Part 5: Matthew Lopez on the evolving role of marketing in making art

Playwriting Fellow Matthew Lopez at the DCPA. Photo by John Moore.

NOTE: This is Part 5 of an ongoing series of conversations with 2014-15 DCPA Playwriting Fellow Matthew Lopez, above. Photo by John Moore.

One of the reasons Matthew Lopez accepted an offer to become the DCPA Theatre Company’s first-ever Playwriting Fellow this season was because the experience promised to pull back the veil on parts of the theatre-making process writers are rarely privy to.

“The fellowship came at a time when I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with the opacity of the way theatres around the country make decisions,” said Lopez.

Lopez’s six-month fellowship promised a front-row seat to everything from season-selection meetings to budget sessions. He is serving as the DCPA’s host for the 2015 Colorado New Play Summit. He is teaching playwriting and acting workshops. He has visited Denver-area schools. He is essentially a full member of the artistic staff.

“When does a playwright ever get to do all that?” Lopez said. “It’s like being offered a backstage tour of the inner workings of a company.”

He got the backstage tour, too.

One of the most illuminating parts of Lopez’s tour has been developing a greater understanding of the role marketing plays in everything from the way a playwright’s work is introduced to the public, to the playwright’s financial bottom line. Simply put: The better the marketing, the more seats are sold – and the more the playwright gets paid, Lopez said. 

The bottom line for anyone with a hand in creating a play, Lopez says, is this: “No one wants to put all of this work into it, and then not have anyone show up.”

Here is more from our conversation:

John Moore: What has surprised you the most about delving into the world of marketing here?

Matthew Lopez: The science of it; the professionalism of it; the industry of it. That was pretty eye-opening. But what was even more enlightening and refreshing to me is how it always seems to come back to the creative process, and to the art. When everything is done well, it really is the perfect meeting of art and commerce – at least that is how I have experienced it here at the DCPA.

John Moore: What is it like for a playwright to talk with staff about your play in terms of ticket sales and revenue goals and percentages of capacity?

Matthew Lopez: There are hard numbers being discussed in those meetings. There are literally percentage points being bandied about. But then there is also a keen eye toward “the why.” Why is a play selling or not selling? With A Christmas Carol, you know it’s selling because of the name recognition. Because of the tradition. Because people have seen this production before, and they know it will be of high quality. But people are also asking, “Why was Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike‎ such a big hit for the company?” And even though Lord of the Flies maybe didn’t sell quite as many tickets, why is that the play that everyone was talking about for weeks afterward? It’s fascinating.

John Moore: Especially given that Lord of the Flies performed so many student matinees – and every ticket was sold. And those students treated the cast like they were boy-band rock stars. But for whatever reason, it didn’t appeal to an adult audience in the same way at night.

Matthew Lopez: And why is that? What amazes me is that marketing departments now have ways of finding out. I had no idea the business end of it has become so sophisticated and scientific. It’s pretty impressive. But again – the road always led back to the art and to the creation, and that was pretty exciting to me.

Matthew Lopez

John Moore: How do you compare the particular challenge of marketing live theatre to, say, films?

Matthew Lopez: The difference between selling live theatre and film is that the owners of the movie theatres could care less about the number of butts in their seats, because they get to keep such a tiny fraction of the box office. They get practically nothing from ticket sales. All of the action that they make at a movie theatre is off of concessions. So there is zero connection between the number of tickets sold, and the audience’s intellectual and emotional interaction with the film. Seriously: They could not care less what you thought of The Imitation Game or Unbroken or The Hobbit. They just don’t care. They want you to buy popcorn. But here at the Denver Center, there is a direct correlation between butts in the seats and the audience’s engagement with the theatre that is being created. Everything depends on it. This might be a crass way of looking at it, but for a playwright, the more attention the marketing department can generate for your play, the more tickets are sold, which means the playwright makes more money. I can’t speak for the actors, because they don’t get paid based on how many tickets are sold. I get paid based on how many tickets are sold.

John Moore: I thought licensing fees were based on the seating capacity of the theatre, not on how many people actually show up.

Matthew Lopez. There is a formula that determines what you get paid in advance. But later on, you also get a pre-negotiated percentage of the box office. So the size of the house, and the number of tickets sold, does factor into it. If you are the playwright, you are going to make more money in a 1,200-seat theatre than you will in a 150-seat theatre. You are going to make more money if they charge $100 for the ticket as opposed to $27 for the ticket. The actors are paid a fixed rate based on the size of the house, and they get paid the same whether the house is full or empty. And so for me, the work that the marketing department does directly impacts my bottom line.

John Moore: The way I see it, really every part of the process can, in some way, be considered marketing. Advertising is marketing, obviously. But really anything that convinces a potential audience member to come and see a show is marketing. That might be a story in the Sunday newspaper. A banner they see driving down the street. An email with a discount offer. An audience testimonial on social media. Even the script – and the performances. Because if an audience thinks The Legend of Georgia McBride is the best new play they have seen in a long time – and they tell people about it, that’s organic marketing. Or if they see Mark Rylance perform in Jerusalem, and they tell their friends they have to see it – that’s all part of the wide swath that is marketing now.

Matthew Lopez: Absolutely.

John Moore: What do you think of the emerging role of curation in enhancing and extending the audience’s theatergoing experience? For Georgia McBride, there was a cooperative effort between the marketing and artistic teams so that the audience experience began from the moment they walked through the front door and continued long after the show with a local drag performance. 

Matthew Lopez: That was fun, wasn’t it? What I took from that is the idea that marketing doesn’t have to be unimaginative. Marketing can actually be a part of the creative experience. I think the more imaginative the marketing department is, the more engrained they are in the production itself. Georgia McBride was a perfect example of that. The less marketing looks like marketing, the better. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” right? You are not supposed to notice.

John Moore: So this is new to everyone, right? But I can only assume that deep down, the playwright wishes the play could speak for itself.

Matthew Lopez: At first, that was probably my attitude. I kind of felt like, “I got this, guys. This is what I do. Why don’t we just let them see the show?” But I think that was a little bit of contempt prior to investigation. Once I saw what they were thinking about for Georgia McBride, and once I actually saw what kind of resources they were able to put into it, and the imagination they put behind the idea, I think we all kind of dug it. Not too soon after we started performances, most nights you would see half the cast watching the drag show in the lobby after the show.

Note: Matthew Lopez is conducting a playwriting workshop and discussion as part of the 2015 Colorado New Play Summit at 5 p.m. today, Feb. 15, at the Jones Theatre, Speer and Arapahoe.

Check out our photo gallery covering parts of Matthew Lopez’s Playwriting Fellowship in Denver, above.

Part 1: Why take the Playwriting Fellowship? The hunger for new work
Part 2: Lopez to students: Be citizens. Be informed. Have opinions.
Part 3: Is sweetness a risk in the American Theatre?
Part 4: Peter Pan Live made Matthew Lopez cry – and fly
Part 5: Matthew Lopez on the changing role of marketing in making art (today)
Part 6: Matthew Lopez leads acting, playwriting workshops at  2015 Summit (coming next)

Paying Playwrights More Than Play Money

Matthew Lopez named DCPA Playwriting Fellow for 2014-15
Georgia McBride will be staged in New York
Matthew Lopez’s trip down the straight and fabulous
2015 Colorado New Play Summit expands to two weekends
Georgia McBride team: ‘Subtlety is our enemy’