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June 22, 2018
Thriller Live
Family entertainment business is all about good old-fashioned showbiz, but with a 21st century edge – creating shows, building successful brands and developing long-term international appeal in a sector that is becoming ever-more competitive. Christopher Barrett reports

Family entertainment is the name given to a wealth of live shows that appeal to a wider audience than rock and pop events, but it’s rapid growth around the world over the past two decades has a lot to do with rock and pop event promoters.

Initially lured into the sector by Irish dance shows such as Riverdance and ABBA tribute spectaculars, promoters who had been used to risky single night events where they could win or lose a fortune and have to deal with prima donna artistes, not to mention demanding agents and managers, discovered ownership.

They could buy a stage show for a week, book it into a single venue and not usually have to worry about percentage deals, while using their skills as a promoter of rock and pop to sell tickets to a wider audience.

As the idea worked and spread around the globe, so did the demand for such shows. A successful run in a theatre created the need for another similar production to satisfy that audience again a few weeks or months later.

Stage shows from London’s West End and New York’s Broadway adapted their format to touring and shorter runs for smaller markets and the sector grew and evolved at a rapid pace.

Although set apart from the rest by their own initiative and ingenuity, the group of 20 street performers who founded Cirque du Soleil back in 1984 could barely have imagined how big the brand would become.

But showbiz comes in many forms and Cirque du Soleil must surely be one of the most sophisticated.

Now with hundreds of employees,10 shows touring the world and eight permanent shows in Las Vegas, the Montreal, Canada-based organisation has become a huge international business.

With shows featuring elaborate sets, live music, flamboyant costumes and breathtaking acrobatics, Cirque du Soleil has its own uniquely themed and branded shows, and has enjoyed success working with third-party brands.

Steven Armstrong

Among its successful productions are music-themed presentations Michael Jackson One and The Beatles Love, and it has also worked with the IP owners of James Cameron’s award-winning film Avatar to create Toruk – The First Light.

Cirque du Soleil’s senior vice-president of touring shows, Finn Taylor, says that when assessing which brands to work with, a primary consideration is whether it has worldwide reach and appeal.

“They have to be global brands because we tour everywhere,” he says. “We also consider whether it gives us license to create an interesting show around it – some brands are very, very well defined and leave little room for us to adapt and change whereas others allow us a lot more freedom.

“It also depends on the owners of the brands. When we created the Beatles Love show, we worked very closely with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison. We worked hand-in-hand with them to make sure we built a great show that honoured the IP.”

Taylor says China is currently a major focus for Cirque du Soleil, with the company currently staging Toruk – The First Light and big top show Kooza in the territory.

“We have been in China for about 12 months, and are doing quite a big push into the territory, because it is a key focus in terms of market development and how we can grow the business,” he says. “We are building a new permanent production there in response to a local company having approached us wanting to partner with us to create it.”

With a similar approach to global expansion, Florida-based international production company Feld Entertainment holds one of the most successful touring entertainment franchises in the word, Disney On Ice.

The concept took off in 1981 after Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld approached Disney with the idea of bringing the studio’s characters to life on ice.

More than three-and-a-half decades later the touring productions are being staged at venues of all shapes and sizes in all corners of the globe, with the Disney on Ice brand currently supporting nine touring shows.

In the late 1980s, Feld began taking Disney On Ice beyond North America and over the years it has become adept at fine-tuning the productions to suit local markets.

Feld’s regional vice-president for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Steven Armstrong, oversees all marketing, ticketing and operational functions for Feld’s live events and is based at the company’s European headquarters in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

“We are in about 77 countries now and of those, among the more recent countries we have gone to are Estonia, Paraguay, Serbia, Malta, Lithuania and South Africa,” he says.

“Another country that has started to open up recently is Saudi Arabia. We thought it was light years away from welcoming Disney Live products, but the culture and laws are changing there and Disney On Ice will go there for the first time in April next year.”

Beyond Disney On Ice, Feld properties include, Disney Live, Marvel Universe Live, Sesame Street Live and Monster Jam, which combined sell around 30 million tickets worldwide per year.

“We are currently in discussions to bring Jurassic World to the stage at the end of next year in the US, before coming to Europe in 2021,” says Armstrong.

The likes of Disney On Ice play arenas up to 20,000 capacity, such as London’s The O2 and Los Angeles’ Staples Centre, but when compared to a concert, the production space needed often means the audience capacity is sharply reduced.

“When we are in arenas a good size for us is about 5,000 seats, with none on the floor, but unlike concerts we have the ability to do 12 to 15 shows per week, on weekends we often do three shows a day,” he explains.

Armstrong points out that with family entertainment it is vitally important to ensure ticket prices are affordable for all demographics of customer.

“Unlike concerts, you are looking at groups of at least three people and the event is not a one-off, we are trying to make shows as accessible to as many people as possible and build a brand that will last for years, so it is vital to make the shows affordable,” he says.

“We are trying to make shows as accessible to as many people as possible and build a brand that will last for years”

Steven Armstrong

Have show, will travel

In the UK, Stuart Littlewood who founded Handshake 52 years ago, is enjoying continued success with its shows, including A Country Night In Nashville and ABBA Mania, which has been touring since 1999.

Littlewood says ABBA Mania regularly tours throughout Europe and the US but has ventured as far and wide as Australia, Hong Kong, India and South America.

“If you have a good show with talented performers, it will travel,” he says. “Abba Mania always does great numbers, but it is doing particularly well at the moment as a result of the media attention surrounding ABBA, the new movie and potentially new music.

“The number and variety of venues in major cities is remarkable, they are all operating at least five nights a week, the public has so much choice now but the demand for live entertainment remains huge,” says Littlewood.

Despite many of Handshake’s shows attracting an older demographic, he has found social media to be an increasingly important promotional tool.

“We spend £500,000 [$667,000] a year on advertising, largely across TV radio and press but social media is taking over and even the older demographics are now very much engaged in it,” he says.

Fellow veteran UK promoter Derek Block also has half a century’s industry experience behind him.

Derek Nicol

He says his Derek Block Concerts operation continues to enjoy strong business, despite a number of market challenges. Its shows include Illegal Eagles, The Carpenters Story, rock n’ roll variety show That’ll Be The Day and ABBA-themed production Thank ABBA For The Music and Dancing Queen The Concert.

“That Will Be The Day is one of the most successful touring shows in the country, we do 220 shows per year across 185 theatres,” says Block.

In order to sustain the popularity of a show it is vital to continually invest in it, he says, and create strong word of mouth, not least because theatregoers have become increasingly cautious about how they spend their disposable income.

“When people go out, they are looking for both value-for-money and quality, so you have to give them a great theatrical experience at a realistic price,” explains Block. “Good shows are doing good business but average shows are hit and miss.”

Block says that when it comes to ticket prices in the UK, there is a “glass celling” of around £30 ($40), go above that and it can be hard to make a show work.

“London’s West End theatres have suffered in the past six months or so, but our business is healthy. We offer attractive shows with attractive ticket prices, but rising [ticket] booking fees and the inclusion of theatre restoration charges do not help,” he says.

“If you have a good show with talented performers, it will travel”

Stuart Littlewood

From rock to revue

In the US, New York-based Joyce Agency has been touring musicals since the 1950s.

One of the Joyce Agency’s longest running touring shows is the musical The Phantom of the Opera, which has played around the world in venues with capacities ranging from 2,500 to 12,500.

Joyce Agency president and CEO Van Joyce says it has bookings for The Phantom stretching ahead to 2021. The company’s other shows include Grease, Titanic, Hairspray, Rent and Legends In Concert.

“We usually produce the musicals and self-finance them,” says Joyce. “We cooperate with promoters in many ways including sometimes having the musical’s stars visit the venue cities well in advance to promote the show.”

He says the market has seen an increasing number of concert promoters step into the theatre and family entertainment business.

“Musicals do not cancel and their breakeven is usually much lower than the percentages needed for rock shows,” says Joyce. “Without doubt, family entertainment, including musicals, is a reliable source of box office profit.

“The biggest challenge is finding a promoter willing to take the chance of promoting in a field he has not worked before, but promoting musicals is not so different from promoting rock and pop.”

Stuart Littlewood

Since it was founded in 2008, UK-based promoter and artiste management company MRC Presents has produced, promoted and managed many successful touring theatre productions, and stages more than 500 shows across Europe in an average year.

Among those shows are Rhythm of the Dance, Bowie Experience, Psychic Sally, Rolling Stones Story, Chicago Blues Brothers and ELO Again.

“I’m pleased to say business has been pretty steady across the board, the first quarter of 2018 has been really strong and Rhythm of the Dance this summer is certainly a highlight,” says MRC Presents director Chris Jenkins.

“It turns out that our biggest challenge is snow, with 15 shows rescheduled in a weekend back in March, so we don’t want to see any snow for a long while.”

With the company also involved in promoting concerts by contemporary acts, Jenkins says a different approach is needed when marketing family and theatre shows.

“The main difference is the timing of the marketing activity, for the family shows campaigns tend to be heavier closer to the event whereas with concerts it tends to be much earlier,” he says.

While the company uses traditional promotional media such as theatre brochures to publicise its events, Jenkins says nothing compares to the power of Facebook.

 

Reaching new highs

Based in Amsterdam, Holland, General Entertainment Associates (GEA) is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year and MD Floris Douwes says the company is on a historic high. Among its successful projects include concert presentations of acclaimed films, which are screened while the score is performed by a symphony orchestra. They include La La Land in Concert, Titanic Live, The Godfather Live and Paddington Live in Concert. The latter will have its world premiere at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane (2,196) in October to mark the brand’s 60th anniversary, before embarking on a tour of the UK and Europe in next year.

Another key GEA project is Elvis in Concert – Live On Screen, which sees Elvis singing on two giant LED screens, accompanied by a live symphony orchestra and backing vocalists. The show has played 20 arenas since the beginning of last year.

Van Joyce

Douwes says GEA’s film and orchestral work really took off after it began working with Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone in 2012, and in 2014 began taking the show to arenas around Europe. It has since sold more than 650,000 tickets.

“When we do a film in concert we need to license the film from the studio and gain the consent of the composer of the film,” says Douwes. “All those rights have to be cleared. That can be very labour intensive and take 18 months. For our James Newton Howard show we had to clear film clips from 30 different films and 17 studios.”

Based in Mannheim, Germany, BB Promotion produces and promotes theatre and family entertainment throughout Europe but is particularly active in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It is part of the BB Group, of which Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) is a majority shareholder.

Founded in 1987, and headed by CEO Ralf Kokemüller, the BB Group presents more than 1,000 performances per year, generating more than 1.5 million ticket sales. Its productions include West Side Story, We Will Rock You, The Rocky Horror Show, Cats, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Ballet Revolución.

“If you have something special and unique to offer to an audience, they will show up”

Eric J Leong

Finding a niche

Carl Leighton-Pope of UK-based agency The Leighton Pope Organisation began representing the Chippendales in 1991, and has since worked with the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team with shows across Europe, the Middle East and South Africa, as well as World Wrestling Entertainment.

Having written and produced the Sixties musical Carnaby Street, which toured the UK, Leighton-Pope is now in the process of bringing another musical to the stage.

“Family shows work really well if they are specific to one era because what you find is that contemporaries of that era come along with other family members and in the case of Carnaby Street it was their children and grandchildren,” says Pope.

With decades of experience in the concert business, Pope says working with musical theatre is a very different beast when it comes to marketing the shows.

“If you are touring a rock show you have an audience catchment area of up to 100 miles, with musicals you are limited to around 30 miles because ticket buyers are bringing the whole family and so have more to contend with,” he says. “So, instead of national marketing you want more local marketing and being in the theatre brochure is vital. You also want to be in the foyer, the local paper and on local radio – it is a very local focus.“

 

Immersion factor

Back in the US, Special Entertainment Events (SEE), is a Los Angeles-based company, creating, producing and licensing immersive exhibitions and themed entertainment shows.

It is currently touring two travelling exhibits – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and The Museum of Failure.

The former is a recreation of Michelangelo’s artwork from the Sistine Chapel in life size, while the latter is an international collection of more than 100 failed innovations.

“We currently have three units touring the world, one in the US, one in Asia, and another in Europe, usually for runs of two to three months at high profile locations such as Canada’s Palais D’Congres [900] in Montreal, the Oculus (700) at the World Trade Center in New York City, and China’s World Financial Building in Shanghai (900),” says SEE Global Entertainment associate producer & manager of licensing Eric J Leong.

Eric J Leong

Leong says extending SEE’s reach in China is a major focus for the company.

“As the country continues to grow and evolve, there seems to be an increased interest in Western themed exhibits and entertainment,” he says. “It helps when you have a partner that can navigate you through any governmental red tape.

“We’re all very curious to see how the Museum of Failure will be received there later this year, especially since we traditionally include several local examples of failure at each new venue.

“Hopefully they have a good sense of humour about it.”

When it comes to marketing the shows, Leong says by far the most effective tool is social media, with it being very cost-effective and easy to monitor in terms of effectiveness.

“The biggest challenge in the entertainment market is standing out, but if you have something special and unique to offer to an audience, they will show up,” says Leong.

“Home entertainment technology has improved vastly, but people still go to movie theatres and concerts because there’s still a special feeling that comes from seeing a film or your favourite musician in a larger-than-life, communal experience.

“The world of exhibits is quite similar — if you have a one-of-a-kind show that provides a fun, intriguing, and informative experience for your visitors, hopefully they enjoy it, recognise the value in the entertainment, and encourage others to make the effort to go see it.”

“Musicals do not cancel and their breakeven is usually much lower than the percentages needed for rock shows”

Van Joyce.

Creating attractions

Based on the tiny island of Fanø off the coast of south-west Denmark, CSB Island Entertainment works with touring artistes as well as tribute shows such as The Show – A Tribute to ABBA, Fast Love – A Tribute to George Michael and Queen Machine, and themed shows including Sound Of Christmas.

CSB CEO Carsten Svoldgaard says its ABBA show has toured for 18 years across 50 countries and will shortly return to Europe and Asia.

“We are producers, promoters and agent for ours shows, we participate in all factors effecting them, such as marketing, promotion, ticket sales, advertising and planning,” he says.

CSB is preparing for its annual presentation, of shows that it intends to tour, to venue owners and promoters from around the world. Taking place in its Fanø office in August, the presentation will consist of more than 30 productions.

‘Family entertainment is big and getting bigger, we are always looking for new and exciting family shows from around the world,” says Svoldgaard.

Back in the UK, Flying Music continues to build on the ongoing success of Thriller Live, a show that celebrates the life and music of The Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson.

“It is now in its 10th  year in the West End,” says producer and joint MD Derek Nicol. “It has also toured for 12 years and travelled to 32 countries.”

He says that after testing Thriller Live in China, there are plans for it to return there for a longer run, while this year will also see it travel to United Arab Emirates, Belgium and Poland for the first time.

“We have taken a look at the Balkan states, but the economy there is an issue, with ticket prices being very low it makes it very hard to take a show with an entourage of 45 people and all the necessary equipment, and make it work,” says Nicol.

Among Flying Music’s other shows are A Beautiful Noise, which finds Fisher Stevens celebrating the life and music of Neil Diamond, and The Greatest Love of All: the Whitney Houston Show.

With so many similar themed shows on the market, Nicol says survival and success in the business is all about continually investing in the productions to keep them fresh and dynamic.

“There are numerous tribute shows on the market, however it is the way we have designed our shows that makes the difference,” he says.

“Thriller Live appeals to an audience aged five to 70, they range from fans of early Jackson 5 to Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. It’s delivered theatrically with very high production values and we change the cast at least once a year.

“It’s a lot of hard work but it is worth it.”

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