to ask questions of them. There was also an opportunity to ask questions not directly related to the four big issues.

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On the first point, Fringe executive director Kelly Straughan began by explaining that last year’s box office web site monstrosity was the result of a major server crash that happened very shortly before the festival. The festival has received an Ontario Trillium Grant to overhaul the box office web site so that it’s easier to navigate. One of the things I neglected to suggest at this point that I think is important is that it’s really important for producers that we have a direct link to a distinct page to purchase tickets for our own show to point our networks to.

Instead, we moved pretty quickly to a discussion on ticket availability and ticket prices. I repeated my argument (which you may have read on this blog in the summer) that making 100 percent of tickets available in advance leads to increased ticket sales (the current “advance sold out” warning is confusing and discouraging to patrons, it’s insurance for producers against bad weather, and it encourages patrons to move on from the hot shows that sell out quicker). Fringe staff seemed to already be leaning pretty hard in this direction and looking for confirmation from stakeholders.

It wasn’t unanimous, however. One producer lamented that the process of lining up for 3 hours for a sold out show was an integral part of the Fringe experience and a good opportunity for the spread of word of mouth. I tried to explain how everyone had the same concerns when Edmonton moved that way, but it turned out to work out even better for them, but this producer was unmoved. (Also, very, very few shows in Toronto generate these kinds of lineups anyway).

A volunteer lamented that discount passes can’t be used for advance tickets, and worried that she wouldn’t be able to see the most popular shows because she can’t afford full price tickets, and they’d be sold out before door tickets became available. My gut was to say “too bad” but I think this actually points to a solution: Create a pass that can be used for advance tickets, ie, with a discount code. Under the current box office set-up, you wouldn’t be able to use this at the door, unfortunately. But it would be another way to incentivize purchasing more tickets.

Fringe staff were concerned about the discount that producers suffer from on advance tickets (door tickets are currently $10, advance are $9 + $2 service charge + $2 online order charge). I pointed out that the bigger problem is that advance tickets are more expensive for patrons than door tickets are, so many patrons prefer not to order in advance. As a producer, I want to sell as many advance tickets as possible, even at a discount (because advance tickets are guaranteed money in my pocket while door tickets are a risk for me). (I also pointed out that even after moving to 100% advance availability, very few shows are going to sell more than 50% of tickets.)

I made multiple suggestions to the Fringe to equalize or discount advance tickets, such as leveling a service charge on all tickets including door tickets (while reducing the service charge on advance tickets), but the room was pretty skeptical. Staff were concerned that producers would think the Fringe is gouging them if all our tickets had service charges. I pointed out that given Fringe’s own stats that a large segment of the audience only sees one show (ie, the show they know someone in), then when those people buy an advance ticket, they’re dinged with 45% combined service charges on a $9 ticket. Some volunteers worried that ticket prices would rise too much and discourage sales (more on this below).

Some producers and staff said that patrons should welcome the opportunity to pay more for advance tickets because a) this is how ticket sales work for all theatres and b) because at least they’re guaranteed tickets. On the first point, I say “phooey” – the other theatres are both doing this wrong, and since they’re not working in a festival model where people buy multiple tickets in a single day and are not shopping on a whim, the service charges are less impactful. Regular theatre tickets are also generally much more expensive than Fringe tickets, ie, a $2 charge is much less impactful on a $100 ticket than on a $10 ticket. Also, other Fringe Festivals are moving away from an advance ticket penalty with great success – a point Kelly was quick to shut down because Toronto can’t be easily compared with Calgary because of the scale (I can’t understand why though… the market force should be the same).

Someone finally spoke up about ticket prices, which have been frozen at $10 since at least 2007. Multiple producers pointed out how this has been eaten away by inflation, with the result that artists are ultimately subsidizing their shows through declining incomes. I’m not entirely sold by the ‘subsidy’ argument, but it seemed that producers overwhelmingly agreed that the ticket prices needed to go up. The producer of Puppetmongers (sorry I missed her name) pointed out that inflation has gone up 28% since 2000, but then she multiplied it twice to arrive at a ticket price that ought to be ~$15. She agreed that such a huge rise would be problematic, but the problem was the decade-long freeze. The room seemed to settle around $12-13 tickets (I pointed out that $13 is the current price for a single advance online purchase already). Comparisons were made to other event prices, like movie tickets or other theatre/comedy shows. This was not unanimous. A volunteer/patron said this would discourage her from buying more tickets.

I suggested again that this could be the solution I’d proposed: raise door tickets to $12, keep advance tickets at $10, plus a $2 service charge. (Also, I should have mentioned, drop the $2 per order additional charge, since the festival would sell more advance tickets and thus earn more service charges, which should balance out the lost revenue). I don’t think I made much headway on this point.

Staff seemed unconvinced of the need to raise ticket prices. Some worried about the additional problem of providing more change and doing more math at the box offices. Some are (understandably) much more concerned with simply selling more tickets and worried about the affect of a price hike on that goal. I argued that the additional fee would not be enough to scare off most people, that a huge portion of the audience is people with a direct connection to the performers (for whom the demand should be pretty inelastic). In any event, the number of tickets sold would have to fall 20% to hurt the producers, which I find unlikely.

It was decided to move onto the less controversial topic of participation fees. I opened the discussion by praising the Fringe (yes, I can be positive sometimes) for keeping the festival small despite the obvious artist demand to get bigger. I asked if they had a target ticket sales ratio before they expand the festival. Kelly responded that the festival absolutely is watching the sales ratio. She says that the Toronto Fringe overall sell-through ratio is between 45-50%, which is pretty anemic, all told, and should really put the lie to the fear that 100% advance availability will make the festival inaccessible. She also pointed out – to no surprise to anyone following it – that Kids Fringe is enormously popular, with a sell-through ratio closer to 75%. I believe she said the Festival is considering expanding the number of spots for Kids Fringe for this reason, but I can’t find it in my notes from the night.

Another producer praised the Culturally Diverse Artists Program, which I’ve previously criticized in this blog. He noted that the program is leading to more interesting shows and bringing in new audiences. I’ve come around a bit on the program, but asked staff what they’re doing to reach out to more “culturally diverse” applicants, and if they’ve considered adding a promise of “culturally diverse” (btw, this term seemed to make everyone in the room squirm) content in the shows, given that the first CDAP entry ended up being a show with eight white people in the cast. Staff pointed out that they’re getting better at reaching out, and spoke of working with CSI Regent Park, culturally diverse theatre companies (such as Fu-Gen, Native Earth, etc), and the Neighbourhood Arts Network to spread the word through their networks. They say they’ve noticed a sharp rise in applications from culturally diverse groups in years. They didn’t say anything about a content guideline, but they did say that the evidence of the type of applications they’re receiving makes it less likely that the sort of ‘black producer, white show’ entry will win in the future. They said that show was “an exception to most applications.”

For the marketing/reviews discussion, we seemed to simply lament the fact that the mainstream media is ignoring the festival now and move onto how we can take advantage of more patron feedback to spread word of mouth. I think it’s unfortunate the festival is simply letting the big media ignore it, but I’ll confess I’m not sure what else they can do.

Suggestions ranged from creating a “patron recommendations” forum on the website, or adding like buttons on show pages, while being clear that negative feedback is not encouraged. I added that the festival should not add comment pages on individual show pages, because that can be problematic for producers.

The staff added that next year the festival will be launching an app for mobile devices. There wasn’t much detail given, but if it’s anything like the Edmonton App, it should allow patron schedule building and show reminders, maps, and show browsing. It may also be a sales portal. Some suggested this could be a way for patrons to learn about more shows (ie, if you liked this show, you’ll like this one too!).

It was suggested that official hashtags be created for the Fringe (So there’s no #TOfringe/#FringeTO confusion) and for individual shows.

I also suggested as politely as I can that the program guide needs a makeover. Staff were quite reluctant on this, saying they’ve tried but it always becomes too big a project. They also noted that the program can’t be easily compared with Edmonton/Winnipeg’s (they charge for the program there, which we all agreed was a bad idea for Toronto), or London/Ottawa’s (they’re much smaller fests so fewer are printed and they have less pages). I think even the black & white Toronto Fringe program can be made easier to read at little cost – or even reduced cost. If anyone at Fringe is reading this, I would like to volunteer my services for free to make this document prettier and cheaper to produce.

We didn’t really get to discussing the Fringe Club, other than to say that the Fringe is aware that by 2017 they’ll need a new location for it as it will be subsumed in the new development Mirvish wants to put on the Honest Ed’s/Mirvish Village site. Kelly has asked me to come up with a solution for this (with, I assume, tongue planted in cheek). I immediately suggested Christie Pits (too far) and the UofT quad (the university has said no). We’ll keep looking.

We did talk about the poster sprint, at least insofar as the Fringe is aware that the dynamic of the event has become a problem and has decided not to run it in the future. I asked why poster boards and handbill racks have disappeared from venues. Staff say that the venues themselves have asked to get rid of them – I find that hard to believe and quite problematic. The venues ought to be working with the festival to help promote the events they’re hosting. At the very least, each venue should have a prominent spot to advertise the shows in the venue. I also made a suggestion that the festival provide a space in the Fringe club where each show can post a single poster, perhaps arranged by venue, in the manner that Edmonton does. Staff seemed pretty receptive to this point. There was also talk of creating projected posters.

In general, staff say they’re trying to move the festival to be as green/paper free as possible. They’re trying to discourage companies from printing too many posters and handbills. I disagree with this goal. (Staff confirmed that they have no plan to eliminate print programs, though).

Other interesting facts that came up were that Fringe’s demographic is overwhelmingly 18-34, which is completely opposite to all other companies. I pointed out that this is largely because unlike those other companies, we put on shows young people want to see (including comedy) and (more importantly) Fringe shows are often created by/starring people in that demo who bring their friends.

Another astonishing figure is that more than 80% of attendance at the festival is considered “local.” In this case, Kelly says local is defined as “Trinity—Spadina.” That is astounding. Trinity—Spadina is the area south of about Dupont between Ossington and University, population about 130,000. Only 15% of the audience comes from up to an hour’s drive away.  That to me speaks to both a fantastic local connection and an astounding failure to reach out to the other 6 million people in the GTA. Fringe has attempted wider outreach and received a grant to expand advertising last year – you may have noticed the TTC ads. Sales were well ahead of projections last year until the flash flood which led to the first sales downturn in several years.  

We spoke briefly about Best of Fringe at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York – that fest typically attracts its audience from North York and York region. There was talk of reviving Best of Fringe downtown – it requires a producer to choose to organise it. I pointed out that if Fringe were ever to expand, a solid “Fringe East” could be built around Alumnae Theatre, Berkeley Theatre, and the various spaces in the Distillery.

Finally, discussion ended with talk about The 100, Fringe’s youth outreach group. Staff said they were looking to improve the experience by reducing the number of participants so they can devote more time to the individuals involved.

Overall, I was pretty happy with this town hall, and hope Fringe continues this tradition. It looks like the festival is in for a good year in 2014.

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