Can an Off-Broadway Harry Potter Comedy Make Money? You Bet Your Hufflepuff It Can.
He isn’t rich and famous (yet), but David Carpenter is working on it -- and having a hell of a lot of fun in the process. He's a theater producer in New York City, and his job description basically comes down to this: find a great show, find the money to get it on a stage and put butts in the seats to watch it.
That business plan seems to be working just dandy with Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic, an off-broadway spoof of the Harry Potter series. But working in theater isn't always quite so magical. When and his partner John Arthur Pinckard started Tilted Windmills Theatricals two and half years ago, most people asked, “Why start a production company when the market is already so crowded?"
David was more than happy to share the answer of how his company found a way to defy the odds, and wasn't shy about revealing the nightmares that often come with your dream job.
How did you build your business?
Right now, everyone looks to Silicon Valley. Broadway has a reputation for being an old and stodgy business. We decided to look to the larger world to define ourselves. We had to figure out how to be unique and innovative in an industry that is already extremely well-funded. Raising money is hard, but there’s plenty of it. You must figure out how to define yourself to raise the capital you need and how to get the projects that you want. One of the guiding principles of the company is “Don’t do what everybody else is doing".
What does it take to be a producer?
Very few people know what a producer is and does. You’re the CEO and CFO of a business. And each new production is a brand-new startup. I know a little about everything that goes on in a show and I’m an expert in very few things. Most importantly, producers bring the financing, the environment and the opportunity for artists to thrive. And, when artists have the ability to create great art that audiences want, the show's investors profit.
How have your survived these first few years?
When you're starting a company, what nobody tells you that for the first few years, all you are going to do is fail. I made a series of stunningly bad decisions for 18 months straight. It’s incredibly humbling and breeds a ton of self-doubt. It’s very isolating. You don’t want to be broadcasting your failure to your peer group because you want people to think things are going well, even if they aren’t.
What are the economics producing a show like yours?
Over its two off-Broadway productions, Puffs cost between $300,000 and $400,000 to mount. It's running costs have risen over time as we have increased the number of shows we play and moved into a new theatre. We’ve been lucky enough to have had 84% paid capacity over the first 9 months of our run and are in very healthy shape financially, a rarity for commercial off-Broadway. We’ve worked diligently to keep our running costs low so that we can be priced competitively compared to other shows.
What was the turning point for your company?
My business partner and I had an internal conversation about what each of us did right and each of us did wrong. We had to be brutally honest with each other and ourselves. In order to make the company successful, we re-aligned how we worked to better serve our business. We have three to four new projects in the hopper at any given moment. We are finally having fun.
What’s been the hardest part and how are you managing it?
The hardest part was how stressful it was on my marriage. It’s hard for the other person to stand by and watch your partner fall apart. My husband is an actor and he is out of town for a portion of the year doing shows. When he’s out of town I work more. When he’s here, I try to get home a reasonable time to have dinner with him. When he’s away, we find a TV show that we haven’t watched to watch together and then we have something to talk about that’s not work related. Right now, it’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
What’s the future of Broadway?
I don’t know. For many years, we have heard that Broadway is dead. It feels like an old-school stuffy business. People don’t like or understand our revenue model. But we are literally the oldest art form that exists. It is a biological necessity for people to sit around and tell stories to one another. The Lion King is one of the most financially successful entertainment brands in history, so obviously, the model works. And Hamilton made Broadway a part of pop culture. The future will include a lot more technological innovation. There will be more interaction with our customers in a positive way. They have been claiming the death of the commercial producer for years now, but it’s not just a corporation-based business. This business is 50/50 business sense and gut. Art is subjective. You have to be bold and make a bet when everyone is telling you, you’re wrong.