Scalpers vs. Suits: The Battle for Profits on Broadway and Beyond
OnStage New York Columnist
Between “Hamilton” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, 2016 is shaping up to forever be known as the year of truly inflammatory ticket prices. The steep price of theatre has long been a point of contention for regular and potential audience members for some time, with 2001 seeing people refinancing their homes to see “The Producers” and folks in 2011 forking over up to $600 dollars for premium seating to “Book of Mormon”. But in this year of not one, but two, juggernaut shows, along with the advent of increasingly prevalent ticket-bot technology, producers on both sides of the pond have begun to proactively combat the issue of legal scalping.
With face value prices for many shows already out of reach for the average theatregoer, the secondary ticket market has not helped matters. Top prices for re-sold tickets on either side of the pond will shock even the most well off of theatre fans. At its highest point, a trip to Hamilton ran at least one, truly desperate fan $10,000 for a single seat at Lin-Manuel’s final performance. Resale prices for one ticket to both parts of “Cursed Child” could run fans £4,999.00 per on the secondary market. In order to protect profits and the interests of investors, this issue has caused Jeffrey Seller, the suit behind “Hamilton”, to increase face value prices with premium seating going for as much $849 a ticket.
While waging this war on the secondary market, however, some feel that the producers have begun to further compromise the likelihood of dedicated, if less affluent, fans from ever crossing the threshold of the theaters. But with their first responsibility being to investors and ticket bots gobbling up whole blocks of performances before fans even have a chance to peruse the seating map, the impetus to cash in on these bots is understandable and necessary, even for a mega-hit like Ham. A fan can’t be swindled if they never had a shot at the seats in the first place.
A more audience-friendly initiative, however, has begun sweeping New York with Lin-Manuel Miranda joining forces with Senator Chuck Schumer to outlaw the use of ticket bots and instate a $16,000 fine on hackers re-selling tickets to theatre, music, and sporting events at outrageous markups. And while it is a great start to a necessary effort, the law would not address the Ticketmaster-legitimized fan-to-fan scalping, an issue that would be best addressed by a percentage cap on re-sold tickets. (Though I’d be interested to learn what percentage of those juicy mark-ups goes right back into the pockets of good old Ticketmaster. A number that will tell us everything we’d need to know about whether or not the ticket outlet plans on ever addressing this issue.) Additionally, a government backed review led by Matt Waterston, a professor of economics from the University of Warwick, has begun to put pressure on British politicians to pass legislation to curb “touting.”
The most recent development in the ongoing battle between scalpers and producers reached new heights this week when the magical folks over at “Cursed Child” began turning scalped tickets away at the door, leaving at least 60 or so Potter fans left bereft on the sidewalk, holding what are now very overpriced bookmarks. Fans who have been identified as having purchased scalped tickets (through confirmation e-mails that are now necessary to gain entry to the theater) receive “refusal of entry” letters to use as a bargaining chip to get their money back through resellers.
It was certainly a left-field move and it didn’t take long for outrage at the policy to reach the internet, with many theatre and Potter fans crying foul. At first glance, the ire of rebuffed ticket holders seems far from unjustified. Why are fans who have already paid a great deal for their seat being punished for the actions of hackers?
But while Potter fans may feel personally victimized by the new policy, it is an unprecedented and necessary action to ensure the diminishment of online scalping practices. A sort of “cutting the snake off at the tail” approach that could drive down the demand for scalped tickets. By eradicating the value of tickets purchased on the secondary market, the producers of “Cursed Child” have begun, in some small way, to impact the demand end of the supply, an action that will discourage audiences to purchase through scalper and, by extension, discourage scalpers from buying up tickets. You can’t move a worthless product, plain and simple.
As with any good omelette, you’ve got to break a few eggs and in this case, the producers of “Potter” certainly seem to be onto something here. While tickets to current performances are still out of reach, the policy has potential to have a much more immediate effect on the secondary market for “Potter” tickets. It’s a bold and somewhat unpopular move, but one that serves as a necessary placeholder while further reaching policies like Schumer, Miranda, and Waterston’s make their way through the legislative process.
The popularity of shows like “Cursed Child” and “Hamilton” are unquestionably unprecedented for theatre fans and industry insiders alike. Which is not to say the theatre hasn’t weathered huge hits in the past, but those were virtually nothing compared to the circus surrounding these two behemoths. And as with any unprecedented event, there will be unprecedented issues. And unprecedented and experimental solutions will arise from those issues. So, think of this as our experimental phase.
The one thing we can all agree on, however, is that the egregious reselling of tickets is a hideous problem, one that is getting progressively worse by the day. Theatremakers and legislators on both sides of the pond have heard our cries for reasonably priced seats and are working to combat these scalpers, one in a seemingly more unsavory fashion than the other. But make no mistake, no matter how you see it, these are both valuable contributions to a valiant effort. One whose rewards may not become apparent until long after the hooplah around these shows has dried up. So before writing off these theatre makers as heartless-money-grubbing-fan-disappointing drones, understand that no matter how these policies affect the current situation, they are stepping stones to a more fair and cost effective future at the theatre for all of us.