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Fringe File 2017, #5: The Money

Our popular Fringe File series on the Minnesota Fringe Festival returns. Pictured: Max Wojtanowicz in a promotional photo for MN Fringe 2016’s Ball: A Tribute to My Lost Testicle.

A Fringe show may begin with the first glimmer of an idea or the drawing of its number, but its first incarnation ends with the money. After the set is packed, the lights are turned off, reviews digested, and the headache from the last-night-of-Fringe party has slipped into a fog of memory, Fringe producers get one more thing in the mail: a check for their box office receipts and a list of how many tickets sold at each performance.

Planning Questions

The show image for Hit the Lights! Theater Co.’s Dungeon. HtLTC is one of several New York City-based ensembles performing in this year’s Fringe Festival.

As the saying goes, “It’s all about the Benjamins” when it comes time to paying bills. Knowing exactly what revenue will be is every producer’s dream – after all, theatrical costs have an appetite that is often hard to control. It’s not for nothing that producers’ expense calculus goes something like this:

  1. What do we need to pay for?
  2. What do we want to pay for?
  3. What do we think we can make back in ticket revenue?

Another big question on every Fringe producer’s mind last year was, “How will the new wristband system affect show attendance and my box office revenue?”

Wristbands Will Solve Some Ills

A promotional image for Dave Stagner’s The Tragedy of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a show appearing at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Last year’s Fringe festival had a big change in ticketing: the replacement of single-admission tickets with daily entry wristbands. In an October 2015 interview, then-Fringe Festival Executive Director Jeff Larson cited two key reasons for introducing the system:

  1. resolving the box office snarls that characterized the Rarig Center and other clustered venues, and
  2. boosting the average Fringe Festival show attendance.

A few rants against change notwithstanding, the first was a clear, unmitigated success: even at the most popular shows, the wristband system (in which a 1-day admission wristband is shown to receive a show-admission token, which can be quickly collected with no scanning) vastly simplified crowd management. Large lines of token-bearing patrons flowed smoothly into venues; and as evenings progressed, the box office lines were notably shorter even as the queues of wristband bearers swelled. For that reason alone, the wristbands were clearly destined to stay.

MN Fringe Festival Attendance, 2009-2016. Data source: MN Fringe Festival.

The success of the second goal is harder to gauge. This is partly because of an attendance hit from the Summer Olympics – 2016 MN Fringe attendance dropped about 5% (from 50,338 to 47,864), paralleling a similar drop in 2012. There is also a certain level of abstraction in the available data – short of barcode scanning, RFID tracking, or other measures, it’s not always clear when one person is attending many shows versus more people attending fewer.

Ramifications & Consequences

One of the most dramatic events surrounding the wristband change was a massive drop in box office revenue from $411,714 (2015) to $327,508 (2016) – its lowest revenue in 8 years. To an individual producer, however, that detail is moot, next to “How many people came to my show and how much did we get paid?”

MN Fringe Festival Box Office Totals (USD), 2009-2016. Data source: MN Fringe Festival.

That question represents progress. Previous years had the more complex “How many people came to my show, how many of them were comps, and how much do we get paid for the rest?” Under the pre-2016 system, predicting box office revenue from butts in seats was difficult – after all, many of those attendees could be fellow artists, Fringe staff, members of the press, and others using comp tickets…none of whose being there directly contributed to the box office total.

Under the new system, all butts in seats for a show are counted…but the exact payoff is calculated based on a show’s butts-in-seats total as a proportion of the festival and venue totals. While producers might answer “How many people came to my show?” through astute counting, the “How much do we get paid?” was still up in the air when the afterparty began.

A promotional image for the mime show Lettres et Café, part of the festival’s 2017 lineup.

The Minnesota Fringe Festival does not publish per-show payouts, although an end-of-season total for the festival is made available. After the Minnesota Fringe mailed box office statements and checks to all 2016 MN Fringe producers, the staff of the Twin Cities Arts Reader spoke with eight veteran Fringe producers about their payouts. Surprisingly, average box office payouts did not change significantly, averaging $4.19 per attendee – right in line with previous years’ averages. (The individual show averages ranged from $4.09 to $4.28, and were collected for the period 2012-2016.)

All filled seats are counted towards the payout for each artist. The number of seats filled is multiplied by a dollar figure calculated by the total day’s pass sales, divided by total attendance. 

––Dawn Bentley, Executive Director, Minnesota Fringe Festival

From a producer’s perspective, this greatly simplifies one Fringe paranoia from years’ past: a show being popular amongst other Fringe artists, but not with the ticket-buying public. Three producers shared stories of having as few as one out of four seats was filled by a paying customer – an unpleasant surprise come payout. Four of the eight producers also stated that show revenue was a point of significant anxiety, since they were unable to estimate the box office gross mid-run.

Here Yesterday, Here Today

One thing is for sure: the wristbands are here to stay. As the MN Fringe’s Executive Director Dawn Bentley said at Monday’s preview, they’re coming back.

Basil Considine