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Sony Music Masterworks links with live producer

Sony Music Masterworks (SMM) has announced a new strategic venture with live entertainment company Roast Productions.

Founded by Bonnie Royal and Michael Stevens, London-based Roast Productions (RP) focuses on producing theatre, concerts and family entertainment events.

Royal and Stevens will continue to lead the company’s day-to-day operations and collaborate with Masterworks on the development of a range of new productions, working in partnership with both Masterworks president Mark Cavell and Ollie Rosenblatt, founder and CEO of SMM-backed UK concert promotion and production company Senbla.

“I’m absolutely delighted to welcome Bonnie and Michael to the Sony Music Masterworks family,” says Mark Cavell, president of Sony Music Masterworks. “Their creativity and expertise will further support our endeavours in securing and creating new quality and original live productions that will captivate and entertain audiences across the globe, and provide first-class content for our other partners to promote and market.”

Recent and current RP shows include Macbeth starring Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma, 2:22 A Ghost Story and variety show Christmas Actually, curated by Love Actually filmmaker Richard Curtis and produced in partnership with Senbla.

“The strength of its vision and values makes it the ideal partner for us as we develop a diverse body of work in the UK and internationally”

“It is an absolute honour to join Sony Music Masterworks and develop new work and new markets together,” add Royal and Stevens, producers and co-MDs of Roast. “The strength of its vision and values makes it the ideal partner for us as we develop a diverse body of work in the UK and internationally.”

SMM’s agreement with Roast Productions is the latest in a series of strategic partnerships and acquisitions advancing its growth as a multi-faceted worldwide entertainment business operating in more than 30 countries.

A division of Sony Music Entertainment, SMM has acquired stakes in live businesses such as Senbla, Barcelona-based Proactiv Entertainment last year. Other investments by the firm include Backyard Cinema; Holland-based GEA Live; Dubai-based concert promotion, talent management, events and production company MAC Global and Raymond Gubbay Ltd.

Its continued growth comes as another record label, BMG, has signalled that is stepping away from the live music industry after agreeing a deal which will see its two live companies, Undercover and Karo, transferred back to the minority shareholders.

 


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The wondrous world of family entertainment

You can find yourself in a breath-taking blizzard of fake snow and blinding winds. In a magical library, watching a brand-new story you’ve helped to invent come to life around you. Deep in a fairy-lit forest, nodding back at a hippogriff. Or singing along with the biggest stars of children’s TV and film. It can be a wondrous place, the world of family entertainment, and particularly when it lights up your town for a night the little ones will never forget.

From extravaganzas featuring major Disney, Nickelodeon, and CBeebies favourites and popular film and children’s book franchises, to immersive and unique small-scale experiences, family shows have proven popular and adaptable enough to bounce back impressively from the Covid-19 shutdowns. Most family show producers report a bumper post-pandemic year, citing ticket sales of 80-100% on familiar and dependable brand productions such as Stomp, Riverdance and Cirque du Soleil shows, and are confident of a strong 2023.

Canada-based stalwart of the family entertainment sector, Cirque du Soleil, was hit hard by Covid-19, having to suspend all 44 of its active shows around the world and temporarily laying off more than 4,600 staff. After filing for bankruptcy protection, it was a bought by a consortium including former MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren and Canadian investment group Catalyst Capital in November 2020.

Since then, it’s bounced back with strength, says Mike Newquist, president, touring shows edition. The company relaunched with four of its largest big tops including Alegria, Kurios, and Kooza. It launched a fifth big top last summer, and then three arena shows went out – Corteo, Crystal, and Ovo.

“We’ve now launched nine different tours around the world, and we’re seeing ticket sales coming back really strong; average ticket price is higher than it was before. And the demand for good shows is as strong as ever,” says Newquist. “The costs are also quite a bit higher than they were before. So, like all our other touring friends, we’re faced with that. It’s higher across the board in everything that we do, with logistics and travel. It’s costly to tour, but overall, the business is very, very healthy. And we’re seeing that across all markets in all regions right now.”

He says across the touring shows, the company expects to sell 4-5m tickets across the globe. And that the company, which recently launched new show Echo, uses its 40-year sales data to strategically analyse which territories to tour to. And, as far as new territories it’s considering, Newquist says Asia is of particular interest. “As China moves out of the pandemic, I think you’ll see us venture there with different promoter partners across the region. We’ll look to grow there. Right now, we’re in Japan and doing really well there, and we have a show in Korea in the autumn that did really well, so we’ll be going back to those markets that we’ve historically done well [in] and will continue to do well. But as we look at China and Southeast Asia, I do see room for growth there. We’re so strong in North America, South America, Europe, and Australia, so that would, to me, be the next area for growth for our live event business. We’ll test the waters a little bit.”

“We are very bullish and so are our promoter partners, but we’re constantly watching across economic data to see where the landscape is going”

With 1,000 people on the road at a time, it’s a huge operation, but Newquist says the market looks “healthy but cautious.” He continues: “We are very bullish and so are our promoter partners, but we’re constantly watching across economic data to see where the landscape is going and shifting as we look ahead throughout the rest of this year and then into ‘24, as well.”

One key to emerging from the pandemic with momentum was to hit the ground running, and early. Several promoters who took the chance of being first back to market as Covid restrictions eased are now feeling the benefit.

“We embraced the return to the world fairly early,” says Shaun Comerford, executive director of Australia’s Circa Contemporary Circus. He worked with doctors and psychologists to get a touring production of charming acrobatic clowning show Carnival of the Animals on the road as soon as Australian restrictions began lifting in May 2021. “At the time Australia was completely isolated from the rest of the world…that company that went overseas, they didn’t know when they were coming back. We had bookings to take them through until about January of 2022, and we felt that we would probably be in a position to bring them home at that point – but there were a lot of unknowns.”

Comerford believes that the pandemic saw a swift contraction in the planning and lead-in times for promoters and venues who were locking-in their coming seasons. This provided an advantage to family shows that are traditionally nimble enough to develop new shows each year to slot into school holidays. Companies such as Circa, with its in-house ensemble of artists all pre-rehearsed for shows such as its current hit Humans 2.0, were able to adapt quickly to the fast-moving lockdown situation in Australasia.

“We’ve been able to be a little bit flexible,” he says. “We can pick up gigs at short notice. We did a season last year in Singapore with Carnival of the Animals and that was an April season. I think we booked it in early February and then they went on sale, which was unheard of. Pre-pandemic that wouldn’t happen. We were the first international show back on stage at the Marina Bay Sands with that work. It’s opened up some opportunities closer to home, probably some more opportunities in Asia than we’ve had in the past decade… There were some big risks, but what that brought us from a market point of view was a lot of goodwill. We were out there early with presenters; we took gigs in that first year that were sometimes a bit more challenging because of the Covid overlay. But as a result, it’s really brought us something that was worth the risk.”

The pandemic also inspired some pioneering work in the sector

Early return
Germany’s Apassionata World, which draws on the best horse-riding talent of southern and central Europe to produce the continent’s premier horse display and trick-riding shows, went some way further. CEO Johannes Mock-O’Hara, who was aware that 50% of Apassionata’s ticket sales were return visits, in October 2021 decided to organise a loss-leading “marketing tour” of Germany’s 16 states and seven foreign territories, each with their own contrasting Covid regulations and most allowing just 20-30% capacity shows, in order to maintain the trust and connection with their loyal audience. This was no casual undertaking – the company tours with 100 riders, dancers, acrobats and crew; 13 trucks of equipment; 120 tonnes of specialist sand; 60 horses; mobile stables; and even its own washing machines.

“It was quite an operational challenge,” says Mock-O’Hara, who describes the company’s famous Cavalluna production and the regular shows at its venue in Munich as “Cirque du Soleil show with horses.” He recalls the marketing tour as “a living nightmare and very complicated because every city was in a different state.

“[But] it paid back because we were in the market one year earlier than most of the other players. We were doing poster marketing and TV marketing; we were one of the very few brands on the market, so it went pretty well, and we’re reaping the rewards this year.”

Indeed, the fresh attention helped the company stage five successful shows in 2022 rather than its usual two; launch its first outdoor all-ages comedy show last summer; and sell all 25,000 tickets for its fortnight run of Winter Country of Wishes in Munich. Its current show, Secret of Eternity, essentially an Indiana Jones movie on horseback, is “back to the level of 2019” and Apassionata expects its autumn and winter production Land of a Thousand Dreams to continue the success.

The pandemic also inspired some pioneering work in the sector. With parks the only spaces open to the public during much of 2020 in the UK, Anthony Norris – executive producer and co-founder of Unify Productions – noticed that woodland light trails were allowed to run. So, he contacted Sony Masterworks with the idea of creating Harry
Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience at Arley Hall in Cheshire that winter. The show consists of a one-way trail stretching 1.7km, featuring 3,500 lights, voices from the films, mechanical models of characters created by specialist Potter workshops, and major scenes playing out on gauze screens along the way.

“There is huge potential in Bulgaria, simply because this market is comparatively undeveloped in this segment”

“We have a hippogriff,” Norris explains. “It bows its head if the guests bow to it and maintain eye contact. We have Aragog’s Lair, he’s a 10-foot wide aragog who comes out of his lair to a vocal section from the movie, and what the guests don’t realise is they walked into a 10x10m truss cube with 24 spiders in the rigging above their heads that drop on two different timed drops. We have Patronus scenes where guests walk onto a platform, they get handed a wand and are told to say the spell. When they cast it, their Patronus appears on a gauze screen. Everything ties back to our finale where it’s Harry fighting the Dementors. In the UK, that’s over a manmade lake on a projection gauze 30x10m as guests stand on the bank of the lake and watch it all come out in front of them. It’s pretty big.” A big success, too – the trail has now opened in Brussels, Washington DC, and New York.

Bulgaria isn’t a regular stop for family entertainment, says Stefan Elenkov of national promoter FEST Team. However, there is very strong demand, and it would be a worthwhile visit, he says, citing a recent Hot Wheels Monster Trucks show at Arena Sofia, which he says was “a big success.” “There is huge potential in Bulgaria,” he continues, “simply because this market is comparatively undeveloped in this segment,” adding that his company promotes the country’s largest family entertainment festival, ARTE Feastival, and works closely with Live Nation. “People here are looking not only at entertaining their kids but also their grandparents. They want to go together as a family and friends.

“I don’t understand why these types of show aren’t coming to Bulgaria more frequently. I see what’s going on with shows across Europe, and I know we definitely need this type of family entertainment. Maybe one of the reasons is most of the promoters here prefer to do a single show on just one day, while family shows require more commitment.”

He says FEST Team is producing a dance show, which, if it’s successful in Sofia, will tour the ten largest cities in Bulgaria.

“There is huge potential here. Every opportunity that we see in the market, we will grab it, and we are actively looking to bring in more family entertainment. We really want to grow the market to the highest possible levels.”

“The shows that are doing very well at the moment are those that are well branded; that people know they get bang-for-buck”

As the pandemic eased during 2022 but the cost-of-living crisis hit, many producers found audiences still wary of large crowds and reluctant to splash out on a family event unless they were certain it was worth it. So familiar shows and brands bounced-back quickly. “The shows that are doing very well at the moment are those that are well branded; that people know they get bang-for-buck; and that they’re going to have a great time,” says Glynis Hall, director and executive producer of Glynis Henderson Productions, which has brought junk-percussion spectacular Stomp from the streets of Covent Garden to 50 countries over the past 30 years. It’s currently booking out full houses for a show that remains “totally fresh” across Europe and the Far East for 2023. “When money’s tight, you spend it on what you’re pretty sure about, not taking risks on something you’re not.”

The family dynamic emphasises the shift, Hall attests. “A four year old is going because she wants to see something she’s already engaged with and invested in. But the parent is paying for it, so if they’ve read great reviews about something or all their friends have said it’s brilliant, they’ll pay to go and see that, rather than something they haven’t heard much about.”
It’s a trend that’s repeating globally. Across Europe, family favourite Slava’s SnowShow continues to play to packed houses of all ages entranced by the surreal, poetic, and moving tragi-comic antics of Russian master clown Slava Polunin and his family of wide-hatted accomplices.

Some 30 years in, having returned to territories again and again with exactly the same show handed down over three generations, SnowShow has become “a Nutcracker-type classic,” says Gwenael Allan, founder and CEO of The GAAP, which books the show, famed for creating a full-blown snowstorm in the theatre at its climax. “It sits on its own in this world where it’s like an old fairy tale that seems to have survived a time when things became a little more standardised and cynical,” says Allan. “It’s probably the most joyful experience there is in theatre.

The audience reaction at the end of the show, even after 30 years, is the same: you have up to 1,500 people of all ages, all standing. He turns these audiences, after a 90-minute show, into raving children with shining eyes. It’s right up there with Les Mis and Phantom, but it’s just a bunch of clowns. We go to the same places these big musicals go but with a hand-made show and do the same thing to the same number of people.”

The European touring production of Riverdance remains similarly popular. Hermjo Klein, general manager of ACT Artist Agency in Germany, says the show has maintained the same wow factor it had when he first put it on primetime German TV 25 years ago. It’s hitting 80% sales in 3,000-4,000-capacity halls across Germany and Austria in 2023. “It’s a combination of everything: different kinds of dance; it’s a family show; it’s fantastic music; and it was never-seen-before. People still love it – every night there’s a ten-minute standing ovation.”

“Madagascar is pretty much verbatim the first movie… SpongeBob is a little different”

While such evergreen shows continue to play on their classic strengths, and with a huge inrush of product to the re-opening market creating a perfect storm of competition, the biggest brands have been evolving fast in order to stay ahead of the game. Jonathan Shank, the CEO of Terrapin Station Entertainment, who first brought family sector titan Peppa Pig to the US, recently sold over 150,000 tickets for the award-nominated North American leg of his most recent Disney Junior show. It sees the latest screen characters perform to music from some surprising names. “On the most recent Disney show, we have a couple of songs by Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy,” he says. “That’s really amazing. The audience is always surprised when all of a sudden, they’re going, ‘Wait, is that a Fall Out Boy song that Spidey is performing to?’”

Shank’s Disney Junior show recently played five sold-out shows in Hawaii enroute to an extended run in America later in 2023, and there are plans for an international jaunt early in 2024. Elsewhere, Circa is stretching its budget to develop a circus-based adaptation of Shaun the Sheep, and The Path Entertainment Group, who recently had huge success with the stage musical adaptation of the Madagascar movie, is bringing the Broadway hit SpongeBob: The Musical to the UK for the first time this year.

“Madagascar is pretty much verbatim the first movie, where the animals break out of the zoo and find themselves in a container on the way to Madagascar, then meet all the wonderful characters there,” says Path CEO David Hutchinson, explaining that the show is a mixture of costume, puppetry, and human acting. “SpongeBob is a little different – that’s all about the idea of Bikini Bottom exploding and a forthcoming Armageddon- level volcano, which will see everyone perish. It’s about the decisions that you make in that time and the relationships you build to solve that. It’s silly, fun, and bubbly, and has songs by Flaming Lips, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, and David Bowie – the artists who were involved in writing music were incredible. I think that’s what’s made the stage musical unique – it’s a brand that people know and love but it’s also artists they love and know that have put together the music.”

Hutchinson argues that a big brand or IP – or a song like Madagascar’s I Like to Move It – helps get people over the threshold but that’s not enough to support an entire show alone. “It comes down to how you’re relating the loved brands to adding value on stage. What doesn’t work is thinking that just because it’s popular, putting anything on stage is going to be successful. There has to be something about it that adds value, something where the superfans can engage with the brand and get more out of it compared with it being a cardboard cut-out of whatever other medium they’ve watched it on. It needs to work as a stage show.”

Despite a refocussing on national rather than international shows during the pandemic – Allan highlights the US as “the most hermetic, the most insular for family entertainment” – high-profile family favourites are increasingly a global concern. After a UK run in 2023, Path hopes to move SpongeBob: The Musical into Asia, Australasia, and the Middle East, where the latest evolutions of Disney on Ice and Cirque du Soleil continue to make inroads into a rejuvenated family market.

“In previous years, we tended to do a one-off show; bring it into one destination and move on because the market wasn’t as strong as in other parts of the world. Now, the demand is there”

Middle East success
Investment in hi-tech venues in dedicated entertainment districts in Abu Dhabi have helped the sector thrive there, and the opening of the Kuwait Arena has helped Alison Goldsmith, operations director of Middle East promoter SESLive!, bring the major western shows to what was previously a very locally focussed Arabian market in 2023. The region has its own specific challenges, however.

“It’s a very small distance physically between the countries, but they all have very unique laws and requirements and permits and systems to operate within,” she says. “So, moving a one-hour truck ride down the road doesn’t necessarily mean it’s only going to take you an hour to get there. It might take ten days to manage multiple countries with multiple permit requirements, different customs options, and different support from various organisations. It seems like it’d be a nice and easy thing to hit two or three countries in a very small geographical area, but they’re all unique countries with their own challenges that we have to work with. In previous years, we tended to do a one-off show; bring it into one destination and move on because the market wasn’t as strong as in other parts of the world. Now, the demand is there, and shows are doing very well here, so we’re looking at touring and routing around the region.”

Middle East-headquartered Alchemy Project works across the region and in Europe as a content provider, investor, and organiser of family entertainment shows, such as Cirque du Soleil; Broadway musicals such as Shrek the Musical and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; and children’s events The Smurfs Musical, Masha and Bear, Aladdin, Alice in Wonderland, and others.

Since 2020, it’s been investing in content IPs and is producing children’s shows.

“In Europe, there is always a steady demand for live kids’ content, which are part of [the] cultural and educational growth of kids,” says CEO Mac S Far. “However, post-Covid lockdowns, certain markets show variable data related to consumer support affected by geo-economic factors. In the Middle East, the markets are different from one another. Markets like UAE have shown exponential growth with the help of subsidies and support from related authorities. Qatar is a new market where, with the support and help of the leadership, more and more of [this type of content is] being presented.

“The way the world has gone, everything is more expensive now”

“The Middle East historically has a strong culture revolving around families, and the governments in the past years have been supporting lots of kids’ entertainment in order to enhance the family-centred culture in the region. If we are able to attract the interest of the little ones from an early age and show them the magic of live entertainment, we can educate our young ones better and plant the love for live experiences further.”

Covid’s impact on shipping is particularly hard on the Middle Eastern market, with freight companies still struggling to return to pre-pandemic schedules and arrival times wildly unpredictable. “Everything has to be shipped to us here; it’s quite a long process and the timelines are less reliable than they used to be,” Goldsmith says. “We’re having to give more time for things to get to us and that causes challenges. If there are multiple tours that they’re trying to manage, and it takes eight weeks to get from anywhere to us and then more weeks to get out, there’s a lot of lost opportunity.”

Elsewhere, as joyous as the family entertainment sector can be, it hasn’t been immune to the effects of the global inflation, post-pandemic labour shortages, and the supply chain issues that are plaguing the entire touring community. The cost of materials, fuel, crew, and trucking has skyrocketed, and family shows, with their delicate balance of costs and ticket price, have particularly been feeling the pinch: as a family group day out, they’re especially susceptible to the purse-tightening effects of cost-of-living squeezes.

“You’ve got a duality of inflation of costs, with a ticket price that really can’t afford to go much higher because of the cost of living,” says Hutchinson. “The way the world has gone, everything is more expensive now when it comes to construction costs, touring costs, haulage, and wages going up in line with inflation. A lot of other industries are passing on that cost to the consumer, but in theatre, we don’t think that’s the right way of doing it because it will preclude people from being able to go. It means your margins are being squished quite a lot.”

In putting together his 2022 Forbidden Forest Experience, Norris faced ever-rising costs. “Crew in the UK went up about 25-30% last year,” he says. “Diesel costs have doubled. We’re talking three months’ worth of operation, outdoors at night with 3,500 light fixtures. That’s a lot of diesel. We tried some battery options last year, and we’ll try that again next year, not only from a sustainability perspective but also [to] try and save on costs.” He also found the USA particularly expensive, even compared to the vastly increased costs of trucking, materials, and labour in Europe. For future projects, he’s considering shipping materials from the UK, rather than buying them in the States.

“We are going to become a smaller cog in the cultural world and that’s a travesty”

Norris is noting an easing in labour and transportation costs as the world readjusts and regulates to combat inflation but, overseeing such a large touring operation as Riverdance, Klein believes there’s still quite some way to go. “Just see all the costs for labour,” he says. “Before it was €300 a day average, and now it’s €700–1000. I don’t know where all those people have gone. Even the restaurants don’t have enough people. I think it will get better, but at the moment, it’s still very bad.”

For Hall, based in the UK, the issue is compounded further by Brexit, which she feels is helping to suffocate rising and undiscovered British acts and ideas. “Edinburgh Festival is becoming more and more difficult for people,” she says of what she calls “a brilliant breeding ground for new talent. The cost of housing up there, the cost of everything, and it’s a real worry for all our industries, not just for theatre or the live performing arts that feed into film and television, which is what this country does so brilliantly. It’s the soft power that we’ve got; I think we’re probably better at it than probably any country in the world. And Brexit is curtailing our ability to export and show off that talent.”

She cites the visa requirements, travel limitations, and red tape brought on by Brexit as a major hindrance to British entertainment reaching a wider global audience. “To get visas, you’ve got to ask every single person that’s either about to be employed or is employed, ‘Have you been on holiday in Europe recently? When was that? How many days was that? How many half days was that?’ And you literally have to count it. If someone’s just spent a month in Europe or whatever, and lots of young people have, you have to question whether your investment in them is going to pay off because by the time you rehearse them up and get them out there, you’ve run out of time. That is really depressing and denies so many UK-born artists the chance to enjoy work that travels outside this country, and lots of it does. Dance, orchestras, you name it. We are going to become a smaller cog in the cultural world and that’s a travesty.”

Hall is some way from looking to the continent when casting her shows but has started to keep sets abroad in order to reduce haulage and Brexit administration costs. Precision and efficiency are key to keeping touring feasible in such trying times. Apassionata has so fine-tuned the load-in and get-out process of its huge horse show productions that it can prepare an arena for their show in just 12 hours and get out in under eight. “It’s an extremely satisfying process to watch,” says Mock-O’Hara, “it’s a bit like a choreography.”

Hutchinson emphasises “the efficiency of space” that he utilises in order to keep his shows touring with between three and six trucks. “Getting things out of the truck in the right order so they can go up in the right order is crucial to the time it takes to fit up the show and take it down. That’s one of the most expensive weekly costs because of all the staffing costs, so efficiency is key.”

“There’s definitely a split between new work, which is quite difficult at the moment, and the absolute staples that are doing really well”

Doing deals
It’s been several decades since Slava got his SnowShow on the road for just £100,000. Although it depends on the scale of the show in question, most producers today give a ballpark figure of between £1-1.5m to get a major show from conception to stage over the course of anything from one to five years. Along the way, it takes extensive research into market interest – via online surveys, audience feedback on previous shows, and discussions with promoters – casting and rehearsal. Not to mention, as Klein puts it, “a lot of genius… and a lot of hope. And, of course, a lot of work and good artists.”

The bigger brands are able to strike more favourable deals with promoters and venues, too. Deals vary wildly, often tempered around local markets, but many producers work to a guaranteed model in reliable territories and only take on the majority of the risk when trying to break into less familiar areas or with newer works. Add in rising operational costs, tentative, cash-strapped audiences leaning towards safe options, and the resultant dominance of well-known and trusted brands, and you create a difficult time for innovative new productions to find their feet.

“Newer work or less brand-related work is struggling,” says Henderson. “People think, ‘I just want to make sure I have a great time, it’s been tough for the last 18 months, and I’ve not seen my friends a while; I want to make sure it’s a good evening.’ There’s definitely a split between new work, which is quite difficult at the moment, and the absolute staples that are doing really well.”

Mock-O’Hara emphasises the importance of clear messaging. “Things which are easy to explain, where you know exactly what you will get, are doing better. If you get a monster truck show, people know exactly what they’re getting, so those shows are quite simple to communicate. Anything that you need to explain is more of a niche market; everything new is difficult. I feel very sorry for everybody who’s trying to find a market for a new product at this moment. It’s not a good time for that.”

“Since the early 2000s, it’s become very difficult to find new content that has artistic quality plus commercial appeal and universal potential,” says Allan. “In terms of type of content, quality and consistency, there seems to be a lot less stuff that can travel. So, there’s a lack of content, and there are fewer promoters looking for international content unless its musicals or branded productions. Also, there’s a lot less cash. The things we’ve been working on in the last ten years are much cheaper than they used to be in the market before. So, we have to come up with very cheap shows, and the main thing is that of the few promoters that are left that have a real vision and are risk takers, hardly any of them today would take the risk of launching a brand-new show in their territory, even if it was free. The cost of marketing, venues, everything, is too high. So, it’s become very conservative, very restrictive, and SnowShow would not have existed if we had started in the last 15 to 20 years.”

“The corporate approach to our industry has killed it because it makes everything more expensive, much quicker, more competitive, and there’s no time for new growth”

The barrier to entry isn’t just financial, Allan explains, but developmental, too. “Time is very expensive, and these shows often need years of development at festivals, residencies, with trial and error, they need years of growth process. With the ShowShow, even though the show had already received an Olivier Award, toured in a few places, and played at the Edinburgh Festival and a few festivals across Europe, it took us ten years for it to become a consistently touring show.”

The issue is a long-standing institutional problem, Allan suggests. “It feels like it’s the end of a cycle. Over the last 20-odd years, there’s less risk-taking, more branding, and more dominance of big businesses. The corporate approach to our industry has killed it because it makes everything more expensive, much quicker, more competitive, and there’s no time for new growth. It’s like a forest where there’s only room for the big trees and they’ve made the shadows for all of the new growth.”

Creating new markets
All is not lost, however. Comerford has noticed the tide turning towards new works of late: “Festivals are returning to major commissions, which leads me to believe that the capacity to take risk and invest in new works is returning. A bit of optimism is returning to that market, which is really positive.” And Henderson argues that cannier promoters are using online marketing techniques to build a following for a show before it even hits the road.

“When people are making new work now, they’re streaming the songs on Spotify and building an audience on streaming platforms before they create the show,” he says. “That’s great because it brings a whole different audience to the theatre but also it gives you a much bigger chance of creating that brand… There are a number of new entrants into the market that only three or four years ago were unknown. One of them is Six, which is an amazing musical about Henry VIII’s six wives, told from their perspective. That’s become an international sensation. There’s definitely the opportunity to create a buzz behind something that then can go on to be internationally recognised and an in-demand brand.”

And one blooming area for new work is interactive entertainment. Markus Beyr, MD of Attraktion! in Germany, has overseen the recent launch of their Polar Journey show at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, then in Germany. The show is a combination of interactive games and exhibits, robot penguins, rides, and immersive movies on a 270-degree screen, all designed to put the viewer inside the Arctic and Antarctic experience. This year, the company also launches Jurassic Immersive Experience in Vienna and Saudi Arabia, the world’s first fully digital dinosaur show, bucking the trend for animatronics as technology has advanced and become more affordable.

“The art shows with immersive spaces were all made possible by laser video projection,” Beyr says. “Projection pricing has gone down, meaning visual media creation is faster or can be done more easily. It provides many new opportunities that were not here before. There’s a market for more interactive things, a trend which started with escape rooms, because groups of people like to come together in a social environment to find solutions and work together.”

The breakthrough family shows of the future, then, might well be enjoyed from the inside. But whatever shape it takes, the wonders will never cease. “The lesson is,” Comerford says, “you just don’t run out of small kids.”

Check out the Touring Entertainment Report 2023 in full below.


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DEAG expands family entertainment portfolio

German live giant DEAG has expanded its interests in the family entertainment sector by signing a cooperation agreement with Dresdner Weihnachts-Circus (DWC).

The partnership includes multi-channel ticketing sales for multiple events, with DEAG’s Myticket platform becoming a DWC ticketing partner with immediate effect.

DWC, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is one of the largest Christmas circuses in Germany, with 70,000 visitors each year.

“The ticketing collaboration is an initial important step in our partnership, which we intend to expand by acquiring a stake in the future”

“We expect to have a strong fourth quarter, which will be significantly influenced by our Christmas business,” says DEAG founder and CEO Peter Schewenkow. “We are very pleased to be able to cooperate with Dresdner Weihnachts-Circus with another top-class event. The ticketing collaboration is an initial important step in our partnership, which we intend to expand by acquiring a stake in the future.”

DEAG has operated Christmas circuses in Essen, Hanover and Regensburg for several years and expects to further strengthen its festive business. The agreement with DWC includes a right of first refusal on all business shares of Dresdner Weihnachts-Circus.

Last month, DEAG enhanced its presence in the classical and jazz market with the acquisition of classical music festival Classic Open Air. Earlier this year, the Berlin-headquartered group reported the most successful summer in its 44-year history, with more than three million tickets sold for its events.

 


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Family entertainment in focus

While the live entertainment industry ponders when casual ticket buyers will regain the confidence to return to events, the family entertainment sector is confident the demand among its customers is stronger than ever. Gordon Masson reports.

Like other sectors in the live industry, the world of family entertainment has been hit hard over the past couple of years, removing a vital part of the overall jigsaw given that family shows often introduce children to their first taste of live events.

One major casualty of Covid-19 was Cirque du Soleil, which had been one of the world’s most successful live entertainment enterprises since it launched in 1984. But when the pandemic struck, the company had to suspend all 44 of its active shows around the world and temporarily lay off more than 4,600 staff. With debts of more than $1 billion (€0.9bn), it was forced to file for bankruptcy protection before a consortium including former MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren and Canadian investment group Catalyst Capital bought the business in November 2020.

Manu Braff of Belgium-based MB Presents has his own Cirque story. “When the first lockdown happened we were all set-up and ready for the opening night of Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo in Antwerp. The decision basically pulled the plug on everything from one day to another. Then, reality hit and the lockdown weeks turned into months… and years. However, slowly but surely we turned the business around. As museums were allowed to stay open, we promoted and produced six exhibitions over 18 months in Belgium and abroad.”

With markets gradually reopening, producers of family entertainment shows may have a slight advantage over their live music touring peers, as their ability to drop into markets for short periods, such as school holidays, allows them to take advantage of reopened venues, whereas the music side is still relying on multiple markets to lift restrictions to facilitate tour routings.

“During the pandemic, the family entertainment worked best of all – with seated family audiences this was the ‘safest’ way to enjoy entertainment even during these challenging times,” says Georg Leitner of Austria-based Georg Leitner Productions (GLP). “For instance, in December and February we had a sold-out three-week run with Cirque de Glace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.”

“Family entertainment is partially exempt from corona measures because there are very good concepts”

It’s a benefit that GLP’s new head of show acts and family entertainment, Birger Gaetjens, is looking to fully exploit. “The family entertainment sector has a clear advantage and will continue to do so in the coming months because it is scalable and can comply with country-specific corona rules,” he notes.

Steven Armstrong, vice president EMEA for Feld Entertainment, agrees, “Our Disney On Ice shows have been out there in the US since probably October or November of 2020, so pretty much all through Covid,” he tells IQ. “We started internationally back in September of 2021 when we visited Abu Dhabi, and since we’ve gone through the UK and parts of Europe.”

Nonetheless, there are challenges. While children have been the demographic least at risk from coronavirus, their grandparents (who often pay for tickets and accompany them to live events) remain among the highest risk members of society for Covid, presenting just another obstacle among the myriad that producers, and the promoters who hire their shows, are currently facing.

GLP’s Gaetjens opines, “Although children and young adults are least affected, the infection rate is highest in [that demographic]. What we notice is that children’s shows work better in some countries because the corona policy works better. Family entertainment is partially exempt from corona measures because there are very good concepts. What organisers should know is that during the pandemic and beyond, our concepts are safe, scalable, have a corona concept, and are still profitable.”

Kenneth Svoldgaard, co-CEO of Denmark -based CSB Entertainment, tells IQ, “I’m not worried about the family business at all. I have three kids of my own – aged 5, 11 and 14 – and none of them have been very ill. So I don’t really think that we have need to worry.”

However, he recognises that there are issues at the other end of the age range. “We are representing a couple of offers for the Christmas market where we have an older demographic, and that’s a little more problematic because they’re the most vulnerable in society,” he says.

And Svoldgaard has first-hand experience of dealing with the concerns of the older generations. “They’re the people who have asked the most questions, and that’s why we have had to have more staff at venues when the event is for an older demographic, to make sure people keep socially distanced, clean their hands, get to the seats, and all these kinds of things.”

“There’s definitely demand for product to come out”

Feld’s experience with the higher age groups of customers has been fascinating.

Looking at the grandparent segment of Feld’s patrons, he says, “Originally, they were a bit more cautious than the 20 year olds who wanted to go to a concert, but over time we’ve seen parents and grandparents come at the same rate, if not even more than they would have come pre-Covid. We were in Sheffield when it looked like the UK was going to shut down and the week of shows actually went really well, compared to pre-Covid times – it was almost the feeling of ‘this might be our last chance to do this for a while, so let’s go out and do it now.’

“But the silver lining is that there’s definitely demand for product to come out.”

That’s also been the experience of MB Presents. “We combined the extra time we suddenly had available with the creativity of our team and created new productions and exhibitions,” says Braff, naming Expo Dino World, the Middelkerke Sand Sculpture Festival, and Lanterna Magica among the company’s pandemic successes.

“We felt lucky that we could actually work and at the same time offer our clients a moment of distraction from all the negative stuff happening around them,” says Braff.

High demand

Despite the pandemic shutting down family shows around the world, the producer community has remained buoyant about the prospects of getting back to business because, like Armstrong, it can see that the demand is there.

Arnold Bernard, director of international booking for the Harlem Globetrotters, sums up the optimism. “One of the key indicators for us was the number of people who held on to their tickets from all the shows we had to postpone. We were one week into a four-month tour of Europe when we had to shut down in March of 2020. Two years later, we still have over 85% of those tickets out. This really is a testament to the strength of our brand.”

Corrado Canonici of World Touring Exhibitions tells IQ that demand remains high. “When Covid started, the few guys who decided to continue touring our exhibitions found a few difficulties because some people were worried and you had less audience. But then, when we brought our 3D exhibition to Germany in April or May last year, people were just assaulting the venue because they just couldn’t stay home anymore.”

But Canonici believes a new seasonal pattern has emerged during the pandemic years. “When we got to November last year, everything slowed down until February and then we will restart in March/April, so the general feeling is that we are all going towards a kind of a seasonal activity from March to October,” he says.

“We are all more open to understanding the promoters’ point of view. You can’t expect them to risk everything while you just behave like nothing has happened”

The Exhibitionist

Having made the decision to concentrate only on touring exhibitions a number of years ago, Canonici says that bold step paid dividends when the rest of the touring world ground to a halt in March 2020.

“Exhibitions started to work much earlier for obvious reasons,” he notes. “You can go to an exhibition with a mask; you can go to an exhibition while maintaining social distancing; you don’t need a 5,000-seater arena, you can do it in an exhibition space. So exhibitions never really completely stopped working during the pandemic.”

He adds, “The company has been concentrating on just exhibitions for a few years now be- cause we just found it more civilised, easier, nicer. Being independent in the exhibition world is still possible, so I like the idea that we can still have crazy ideas, pursue our ideas, finance our ideas, and all of this can be done. But with music, nobody would ever give me the new Adele. No way.”

And while the rest of the live entertainment business is scrambling to find venues for artists and shows, Canonici has none of that hassle. “Our venues are usually not really music venues. Arenas are just too busy anyway with concerts, so they would never ever give an exhibition two months of their time because they make far more money [with] 30 concerts in two months. So our venues are conference centres, exhibition centres, museums, malls. We know that there are many places you can go, which are usually not music places. So we don’t feel the pinch of that too much.”

“We used the downtime to really evaluate what we did, the why and the how”

Future Planning

Like many organisations crippled by the pandemic, the Harlem Globetrotters used the enforced pause to reinvigorate their strategy. “We used the downtime to really evaluate what we did, the why and the how,” says international booking director Bernard. “In the family entertainment world, we tour every month of every year. We don’t normally get to take some time out to reimagine our brand. To be able to get that time was refreshing and inspiring.”

Canonici also used the opportunity to expand the remit for World Touring Exhibitions. “When we saw that there were a few months of less work, we opened up to not just producing our own stuff but producing for people who want to have permanent exhibitions,” he reveals. “So now we also consult for the creation of, or directly produce, exhibitions for venues or institutions who want a permanent exhibition. So that’s been something positive coming from Covid, in the sense that we opened up to that which we wouldn’t have done otherwise.”

GLP’s Gaetjens believes that one of the biggest challenges facing the sector is to identify and develop new show formats that promoters can rely on, even while the pandemic continues. “Most organisers and countries have opted for safe formats,” he says. “We go one step further and will not only present new formats and projects but also go ‘corona-conform’ because that is safe and a guaranteed source of income for our customers. We still have to wait until ‘Freedom Day’ in some countries, and if the omicron and delta variants go together, we are prepared.”

Bernard says that there are two principle challenges facing organisations like the Harlem Globetrotters when it comes to getting back to business. “First, there are US State Department warnings recommending not to travel overseas, which affects our ability to travel,” he reports. “The second, is capacity limitations or vaccine requirements to enter public venues. This is a real challenge for families with young kids.”

That’s an aspect that’s not lost on Armstrong. “Only 6-8 months ago, no kids were really getting Covid, they weren’t getting tested, and they weren’t getting vaccinated. But all of a sudden, if the requirements are that everyone has to be vaccinated to go to events, what happens?” he asks.

“Luckily, so far, it hasn’t been mandated that kids who are under a certain age need to be vaccinated, so we’ve managed to be able to have shows. But if that changes going forward, we could run into problems.”

MB Presents boss Braff believes confidence will be key in reinvigorating the market. “Re-building the trust of people in small and large in- door events [is a major challenge],” he says. “People are weary of new measures and postpone buying tickets to events to the last minute. This makes it extremely difficult for event producers and promoters to plan ahead.”

“Deals need to be more flexible than before. We are all more open to understanding the promoters’ point of view”

The Year Ahead

Gaetjens believes the future is rosy for the family entertainment sector, albeit with a few challenging months ahead. “In 2022, many organisers will still be cautious, which is nonsense,” he states. “From April, everything will loosen up, and we are already noticing that.”

Continuing with a pitch, Gaetjens says, “We will be launching with new formats for 2022 and 2023 globally, expanding our roster, and giving all existing and new partners the opportunity to get what they want and are looking for.”

Canonici comments, “When in November [2021] Covid started to appear again and people started to postpone, we thought the worst. But, all of a sudden, around January, emails and phone calls started again because everybody wants to do everything from March. I have the feeling it’s going to be a lot of work from March to probably November. It really feels like it’s going to be a bit more seasonal than it was before.”

With the pandemic fostering unprecedented cooperation through the live entertainment business globally, Canonici believes the rule book is being rewritten for agreements in the family sector, too.

“Deals need to be a bit more flexible than before,” he says. “We all are more open to understanding the promoters’ point of view. You can’t expect them to risk everything while you just behave like nothing has happened. So we all have to be more flexible.”

Svoldgaard highlights the main issue that is hindering the entire live touring economy. “Many of the things that we do depend on what’s happening in the rest of the world or at least Europe, with the touring business. In principle, in Denmark, it’s not been so bad. Our sales have been pretty good, but when we talk about the tour business where we are going outside of Denmark, then we’re getting into problems as lockdown and restrictions have been harder elsewhere, and selling tickets is a huge challenge. We already had some tours that were supposed to start in February get postponed – and most of them for a whole year. So with many projects, we’re already looking into spring 2023.”

“I don’t think people are afraid of getting infected; they’re just sick and tired of having bought a ticket and then things keep getting postponed”

He adds, “It’s difficult to find availability in the venues on a shorter scale and also booking the artists on a shorter scale. So it’s been necessary to move things by a whole year in a number of instances.”

Looking at Feld’s bookings, Armstrong says, “We’ve been doing Monster Jam in the US and we’ve started to look at that internationally, too. We’ve got Ringling Brothers relaunching in 2023 in the US. And we’ll probably get Marvel Universe Live up and running in 2023. So we’re starting to get everything back. We’re not quite at the same scale – we had nine ice shows travelling around the world prior to Covid; we’ve got four or five out, as of now, but going into next season, we’ll probably get back to six, seven or eight. So it’s looking good.”

Citing CSB’s Whitney Houston tribute show, The Greatest Love of All, Svoldgaard sums up some of the frustrations that could hold back growth in the months to come. “The tour starts at the end of March and we have nearly 50 shows in eight countries across Europe,” he explains. “We start in Copenhagen, and the sales in Denmark are actually quite good for the most part, but the other countries are lacking.”

Indeed, because of the uncertainty that has been a significant Covid side effect, Svoldgaard confirms that consumers are leaving it till the 11th hour to buy tickets. “I don’t think people are afraid of getting infected; they’re just sick and tired of having bought a ticket and then things keep getting postponed.”

Nonetheless, he reports that longer term, confidence is building. “We have a lot of shows on sale for autumn this year, and sales have been incredible. So I think people expect that things will be back to normal for shows in September, October, November.”

In addition to tribute acts for the likes of Queen and Dire Straits, CSB has Lord of the Dance on sale for its 25th anniversary tour, among many other shows. “We are very optimistic looking forward,” says Svoldgaard. “I think people are, in general, excited about coming out to see shows again. The issue we have right now is shows that we have this  spring.”

Looking at his order book, Canonici reports, “We had Monsters of the Sea, which toured Ukraine for over a year. That’s now going to Russia for a year and probably more, fingers crossed. Our 3D exhibition is doing very well. Elsewhere, we have Dinosaurs in Belgium now; Science is going to go to Lithuania; and Lego always does very well.

He adds, “It’s all moving nicely, but it’s not the same. You can’t have the same sold-out shows you had before. It’s very difficult to get back to the 100,000 visitors in three months. But it’s still turning over decent numbers.”

“We have currently productions planned and presented in six new international markets”

New Productions?

While excitement among family ents producers and promoters is building, any expectations for new spectaculars might have to be put on the backburner for a year or so.

Canonici reveals, “At the time of Covid, we were supposed to go out with a new exhibition: The Art of Interactive Digital. We’d developed about 85% of this production when Covid arrived, so we just pulled back. Considering the ongoing situation, we think we’ll maybe delay another year going out with that one.”

Braff comments, “We still see a lot of tours being postponed to 2023. Luckily some tours are also restarting, like Corteo, which will finally happen in June 2022, two years after it was originally planned. We will continue to further develop our own productions and family entertainment brands, with eyes on the international markets. We have currently productions planned and presented in six new international markets, so we are positive.”

Armstrong surmises the situation well. “It’s very risky to launch a new product, especially one that doesn’t have a big brand behind it, because of the level of investment it takes to get them up and running,” he says.

“I would say it’s going to be the latter end of 2022 before we’re going to start seeing some of the bigger productions start touring again. But for newer brands, it’s a big risk. For us, the re-launch of Ringling Brothers is a calculated risk because it’s a brand that’s played for hundreds of years in the US. Whereas if you’re bringing out something that, perhaps, has been on TV for a couple of years but not really toured, I think that they’re going to hold off until 2023, at least.”

Ongoing challenges

The success of the family entertainment business getting back to work before other industry sectors has been an impressive achievement. But there is a bag full of spanners waiting to be thrown into the engine…

Svoldgaard, for example, says CSB is experiencing availability issues. “A lot of promoters are holding dates but not necessarily confirming venues. But it’s tricky to say ‘Okay, we are now ready to sign a contract and maybe even pay a deposit,’ especially when you have multiple artists and shows that have been moved four or five times.”

And underlining one massive dilemma that is becoming apparent throughout the touring world, he says the pandemic’s impact on crew and other essential personnel has been devastating.

“It’s a very big worry,” says Svoldgaard. “We have a tribute to Tina Turner coming in May, and I was hoping and expecting we could bring everything from the UK because I prefer to have the original production of it. But the UK producer cannot find a [crew] who can commit to being away for a couple of weeks. So we’re looking to source it locally, but it’s not easy – I’ve already had two production companies turn it down because it’s at the time of the year when the summer festivals start, so they don’t have enough equipment or manpower. I have found another production company in Denmark who can do it, but I’m a little bit worried about the pricing.”

“Even if the country itself is open, it doesn’t mean that infrastructure and the supply chain is ready”

“Challenges?” says Armstrong, citing a list. “There are weeks where you can’t make it work due to local legislation or state legislation or countries just shutting down before you can get there. And then there are the challenges of travelling people around with Covid tests, PCR, immigration, Brexit, transportation, and all that stuff.

“Even if the country itself is open, it doesn’t mean that infrastructure and the supply chain is ready. Take Australia, which hasn’t had events for a long time. Although you can get into Australia now, and you can potentially do the event and book the venue, are all your suppliers going to be ready? A lot of those suppliers have let people go, and they’re not rehiring people until events restart. If you’re one of those first events, you’re going to struggle. We know that casual staff at venues is an issue – we’ve ordered 30 vendors for our merchandise but only 12 would show up. But it’s all just part of slowly getting that big machine rolling again.”

Armstrong continues, “If you look back, there was a lot of hope this time last year. Now, it feels like there’s more than just hope: things are being put in place to enable us to move forward. So I think ‘22 will be better than ‘21. But I don’t think it’ll be fully back until mid-2023.”

“Slowly, the world will return to normal,” concurs Harlem Globetrotters’ exec Bernard. “We’re seeing it now, but it won’t be a full reopening overnight. There will be setbacks along the way but the setbacks will be shorter and less severe each time. We will get there.”

 


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TEG launches joint venture with Rockefeller Company

TEG has announced the launch of TEG Rockefeller, a new global partnership and joint venture with the Rockefeller Company of New York.

The Rockefeller Company creates film, animation and live family entertainment shows based on children’s books and movies. Its Rockefeller Productions subsidiary, founded in 2014, has a host of productions including The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show, the world’s most popular children’s show (with 14 productions on four continents), Paddington Gets in a Jam, and Winnie the Pooh: The New Musical Adaptation, which opens in New York this October.

For Sydney-based TEG, the partnership will see its portfolio of experiential family content promoted in the United States and elsewhere by the Rockefeller Productions team. Rockefeller Productions is led by company co-founder Jonathan Rockefeller, who will lead TEG Rockefeller alongside fellow co-founder Wilson Rockefeller and TEG Live managing director Tim McGregor.

The JV unveiled its first project earlier this week: Pixar Putt, an 18-hole pop-up mini-golf course designed by TEG’s Life Like Touring, which opens in Manhattan at the beginning of August with Rockefeller Productions as the US promoter.

TEG CEO Geoff Jones says: “The Rockefellers have created a unique business with a great track record delivering brilliant and innovative productions that have delighted families the world over. We welcome Jonathan, Wilson and their team to the TEG family and look forward to continuing their success under the TEG Rockefeller banner.”

“There is a great future ahead for both companies working alongside each other”

“We’ve always focused on bringing quality entertainment to people everywhere in the world, from Sydney to Shanghai, from London to Los Angeles, introducing the next generation of audience members to an exciting new world,” says Jonathan Rockefeller. “Our work is designed to be universal.

“We’re very pleased to be working alongside TEG to bring some great existing projects like Pixar Putt to a broader audience and begin new and wonderful projects together. There is a great future ahead for both companies working alongside each other.”

Wilson Rockefeller adds: “Rockefeller was established as the anthesis to an antiquated and broken Broadway and studio systems of ‘that is how it has always been done’. I believe our successes over a short period of time have confirmed our innovative approach. With TEG, our new partnership will continue to embrace the new as we move from strength to strength. We at Rockefeller could not be more delighted at the prospect.”

Australia-headquartered TEG operates out of seven country offices and includes TEG Live, TEG Dainty, TEG MJR, TEG Van Egmond, Laneway Festival, Handsome Tours, Qudos Bank Arena, Ticketek, TEG Analytics, TEG Insights and TEG Digital.

 


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Cirque du Soleil announces return to the stage

Cirque do Soleil Entertainment Group has announced the reopening of four of its most popular shows, which have been closed for more than a year due to restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic.

Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, the world’s largest producer of circus and other touring entertainment events, was one of the first casualties of the coronavirus, filing for bankruptcy last June after having already laid off thousands of staff. It emerged from bankruptcy protection in November after striking an agreement with creditors.

Two resident shows, O at the Bellagio and Mystère at Treasure Island, will reopen in Las Vegas this summer (1 July and 28 June, respectively), with the affiliated Blue Man Group show also returning to the Luxor Hotel from 24 June. Tickets for all Las Vegas shows are on sale now.

“I just can’t wait to see the lights go back on”

Two Cirque-produced touring events will also reopen: Kooza will return to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic from November, with Luzia opening at the Royal Albert Hall in London in January 2022.

Daniel Lamarre, president and CEO of Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group, says: “This is the moment we have all been waiting for. Almost 400 days have passed since we had to take a temporary hiatus, and we have been anxiously awaiting our return to the stage.

“I am so proud of the resilience of our artists and employees who persevered during the most challenging times with stages dark around the world for so long. I just can’t wait to see the lights go back on.”

“This is only the beginning,” he adds. “We look forward to sharing more exciting news in the coming weeks.”

 


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ILMC speaker spotlight: Christoph Scholz, Semmel Concerts

The International Live Music Conference (ILMC) is now less than a month away and, as more and more chairs and panellists are announced, IQ catches up with some key speakers to hear what they hope to get out of this year’s conference.

First up is Christoph Scholz of SC Exhibitions, a division of German promoter Semmel Concerts and the company behind Los Angeles conference the Experience Economy Meeting (TEEM) – formerly the Touring Exhibitions Meeting.

Scholz will appear alongside Kilimanjaro Live’s Lucy Levitt to co-chair ILMC’s Touring Entertainment: Game For a Show panel – which this year moves to a bigger room to satisfy demand – to discuss why family shows, touring exhibitions and other kinds of immersive, alternative content are piquing the interest of promoters and fans alike.

Joining the chairs are Harlem Globetrotters’ Arnold Bernard, Secret Cinema’s Amy Farrant, Hartshorn-Hook Enterprises/Immersive Everywhere’s Brian Hook, Nicolás Renna from Proactiv and Alex Homfray of Alex Homfray Cultural Destinations.

 


IQ: What do you expect to be the main talking points at your panel?

CS: My co-chair, Lucy Levitt, and I are expecting some exciting guests this year. We will ask Arnold Bernard from Harlem Globetrotters how they have managed to keep such an iconic sports entertainment troupe relevant for so many years.

Amy Farrant, the marketing director of [immersive cinema experience specialist] Secret Cinema, is also joining the panel. Secret Cinema has just signed a deal with Disney and is expanding globally – this will deliver us plenty of talking points. Brian Hook from [theatre experience company] Immersive Everywhere also be there to will tell us everything about the forthcoming Doctor Who Experience in London.

“Our aim is to explore the key developments across touring exhibitions, pop culture and family shows”

You’ve moved up to a bigger room for 2020. How do you expect the session to compare to previous years?

We are hosting a special double-panel event this spring, which provides a great opportunity for our colleagues in the experience and live entertainment fields.

The first will be at ILMC on 5 March in London. Then, on the first weekend of May, we will also have a panel at The Experience Economy Meeting (TEEM) in Los Angeles. The second panel will pick up on the themes discussed in London, creating a fantastic intercontinental partnership of ILMC in London and TEEM Los Angeles.

Our aim with both panels is to explore the key developments and brightest new spectacles across touring exhibitions, pop culture and family shows.

“Touring exhibitions are benefiting from globalisation much in the same way as live touring is”

What are some of the biggest trends you’re seeing coming through in the family/touring/alternative entertainment world?

Looking at the classic staples in this non-traditional touring sector – which includes everything that is not rock, pop or another musical genre – touring exhibitions, family shows and events such as comic conventions are benefiting from globalisation much in the same way as live touring is.

There are more venues, more markets opening up and more opportunities. I am personally fascinated by the likes of The Haus of Gaga in Las Vegas or The Zone: Britney Spears in Los Angeles.

Are we seeing new forms of fan worlds here?

To find out the answer to this question and more, come along to ILMC’s Touring Entertainment panel at 5 p.m. on Thursday 5 March.

 


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TEG launches live family entertainment arm

Australasian live entertainment powerhouse TEG has announced the creation of a new content division, TEG Experiences, bringing together its family entertainment, experiential and exhibitions businesses.

The division, a “new force in live family entertainment”, is part of TEG’s global growth strategy, following its recent acquisition of UK-based promoter and venue operator MJR Group.

Dustin Lockett will lead TEG Experiences as managing director. Lockett brings two decades of live entertainment experience to the role, previously serving as commercial director of BBC Studios ANZ and director of Seven West Media’s Red Live Events and Touring.

TEG chief executive Geoff Jones, who has worked with Lockett “several times before”, says he is the “perfect fit” to run TEG Experiences. Lockett will be based in Sydney and starts on 16 October.

Jones, who will produce the family content in partnership with global brands across Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America, comments: “TEG is Asia Pacific’s leading ticketing, live entertainment and technology business and now we are focused on becoming a global live entertainment business.

“TEG is Asia Pacific’s leading ticketing, live entertainment and technology business and now we are focused on becoming a global live entertainment business”

“The formation of TEG Experiences marks the next phase in that strategy. TEG is Australasia’s leader in live family entertainment and of the top three businesses of its kind globally in the fields of theatrical and experiential events. Now is the time for us to build on that position and pool our branded family entertainment assets.”

In addition to producing an array of new and alternative content, TEG Experiences will incorporate existing TEG divisions: live family entertainment show producer Life Like Touring, activation zone supplier the Entertainment Store and Lego-based installation creator Brickman Exhibitions.

Anton Berezin and Theresa Borg, who founded Life Like Touring and the Entertainment Store 20 years ago, are departing their roles as managing director and creative director of the divisions.

Borg will continue to work with TEG as a director and writer on future projects, while Berezin will seek a career as a performer.

TEG organises more than 200 live events a year through its owned promoters, TEG Dainty and TEG Live, and sells more than 28 million tickets annually via Ticketek, one of the ‘big two’ Australasian ticketing companies according to the International Ticketing Yearbook 2019.

 


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Dino Might: On tour with Walking with Dinosaurs’ final T-rek

For a six-part TV miniseries, Walking with Dinosaurs has – much like the terrible lizards for which it’s named – had a remarkably long life. Initially airing on the BBC in 1999, Walking with Dinosaurs has spawned several television spinoffs (2001’s Walking with Beasts and 2005’s Walking with Monsters); a 2013 feature film, also called Walking with Dinosaurs; and books, video games and, perhaps most successfully, a live show, Walking with Dinosaurs – The Arena Spectacular.

Walking with Dinosaurs – The Arena Spectacular (WWD) debuted in Australasia in 2007 as Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience, and has since been seen by more than nine million people in 250 cities around the world, picking up ILMC’s Best in Show 2012 award along the way.

Final T-recks
The latest, and final outing for WWD began in the UK at the Metro Radio Arena (11,000-cap.) in Newcastle, on 20 July, and is scheduled to close in Russia at St Petersburg’s Ice Palace (12,300-cap.), on 26 May 2019, although more dates are set to be announced.

The show is doing “superstar” numbers in Ireland, says Noel McHale of MCD Productions, which is promoting shows in Belfast in August/September, and Dublin in December. McHale says he anticipates selling more than 150,000 tickets over nine days (five at the SSE Arena and four at 3Arena), largely on the back of the buzz around previous WWD tours. (The production last visited Europe in 2013, although it toured North America in 2014 and Australasia the following year.)

“We’re on target to sell over 150,000 tickets, so it’s real superstar business,” McHale explains, adding that the show is “doing a lot of repeat business, as the word-of-mouth praise for the last tour is phenomenal.”

Carmen Pavlovic, CEO of Global Creatures, the Australian company behind the show, says the fact that 11 years after its debut WWD is embarking on its third world arena tour is “a testament to the strength of our production and the popularity of dinosaurs with fans all over the world.

“The dinosaurs are much easier to deal with than the touring crew, as they don’t need visas, hotels, per diems or flights…”

“The world’s fascination with dinosaurs is enduring,” Pavlovic, also executive director of the production, tells IQ. “We’re fortunate to have developed a loyal base of promoters who are excited to introduce the show to the next generation in their local markets.”

That next generation is key to WWD’s lasting popularity, suggests McHale. “There will always be a new crop of kids getting into dinosaurs as they are endlessly fascinating,” he says. “And parents who bring their kids are blown away by the sheer size and quality of the production.”

T-trucks
For the new tour, Global Creatures’ touring crew is tasked with operating, maintaining and transporting across the world a total of 18 dinosaurs, representing nine separate species. These range in size from nine ‘large’ dinosaurs, operated by a team of three (one driver, and two ‘voodoo’ puppeteers each taking either the head and tail or minor movements, such as blinking or roaring); a 7m-tall adult T-rex and two 11m brachiosaurus; and four smaller ‘suit’ dinosaurs, including two 2.5m utahraptors. (Not the raptors made famous by Jurassic Park, which were modelled on utahraptor’s smaller, not-technically-a-velociraptor, cousin deinonychus. And not actually from Utah.)

As with previous tours, historical accuracy is a key consideration for WWD’s technical team, which once again consulted with palaeontologists to ensure the appearance and behaviour of all dinosaurs match the latest scientific consensus.

“We have added rudimentary feathers to the raptors, liliensternus and T-rex, which we didn’t have on the first tour,” explains resident director Ian Waller, “as it wasn’t proved to be fact then, but now is.”

“Some hay for the herbivores, and the odd human sacrifice for the T-rex and it’s done – no sorting the M&Ms or fancy water for them”

Ferrying the 18 dinos around the planet they used to call home are Transam Trucking, who are using no less than 23 trucks – a number that’s actually down on 2012, when it was 27, says general manager/booker Nick Grace, largely due to the use of more compact lighting, sound, video and rigging designs.

No reptile dysfunction
In spite of a gruelling touring schedule – the show is doing several split weeks, which naturally leads to dino wear and tear – regular maintenance means that technical problems are mercifully rare, according to Grace. “This is tempting fate, but the dinosaurs, who receive daily maintenance, never break down,” he says. “They are much easier to deal with than the touring crew, as they don’t need visas, hotels, per diems or flights…”

As a bonus, the dinosaurs’ riders are “really quite modest,” jokes Mary Shelley-Smith, global operations director of the show’s caterer, Eat to the Beat. “Some hay for the herbivores, and the odd human sacrifice for the T-rex and it’s done – no sorting the M&Ms or fancy water for them.”

Waller, meanwhile, pays tribute to the work of the technical team, who he says quite literally do the bulk of the heavy lifting. “It is quite busy for our actors and suit performers, but the main workload is done by our technical team, who have to continually take down the show and put it back up again,” he comments. “They take the real brunt of the work.”

 


Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 79, or subscribe to the magazine here

Trailblazer: Denis Sullivan, Herschend Live

Welcome to the latest edition of Trailblazers – IQ’s regular series of Q&As with the inspirational figures forging their own paths in the global concert business.

From people working in challenging conditions or markets to those simply bringing a fresh perspective to the music world, Trailblazers aims to spotlight unique individuals from all walks of life who are making a mark in one of the world’s most competitive industries. (Read the previous Trailblazers interview, with Annika Monari and Alan Vey, here.)

Denis Sullivan, VP of international development at Herschend Live (formerly Harlem Globetrotters International), has charted a career path perhaps unlike any other. His four-decade career in live entertainment has taken him from humble beginnings in production to working with Louis Walsh and Boyzone, repping artists at the Kurland Agency, heading up global touring at World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and, finally, leading business development internationally for the world’s most famous exhibition basketball team.

When he says it’s the road less travelled, he’s not joking…

 


How did you get your start in the industry?
Louis Walsh gave me my start, as such. I was doing production and sound tech work when we met. At that point he had just launched Boyzone, and I became his rep on the road, looking after the band and dealing with all the venues he would book. Louis booked us in every truck stop, barn and theatre he could find, four or five nights a week for two years straight. Louis also instilled the notion in me that we were in the T-shirt- and poster-selling business as much, if not more, than the ticket- and CD-selling business. He was very smart in that respect, and very good to me.

Shortly after that finished in early 1997, five friends of mine were in a band, Rubyhorse. They called me up, told me they were going to America in two weeks and asked if I wanted to go. So, off we set, looking for adventure. They actually ended up doing really well for a time: they played all the major late-night talk shows, put out a couple of albums and had a hit [‘Sparkle’], before being swallowed up in the all the record company mergers that were happening around that time.

At the same time, an agent by the name of Elizabeth Rush – ex-William Morris, Tour Consultants Inc., Concerted Efforts – was setting up her own shop, and for some reason I have not figured out to this day, she offered me a job and taught me the agency business from the ground up.

Tell us about your current role.
I run the international business for Herschend Live, of which the Harlem Globetrotters is part. We also have a couple of other projects in development that will come under that umbrella, so stay tuned for news on that.

Herschend Enterprises is an amazing company which focuses on family entertainment, so whether you are visiting one of our many theme parks, aquaria and adventure tours, or watching one of our TV programmes, the business model is the same: to create memories worth repeating. If you do that, the financial part of the business takes care of itself.

The company is led by some of the most brilliant people I have come across – from Andrew Wexler, our CEO of Herschend Enterprises, to Howard Smith, president of Herschend Live, and the entire executive team, our chart is coursed by a long-term vision, rather than short-term gain, and an eye on creating a tremendous culture in which people are inspired to bring their best every day. It’s a privilege to be part of it.

“We are a feeder system for the entire live events industry”

Who have been the biggest influences on your career to date?
I’ve been very fortunate – I haven’t had many employers, but I like to think I took the best lessons from all of them. Louis Walsh certainly had a huge impact on me. Elizabeth Rush has been a great friend and mentor to me down through the years; I still call her today when I want to bounce an idea off someone. Ted Kurland, who really honed my skills as an agent.

I ran global touring at WWE for eight years, and Vince McMahon taught me so much… his influence on me professionally can’t be overstated.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
In the family entertainment world, we are often people’s very first experience of a live event. One can never recapture that feeling. What we are doing is giving people their first taste of an experience that cannot be replicated online, on TV or on any other platform. We are showing these kids who come to see our shows that going to see something live, at a venue, is cool.

We are a feeder system for the entire live events industry, be it concerts, exhibitions, Broadway or sporting events. That is the most rewarding part of the job.

And the most challenging?
Controlling the uncontrollable. Weather, exchange rates, political events, terrorism… I once got a call from the ops team telling me the ship our show containers were on had been taken hostage by pirates and it was unlikely to be released in time to reach port for show day – there isn’t a lot that can prepare you for that phone call!

Also, with the sheer number of shows coming out now it takes more work to stay relevant and sustainable. We don’t take a year off to make a record – we tour every month of the year – so doing that in a sustainable manner to still sell millions of tickets each year takes quite a bit of work.

“The ship our show containers were on had been taken hostage by pirates … there isn’t a lot that can prepare you for that phone call!”

How has the business changed since you started out?
We, as an industry, are so much smarter. When I started it was ‘book the venue, throw some advertising up and hope it all works out’. Now, with the analytics we have access to, we can really get granular in our decision-making process. We can compare venue performance more accurately; measure the impact of our marketing spend in a much more targeted way; predict how a price increase will impact selling patterns; and know how a show will sell before we ever go up on sale.

What, if anything, could the industry do better?
We could give back more to the communities we visit. How much catering gets thrown out at the end of a night that could be donated to a local homeless shelter? To me, there is no reason in the world that every major show should not have a local charitable or social tie-in.

Michael Martin at Effect Partners and Maria Brunner from Insight Management both do tremendous work in this area, but we all have an unparallelled opportunity to improve the world we live in through this industry. We should embrace and make the most of that.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to make it in live entertainment?
Seek people out. Ask questions. Work like you mean it. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to mentor you.

As a whole, we have very generous people in the industry who all pretty much came up the same way. I do believe we have a responsibility to pay it forward to the next generation in that regard.

 


If you’d like to take part in a future Trailblazers interview, or nominate someone else for inclusion, email IQ’s news editor, Jon Chapple, on [email protected].