Cameron Mackintosh (and Louis C.K.?) Say No to This

Leave it to a Brit to find a (potential) solution to a problem that has long plagued the theatre community.[1]

Megaproducer Cameron Mackintosh – you may be familiar with a few of his shows…little known fare like Cats, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, and The Phantom of the Opera, to name JUST a few – has been entrusted with shepherding Hamilton to the West End next year. But what could he possibly have to worry about besides deciding how he’s going to spend the millions of dollars pounds basically gift-wrapped to him with this show?

Well, he’s currently and proactively dealing with the same – and perhaps only – quandary that has faced the Broadway production: making sure those dollars/pounds stay out of the hands of scalpers – who prefer to be called brokers, but guess who doesn’t care? – and instead go into the bank accounts of those who actually created the show and thus deserve the dough. Creator extraordinaire Lin-Manuel Miranda teamed up with New York Senator Charles/Chuck Schumer[2] to try to prevent the widespread use of ticket bots, which are automated computer programs that allow scalpers to access tickets much more easily than A.I.-deprived humans. The use of such software is illegal in the state of New York, and a similar bill is currently working its way through Congress.[3]

As much as their dedication to helping normal ticket buyers should be commended, they’re basically using a Band-Aid to treat a dismemberment. First, any of these scalpers can currently just move their bot operation outside of New York, thus allowing them to continue scooping up all of the tickets for popular New York events penalty-free.[4] But second, even if Congress passes the bill, it would only impose a $16,000 fine on those who break the law, which is a very bearable slap on the wrist when – in the words that Hamilton’s lead producer Jeffrey Seller used to support the bill in front of Congress – “the bot actor is making millions and millions a year by turning over tickets,” as this New York Times articles makes crystal clear. Lin-Manuel Miranda said as much in his op-ed for the Gray Lady about this matter: “The markup on resale tickets is so lucrative, earning brokers millions of dollars per year, that they happily risk prosecution and treat civil penalties as the cost of business.”

I understand the desire to directly punish these scalpers out of retribution, but trying to prevent them from getting their hands on tickets has always been like playing Whac-A-Mole: the second you knock down one way, they immediately find another way to rear their ticket-devouring heads again. Mr. Mackintosh – who was the first billionaire ever to make all of his money off theatre alone, so he knows a thing or two…or a billion about generating as much $$$$$ as possible – seems to understand this, as he made clear in this quote from a recent interview with The Telegraph:

“I’m putting all my efforts into finding a better way of ensuring that the price originally set for a ticket remains the price you actually do pay. We’re going to stop resale except in genuine circumstances where someone is ill or can’t come and the only permitted resale will then be via the theatre.”

I’ll raise a glass to that! We’ll never be able to keep tickets entirely away from scalpers, but we CAN make it much harder for them to sell their goods. Louis C.K. – a modern master at shaking up everything he sets his mind to, from his transgressive comedy even to the unconventional production and distribution of Horace and Petehas been a proponent of this approach on his recent stand up tours, paying people on his team to scour every secondary ticketing website to find scalpers trying to unfairly make money off his generously priced tickets.[5] The best part: since he makes clear during the ticket-buying process that any tickets found on these websites will be voided WITHOUT A REFUND, the scalpers end up losing all of their money on the whole ordeal.

The sole downside to this system: what about those trying to sell their tickets only because they can no longer attend the event for some unforeseen but legitimate reason?

Mackintosh’s simple answer: just allow refunds.

As always, the best solution is often the simplest, and the one that’s been sitting underneath our greedy noses this entire time. This SHOULD have a resounding impact on how sold-out entertainment enterprises handle this dilemma in the future. Of course not every ticketed live event will be able to reverse the long-held policy of absolutely no returns whatsoever; doing so will only be possible for those with overwhelmingly high demand.

For the theatre world, very few – if any – shows 100% know in advance that it’ll be next to impossible for those who want to see it to touch a ticket. By granting refunds, they would be putting themselves at risk of losing a crippling amount of money; if the show receives less-than-stellar reviews, ticket-holders will want to get their moola back just to avoid suffering through the type of grueling experience that anyone who’s seen enough theatre still has nightmares about.

BUT, for the biggest Broadway shows – the Wickeds and Lion Kings and Book of Mormons of the world – they know enough about their advance sales to make this a distinct possibility. There’s a reason the producers and general managers of these types of long-running spectacles care much more about how many tickets they’re selling 18 months down the road than for this week – that’s how they determine the continued financial viability of their product. These ticket-buying trends are actually predictable enough to close shows before they stop losing money. As such, a refund policy can easily be revoked for a new block of advance tickets before they go on sale by detecting a decrease in popularity – which always comes with discounted tickets – well ahead of when such a policy could really hurt them.[6]

Any refund policy would obviously have to come with some restrictions: people couldn’t be allowed to buy an untold number of tickets for a range of dates and then decide last minute which one they’d actually like to attend, returning the others. And yes, these shows may lose some money by preventing scalpers from buying tickets in advance that they ultimately can’t sell due to overestimating demand. But I believe they’ll more than make up for it by ensuring that all of the cash people are willing to spend to see a show ends up in the right pockets. Any returned ticket for the Broadway production of Hamilton would be scooped up in less time than it takes to say, “the ten-dollar founding father” five times fast.

And in the rare instance when those tickets wouldn’t sell for full price, these shows ALWAYS have hordes of young people hoping to score a cheap last minute ticket. By giving them a break now, producers may convert them into life-long theatre fans who will so love what they see that they’ll be more inclined to spend more money on more of the producers’ other shows in the future. Or, these tickets can be donated to the new initiative that allows penniless theatre artists to see more shows than they can afford, because who knows what will inspire them to write the next Hamilton and thus make a huge return on that relatively measly initial donated investment?

Mackintosh’s refund policy, however, will only work if he ensures – like Louis C.K. – that every ticket offered on secondary ticketing websites are voided by ceaselessly monitoring them. This of course costs money, but again, that money will ultimately find its way back to where it belongs: in his wallet and those of the artists who actually built this money-printing machine. And if these policies result in scalpers once again selling their overpriced wares outside of theatres, then at least Cameron will be able to easily spot them and subsequently challenge each to a duel…I wouldn’t put it past him.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] Want to know why I always spell ‘theatre’ with ‘re’ at the end instead of ‘er?’ Because that’s the way the lords of theatre – otherwise known as our Anglican brethren on the right side of the Atlantic – spell it. We Americans don’t get to just barge in and declare we’re right and they’re wrong, ESPECIALLY concerning an art form they’re still better at than us.

[2] Who’s no stranger to the entertainment world – he’s cousins with Amy Schumer!

[3] I obviously MUST point out that the one and only Bruce Springsteen – who elsehas been on this anti-bot hill for YEARS now. In fact, he even had a preliminary version of this bill named after him: the Better Oversight of Secondary Sales and Accountability in Concert Ticketing Act, popularly referred to using its homage of an acronym – the BOSS ACT!

[4] Everything is indeed legal in New Jersey, much to the Boss’s chagrin.

[5] Even though he’s one of the biggest stand up comics in the world right now, tickets for his current tour are no higher than $50, regardless of where they’re located in the venue nor the fact that he could easily fetch waaaaay more. As he said in a recent Q&A at The New Yorker Festival, he does not believe his fans should have to pay hundreds of dollars just to hear him speak, but he also can’t tolerate scalpers forcing them to do so. There’s no reason to lower ticket prices if your fans end up paying the same amount, just to the wrong people.  

[6] They couldn’t have consumers attempting to refund their tickets because they found cheaper ones through official channels…

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