Editors’ Note: As Deadline continues its Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series on the struggles of people in the entertainment industry impacted by the coronavirus-related shutdowns and layoffs, we’ve launched a new series, Reopening Hollywood (or Broadway, as the case may be), focused on the incredibly complicated efforts to get the industries back on their feet while ensuring the safety of everyone involved. We intend to examine numerous sides of our industries; if you have suggestions about things to consider, please leave a comment.
Charlotte St. Martin couldn’t be blamed for bristling over that recent televised and widely quoted exchange between a reporter and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Asked by the reporter if Broadway’s decision to re-open on June 7 could serve as a “rule of thumb” for other New York City industries, Cuomo did some bristling of his own. “I wouldn’t use what Broadway thinks as a barometer of anything unless they’re in the public health business and have seen better numbers and models,” the governor said, dismissively.
St. Martin wants to set the record straight. The president of the Broadway League, the trade group representing theater owners, producers, presenters and general managers on Broadway and theaters throughout North America, says that June 7 was never announced as a date certain for the Broadway reopening – or even a date uncertain.
A June 7 reopening was “never, ever the case. We did not say that,” St. Martin tells Deadline.
“We just said that [at that point] we were exchanging and refunding tickets up to June 7. I mean, every couple of days our guesstimates go further out. As late as two weeks ago we were thinking that with any luck we might be up by July and that a worst case scenario might be September. Now the best guesses are that unless there’s serious testing and information that we don’t currently have, we’re probably looking at September or later.”
The full impact – financial, job-wise, artistically, individually – won’t be known or maybe even felt completely for months. The League is compiling and studying data, with task forces assigned to all sectors of the industry, each assigned to stay abreast of a particular aspect of the theater industry.
League figures for last season indicate the enormous reach and impact of Broadway on New York City: With 14.8 million Broadway admissions during the 2018-2019 season (65% made up of tourists both domestic and international), the Broadway industry contributed $14.7 billion to the economy of New York City and supported 96,900 jobs.
The obstacles to a reopening are large and many: Broadway audiences sit in tightly packed venues built when audiences expected (and required) smaller, closer seats; Broadway casts perform together, literally – no distance shots, no remotes possible – and Broadway orchestras? They don’t call them “orchestra pits” for nothing.
And that’s just for starters. In this extended and candid conversation with Deadline, St. Martin elaborates on what exactly is being done on Broadway as theaters remain dark, what it will take, financially and otherwise, to get the shows going again, what producers know now and what they still need to learn, and why the League is not asking theatergoers – yet – about when they’d feel comfortable returning to the magnificent venues, leg room or not, that help make Broadway a theatrical beacon worldwide.
So, when will Broadway reopen?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
DEADLINE: So bring me as up to date as you possibly can.
CHARLOTTE ST. MARTIN: I’m happy to do that, and happy to clear up something that our dear friends at The New York Times didn’t mean to do but did when they said to the governor that we were planning on reopening on June 7, which was never, ever the case. We did not say that. We said we were exchanging and refunding tickets up to June 7. I mean, every couple of days our guesstimates go further out. As late as two weeks ago we were thinking that with any luck we might be up by July and that a worst case scenario might be September. Now, the best guesses are that unless there’s serious testing and information that we don’t have now, we’re probably looking at September or later. It really depends on the elected officials, and we know very well that Governor Cuomo will be the one to tell us when we can come back.
We have said that when we’re told that we can come back, it will probably be six weeks before we can actually get back. Sixteen shows were somewhere in rehearsals or somewhere in previews at the time of the shutdown, and there will be a lot of work for those shows. We don’t know how many of those will actually make it – that will depend on how long we’re out. Plus, depending on how long we’re out, will there be cast changes, and how much rehearsal and get-up-to-speed time will it take? So say we were told on June 1 that we can come back, we wouldn’t be back up until six weeks later, July 10 or something.
So that’s where we are. We’re trying to do everything we can to keep the casts together and shows together, and working to help our producers and members stay afloat through governmental efforts, where we can help, so that we have something to come back to.
DEADLINE: What will need to happen in those six weeks? There will be a million details that will need to be decided. Will theaters have concessions? Will audiences wear masks?
ST. MARTIN: We haven’t gone real deep [into some of those questions] because there’s not a lot of information that we can go real deep with. I wouldn’t be surprised if before you enter a theater someone took your temperature. I wouldn’t be surprised that if we do have significant testing, that people will be given badges or some kind of certificate reflecting [antibody status] or that they’re coronavirus-free. We’re hearing of cleaning products that may actually clean a theater and make it safe for 70 days, but do we know that yet? We’re hearing about it, and theater owners and others are looking into it, but there are some who believe that it will take medicine or an [effective] treatment…or a vaccine, which is the scariest because you hear anywhere from a year to two on vaccines, depending on who’s talking and when.
Masks? Maybe. There are just all kinds of questions, and the details are significant in that you’ve got a lot of casts that have disbursed and gone home. You’ve got a lot of touring companies that don’t even have homes to go to because they’ve been on tour for a while and they’ve rented out their apartments. I saw the quote from [Actors’ Equity executive director] Mary McColl about will the actors want to come back until they’re sure they’re safe. What happens to their productions? Will they still kiss on stage? Think of the many shows where there is very, very close contact. What will we need to do for them? There are just so many unknowns, and until we know more – I mean, even the health community doesn’t know much, and as Cuomo clearly pointed out, we are not health professionals. We’re just listening and learning as we go along. We will do what we’re told we have to do.
Another reason why it will take those four to six weeks is the money to come back up. Even for the long running shows, they’re talking about $1 million to get back up. So can they afford to reopen and then be shut down three weeks later? Then they would be doomed.
DEADLINE: If there is a virus rebound next fall or winter…
ST. MARTIN: Yes, that’s what I was alluding to. We’re not going to come back until we feel relatively comfortable that if the virus decides to come back, we’ll have better testing and better medicine.
DEADLINE: What are you doing to stay on top of everything, as things change daily?
ST. MARTIN: We’ve got 15 different task forces working on different aspects of what we need to do to come back. One of those is a research task force to survey and talk to theatergoers to determine what it will take for them to come back, but we’re not starting that until the apex [of the pandemic] has been topped and it’s clear that we’re going down dramatically. We’re not going to do that in this period of shock and panic – it makes no sense. Some people are doing that, and I think they just need something to do but let them do it if it helps them feel better. [Editor’s note: here and here.] Everything I read has a different outcome, so we’ve been advised by serious research folks that now is not the time so now is not when we’re doing it.
DEADLINE: What are the other task forces focusing on?
ST. MARTIN: We have touring task forces, both marketing and producer-presenter. For example, you’ve got some states like Arizona and Nevada that have very little coronavirus cases and they can probably open sooner than Los Angeles and San Francisco, but a show can’t go for a week in Tempe and then not have any place to go for another three weeks. So the whole tour routes have to be redeveloped so that shows can sustain a cast and crew on the road.
And we’ve got government relations groups talking with our local, state and federal officials. One of the key things is that Broadway and the road cannot come back with social distancing. There’s no way the economic model works for a theater that has a 50% house due to social distancing. It won’t work. Broadway has the best theatrical employees in the world, but they’re also the most expensive. So we have to find ways to ensure that when we open, we have the ability to have audiences similar to what we’ve had in the past.
We have nine marketing task forces, including the research one and the advertising one and the creative one and the digital one and the developing partnerships one. Each discipline has an enormous group of leaders who are involved to help us figure this out together…I think we’re really working as an industry. Then, of course, there are all the labor groups working on how we come back and what that looks like.
DEADLINE: When do you expect the various task forces to make recommendations?
ST. MARTIN: They have them every day. Nobody can stay abreast of everything, so each task force is trying to stay abreast of what they’re learning in that particular area, whether it’s research or marketing or health or any of those things. So we’re updated. We’ve got producer groups and theater owner groups and general managers and presenter groups, and they’re each talking to one another in a group format so that everybody can stay on top of things. So I’d look forward to one great report that says we’re going to open on this day and this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it and this is how we’re going to communicate it, but we’re not there yet.
DEADLINE: Do you have any sense of how many shows will come back, how many will close? What are we looking at here really?
ST. MARTIN: I don’t think anybody knows because they don’t know when we’re coming back. We know for sure that two shows that were to open are not coming back. Two Roundabout shows have been postponed to the fall. There were 16 shows [that hadn’t opened yet], and so far 14 of those shows are trying to stay together, to keep there investors together, using advances to pay for expenses during this time period. But so far we’ve had no other announcements that we’re aware of.
There’s certainly some shows that weren’t doing extraordinarily well before the shutdown, but that’s not uncommon coming out of January and February.
We had one of our two best seasonal periods coming up and there was lots of hope, so I’m guessing that their advances were strong enough that they could keep from announcing a shutdown. But as I said, every day brings something new.
DEADLINE: What about estimates on the total financial loss to the industry?
ST. MARTIN: We don’t have enough information to know. We know what ticket sales are lost based on years of data, and I’m currently working on estimates if we’re closed for three months, or if we’re closed for six months or if we’re closed for nine months, and using the box office numbers for those periods.
But we don’t really know how many jobs have been lost. And for the road, it’s impossible because 221 cities have Broadway series, and we know that for many of the cities, the Broadway series helps fund all of the other cultural things – they might only have eight or 10 weeks of Broadway, but the employees in those buildings are also employees of the opera and the symphony and whatever other cultural things that are presented. So we don’t have job numbers for those yet, but we will have a guesstimate. I know there is one producer that had two shows that were supposed to open but have not opened yet, and he’s got $30 million in those two shows. If they don’t open, that’s $30 million lost. Period.
I’m not trying to be evasive with you. I just don’t have it. When we had the 19-day strike in 2007, the only numbers anybody would talk about were the loss of ticket sales and there’s a whole lot more than that but it’s hard to quantify. I mean, jobs lost, offices closes, businesses besides just the shows themselves.
DEADLINE: What about insurance? Would that producer with $30 million invested in those two shows get any money back if they don’t open?
ST. MARTIN: I don’t have access to what business contracts each show has, but I do know that all shows have business interruption insurance, but what are the criteria, and how much? I know one of our producers had very low business interruption insurance, and I know others have pretty substantial business interruption insurance. I’m hearing that it’s possible that some of the companies that do cover these [policies] could go out of business because they could lose so much money in so many other areas. I’m hearing that the insurance industry is trying to get a bailout much like the airlines. I don’t know enough to know if they will get that. We actually are having a session for our members with a top insurance executive next week to help our members with talking about the insurance, because many people don’t understand it.
Most everybody has the force majeure clause, but then with the force majeure there will be exceptions – a lot of people who live in Florida can’t get hurricane insurance, right, or flood insurance? I’ve not heard yet of our producers being turned down, but it’s so new they just may not have answers.
DEADLINE: The mayor of Los Angeles has floated the idea of no sports or concerts until 2021. Is that a possibility for Broadway?
ST. MARTIN: We haven’t talked about that. As I understand it, 2021 is not an absolute, but is something that’s being discussed there. I heard Fauci say there might be baseball but there would be nobody in the stands.
DEADLINE: Which brings us to live streaming. Would that work for Broadway?
ST. MARTIN: Well, aside from the creative discussion relating to it, the financial model doesn’t work. Even for my little organization that represents our industry, I can’t live stream anything without paying all the same fees that a [Broadway] show does. So when I have a concert in Times Square with 50,000 people coming to watch performers from 21 shows, I can’t live stream it. I can’t put it on my website because the financial implications are just too harsh…And I also have producers saying Broadway has to be felt with people in the room, it’s about the escape of being there. Broadway just doesn’t look the same on TV. It is not as magical. It is not as transformative.