Few people would associate the biological term “ecosystem” with the theater community–unless, of course, one taps into the passionately innovative minds of on-line media gurus Jim McCarthy, CEO of the popular ticket site, Goldstar (https://www.goldstar.com) and Damian Bazadona, founder and CEO of digital marketing advertising agency Situation Interactive Media (http://www.situationinteractive.com.) The two of them, along with Broadway producer Ken Davenport (http://www.davenporttheatrical.com) are joining forces for the third annual TEDxBroadway Conference, which will be held on Monday February 24th, 2014 at New World Stages.
I sat down with McCarthy and Bazadona to discuss how the conference is taking form, the importance of technology within the live entertainment community, and what we can expect from an event that aims to make Broadway brighter, better, and more relevant.
RL: This is the 3rd annual TEDxBroadway Conference. Tell me a bit about the origin.
JM: For a couple of years, there were unaffiliated loose conversations over dinner and drinks with Damian and Ken where we would discuss the need to make sure that the Broadway ecosystem was having conversations that were bigger picture conversations. And this was just by our mutual interest in that sort of thing. At some point, we developed a vague idea that we might do one of these ourselves. I had been involved in the TEDx program early in its inception and after being around that, I decided to do something within that format. The three of us talked and agreed that this was consistent with what we thought the conference should be: bigger picture, longer term, less nuts and bolts and more aspirational. TEDx provided us with some framework for how to do it. So TED gave us a license for TEDx Broadway and we set a date and started working for it. This gives us a chance to think big and think broad and I think we can have a good time with that.
RL: How will this year be different in terms of scope and content? Can you tell me about some of the speakers?
JM: In some ways the same and in others, quite different. The basic structure is quite similar in that we’ll have three sessions again. There are no panelists but just a single presenter for each topic.
DB: The reason I got involved in this from the beginning is because we’ve nailed down the question: “What is the best Broadway can be?” One of things that drove me to get involved with this conference with Jim and Ken is that we all look at the aspirational side of where the industry could go. Too many conferences focus on a) too many “nuts and bolts” and b) less about the longer term- So when you structure the question “What is the best broadway can be”, it makes each speaker look at it in that framework. The key difference this year is that we’ve become much better at the structure. Since this is our 3rd year, we’ve just become sizeably better and the speakers have a better understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish. The speakers we have lined up are just excited to involved in the process. All of them come to the stage with a certain level of passion and they have a context from speakers over the last two years. If you look at our sponsors which include Google, Jujamcyn Theaters, and Broadway.com, you realize that everyone wants to get involved in this. I mean, who doesn’t want to answer the question “What is the best Broadway can be?”
JM: Plus, we have people who may not be household names, but they’re just gonna go up there and knock people out. I try to encourage the speakers to discuss what people are not likely to hear from them. Having worked with Robert Lopez on his talk, I know that what he’ll talk about will be interesting to the audience, but there are other people in the line-up who are less familiar names, but who I think will be pretty dazzling. Even people outside the Broadway ecosystem will contribute. This year we have Annisa Ramirez, who is a tremendous science educator and one the best people in the world to break down science for the layperson. She’s going to discuss the science that we’re going to live with over the next five to ten years and the emerging aspects of science that are going to impact our daily lives. Certainly Ramirez is prolific in her field, but not as well known among the Broadway community, so we’re really happy to have her on board as well. We also have the amazing singer and actor Lea Delaria, who is now recognized for the series “Orange Is the New Black”.
RL: Can you each give me a brief elevator pitch on the contributions your companies are making to the Broadway community?
JM: Goldstar is basically a seller of tickets to all kinds of live entertainment. We call ourselves “the world’s largest ticket booth.” We have approx.. 5 million registered members, we’re in 30 of the biggest markets in the U.S. and we sell tickets on behalf of any kind of live entertainment and arts you can imagine. Our goal is to connect people who want to go out more to the venues who would love to have them. We become the starting point for matching the two, they buy the tickets from us, and we take very good care of them. NY is our second largest market after LA (where we are based) and the health of Broadway, both here and on the road is extremely important to us. When Broadway is healthy, we benefit. We talk about the Broadway “ecosystem”, which is not just the theater but the tourists ,restaurants, hotels, academic institutions, and residents. One of the beliefs we all share is that this ecosystem rises and falls together, so we want to help make it healthier now and into the future.
DB: Situation Interactive media operates under the basic principle that the world is a better place when people are doing things rather than having things. Therefore, we power the brands that do. We started in arts and culture and worked on over 100 Broadway productions since 2000 and now we have expanded by working with Brooklyn Academy of Music, Metropolitan Opera, the Super Bowl, One World Trade Center, Madison Square Garden and other experiential outlets. Our roots started in Broadway but have expanded. I’m in this primarily because I hope to be here for many years and Broadway is a tremendous part of our business and is where my roots are from.
JM: I think Damian is being a bit modest because Situation Interactive was really the on-ramp for Broadway in terms of internet marketing. Prior to him, it wasn’t even a given that you should be marketing on the internet.
DB: (Humbly) Well, thank you. I think it was just a matter of being at the right place at the right time, but I’ll take it!
RL: How have Broadway marketing strategies changed from the days of relying solely on print to the newer techniques of digital advertising and is one more important than the other?
DB: Digital marketing is the best trend that has happened to Broadway and live events because they benefit from digital a lot more than other folks and industries. Primarily, it is all about content. The product we offer is literally our market. A majority of my brands are in the story telling business and they sell stories that people get to connect with. Digital is the greatest way to connect people. I wouldn’t say that there is no need for traditional media because it all fits into the puzzle, but the new channel into the mix is obviously all of the digital pieces. You can connect all the people in the world this way.
JM: If you only had traditional means of marketing the product, those means are slow, static, and expensive. It takes a long time to launch them, you can’t change them, and they cost a lot of money, so you had better get it right on the first try. The thing about digital is that we have a product (those of us in the live entertainment business) that is like bread. So the notion of slow, static, and expensive are the last things you want for a product that is here today gone tomorrow.
DB: Another thing is that great ideas come from everywhere. I know everyone says that but in a world where content is becoming king, we work differently. Now you can ask the cast for ideas of marketing the show, which wasn’t previously thought of in the theater. Now they say, “We want to promote the show like this” and we respond with, “Great! Here’s a channel by which we can do that.” It’s the most fun time to be in the industry on the marketing side since I’ve been doing this.
RL: With regards to the productions themselves how has technology changed the face of theater? What trends are currently implemented and is there anything new that theater goers can expect ?
JM: We actually have two speakers talking on that topic this year.
DB: It depends on how you’re defining it. We think of Broadway as the place, not just the industry so the growth I’ve seen over the past 5 years is in alternative models. The business models which are starting to pop up is that live theater and the experiential piece are playing out in all different ways. I feel like you’re going to see more shows along the lines of Sleep No More and Fuerza Bruta. From a pure technology perspective, I’m working on a show right now that is primarily all projections. So we’re starting to get to a place where projections are working themselves into productions, which changes the whole game for scenic design and set design-not necessarily as replacements but as enhancements. The business side really is going to dictate some of the creative decisions over time. What are the cost structures to put these shows on? Because they are going up and to make money on Broadway is not easy, so you must have cost controls put in. Where does theater live beyond the four walls?
JM: Exactly. And that is another area we’ll hit in this incarnation of TEDxBroadway. How do you take the thing that is happening in the theater and leverage it elsewhere?
DB: Right. Right now, that conversation is being led by marketers and it needs to be led by creatives since creatives can take the content and apply it specifically to each platform. That is why places like National Theater (who was at TEDx last year) are fantastic because they create for the platform. When they shot Curious Incident of the Dog in Nightime , they shot one version for National Theater Live, so when you watched it in the movie theater, it looks like it was shot exclusively for the movie screen. We’re just at the beginning of that. You have to believe that there is a lot more value in the content. We have an amazing talent pool of people who create for the stage every night
RL: Who is your target audience, both for advertising and show attendance.
DB: If you’re looking NY theater ticket buyers today, the average demographic is 40+ women. I would argue that the bigger issue is cultivating talent over time. One of the reasons I’m involved in the TEDx conference is because we’re looking at the question, “What are we doing today to build the audience of 20 years from now?” the topic of target audience, I think. is a huge conversation for the industry. The easy, short term answer is definable: 40, wealthy, in-bound tourists but it is clearly not aligned with the longer term demographics of this country, which is why I like conferences like this- so we can discuss that.
JM: Now that you’ve taken us down this path, there are 3 programs I’d like to mention which we’ll also be discussing at the conference. One that Damian has driven with kids in the Bronx at a high performing middle school who have been sort of the toehold for a program that has broadened out since then. A) It gives them some exposure so they know that there is a thing called Broadway and theater and B) it helps to build the connection in the other direction too. Damian was instrumental in getting the cast of Spider Man to go to their school in the Bronx. The result is that these kids from a high achieving, low-income area are now thinking “Maybe I can have a career in the area of the arts.” Our perspective is that Broadway needs those kids as much or more as those kids need Broadway. Think about the talent you can find in areas like this and that is where the future is often built. If this program has the result of just one brilliant writer or director emerging in twenty years, then this will have made everything worth it. On another level, we’ve subsidized some college students to attend, so they’ve made this part of the curriculum of the class. These students are able to go to the conference without costs being so prohibitive. We also had an open call for anyone 30 and under affiliated with the Broadway ecosystem to apply for free admission to the event by writing a brief description about why they wanted to attend. So a nice chunk of our audience this year will consist of those decision makers of the future. We’ve talked about that in the past, but this year we made a commitment to making sure they are there.
RL: What are some of the take-away you want to give attendees to the TEDx Conference or do you see this more as forum for open thought and creativity?
JM: I’d say more the latter than the former.
DB: The sign of success for me every year when I get emails and messages back from people telling me that it was a great day and they left feeling inspired. That is all I care about. I think if we go into the territory of “what is the take-away”, it’s dangerous because you’re trying to script something and the idea is that we’re trying to bring open ideas to the table from other people. I see myself as much a participant as an organizer.
JM: The idea of the TED format is to spread ideas. So our job is less to have a pointed view than it is to ask, “Who are some people who have interesting ideas that are relevant to this community”, and then give those people the opportunity to say interesting things in this setting. Often times, maybe a side point that you’ll hear from a speaker or a conversation you had in the lobby during a break will take you down a trail and open something up in your head as a huge idea and then can be an amazing thing we’ll all benefit from in some way.
DB: We didn’t want to take a bunch of speakers, put them up there, and then talk about all the things you can’t do. That is probably one of the biggest traps in conferences I attend in any industry. But when you frame the question: “What is the best Broadway can be?”, You can isolate a problem and that aligns with the question of “Is this something that inspires you?” and then it gives you a runway to make that possible.
JM: Look- every industry has deficiencies. But we’re not asking , “How do we fix a broken thing?” Instead, with an active imagination we are asking, “What is the best possible thing- and then let’s re-set the trajectory towards that. In the course of doing that, maybe we fix a broken thing or two along the way.” And ultimately, it’s supposed to be a fun! If it’s not fun, we’re not doing it.
RL: You’ve talked an awful lot about this “Broadway ecosystem.” What do you think is the greatest challenge, economics aside, facing this ecosystem?
JM: What is the audience years from now and more to the point, will this be a vital place in 10 or 20 years? The answer to that is going to come from whether or not there’s a connection made to the people who will need to be the ones showing up in order for it to work. The audience of today will have sort of moved on in its’ relevance. The demographics are kind of set. So if we know who is going to be here and who is going to have dollars to spend, then the question is ‘Will they be interested in this neighborhood as theater goers and as restaurant goers.’? We don’t need to go back that far in history to a time when they weren’t interested. The biggest macro question is that the neighborhood has gotten much much healthier in the last couple of decades, but what if it doesn’t sustain? What if, as a whole, that ecosystem doesn’t hit the mark in quite the way of where it was in the 80s until now? It’s not a guarantee, so there’s an audience question in there, there’s a relevance question in there and there are even bigger financial questions there as well. Those are all threats.
DB: A lot of people I’ve talked to from restaurants and hotels and are of the “now” thinking. They are wondering, “Is the show across the street from my restaurant going to stay open because when that show is open, my restaurant is full.” So they are hoping that Broadway remains strong. Everyone I talk to in this ecosystem has a different angle, but it all connects back to the same thing, which is the overall health of the region. Even though they live on a block to block basis, they are all connected by the idea of Broadway and Times Square. This week, for example, the blizzard and the super bowl changed the entire eco-system of that neighborhood dramatically. So you have these extraordinarily different businesses that are completely inter-dependent on each other
JM: We use this word “ecosystem”, which is borrowed from nature. The animals and plants in a certain part of the natural world don’t live there in isolation. The deer and grass and squirrels and grass, etc. do depend on each on each other. At a certain point, when the ecosystem degrades, everyone suffers. So this is very real and very complex, and we’re looking forward to having the conversation.
What: 3rd annual TEDxBroadway Conference
When: Monday February 24th 2014, 11am -6pm
Where: New World Stages, 340 W. 50th Street between 8th and 9th ave.
Tickets and more information: http://www.tedxbroadway.com