Local Theaters Demand Statistics from Reviewers

By Becky O'Malley
Friday May 18, 2012 - 11:11:00 AM

What is it about “free” that’s so hard to understand?

Someone who frequently provides the Planet—gratis—with his excellent reviews of local theater productions forwarded to us a letter he received which displays the truly remarkable sense of entitlement which afflicts some members of the Bay Area theatrical industry.

It’s from the flacks who work for a few local theaters—oh sorry, from “PR representatives for nine of the most prominent theaters in the Bay Area.” 

The first paragraph contains fulsome expressions of solidarity and exhortations to teamwork, with which I won’t bore you. In the next two grafs, however, they cut to the chase: 

“As we all know, ongoing changes in our culture have transformed the way people access information. Traditional print media continue to thrive, despite dire predictions of their demise, yet all of us have seen the increasing importance of online news sites, blogs, and social media. We appreciate your role as a citizen journalist. Yet everyone knows a life in the theater isn’t likely to make you rich, and every complimentary ticket we offer is lost income at the box office. It is essential for theaters to be careful stewards of our resources in these difficult economic times. Therefore, we must be able to demonstrate to our employers that the press passes we issue deliver a meaningful return on investment.  

“So we’re writing to you today to ask your assistance: please help us demonstrate the impact of your reviews so that we can continue inviting you to our shows. Going forward, to receive press passes, online critics will be expected to submit a report from Google Analytics, Visistat, or a similar service that documents web traffic on your reviews. This report should show the total hits and the number of unique visitors in the past six months or more. If you publish reviews on a personal blog, the report may be for the site as a whole. If you publish reviews on a large site such as Examiner.com, Forallevents.com, Huffington Post, or another host that aggregates content, the report must reflect actual traffic on your page or your posts. Please submit your report to info@charleszukow.com by June 15.” 

(If you really care, you can read the whole mawkish epistle here.) 

Of course, it’s arrant nonsense. 

We don't even get the Planet’s stats in the specific form they demand, so it would take a non-trivial amount of effort to provide them that way. 

FYI, the Planet’s unique hits still number in the tens of thousands, depending on how you count, but that’s beside the point. What's not to like about free publicity, even if it's on a blog with only a few readers? 

Do the math, people. If the online critic has only ten readers, but two of them buy tickets, you’ve recouped the cost of a pair of comps for the blogger. 

If the theaters are really concerned about losing revenue, all they have to do is give suspect critics tickets that are void if the performance is sold out (sadly, few are) and then they won’t lose a penny on the tickets. 

This letter was particularly annoying to us because one of the signers was the flack for the Berkeley Repertory Theater. During the eight long years when we were subsidizing the print version of the Planet, Berkeley Rep consistently refused to advertise with us. 

The excuse given was that the Planet had “the wrong demographic”. It’s obvious that the Rep’s demographic is predominantly bridge-and-tunnel suburbanites from points east, but a fair number of Berkeleyans probably buy tickets too. 

An ex-employee offered another explanation of why the Rep refused to advertise: that one of their executives was swayed by pressure from the campaign against the paper pursued by people who thought criticism of Israel equaled antisemitism. That one can’t be proved, but for whatever reason the Berkeley Repertory Theater never did advertise in the Planet. 

Nonetheless, turning the other cheek, we continued to pay our reviewers to publicize Berkeley Rep’s plays. And now that we can’t pay reviewers, they’ve generously continued to cover local theaters with no pay but complimentary tickets, and we’ve gone on publishing their work as a public service. 

No more. Putting out even an online publication requires a considerable amount of work and a certain amount of expense, and we’re just not willing to assume the added cost, in both time and money, of reporting to self-important local theaters about who reads our reviews, especially when they didn’t support the paper when it was an attempt at a commercial venture. 

The signers of the letter are: Charles Zukow and Kevin Kopjak, on behalf of ACT, Beach Blanket Babylon, Marines Memorial Theatre, etc.; Terence Keane, Berkeley Repertory Theatre; Erin Garcia, SHN; Sasha Hnatkovich, Marin Theatre Company; Marilyn Langbehn, California Shakespeare Theater; Erica Lewis-Finein, Aurora Theatre Company; Carla Befera, on behalf of TheatreWorks, Bay Area Cabaret, Smuin Ballet, etc. 

It’s simple. If any of these companies refuse to give our reviewers free tickets without adding to our editorial workload by demanding reports, they just won’t see any more reviews of their productions in the Planet. That’s not a hard decision to make. 

If you’re a theatergoer and you’d like to comment, the email address is info@charleszukow.com

And send us a copy of your letter.