Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Wild Ride From Broadway to Beale: The Press Agent, Part 1

Periodically, Main and Beale explores the ins and outs of how Broadway shows make their way to Memphis.  This week, we wanted to explore the incredibly important partner that many of you probably never knew existed: the press agent.  Don't let the title fool you: it usually takes a team of agents to get the job done, and they juggle a whole lot more than press which is why we had to split this topic into two blog entries! 

Press agents act as a liaison between the show's producers, the actual production, and the theatres that have booked the show, taking care of every little detail that the production simply can't manage while traveling from city to city.  So let's start where we left off.  The show is booked, the contracts are signed, the booking agent's job is basically done.  Enter press agent. 

First, the press agent will reach out to the theatre, and everyone will learn more about who's doing what.  The good news is that if you've been in the Broadway business for more than a year, you've probably worked with at least someone on the team before.  For agencies with larger staffs or agencies that are managing a blockbuster show, the theatre usually works with a group of people.  For example, there might be one contact for the marketing and box office departments who keeps a close eye on cash flow and ticket sales, another contact who approves the artistic design and layout of advertising materials, and a press contact who helps schedule press appointments, interviews, and education workshops for the actors.  Other times one agent is handling everything... with every theatre... sometimes for more than one show!

Then you start the planning process.  The theatre and the agent start working together as much as 18 months in advance to determine the answers to a lot of questions.  How and when will the theatre announce the season to the public?  What marketing materials does the theatre need in order to announce successfully?  What are the ticket pricing levels for the show?  When will the show go on sale to the public?  What is the marketing budget, and how will those dollars be allocated?  Will the production allow promotions or advertising trade and to what extent?  And many times, especially with blockbusters, the press agent has to go back to the producers for approval before the answers to these questions can be finalized.

For season announcements, theatres need production video, pictures, and copy that briefly describes the show.  For a show that's hot off of Broadway, the press agent must to work with the production and the producers to create these materials since Actor's Equity Association (the actor's union) typically prohibits using Broadway footage and images to promote the tour.  Not to mention, it can be misleading to distribute pictures or video of the Broadway cast when those aren't the same actors that audiences will see on the road.

The original Broadway cast of Kinky Boots. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Sometimes, however, particularly for shows that have yet to actually launch their tours, it's unavoidable.  Kinky Boots is an example: when the Orpheum announced its season last March, the show was still in pre-production, so there was no way to get new materials that included the touring cast.  In that case, the press agent has to make sure that the Broadway cast is clearly credited, and then they have to rush to get new video and photos as soon as possible.

Yep, that's their responsibility too.  Every time there are major cast changes to a touring production, the press agent has to get the producers to approve another shooting budget.  Then they hire photographers and videographers to come to a rehearsal and take a new set of photos and videos for the theatres to use.  The agents will sort through literally hundreds of production photos ("Nope, that photo is kind of blurry. Nope, the lead's eyes are closed in that one.) to find around five that will actually make it to the marketing site.

Wait.  What is a marketing site?  Glad you asked.  Another big job of the press agent is to create a comprehensive marketing site and marketing manual that will give the theatre's staff all the tools they needs to promote the show.  The site can include photos, "b-roll" footage of the production, sample copy for radio ads, suggestions for promotions that have been successful in other markets, logos and fonts, unique opportunities for the local press, options for educational outreach - the list goes on and on!  These marketing sites allow the markets to have access to the insights, materials, and messaging that made the show successful on Broadway.  It's a lot of work for the press agent, but it makes their job much easier down the road.

Some agencies will host a marketing junket where all of the markets who have booked a show for the coming year will come together to learn more about the show.  These are sometimes done via phone conference, at the annual Broadway League Spring Road Conference in NYC when everyone is gathered in the same place at the same time, or in a host city.  For the latter option, market reps will fly in and see the show in order to experience it first-hand.  Then the agent will spend a full work day going over all of the marketing opportunities and guidelines to the group.  This is also a great opportunity for various cities to collaborate and learn from one another.

From then on the agent is in constant communication with the show's producers and increasing communication with the theatre as the dates for the show close in, consistently checking with one another as questions arise.  In Part 2 of our exploration of the press agent's responsibilities we'll discuss what the press agent's role in the weeks leading up to the performance.

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