Poppy Ben-David - Producing Piff the Magic Dragon's first Fringe show
The details below were written by producer Poppy Ben-David (Ben David Productions), who in 2009 uniquely had two very similar shows at the Fringe, with identical production costs, one in a paid venue and one at the Free Festival.
Below is her independent view about brining a free show to Edinburgh with the Free Festival, and how it compares to bringing a show to one of the large paid venues - and is worth a read for any performer deciding whether to come to Edinburgh, or to go free or paid. Over to Poppy:
First off, let’s get one thing straight; no-one comes to Edinburgh to make money. It’s a PR exercise, pure and simple. There are those that do make money in Edinburgh, but they are the established acts, normally promoted by large production houses. For the rest of us it’s about putting on a good show, promoting yourself (or your act) and minimising the financial damage. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great place get noticed, but if you get it wrong - not only will you end up with a bruised ego, you’ll also run the risk of having a bruised credit card.
This article is not about ‘bashing’ the paid platform and telling you about how the ‘Free Festival’ is so much better. It’s about giving you some hard facts about my first Edinburgh as a producer and how both platforms have their merits and their disadvantages. As a performer, you need to consider what is best for you. This article is about how the obvious is not necessarily the best option for you and how the ‘Free Festival’ plays an integral part in the Edinburgh Festival.
As a reasonably experienced producer, I decided to brave Edinburgh this year with two acts I believed were ‘green’ - but very talented.
One was called Piff the Magic Dragon and the other act was a musical comedy act starring a 22 year old called Martin ‘The Falsetto’ Milnes. Both acts were relatively new to the circuit but had proved that they had potential – one had supported Alistair McGowan at his Stratford Edinburgh preview and gained 4/5* reviews in the London press (Eve Standard and Time Out) for his various lead performances in musical comedies, the other made the finals of the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year and had a string of magic awards to his name. Both acts were at a similar stage in their development.
As much as they were very different shows, I’d been informed that both had a place in Edinburgh. As I contacted numerous venues trying to secure slots (this process starts in January) I ended up in an unusual situation – one act on a ‘paid’ venue and one on a ‘free’ venue. Both acts had identical capitalisation (i.e. they would cost me the same amount to take to Edinburgh) and they had similar venue capacities. They were both were new to Edinburgh.
My findings hopefully will help you make an informed decision as to what options you have available to you when you contemplate taking your act to Edinburgh. The last thing in the world I want as a producer is to watch a future Eddie Izzard get burnt financially in Edinburgh and lose faith in the festival.
Stick with what I’m about to say, because it’s worth thousands of pounds (I lost this on your behalf!), hopefully thousands that you won’t have to lose when you think about coming to Edinburgh in the future. You think I’m joking?! Read on…
Back to Piff the Magic Dragon – after months of applying to the big four (if you don’t know, they’re the Pleasance, Gilded Balloon, Assembly and Underbelly) I ended up with two slots on the table… both at 11am. Not what I wanted. I tried a few other venues (The Caves etc…) and managed to get offered early afternoon slots. Then someone told me about the ‘Free Festival’. At first I thought it sounded bonkers, why would I consider going onto the ‘free’ platform if I could get my act into one of the big four?
With the offer of a 50 seater ‘big four’ on the table (11am) and an unexpected offer of a 120 seater ‘free’ venue just off the Royal Mile (6pm) in the offing, I threw caution to the wind and thought, ‘sod it’ – lets see what happens. Besides, to date the most enthusiastic programmer I’d spoken to was from the ‘free’ platform. Simultaneously I’d been offered a 9:15pm slot with Musicals@George Square (who are kind of part of the big four) for my other act. I already knew what I was doing would be an experiment and I wanted to know how it would pan out.
As for my team – I general managed my acts, had a press rep for both and spent the same on marketing and on props. I had two brilliant sales/flyering boys out for the first 10 days of the festival and another couple of people lined up for the final push of flyering. I had one operator/technician up for the whole of the festival opping both shows. Same team, two different shows… let the experiment begin…
In short you NEED previews. Your show should be in good shape as soon as you hit Edinburgh. You’ll have enough to get your head around without having the added pressure of an unfinished show to contend with.
Previews – previews for both acts went well. Piff secured ‘Best Comedy’ at Buxton fringe and my other act was sold out for both previews. PR wise, the dragon was in the lead – man in a dragon outfit with decks of cards seemed to capture the Edinburgh spirit. I wasn’t concerned for my other act though – he’d received standing ovations at several previews and was a 5* show in my opinion.
Financially – I was covering my costs. I was up by £50 at this point.
Piff got ill. Very ill. We got him through the shows, but he wasn’t on form and with a nasty temperature it was a struggle. His awarding winning Buxton show was slipping into the distance. The press rep managed to get some great PR for him including a slot on BBC 1 TV Breakfast TV.
It was tough going and the show needed work. Piff couldn’t do much during the day. He really was that sick and bed ridden. Add to this the lighting rig went down at our venue ‘The Hive’ and Piff had one show where he was performing in silhouette (since only one spot light at the back of the stage worked). The venue were really nice about it and it eventually was sorted out.
As a whole, the technical support isn’t as good at the ‘free’ as on the ‘paid’ venues. The same goes for the ‘front of house’. It’s tricky trying to set the stage when the audience are coming in because no-one is out front telling them to take their seats. We got around this by me assuming the role of ‘front of house manager’ and also because we had some lovely staff at out venue who would help us out. It would have been different had the venue not been so co-operative.
Finally, you need to get your ‘donation’ pitch right to get the money in and also have people with buckets at every exit. In short you just need to be organised.
That said – we did have technical problems in my ‘paid’ venue. The only difference was that they had a support team and front of house team to deal with everything. But as you’ll learn, this doesn’t’ come cheap!
Other act on ‘paid’… was all going well at this stage, perfect in fact, They’d run it so much in London, they stormed their press launch at their ‘paid’ venue and I was in no doubt they were at the top of their game. Big papers came in during that first week while I struggled trying to get the magical dragon better with soup and pain killers (upon the advice of my doctor friend!)
Sales were low for my paid act, but I wasn’t concerned. Then three days in - my paid act got 3 x 5* reviews in a row – Three Weeks, All the Festivals and Remote Goat. Evening News came in and I thought ‘That’s it! The low sales of 25 per night will turn around’.
Piff on the Free Platform had about 40-60 in per night at this stage, not bad at all. However, many of these people were there because of my demon flyering team and the majority were skint students. They watched and then paid very little (or nothing). The press avoided us for week one
That’s the negative week out of the way! Past WEEK 1 it got a whole lot easier (for one show at least!)
Press started to trickle in for Piff and by now he wasn’t ill and had got his act sorted. He was also out on the Royal Mile (for at least 2 hours) each day selling himself (he had a little dog/Chihuahua, which helped!). Piff also did a lot of cabaret shows, averaging one each night.
My ‘paid’ show continued to get 4/5 * reviews. However, their ticket sales were dropping off, we were down to 5-10 paid people a night, even though we were getting amazing reviews and the word of mouth (from the few people that saw it) was good.
My flyering team were sent to exit flyer relevant shows. I paid for ads in publications etc… In London this is what you do when something doesn’t sell. I followed what I knew.
Part way though WEEK 2 something started changing… Piff was in great shape and people were beginning to pay after watching the show. The hype took off (why pay when you can see a good 4* show for free?) and as he did well, my other act was going in the opposite direction.
My paid act was down to 5 paying people per show and the flyering wasn’t helping.
My marketing guy (a brilliant young entrepreneur who was no stranger to selling and flyering) seemed defeated. The venue was hidden, the time slot too competitive, the product ill placed for Edinburgh etc…
Edinburgh is a place for comedy and new writing. If you have a musical product (that isn’t sensationalist or sung by a star) you’ll have problem (as a rule). If your act isn’t eligible for any awards, you’ve got a hard sell on your hands.
Piff went from strength to strength. On the free platform he was now packing the venue out (at least 100 people each night, 140 on one occasion, standing room only) and as time went on, the people we had watching the show were there because they’d heard that it was good and our audience decided it was a fine alternative to paying £10 a ticket. Some people even put £20 notes in our collection bucket.
As for my ‘paid’ act, I ended up doing the usual thing – putting tickets on sale at the half-price hut. One morning when I was outside the half-price hut I handed a flyer of my paid 5* show to a punter with the pitch:
ME: “5* show, half-price tonight”
PUNTER: “half-price means half the quality darling!”
It hurt. Big time.
At least I didn’t have to do that with my ‘Free’ show.
THE FINAL FEW DAYS
Piff was packed. The Saturday before the final week we took nearly £300 in donations.
Piff closed as a success on all fronts. My other show did not. It was a critical success, but an example of how Edinburgh can go wrong financially.
I should add at this point that my other act on the ‘paid’ platform became ill on the final week and we ended up cancelling 5 shows. Since his act relied heavily on his vocal ability, a chest infection proved disastrous. This said, when I cancelled the shows there were between 0-5 tickets sold for each performance.
In order not to bias this article too much I’m going to reflect on other shows I knew and saw during the festival. Like I said at the start of this article, this is an informative guide regarding both platforms.
Back when Piff was doing some high profile London magazine shows at Leicester Square Theatre (chortle fast fringe and the Frisky and Mannish gala) there was a new act I spotted and liked. I won’t name them, but they were new to Edinburgh as a double act, got a late night slot with the big four. 5* review in Three Weeks (on the same day as my other act got 5*) and I watched what happened to them with interest.
Two weeks in I went to their show. There were 8 people watching. I estimated that only 5 had paid (the rest were like me, they had venue passes, which means you can see the show for free). The next night I sent Piff to watch their show and he reported the same in terms of audience numbers. These were weekday shows. Having spoken to them since Edinburgh it appeared that they sold well for the first two weeks and then the numbers fell rapidly. They didn’t quite cover their costs and had a venue capacity of less than half of The Hive
The stories of acts performing to one man and his dog are not unfounded in Edinburgh. It happens – more often than not. The problem is people don’t tend to tell you the truth, the only stories you hear are from people who did ok. Those that got burnt won’t talk about it because it makes them look bad.
On the other hand – Frisky and Mannish – an act on their third (I think?) blitzed Edinburgh. Brilliant with solid 5*. It was sold out every night at the Underbelly and deservedly so. Here’s an example of how the ‘paid’ platform can work. It clearly did for them. But…they are established in terms of Edinburgh and brilliant to boot.
If you go with a ‘paid’ venue, they make you pay a venue guarantee. Admittedly you don’t have to pay this all up front – but to think that you’ll reach this ‘guarantee’ as a new act to Edinburgh is naïve especially if the time slot is not suitable for your demographic and your venue hidden.
My ‘advance/guarantee’ for my paid venue was £3,500. To put that in perspective, that was an 87 seater capacity. On top of this you also have to pay the ‘shared guide’ cost, which is £500, something you don’t have to do if you’re on the ‘free’ platform. Piff’s free venue was a 120 seater cap (and we managed to squeeze 140 in one night). It is not unusual for an act in Edinburgh to sell 5 seats per night (especially if you are new). I cannot emphasise this point enough!
On the last week of Edinburgh I got talking to someone who had worked for several years as one of the few full time staff at one of the big four. He told me a tale about how (when he used to work there many years ago) he had three up-and-coming acts who were very good. They were new to Edinburgh so they could only offer these acts late slots (past 10pm – 11pm etc…). These three acts struggled. He informed me of tears and low audience attendance (not that dissimilar to what I had experienced with my act on the paid platform).
These three acts are now some of the highest paid entertainers in the industry. All of them are millionaires. If I named them – you’d know them.
As economic times get harsher – the luxury of gambling in Edinburgh and losing thousands simply won’t be an option. Instead you have to think about how you can gain a reputation as a performer without haemorrhaging thousands and keep your head above water. Some acts make money on the paid platforms; you just need to be smart enough to know if you’re one of those acts!
I didn’t meet my venue guarantee with my ‘paid’ act. In fact not only did I lose the cost of taking them to Edinburgh – I also lost £2,100 of my guarantee.
As for Piff – takings were disappointingly slow in the beginning. I couldn’t help but think that the economic situation had made people thriftier – if they could get away without paying, they would. However, as the show went on people were more generous. I had numerous people give me notes each night saying that it was far better than many shows they’d seen on the ‘paid’ platform and therefore they thought it only fair to pay a similar cost.
We took £2,400 in cash over the course of the month.
So the maths – my free show was £4,500 better off than the show I put on the paid platform. Not only that – when you produce, cash-flow is king. I still had bills going out during August- fees for my operator, per diems for my act and my London rent. By doing the free festival, it meant that I always had cash coming in to pay the bills.
There are various reasons why my other act failed financially – which I could go into at great length! Regardless, I didn’t think there would be a £4.5k difference between the two shows.
Piff had over 4,000 people see him in Edinburgh (between his free show and the cabaret night he did). Nearly 2,000 people saw him at the Hive alone (his free show). My other act had 303 ‘paid’ people see them, which I’d ‘up’ to ‘500’ once I take papering and cabaret into account.
As I said at the start of this, Edinburgh Festival is a great platform and as a performer you have options. Both platforms have their merits and their disadvantages, you need to consider what is best for you and what it is you’re trying to achieve in Edinburgh. Both platforms have the capability of helping you achieve great results; you just need to make sure you choose the right platform for your show.
I wouldn’t hesitate putting another one of my acts on at the ‘Free Festival’. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and I also felt that there was a general camaraderie between the acts, the organisers and the venues – which made even the darkest days that little bit brighter!