If Leo Bloom Sold $480 Tickets, What Would He Do With Profits?

The day after Mel Brooks’ musical adaptation of The Producers opened to rave reviews in

late April, its own producers broke the Broadway money barrier by raising most

prices to $100 a seat. Six months later, on Oct. 26, they announced that 50 Producers seats a night would sell for

$480 a pop, in an effort to horn in on the healthy scalping market. Eighty

dollars of that price would be a service surcharge that would go to a new

company, Broadway Inner Circle, created especially to handle these special

tickets.

Days later, an intriguing footnote about this new company

surfaced in the trades: Broadway Inner Circle would be helmed by the general

partners of … The Producers.

In the opinions of some Broadway veterans, Mr. Brooks himself

couldn’t have penned a giddier scheme: It looked as though the producers of The Producers were close to fulfilling

Max Bialystock’s dream of making 25,000 percent of their money back.

As a result, the theater

establishment-especially its unions-are scrutinizing Broadway Inner Circle and,

in some cases, grumbling about the ramifications of this new way of doing

business on the Great White Way. “We haven’t gotten a firm answer on how they

plan to deal with royalties,” said Christopher Wilson, the executive director

of the Dramatists’ Guild, which represents playwrights, composers and

lyricists. “The company selling the tickets may be an entity related to The Producers -in which case, it would

be hard to argue that the whole $480 is not revenue.” And one Broadway

producer, who requested anonymity, called the formation of Broadway Inner

Circle “a way for [ The Producers ‘] producers to behave like

[the] scalpers” they so vocally oppose.

In an interview with The Transom on Nov. 26-10 days after

Broadway Inner Circle opened its phone lines-Tom Viertel, one of the company’s

founding partners and a producer of The

Producers , portrayed the new ticket-processing company as an innovative way

to sell theater tickets rather than (as some critics contend) an act of sheer

chutzpah.

“We are executing and funding a business plan that is intended to

sell seats and raise the gross income of The

Producers ,” Mr. Viertel said, a bit indignantly, when The Transom asked him

to respond to perceptions in the theater business that Broadway Inner Circle

smelled of Bialystock & Bloom inspiration.

“There is nothing about this that we’re trying to hide. It is a

business that needs a source of funding in order to run,” Mr. Viertel said of

the $80 handling charge that is being tacked onto each $400 ticket. “These tickets

aren’t just going to sell themselves in this number. You need an organized

sales effort.”

Running that effort will be Joe Farrell, the chief executive of

Broadway Inner Circle and the only one of its partners who has no stake in The Producer s. According to Mr.

Farrell, “Broadway Inner Circle is unrelated to The Producers . The Producers

are the client.”

Right now, they’re the only client, but Messrs. Viertel and

Farrell don’t intend that to be the case for long. For those under the

impression that Broadway Inner Circle was built solely to service The Producers , Mr. Farrell said, just

wait. He explained that the company will begin selling premium tickets to other

Broadway shows in the first quarter of next year. “Its seven-figure

infrastructure is not for a company that you’d build to manage one show’s

tickets,” he said. “It’s a five- or six-show program.”

If the premium seats sold out for every one of The Producers ‘ eight performances a

week, the $80 surcharge would provide Broadway Inner Circle with $1.6 million

in yearly revenues. In Broadway Inner Circle’s current fledgling state, that

seems like a lot of scratch just to move 50 tickets a night-but although

Messrs. Viertel and Farrell declined to be more specific about their

seven-figure operating budget, they acknowledged that their business plan

requires nearly all of that $1.6 million. They also attempted to explain,

albeit in rather general terms, how their company’s operating expenses could

reach those levels.

According to Mr. Farrell, the

majority of the company’s budget will be spent on full-time personnel-though to

give an actual percentage, he said, “would be inappropriate.”

Broadway Inner Circle will initially employ six people, including

Mr. Farrell, a chief operating officer, one executive assistant, one sales

director, one marketing director and one director of sales and marketing. That

last executive will be concerned with bringing other productions into the fold.

Mr. Farrell would not comment on the salaries of any of the employees.

The two partners also declined to give specific figures for other

expenses. They did say that advertising and promotional events would account

for a hefty slice of the budgetary pie. Mr. Farrell said that Broadway Inner

Circle will target wealthy tourists and the business world via such

publications as The Wall Street Journal , The New York Times Magazin e and travel

agencies.

The company is also forking over money to Tele-charge, which will

handle some of Broadway Inner Circle’s phone traffic. Mr. Viertel explained that

another ticketing company-which he declined to identify-was currently handling

some additional phone work and shuttling tickets to the box office. Broadway

Inner Circle is currently sharing space with the group-ticket broker Showtix

until it moves into its new office space at the end of November. Asked if

Showtix was handling those aforementioned errands, Mr. Farrell said that to

name the company would be “inappropriate.” He also said that although Broadway

Inner Circle had come up with some “short-term solutions in order to become

operational,” it has not yet decided “who our long-term partners will be.”

Messrs. Viertel and Farrell called the last quarter of 2001 a

“soft launch period,” and said they aimed to start selling their 50 seats for

each performance to large corporate groups in the first and second quarters of

2002. The average number of $480 seats sold in the first week was just above 20

per performance.

Mr. Farrell said he intends to build a clientele of ” Fortune 500 companies” and “well-heeled

tourists” and to grow “an enterprise that represents the top five or six shows

on Broadway and creates a special experience for them. “That special experience

is going to be, first and foremost, great seats,” Mr. Farrell said.

But it won’t be limited to that. As the company matures, Mr.

Farrell said, Broadway Inner Circle will increase its level of services. “Think

of it like an à la carte menu,” Mr. Farrell said. “Some clients will be

bringing 20 guests to a show and will want to have a dinner. Others might want

a cocktail reception. There will be different prices reflecting what they’re

buying.” Although that may seem pretty pie-in-the-sky given today’s abysmal

economy, Mr. Farrell said that he’s not nervous. “It is a product that has not

been offered before, so it has value,” he said.

Mr. Viertel stressed another advantage for customers who pick

Broadway Inner Circle over, in his words, “Stan from New Jersey”: If the

chronically absent Mr. Lane doesn’t show up for a performance, Broadway Inner

Circle customers get full refunds.

Mr. Farrell said that he conceived of Broadway Inner Circle as he

was wrapping up a gig selling hospitality and ticket packages for the 2002

Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Eyeing the speed with which Producers tickets were vanishing from

broker sites, Mr. Farrell realized that pricey tickets involving “some level of

special treatment” could work on Broadway. Through mutual associates, he

approached Producers producer Rocco

Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, in the spring of 2000, when the show

was still in previews.

The Producers was

already struggling with scalpers. Despite the fact that the show was sold out

for more than a year, Mr. Viertel said that he and his partners had begun “to

feel like we were wholesalers, and none of the retail benefits were rubbing off

on Mel Brooks, or [director and choreographer] Susan Stroman, or Matthew

Broderick.”

“So we created this enterprise,” Mr. Farrell said.

The enterprise has not sat

well with some Broadway players. Barbara Hauptman, executive director of the

Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, told The Transom: “On one hand,

I’m pleased that the $400 is going to be part of the royalty calculations, so

that Susan Stroman will get part of that scalped money. But the $80 commission

that they’re taking-I’m concerned about that.

“We’ve had more and more of

our members ask us about this,” Ms. Hauptman said. “All the unions and guilds

are going to want to look into this. Nobody’s ever done anything like this

before. The industry practice for group-sales organizations and ticket brokers

is that there’s a third party that does this kind of thing.”

But Ms. Hauptman wondered: “Is Broadway Inner Circle truly a

third party?”

Alan Eisenberg, executive director of Actors’ Equity, said that

within his union “there’s a disquiet about the pricing, and there has been an

inquiry as to whether the additional $80 goes into the pension fund.”

Mr. Eisenberg was referring to the 4.5 percent of box-office

receipts that go toward the pensions of many theatrical unions. Actors’ Equity

spearheaded and won a battle several years ago with theater owners, who added

an untaxed $1 “Restoration Fund” charge to some tickets.

Mr. Farrell confirmed that the $80 surcharge will not be subject

to the 4.5 percent pension tax, since it is a service charge. “I’m quadrupling

their take on the tickets I sell and they’re [saying]: ‘Why can’t I have some

of your piece as well?'” Mr. Farrell said. “I don’t quite understand why it is

that the company … is being looked at as anything other than positive for the

unions.”

Mr. Viertel declined to to be

specific, however, about how the additional revenues from the premium tickets

would be distributed among the stakeholders and unions. “What you’re probing

for here is private deals. And I don’t think I’m ready to pierce that,” he

said.

What does Mr. Brooks think?

“Mel has been supportive of this all along,” Mr. Viertel said. “He’s been a

strong voice for trying to capture these premiums, but he’s pretty much left it

to us, with a weathered eye.” As for the rest of the cast’s feelings about the

fatty ticket prices, Mr. Viertel paused. “No one has said anything negative

about it in any way that’s come to my attention.” (Mr. Broderick, Mr. Lane and

Ms. Stroman did not return calls.)

Indeed, Mr. Viertel observed that if  Broadway Inner Circle “is properly run and we can sell these

tickets, we’ll be another step closer to an open market in the value of all

theatrical tickets.

“I don’t believe Max and Leo ever did anything this responsible,”

he said.

U.N.-Conscious

On Monday, Nov. 26, the serious foreign-service set donned their

sturdiest cashmere and went down to the MGM/UA screening room on West 55th

Street for a private screening of Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land -an unflinching new film about the war in Bosnia.

Richard Butler, the former head of the United Nations Special Commission

(better known as UNSCOM), was there. So was Robin Chandler Duke, the socialite

and former U.S. Ambassador to Norway, and CNN’s anti-Twinkie, Paula Zahn.

They looked a little sheepish when the lights came up. Mr.

Tanovic-who fought in the Bosnian Army-doesn’t seem to have much regard for

either the U.N. or media outfits like CNN. No

Man’s Land goes easier on the hated Serbs than either profession; the U.N.

peacekeepers are portrayed as either public-relations-obsessed cowards or

well-meaning but  ineffectual drones,

and the press as opportunistic and lazy.

And during the Q&A session that followed the screening, it

quickly became clear that those audience members who belonged to the former

group were not happy with Mr. Tanovic’s portrayal of the U.N. When Mr. Butler

identified himself by saying, “I used to work for the United Nations,” a

snigger rippled through the crowd.

“I recognize some aspects of the United Nations there,” Mr.

Butler said in a calm voice. “But how much of that was hyperbole? How much of

that was based on your of the performance of the United Nations in the region?”

Mr. Tanovic-who, with his

pink sweater and severe features, had the debonair look of an old-time Eastern

European intellectual-did not smile. “I’ll put it this way,” he said. “[Bosnia]

was a country that was recognized by everybody, then was aggressed by Serbia,

and in the name of neutrality or whatever you call it, they [the U.N.] put a

weapons embargo on Bosnia for four years. Bosnians were the only ones who

didn’t have any guns to defend themselves. All they did was feed us.” The

filmmaker glowered. “If you want to understand what has happened, I like to use

an example. It’s like if you walked outside this room, you see a woman being

raped. You approach the guy who is raping her and say, ‘Don’t bother

[stopping], I’m neutral.’ You tie her hands behind her, stop her from defending

herself. And then you give her a piece of chocolate.”

The diplomats laughed nervously.

Later on, Ms. Duke raised her hand. She looked steamed. “I have

just one last question,” she said. “The U.N. has got a mandate. Its mandate is

peacekeeping. And it’s a very difficult job. I was wondering if you would like

to meet with them while you’re here and maybe get another perspective. I know

you were there, but I was there too,”

Ms. Duke continued. “Doing relief work.”

“But relief work is different,” Mr. Tanovic said. “Peacekeeping

is ridiculous. Which peace they were keeping?”

“They were trying their best,” Ms. Duke interrupted.

“No, no, no, no,” Mr. Tanovic said. “I don’t agree with you

there. [The U.N.] didn’t want to go [to Bosnia]. Because you know what?  We didn’t have any oil to defend our human

rights.”

“But you have an enormous

humanitarian effort by the United Nations,” Ms. Duke said.

Mr. Tanovic cut her off. “I completely agree with you, and I

admire United Nations for certain things, but … I also survived [the U.N.] not

taking action,” he said. “It’s hypocrisy of the world. It’s hypocrisy of

Boutros Boutros-Ghali …. Some of these people, who didn’t push the red button

to save Srbrenica, should be in The Hague.”

“Well,” Ms. Duke said in her cashmere voice, “you made a great

movie.”

-Ian Blecher

Stiller Horny

Let no man say that Jerry Stiller is not dedicated to his craft.

Some three years ago, in between his work for Seinfeld and his current gig on The King of Queens , the actor took the lead role in The Independent , a film directed by

Stephen ( National Lampoon’s Vegas

Vacation ) Kessler. Mr. Stiller portrayed a fictional hybrid of Russ Meyer

and Roger Corman named Morty Fineman, the down-on-his-luck writer, director and

occasional star of 427 low-budget films including Lawn Honkie, World War III II ,

Tora! Tora! Toga! and Twelve Angry

Men and a Baby .

The savvy-yet-sweet comedy won kudos at numerous film festivals,

but couldn’t score a distributor. Mr. Stiller put the film out of his mind,

until he got a call from the director saying that the film would be released in

New York on Nov. 30 and that a premiere would be held on Nov. 26 at the Village

East Theater.

“Then suddenly, I had to deal with the interviews,” Mr. Stiller

said at the post-premiere party at TanDa. He looked smart in a beige ribbed

suit. His mustache was fancy as ever. “And my biggest, craziest thing is how am

I going to respond to something that I had done three years ago and … and at

the same time deal with my own personal life?”

The night before the premiere, Mr. Stiller said, he lost it. “I

literally went bananas with my wife. I couldn’t have sex.” He giggled into his

glass of merlot. “I’m not telling you any lies. Even at this point in your

life, once in a couple of years you have sex,” the 74-year-old Mr. Stiller

said, adding that, given the circumstances, taking advantage of such

opportunities “is very important.” But on Nov. 25, Mr. Stiller missed the love

boat because, he said, “I was getting ready for tonight.”

Just admitting this seemed to relax the actor. He had done his

part for the film, and his wife and longtime comedy partner, Anne Meara, was

still talking to him. In fact, before the screening, when Mr. Stiller had tried

to tell the audience that the film was “a tribute to the mediocrity of

Hollywood,” she’d yelled out from the stadium-style seats: “Jerry, make it

short!” Now the little missus was upstairs at TanDa, waiting for her husband to

rejoin her. Mr. Stiller took a sip of his wine. “So, maybe tonight I’ll have

sex,” he said.

-Frank DiGiacomo