Unless you are a theater insider you may not know that all commercially produced theatrical productions, much like major league sports franchises, have a general manager. You also may not have noticed that a general manager typically is listed directly above the director and choreographer in every Playbill, signifying the importance of this position to a production.
But if a general manager is so vital, what exactly does he or she do?
The short answer is that the general manager is responsible for overseeing and coordinating virtually every aspect of a show. But, for now, let’s focus on the three major duties of the general manager.
The first task of a general manager is to create a budget. This is not a one-page document or a quick summary of expenses. It is, instead, an extensive line-by-line itemization of every component of a show’s costs.
It includes both obvious expenses, like the cost of the set and costumes, as well as not so obvious expenses, like insurance, payroll taxes, legal filings and union benefits. Also included are the cost of personnel, from the actors to the crews responsible for unloading scenery.
Did you know that, in New York City, the crew that unloads scenery from trucks outside theaters is different from the crew that loads scenery into theaters? It’s okay if you didn’t know this. But this is precisely why you hire a general manager. A GM knows this somewhat arcane point and many, many others.
Now how about one of the most complicated elements of a theatrical budget? Salaries. There are thirteen unions that represent the men and women who fill every position on a Broadway show, from the actors to the greeters who scan your ticket as you walk into a theater. And each union has its own constantly changing rates, work rules and benefits plans, all of which must be factored into a budget.
In addition to the minimum salaries prescribed by each union, there are also the intangibles that factor into every salary line. For example, United Scenic Artists, the union that represents designers, may set the minimum fee for a lighting designer at $40,000, but an in-demand designer who has just won a Tony Award will command a much higher fee. Which means that a general manager must have a robust working knowledge of the actual salaries paid in the marketplace, from the salary of the person sewing costumes backstage to the salary commanded by above-the-title talent.
How a general manager budgets a production will greatly affect not only the financial return for the show’s investors but also the execution of the show’s creative vision. Both overspending and underspending can be detrimental. But a seasoned general manager appreciates these sometimes competing demands and works to find the right balance on every budget line.
Consider these specific line items, for example. Does a show need five weeks to rehearse, or can it be staged in four? Does it require a seasoned director who works at 200% above scale, or is there a young director working downtown who is ready for a big break?
The important point here is that there is nothing cookie cutter about this process and little that can be cut and pasted from one budget to another. A theatrical budget must take into account the unique demands of each show, the most up-to-date union rates and all marketplace realities.
Unless you are a working general manager, you don’t need to learn all of the nuances of theatrical budgeting. But knowing the intricacies of the budgeting process is one of the main reasons why a general manager is so essential to the financial and creative success of a production.
The playwright, director, actors and designers all have agents who negotiate contracts on their behalf. But who negotiates on behalf of the producer? The general manager.
Let’s begin where most productions begin – the agreement with the authors. Arguably, this contract is the most essential to the long-term financial success of a production, but it also is the most complex. So this is where an experienced general manager, working in tandem with the show’s lawyers, can make a real difference.
Issues relating to theatrical author rights are legion. In theater, unlike film and television, authors maintain the rights to their work in perpetuity. In exchange, producers are entitled to a a percentage of the author’s ongoing subsidiary income. Even a show that doesn’t fully recoup on Broadway can still make its money back through subsidiary income, which can come from touring productions, stock and amateur rights and the incredibly lucrative sale of the movie rights.
This means that the terms the general manager and legal team negotiate with the authors prior to the first production can be the difference between turning a profit and not fully recouping the producer’s investment.
The process of negotiating the contract of a star actor, in-demand director or designer also is complex and time-consuming, sometimes taking weeks, if not months. Take the star actor, for example. Details that must be negotiated, in addition to compensation structure, include the size of the actor’s billing, where and when the actor is billed, choice of dressing room, whether the actor has photo approval, opening night tickets and, often most crucially, whether or not the actor will have the right of first refusal to repeat his or her role in different companies of the same production.
As the producer’s voice in all of these negotiations, it is important that the general manager is someone who the producer trusts – someone who not only can achieve the desired results but who also can represent the producer’s vision for the show. In other words, once again, choosing the right general manager makes a real difference.
CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER AND MISSION CONTROL CENTER
If the producer is the CEO of a theatrical enterprise, responsible for securing the initial capital and holding title to the rights, the general manager is the COO, responsible for guiding the producer towards a production that is successful financially as well as artistically.
This work is far from over once a show has opened. Even on a show with great reviews and initially strong ticket sales, there is ongoing strategy, skill and smarts that must be employed to keep a show running.
It can be overwhelming for a producer to sit in an ad meeting and be asked to choose among the seemingly infinite number of ways to spend money on an advertising campaign. A seasoned general manager, however, knows all about current and historical sales trends and can be a huge resource to the producer in this process.
The general manager also works closely with the advertising agency to manage ticket inventory, assess demand and drive up the average ticket price.
Meanwhile, the general manager’s office oversees the weekly profit and loss statements that are prepared by the show’s accountant and uses these reports to assess where adjustments need to be made. If there are areas that routinely are costing more than they should, the general manager will work with the department head to troubleshoot and find efficiencies.
This isn’t always about cost-cutting, though. An experienced general manager understands when the artistic quality of a show requires sufficient, and possibly additional, spending to maintain the vision of the creative team.
In addition to being the COO of a production, the general manager’s office acts as the central administrative hub for a production. This is where contracts and business records are maintained, tax documents are mailed and payroll is processed.
Launching a new show is a significant, and at times daunting, undertaking. That’s why a smart producer will hire an experienced general manager, who can assume responsibility for every aspect of the production and, by doing so, ensure the show’s long term success.