How suitable is the DPAC business plan? | Durham County | Indy Week
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Perhaps we should have a stiff drink and look to the bravado of Kenny Rogers: "You never count your money, when you're sitting at the table/ There'll be time enough for counting, when the dealing's done."

How suitable is the DPAC business plan? 

The big box of culture

click to enlarge Rent opens DPAC's SunTrust Broadway Series, running Jan. 20-25, 2009. - PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS

It's here, all $46.8 million of it. For better or worse, Durham has piled its chips on a bet that the Triangle has enough disposable entertainment dollars to support a second large theater, one that will lean heavily on our appetite for touring Broadway shows with prices ranging from $25 to $70, plus a $7.75 Ticketmaster surcharge. And the gambit leans heavily on acts like Kenny Rogers, who performs Dec. 11.

It's not clear that anyone's been a Kenny Rogers fan since about 1979, when "The Gambler" was a massive novelty hit. But, with a population of 217,000 or so, Durham needs only 1 percent of its residents to plunk down $36-$66 to hear Rogers' versions of Christmas favorites for the show to be a solid success. Rogers may seem better suited for Branson, Mo., than Durham, but he could be enough of a draw to help make viable the city's venture into big box entertainment.

When DPAC became a reality, there were some eye-popping numbers. First and foremost was the sheer size of the venue: 2,800 seats. Then there were the numbers regarding sales expectations: The break-even point is to sell 60 percent of tickets for 100 shows a year, at $55-$60 per ticket.

It seems a tall order for a small city with significant, pressing demands on dwindling public resources, at a time of widespread consumer gloom. Still, the team assembled by general manager Bob Klaus, a veteran of Raleigh's Walnut Creek outdoor concert shed, has been booking performances all year and has much to show for its efforts. (Klaus declined multiple Indy requests for an interview, citing his workload in preparation for DPAC's opening.) As its opening approaches, the theater has announced 46 nights of bookings in the nearly six-month interval between the B.B. King concert Nov. 30 and the final night of The Color Purple May 17, 2009. A DPAC spokeswoman predicts the total will climb to 60 or 70 between now and May.

Research on the entertainment industry database Pollstar.com reveals some surprising—and encouraging—figures about the lineup. Over the last 36 months, the man who sang "Lucille" and "Coward of the County," for example, has drawn 2,402 attendees per concert date, at an average ticket price of $47, for a typical gross of about $112,000. Considering that DPAC's break-even point works out to 1,680 tickets sold per show for a gross of about $100,000, Rogers starts to look like a decent investment, if not a very hip one.

And what about Wicked, the Broadway smash that a DPAC official recently told the Indy could run for a month or longer when it arrives for the 2009-10 season? That juggernaut rings up nearly $175,000 per performance, with an average attendance of 2,671.

Then there's Robin Williams, slated for March 13: a national average of 3,221 tickets sold and a gross of $250,000 per show. (Tickets are on sale, starting at $75 and topping out at a $450 VIP package. At press time, front-row seats were available for the latter price.)

Still, such numbers are of limited utility to outside observers because the overhead and revenue arrangements vary widely from show to show. Indeed, as Tom Gabbard, president of Charlotte's Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, said in a phone interview, more modest shows often are more profitable. While noting that he didn't know enough to make a fully informed judgment of DPAC's break-even numbers, or "split point," Gabbard said, "[DPAC's projection] is well below our average capacity. I would describe the DPAC plan as conservative. That's a good way to budget."

Beyond the issue of the viability of DPAC's programming, however, are philosophical and economic issues. First, there's the issue of competition with the Progress Energy Center, the existing four-stage facility in Raleigh. DPAC publicist Rachel Gragg acknowledged via e-mail that the marketing department will cast a wide net: "Our mission—to reach and attract audiences from Greensboro to the coast—involves traditional radio, TV, direct mail and print, plus various new media including e-mail database marketing and social networking."

The Raleigh venue's general manager, Jim Lavery, says the competition is real, but he seems to take it in stride. "We're going to lose shows, but we're not backing down," he says. Indeed, he points to a major coup: a four-week run next summer of Jersey Boys (averaging 2,606 tickets sold, and raking in $176,505).

However, Lavery says the market for Broadway products is declining. "I don't think you can split the pie any thinner than it already is," he says.

Lavery notes that soon Progress Energy will have a "boutique amphitheater," a huge, tented facility on the west side of the convention center (under the shimmer wall) that will hold 5,000 people and, he hopes, host 30-40 concerts a year in conjunction with Live Nation.

Lavery has another reason to be optimistic: He was speaking after an exceptional weekend that saw two sold-out shows by Jerry Seinfeld in the 2,300-seat Memorial Auditorium.

Still, he admits the climate is tough, with marketing staffs working overtime to find ways to entice cash-strapped fans to their shows. "Desperate times call for desperate measures," he says, surprisingly cheerfully.

Another issue is that DPAC is a relatively one-dimensional big box for expensive, prepackaged entertainment. Its massive scale renders it impractical for most homegrown products. Unlike Raleigh's Progress Energy Center and Charlotte's Blumenthal, DPAC isn't designed to support resident companies. The four-venue Progress Energy Center, in addition to its Broadway South Series, is home to such local (and less profitable) groups as the Carolina Ballet, the North Carolina Theatre and the North Carolina Symphony.

But in Durham—which takes pride in its countercultural affinities, its rough-hewn bands and fringe theater groups—efforts to include a modest black box in the DPAC plan came to naught.

DPAC has booked one Raleigh mainstay, Theatre in the Park's A Christmas Carol, for three nights before the show returns to its usual residency at Memorial Auditorium, and the North Carolina Symphony will accompany Jim Brickman's holiday show on Dec. 18. There was discussion, too, of the Carolina Ballet bringing The Nutcracker to DPAC, according to ballet company spokeswoman Elizabeth Parker, but that isn't happening this year.

So far, it seems that the one Durham arts institution poised to make appearances in DPAC is the American Dance Festival. Festival director Charles Reinhart confirmed that beginning next summer, ADF will no longer use Duke's Page Auditorium, and instead move that programming to DPAC.

For Reinhart, the issue has nothing to do with the economics of DPAC's operations and everything to do with art. "The reasons are twofold," he said by telephone from the festival's New York office. "The DPAC stage is much bigger, so we can pick our repertory based on the size of that stage. Audiences will see more because the sightlines in DPAC are much better than Page."

"From the viewpoint of artists and audiences," Reinhart continued, "DPAC is much better. The DPAC stage is 50 by 50, so we can do anything we want in there."

Reinhart agreed that ADF could present famous compositions it hasn't been able to program in years past, although that may not happen soon. "Next season—or the season after," he said, adding a jarring caveat: "The way the world is going economically ... I lived through the first Depression. It was scary."

Indeed, the faltering economy is one unfortunate hurdle that programmers have to clear. According to Gragg, the venue "expects to have over 6,000 season ticket holders by opening night of Rent in January." But come March, will there be 2,800 Triangle residents who will have spare $75-$450 for a Robin Williams show?

In these nervous times, Durham has an expensive new investment that's less than two weeks from opening. Perhaps we should have a stiff drink and look to the bravado of Kenny Rogers: "You never count your money, when you're sitting at the table/ There'll be time enough for counting, when the dealing's done."

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