Eight Questions About the Toronto Fringe

The Toronto Fringe is in full swing of what is by all accounts a tremendous year for the festival. So while we’re right in the thick of it, let’s start a discussion about things that have come up this year so we can help make an even better festival next year.

1.  Are Ticket Sales Really Up? By how much? What does this translate to for average artist return? What was the average sell-through? Was sell-through more-or-less even across timeslots and venues?

There was concern that the move to 100% advance sales availability would hurt the Fringe, as patrons who didn’t get to see their top show would give up rather than come down to the festival to find out what else to see. I’ve always said that concern was unfounded as other festivals that moved that way actually reported massive sales increases.

Anecdotally, ticket sales and sell-outs at the Toronto Fringe are way up in 2014 compared to 2012-13 (2013 isn’t a fair comparison, because the big flood wiped out a day and a half of sales). On opening day, one staffer mentioned to me that advance tickets were up 40% over that day in 2013 (before the storm hit, of course). Artists are in generally good spirits this year, and it seems that even more shows are getting hot sales/sellouts this year.

The biggest factor seems to be the switch to 100% advance ticket sales, which encourages more early purchases and achieves sellouts earlier, encouraging people to buy tickets to other performances/shows rather than waiting in line all day for a chance at a ticket. (This isn’t scientific, of course, but there’s no other compelling hypothesis.) A way to confirm this hypothesis might be to look at what proportion of total sales were advance/door, and how that’s changed over time.

But there are other factors. One of the popular spaces, Tarragon Extra Space, had its capacity reduced by 29%, which made sellouts happen even faster (a factor that hopefully won’t be present next year). Similarly, the 100-seat Factory Studio was replaced with the 60-seat Tarragon Solo Room last year. And of course, it could just be the small handful of hot shows doing well. Let’s look at the data.

I’m also curious what happened at Theatre Passe Muraille; with Factory Theatre out of commission, Queen/Bathurst really wasn’t the hub it was in the past. Did sales remain steady or tumble at TPM because people weren’t spending a day down there? If they fell at TPM, could that account for a rise of sales up on the Bloor/Bathurst corridor? If so, perhaps this is an argument to focus more shows in a single area.

2.  Who is buying all these tickets? Individuals buying more tickets, or more individuals buying the same number of tickets, or more individuals buying fewer tickets?

The switch to more advance sales ought to yield a treasure trove of additional useful data for the Fringe. If more people were buying tickets in advance, they’d be creating accounts on fringetoronto.com, which require mailing addresses. So we should know, for example, where more Fringe patrons live. This is useful for gauging the success of Fringe marketing and outreach.

Previously, Fringe staff have said that 85% of sales were in the Trinity-Spadina riding (basically, between Ossington and Bay, and from St. Clair south). That’s problematic for a festival that serves a region of 6 million people from Oakville to Oshawa and Barrie (Hamilton has its own Fringe). But advance tickets may be more useful to people who commute in a long distance rather than walk or bike to the festival. Has this change helped reach those more distant audiences? What can be done to reach deeper?

Moreover, more advance tickets can help get a more accurate number of how many individuals are buying tickets, and how many shows each individual is seeing (within limits, of course; some individuals see shows other people bought tickets for and some will buy a mix of advance/door tickets). Has the greater emphasis on advance tickets led to an increase or decrease in number of shows seen per person and number of individuals seeing shows (both increases are possible and desirable)?

For audience development, we obviously want the number of individuals seeing shows to grow more than anything.

3.  What venues will return next year? Will Factory Theatre be available again with both spaces? Will the Tarragon Solo Room be back? Will the Al Green be back – and better utilized? Will the Tarragon Extra Space be back to normal? Does the increase in ticket sales justify the addition of a venue and a few more official slots in the festival? 

Factory Theatre was out this year due to renovations, and was replaced with the Tarragon Solo Room (starting in 2013) and the Al Green Theatre. By next year, it ought to be available again. Will it be desirable to use the new Factory Theatre? If so, will it also be desirable to keep the Solo Room and Al Green, given their proximity to other Fringe venues?

Toronto Fringe is wisely waiting until its ticket sell-through ratio reaches a certain percentage before adding more slots in the festival (there is absolutely artist demand for more spots, but it’s best not to dilute the festival). Fringe wouldn’t say what percentage at the last town hall (except to say that sell-through was 45-50% in 2013) but whatever the target is, has it been reached? Would it be enough to, say, keep the small Solo Room only? (I believe there is actually a value in keeping limited-size venues. Some companies love them).

If the Al Green is kept as a venue, could the Fringe mitigate some of the problems that have arisen from it? The Al Green reportedly removed the front 4-5 rows of seats, creating a 25’ chasm between the stage and the audience. While this was done to ‘crowd’ the audience together to make the house look fuller (and reduce the size of the venue from 280 to 200 per a request from the festival), it actually greatly reduces the intimacy of the venue, and is deathly for comedy. If the venue must have its capacity reduced, couldn’t it just rope off or screen off the back rows of seats?

Or, could other venues get dumped? Perhaps it’s worth considering the value of using St. Vlad’s and the Robert Gill if we’re keeping the number of venues constant.

Speaking of venues, has the Fringe come up with a plan to replace the Festival tent site, which will be lost when Honest Ed’s is redeveloped in 2016?

4.  How much additional revenue did the Fringe pull in from advance sales fees, net of bank charges and system costs? Does this more than offset the anecdotally reported decrease in “Tip The Fringe” donations? How down are those donations anyway? If there were more individuals attending the festival, did this translate to more beer sales at the festival tent?

Anecdotally, volunteers are saying Tip The Fringe donations are down this year, and you can see it in the lineups too. However, if more and more people are paying $2-4/ticket to get advance tickets, that more than offsets the average $0.59 tip the Fringe was receiving per patron in previous years.

5.  Could the Fringe raise advance sales even more by eliminating the “door discount”?

Currently, tickets are $10 at the door, and $12 + order charge online. Would eliminating the discount on advance tickets encourage even more advance sales? This could be done by raising the door price to $12, which would make artists even happier. The door price has been frozen at $10 since around 2005, and inflation is eating at the artist return very heavily.

6.  Are multi-show passes still useful? Could the Fringe develop a pass that works for advance tickets, or some kind of compromise solution (ie, allowing passes to purchase advance tickets at the central box office)? What would be the effect of getting rid of multi-show passes altogether?

Several patrons who bought multi-show passes are complaining that they’ve become useless since the popular shows they want to see are all sold out before they can get door tickets. It’s a shame that this seems to penalize the patrons who are trying to be the most loyal (ie, planning to see the most shows). It does seem to be a bit of a bait-and-switch for these patrons, who likely didn’t foresee the difficulty of using them.

7.  What is the effect of restricted postering/flyering possibilities?

Fringe has gradually reduced the spaces available at venues for companies to display posters and flyers for their shows. Together with the city’s anti-postering by-laws, this has severely reduced the opportunities for companies to display advertisements for their shows. The Fringe still expects you to make posters though – they want one poster from each company for the poster wall at the beer tent – but they just don’t want to give you more than one space to put them. Which is silly, because you can’t just print one poster (unless you’re Jem Rolls, I suppose).

If this were Winnipeg, people would be taking their wedding photos in front of this.

If this were Winnipeg, people would be taking their wedding photos in front of this.

At the town hall, Fringe pushed this as an environmental initiative, which is a little silly. These posters and flyers are recyclable and can be printed on recycled paper, too.  Limiting the postering makes it more difficult for patrons to find out and get excited about shows that aren’t (yet) receiving buzz or reviews.

A related concern is the program, which, I’ve said numerous times, is the ugliest program by far in the circuit. From the grainy black-and-white photos, to the tombstone layouts, to the gulfs of white where more information could fit, it’s a really weak promotional tool for companies. (I’ve offered to redesign the program for them at lower than what they’re currently paying, but they haven’t taken me up on it).

Posters are a rare opportunity for a full-colour ad with updated promotional copy (ie, cast or review information). Could we bring back poster boards at other venues? Many companies are quietly grumbling about the shrinking poster space. Can we start a discussion about opening up some more spaces in an orderly (utterly Torontonian) fashion?

8. Can we revisit or refine the latecomer policy?

Well, it happened to me finally – the door was slammed in my face as I arrived, ticket in hand, just in time for my show (the FOH actually flashed his phone to indicate “It’s 1:45, sorry”).

There are good reasons to have a no latecomer policy, but it has to be tempered with common sense. FOH should never slam the door on a ticketholder. Late should be 1:46, not 1:45. Companies should be given the option of allowing in latecomers if they want (with the choice flagged in the program) – ie, a latecomer is less disruptive to a stand-up/sketch comedy than an Ibsen. Some other festivals do this – including Fringe’s own Next Stage Festival.

It’s not as big an inconvenience for me – I actually got the ticket for free and I’m a theatre person who should know better. But Fringe is unique in that it’s a gateway to theatre for lots of people who don’t know, and may have come across town with their ticket only to get stuck in traffic/TTC. Getting stopped at the door this way may discourage these people from ever coming back to the theatre.

Everyone who’s ever done the Fringe in Toronto has heard a story from friends or relatives who came only to have FOH slam the door in their face (I’ve had at least one of these stories every year of the four I’ve done it). Those people always tell me they’ll never come to theatre again after that. You have to ease people into theatre culture – people who don’t go to theatre are used to more casual entertainment options, like movies or comedy. Heck, even at professional theatres, you can usually be escorted in by an usher during a scene change. It may be time to revisit this policy.

So what do you think? Post your comments below.

 

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To all film students casting actors on Mandy.com

In an effort to beef up my film demo reel, I’ve been submitting to lots of film projects casting on Mandy.com, a web site where indie filmmakers post casting breakdowns and crew opportunities. A lot of student filmmakers use the site to cast their film projects. While a lot of student film is bad, a good project can be a great showcase of your abilities.

Since indie creators rarely hire actual casting directors, they often write their own casting breakdowns, and they’re often poorly written. Spelling mistakes, unclear project description, unclear character breakdown. I’ve been collecting some of my favourite bad casting calls on Twitter with the hashtag #MandyAuditions. Like:

“Must be nondescript ethnicity. Preferably South Asian or Mediterranean.” (uh, what?)

“There may not be pay, but there are food scenes included, I will cover expenses.” (I’d bloody hope you’re not expecting me to pay for your props!)

Sometimes the stupidity doesn’t come up until you get the confirmation e-mail from the director offering you an audition:

“Your audition’s tomorrow. BTW, we forget to mention in the casting notice that this is a musical. Bring a song.” (Wait, why would you not mention in the casting breakdown that you’re looking for musical performers?)

Normally, when this happens, I just ignore the offer and move on. But yesterday, I got an e-mail from a director that needed a response.

Hello, 

thank you for applying, just a heads up, the role has no lines, so all we need is a head shot, or some kind of picture with you in a tank top. We’re going for more sex appeal than acting performance for this character.
 
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PS. please bring a head shot.
That was the entirety of the e-mail. I haven’t just deleted the details so as not to embarrass the director. There was no project name, no director. But don’t worry, there was a follow up a minute later with the date and location, but still no project name. It turned out that this was a Centennial College production — had this been mentioned in the breakdown, I wouldn’t have bothered because past experience has shown me that Centennial College’s film program is essentially a high-school level class with students that lack basic competences in anything involving film, and instructors that are more or less absent from the process (this could be the subject of a much longer story, but it involves a director telling me to run around a park in East York waving a gun around with no permit or police presence). A minute after that came a second followup asking me to contact her if I had any concerns.
Did I have concerns? You bet I did. I also had another writing project I was working on, so I was eager for the distraction. This is what I sent her back:

Sorry, but I won’t be coming to your audition. I’ve had some bad experiences with Centennial Films, and no longer work with students from there. But good luck with your production.
 
So that this isn’t completely fruitless, please accept the following advice in the spirit of good will in which it’s given:
 
– In future, when responding to a casting submission, make it clear what project you’re working on. Actors might submit to 5-10 productions daily on Mandy.com and might not remember what project you’re offering an audition to. I can’t find your project there right now.
 
– It’s also best to offer as many salient details as you can on your casting call, if only to get the best submissions. Had I known this was a silent role with no lines, and that it was at Centennial, I probably wouldn’t have wasted both our time with my submission. The only reason actors do student films is to get decent material to throw on a reel. A silent role doesn’t help me with that, but you may have gotten the aspiring model you were looking for, since that plays to their strengths and needs.
 
– Telling an actor that, “We’re going for more sex appeal than acting performance for this character,” is actually kind of rude. “None of your skills and training matter as long as you can hold up this tank top!” If you want a model, say that on your casting call, and you’ll get those submissions. Moreover, it makes you sound like you don’t care about your own production, since you don’t care about performance (yes, I know film schools generally suck at teaching how to get good performances from actors — I went to film school too — so take this as a teachable moment). And if you don’t care about the quality of the finished product, then you’re leading me to believe that the finished film isn’t going to be good enough to want to put on a reel. Since the finished video is my only payment for doing a student film, why would I work for someone who doesn’t want to make a good one?
 
I assume you want the people coming in to audition for you to be excited about working with you. Trust me, take these steps in the future and you’ll get much higher quality submissions.
 
Cheers,
Rob

The director eventually sent an apology and clarified that the project is not affiliated with Centennial, only doing its casting there (why, because Pape and Mortimer is so convenient?).

Casting breakdowns aren’t difficult to write, especially if you’ve got a decent product. Actors want to work on great films. They want every casting breakdown they read to be an exciting project that would be perfect for them. You’re shooting fish in a barrel. So just tell actors what’s great about your project and what’s great about each role.

Tell actors what exactly you’re looking for in each role — even if you’re not entirely sure! The character’s age, gender, and race may not be salient. But there’s got to be something else important when you see the character. Maybe they’re the sensitive type. Or the artsy snarker. Or they need to be able to communicate to the lead that they’re in love with him with a single nonsequitor line. Give actors an idea if the character plays to their strengths or gives them a challenge.

Here’s a pro-tip: Film schools are notoriously bad at training directors to think about anything other than the technical and compositional aspects of filmmaking. But your biggest responsibility as a director is to get great performances out of your actors. In order to do that, you should work to understand the craft of acting. It’s actually worth taking an acting course or two to round out your knowledge, but if you don’t have the cash, pick up any of the many books on acting you can find at TheatreBooks. You’ll get a good sense of how actors think and you’ll get better at communicating your choices to them. And ultimately, you’ll make better films.

Finally, if we’re working for you for free, be grateful and treat us with respect. You’re getting your final grade on this project and making your calling card movie. We’re being asked to give you several days work, plus audition time, headshots, travel costs, etc. Don’t waste our time. Know what you’re looking for, understand the craft of acting, and give actors their due. (Oh, and remember to send your actors a copy of the finished film when it’s done. This is our payment for our work and a part of your contract with us.)

POSTSCRIPT: Not all student filmmakers or film schools are bad, by the way. I had a great experience at Sheridan a few years back. And Ryerson typically impresses me with the scripts I read. But yeah, definitely stay away from Centennial.