In the early 1960s, when there were just two dozen groups performing, the Fringe Society produced a leaflet called Fringe Without Tears. It warned participants of the tough competition, of the many costs involved and of the near impossibility of making a profit. If that was true fifty years ago, how much more so must it be today in a festival that is so many times bigger?
The short answer is that unless you are one of the very few big-name acts who can command a sell-out audience in a 1,000-seat room, you should not expect to make money. Instead, you should focus on how to limit your loss.
Kath Mainland, chief executive of the Fringe Society, makes this clear:
It’s about being realistic about what it’s going to cost you. If you have a realistic plan and you budget properly, you can either raise the money before you get here or focus the spending on what you think is important.
As Charlie Wood of the Underbelly sees it, there are three possible reasons, each of which will make you think about the costs in a different way:
• One is to have fun. In this case, you have to work out what your cost is, what you’re going to make, what the difference is, and then ask yourself if that margin is a cheap or expensive holiday.
• The second reason is to make money. Be really careful about that because it’s really difficult. Even established performers, comedians and theatre producers come up here thinking they’ve got a show that will sell really well and it doesn’t. Even one man and a microphone, because that market is so competitive, can still lose £5,000 or £10,000.
• The third reason is because you hope your show will get bought and find a future life. It happens every year, which is why people keep coming back, not because it’s a myth. It does genuinely happen, but be aware that it only happens to a very small percentage of the overall number of shows.
Whichever category you fit into, you should do your financial planning with extreme wariness. It is not uncommon for producers even of outwardly successful shows to run up debts they are still paying off three years later. ‘Think of a worst-case budget, add 25 per cent and try to stick to it,’ says Nick Read, head of hire and events at Northern Light. ‘It does always cost more; it’s like moving house.’
When drawing up a budget there are many costs to remember in addition to the obvious expenditure of travel, accommodation and venue hire. ‘There are the sundries that go on top that you forget,’ says director Renny Krupinski. ‘Insurance, Performing Right Society, Fringe box office taking six per cent off your tickets . . . all those things add up.’
Fringe veterans will tell you that, however fantastic your show, however brilliant your marketing, however prudent your financial projections, sometimes things just don’t work in your favour. William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of Assembly, has been coming to Edinburgh long enough to see a pattern:
I have a rule that every seven years you go bust. It’s for no particular reason except inevitably running anything like that you can’t expect it to work every year. You don’t know going into the festival if all the shows are going to work or not, you don’t know if there’s going to be a downturn in the audience. A lot of my grey hairs are through keeping it all going.
Burdett-Coutts, of course, is running a whole venue and therefore dealing with more uncertainty than most. The lesson of caution, however, applies to even the smallest show. If your budget is unrealistic, you can find yourself being sucked into a deeper and deeper hole. ‘There’s nothing worse than looking over your shoulder for the whole month,’ says Alex Rochford, former programmer at Assembly:
With your budget set out, you say, ‘We have to sell twenty tickets a day.’ Then you fall short, so you say, ‘It’s all right, we can sell twenty-five tomorrow.’ It falls short again and you say, ‘We’ll sell forty the next day.’ You’ll have the most horrendous month ever.
With his twenty-year track record as a Fringe producer, Guy Masterson may appear to have got it sussed, but he freely admits he has made many miscalculations along the way.
I’ve learnt by mistakes – and I have made lots of mistakes, artistically and financially. I’ve not spent on marketing when I should have spent on marketing; I’ve overspent on marketing when I shouldn’t have spent on marketing.
The stories are not all negative, however. ‘We make money now,’ says Martyn Jacques, lead singer of the three-man Tiger Lillies, just home after a sell-out run of seventeen nights in a 150-seat venue at the Pleasance with a top ticket price of £15.
For me, now it’s perfectly legitimate to do it, which makes me happy. I feel it’s part of our year’s work. It’s not an enormous amount of money, but it’s all right. And we sell CDs which we sign after the show, so we make money from that as well. We’re very lucky in that respect and it took us fifteen years of hard work.
This, however, is a rare sell-out show with ticket prices up to twice what many companies charge. A sell-out Tiger Lillies performance, assuming all tickets being sold at full price, would have a gross daily box-office figure of £2,250. That sounds like riches, but if you took the advice of publicist Liz Smith that ‘you should never budget for more than thirty per cent – maybe forty per cent if you’re really confident,’ the picture would change dramatically. It’s a projection in line with the Fringe Office’s own recommendations and, in this case, your maximum takings would be more like £675.
If your tickets averaged a more typical £10 (still on the high side), that gross would shrink to £450. Once the venue took its share of the takings, you’d be left with £270 and you would still have to account for production costs (costumes, set, props), accommodation, subsistence, travel, artwork, publicity, programme fee, Fringe box-office commission, public liability insurance and VAT. If there was anything left after that, it would surely evaporate once it was divided between the company members.
The message is to make a sober estimate of your income and expenditure, then make sure you can afford the difference between the two. Whether you do this by fund-raising, cutting costs or absorbing the shortfall into a bigger annual budget will depend on your circumstances. There’s no denying the riches you will find in Edinburgh are cultural not financial, but with prudence, you should be able to make the figures balance.
From The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide, Methuen Drama (Bloomsbury)