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'The Business of Pleasure'

Updated: Jan 26, 2022




Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists of all time, was preoccupied throughout his working life with the mystical (and most would agree, totally bonkers) pursuit of Alchemy; trying to make gold from base metals and attempting to discover ‘The Elixir of Life.’ We in The Business of Pleasure have the reverse problem. Most years we produce vast mountains of gold, week-in, week-out, in revenues for theatre and music, cinema and sport, theme parks and attractions, travel and tourism. And daily we pour forth mighty rivers of The Elixir, irrigating the parched existences of billions of our fellow humans with drama and humour, excitement and passion, stimulation and catharsis. Unlike Isaac, who never produced the tiniest particle of either, the question that probably preoccupies most of us throughout our working lives, in some form or another, is; how can we successfully reverse engineer the process and learn how to produce more of these precious substances, of a higher quality, and more consistently?


Getting to the bottom of it/Bums on Seats/Harry Cohn’s Ass:


When I was at film school in the mid 1980’s we were told the story of Harry Cohn’s ‘ass’. There are several versions of this iconic tale. This one was handed down to us by our cigar-chomping head of scriptwriting:


Joe Mankiewicz (the writer of Citizen Kane) was both a genius and an out-and-out pisshead, and so vitriolic an alcoholic that he was banned from eating in the executive dining room at Columbia. One day Joe snook in anyway and sat at the high table with the head of the studio, Harry Cohn, and the other top film execs. Before they’d got past the starters, Cohn announced to the assembled faithful: "Last night I saw the shittiest picture I've seen in years!" Not everyone at the table agreed with their leader’s verdict. “I saw it with an audience and they had loved it,” replied one of Columbia’s braver Producers “perhaps you’d like it better if you saw it with an audience?” "That doesn't make a damn bit of difference,” Cohn blasted back at him, “when I'm alone in a projection room I have a fool-proof device for judging whether a picture is good or bad. If my ass itches, it's bad. If my ass doesn’t itch, it's good. It's as simple as that." This was too much for the extremely ‘tired and emotional’ Mankiewicz. "Imagine," he declared to everyone in earshot, "the whole world wired to Harry Cohn's ass!" Mankiewicz left Columbia shortly (very shortly) thereafter.


The point of the story, as it was explained to us students, was that if a film was good Harry would be too engrossed to notice distractions like an itchy bum. The broader point, for those of us working in The Business of Pleasure, is that we are forever striving to create value for our audiences, but this value is almost entirely subjective and unique to each individual audience member. Each one of them is a black box*, or at the very least, extremely opaque, and we can never be quite sure if their bottoms are itching or not. It was while looking out across crowded auditoria every night (another kind of black box?) as a young theatre manager in London’s West End, that I developed my own set of metrics for gauging these audience ‘outputs.’ When gripped by a performance, an audience member will literally ‘grip’ their own hands (or those of their partner/parent). As the intensity increases they will then unclasp their hands to rub their tummies or finger their necks, and when the flow of emotion reaches its crescendo they will invariably raise their fingers to their mouths, as if they have to physically stifle or hide their response to the performance (N.B. care must be taken not to mistake patrons stifling yawns!).


The Mel Brooks Question


It was at a party in the States in the ‘60s that Denis Norden and Frank Muir were introduced to Mel Brooks as the BBC’s ‘consultants and advisers on comedy.’ Legend has it that diminutive comic genius took the two towering Brits to one side, looked up (and up) in awe and whispered: “You mean …you know?


If only there were ‘consultants and advisers’ out there who could tell all of us engaged in The Business of Pleasure what will and won’t work. Or even ‘what is working’ and ‘why?’


*In science, computing, and engineering, a black box is a ‘system which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs, without any knowledge of its internal workings.

Okay, my hand-grip theory might not be true for all audiences, but that other type of ‘hand,’ audience applause, is not a reliable indicator either. It might sometimes be necessary for us to start off the applause, for instance to prompt an audience response to a technical feat of stagecraft. Or during the opening scenes of more complex comedies where uncertain patrons might not realize the difference between a portrayal and a parody. And as for standing ovations, well I’m sure that most of us have been guilty of starting those off. Especially when we’re in clear line of sight of the show’s Producers/Backers/TV cameras. At one performance of a truly awful show (which shall remain nameless) we watched as a patron in the circle leapt up to leave, and is so doing triggered an inadvertent ovation that reverberated around the entire House (possibly the only spontaneous one it received in its entire, and blessedly short, run).


Revenue is not always a good indicator either. I remember one MD calling a townhall meeting where he announced that ‘profit means our business has a pulse.’ Unfortunately the business in question was highly complex, and in order to maintain that ‘pulse’, for any extended period of time, there were a huge number of key indicators that we needed to monitor and respond to on a daily (and hourly) basis. We didn’t. The patient died. A market leader, and ‘Darling of The City’, that didn’t look further than its P & L. On another occasion we were told that we had to close a show because of a temporary dip in revenue, when in fact the long-term financial health was extremely robust. It was also apparent, when we looked below the surface a bit, that the current (record-breaking!) cash cow would soon need to be put out to pasture, because the underlying trends for that show predicted a swift and inevitable decline.


In The Business of Pleasure it is often necessary to make commercial decisions on the basis of gut instinct and personal taste, simply due to the lack of effective monitoring and feedback that can consistently

triangulate outcomes between the complex permutations of variables in play in all three dimensions


The Product + The Audience + The Market


And whilst completely understandable, it can also prove fatal. One excellent show nearly ‘died’ quite recently because the Lead Producer personally liked one particular marketing image, even though it was completely at odds with the natural audience(s) for the show. Another Producer, further back in time, astonished the West End by personally approving a press campaign that was the perfect negative of what was required for his production, i.e. targeting precisely the wrong segments. But you don’t need an entire campaign to murder a show. A piece of artwork, or even a single production shot, can kill. You may be very happy to have such a popular star in the lead role, but if it is contractual that you must use their (dowdy) favourite image in all your channels, then the show lives and dies by that star’s appeal (oh, and by the way, they performed the role for six weeks out of town before you got them, and most of their fans saw them there, and the others have already booked, etc). On one occasion a top-selling show, and globally-acknowledged classic, almost vanished without trace because it was decided to ‘refresh’ the artwork. Disney did the same thing and made The Lion King roar louder than ever. The venue’s location can also have a massive impact on revenue, at least in the past and hopefully in the future, with ‘doors’ takings (on the day for the day) contributing massively to the revenues of productions housed in major thoroughfares and tourism hubs.


There have, of course, been huge advances in our ability to monitor consumer behaviour across the online journey (and in some sectors in-visit) with UI and UX teams deducing invaluable insights into patron decision-making from their recordable outputs and market research. But given the extremely large number of variables, and the extent to which they are in perpetual flux (an ever-increasing number of ever-moving targets) the task of consistently replicating the most desirable outcomes (and avoiding the yawns) can often seem as mystical a challenge as Isaac’s alchemy…


Every member of the audience is seeing a different show


Recent research charting brainwaves by fMRI has confirmed that there are no fixed, universal emotions and feelings, just more-or-less (statistically) similar ones. To make matters worse (for Business of Pleasure ‘alchemists’) each patron’s individual responses will also depend on where they happen to be on placed on the emotional spectra, on any particular day (and hour) and how these oscillating emotions are further modified by their underlying personalities and the conceptual frameworks (moral, social, linguistic, etc.) that their culture(s) and unique life experiences have constructed in them.


Every member of the audience’s focus of attention is changing all the time


If we could take a leaf out of Dostoevsky’s short story Bobok and listen to the internal monologues of our audience members across a single performance we would probably hear something like; “I knew I should have grabbed a sandwich on the way,” “What did she mean by that look she gave me at the end of the meeting?” “I’ll have to get a cab to Waterloo if I’m going make the eleven-fifteen,” “I should not have had all that pasta before the show!” “How will I post this in FB and IG?” “Did I record Love Island?” “Twelve quid for a @%&*ing Gin and Tonic!” In short, what we might wishfully perceive as rapt attention from our audience’s furrowed brows and studious frowns of concentration often isn’t really focus at all, but really our patrons’ ‘little grey cells’ bubbling away percolating the events of the day while predicting what is happening (shaping sensory inputs into identifiable concepts) and what will be happening next (anticipating subsequent developments) while simultaneously attempting to minimize ‘predictive error’ (how would they feel if they were to leapt to their feet at the end of the show and no-one else did?)


The past is a different country


Even if we could interrogate patrons for hours about a show they’ve seen (only minutes previous) their recollection of a performance will almost certainly be very different from how they experienced it ‘in the moment,’ particularly if the show’s ending was particularly strong (or atrociously bad).


Putting it together


Everyone involved in The Business of Pleasure is, to a lesser or greater extent, involved in experiments on a daily basis i.e. we create products (experiences) and anticipate responses (satisfaction). What works, what will work, what doesn’t work and why? The complexity of the task would be overwhelming if we ourselves, all in our different ways, weren’t also life-time participants as well as practitioners, with a vast of experience, both personally and professionally. The purpose of these newsletters is to try and get a slightly better overview of the subject by considering common threads, themes and issues with other professionals in different sectors of The Business of Pleasure across the three ‘dimensions’ outlined above:


The Product + The Audience + The Market


DT

26 May 2021


Copyright David Thomas 2021

All Rights Reserved

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