Praxis Theatre is currently on hiatus! Please find co-founders Aislinn Rose and Michael Wheeler at The Theatre Centre and SpiderWebShow, respectively.
January 17, 2011, by

Can online promo videos sell theatre?

What makes a video go “viral”? Everyone seems to be giving it a go these days, and Toronto theatre companies are no exception. But are these videos an effective way of selling a show to an audience?

Here are three promo videos of current or upcoming shows in Toronto as examples. What makes a video “forwardable”, and what would make you post a video on Facebook? Has a video like one of these ever propelled you to buy a ticket to a show?

Tarragon Theatre, The Misanthrope

Crow’s Theatre, Eternal Hydra @ The Factory Theatre

Suburban Beast, Bravislovia as part of Rhubarb @ Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

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  1. Mike says:

    I can’t say that a promo video has ever compelled me to see a show, but sometimes they remind me that the show is coming up or are the first thing I see promoting a show. Speaking as someone who rarely picks up a printed newspaper and has learned to pretty much tune out the stream of Google and Facebook ads, I think they can be a useful part of a promotional campaign.

  2. Yeah, I agree that if you think of your job as a marketer is to remind people about a show as many ways as possible, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be one of those tools.

    Maybe our original question is a bit misleading because rarely does someone see an ad in the newspaper and say, “I’m going to purchase a ticket to this”. But if they see the ad, and a youtube video, and a review, and an ad on the subway, and two of their friends are going, and its Pay What You Can – then people start consider attending something.

    Maybe the question is are they cost effective? Like most social media marketing projects it is hard to tell how many sales are a result of an initiative, especially if you accept that sales are a result of a combination of initiatives. 

    Just to make things a little more complex – there are huge benefits to being an early adopter even if the initial returns are modest. If you get known as the company that’s always making awesome online videos will everyone start watching them with regularity? Doing that might take a couple years.

  3. Here’s a the trailer for “Questo buio feroce” the next show at Harbourfront Centre as part of World Stage  Are there other videos out there for upcoming Toronto performances?

  4. Sasha says:

    Videos don’t make me see shows. 
    They often dissuade me. 
    The liveness is all. 

  5. Lindsay says:

    I definitely think videos are a way to effectively sell tickets.  I try to take a lot of people who aren’t regular theatre-goers to see theatre with me.  Most of them are used to seeing trailers for films to see whether they are interested in seeing the film.  Why not for theatre?  When I send them a video, they seem more likely to agree to come see a piece of theatre with me because they know a little of what they are getting in to – they know what to expect.

    And actually, Aislinn just sent me the video for Eternal Hydra and I’m going to see it specifically because of the video.  With so many shows going on in theatre in Toronto, it’s always hard for me to choose what I want to see.  The video intrigued me and made me want more. Although, that being said, I probably wouldn’t forward a video unless I knew someone involved in the show and they asked me to forward it.

  6. Steve says:

    I posted the “trailer” for “Eternal Hydra” on my FB wall, and people were asking who made it, because it is uncommonly slick and well made.

    I saw “Hydra” last year, and will be seeing it again regardless. But if I hadn’t, I think that trailer would have convinced me to see it this time around.

    It’s tough to tell if it would convince someone who isn’t a habitual theatre-goer to book tickets, but I think of all the theatre YouTube promo vids I’ve seen, it’s the best to date.

  7. Robert Catto says:

    I’m just seeing all of these for the first time, without having seen any of the shows (since I live in New Zealand now) or any of their other marketing material, but my feeling is that the Eternal Hydra one is the most successful of the three – mostly because they’ve actually crafted something specifically for what it is.

    That is, the editing, the performances / interviews, and perhaps most importantly the sound recording has been done with video in mind, where the video for The Misanthrope (not to pick on them too much, but as an example) starts off with a captured stage performance – which is played a bit too large for camera, shot a bit too wide for the size of the video I’m watching, and the audio is rebounding around the room. Closer mic positioning would help a lot with that aspect of it, and give a much greater air of professionalism to the end result. I like the idea of it a lot (the music is great!) but the production has let it down a little, where something as simple as getting the camera closer and playing it smaller, and relocating the mic at the same time, would make the same concept really sing.

    The third video intrigues me, but leaves me with little idea of what the SHOW would be like. I might want to see the movie it’s a trailer for! But I have no idea how that’ll translate to a stage production, so it doesn’t lure me in particularly for the experience it’s actually trying to offer. It’s well made, but off the mark a little (to me, at least).

    Did that actually answer your question? I can’t think of a situation where a video has tipped me over into seeing a show, but as Sasha said, I’ve been dissuaded by them. Poor production value in the video implies that the show itself may not be well crafted…

  8. These are all great comments. Thanks everyone.

    Robert – Thanks in particular for your thoughts via the furthest possible distance away you could be from these productions without leaving the planet. It’s interesting to me that distance is no longer a barrier to a global conversation about a topic that is set in a specific place. Also, your distance allows you to have a measured critical response that would be unlikely from someone that works within the networks that comprise an artistic community. Go internets.

    Interestingly – the same team that made the Misanthrope video also made this video for the Tarragon production of Wide Awake Hearts. I thought it was pretty good and CBC even made a news item out of it.

  9. Robert Catto says:

    Interesting, I like that one more – but my comments on audio recording still apply, though to a lesser extent in this case. I’d say also that they could both (Misanthrope and Wide Awake Hearts) be about half as long – in fact, that would probably intrigue me more – leave me WANTING more.

    And yes, well, I may be FAR away, but…did I mention I went to university with the GM of Tarragon? So I still measure my words a little bit – don’t want to be off the Christmas list! Plus, having spent almost a decade in box office (at Passe Muraille & YPT, among others) and now working as a photographer for the performing arts, I guess I have an overdeveloped eye for marketing that sells tickets. Well, sells them to ME, at least!

    Happy to chip in, anyway; discussions of this sort of thing are exactly what the arts community globally need to be doing, especially with their audiences and other outside observers. Good on ya, as we say here!

  10. Philip Akin says:

    I liked the EH video a lot. In fact I called them to tell them how much I liked it. And it was because it was beautifully shot and edited and just a bit quirky.
    We were going to a video for Ruined and ended up not doing one. It wasn’t because of money but because we just never seemed to get the right concept/idea/story that would say something special about the show. I think that videos are a lot like grants. You need an over arching theme for both if you want to be successful.
    And yes, after congratulating the Eh folks I confirmed my tickets for opening night.


  11. Michael Murphy says:

    Seeing as how I produce a number of web trailers and behind the scenes videos for Soulpepper, I thought I’d weigh in.

    The Eternal Hydra video is excellent. My first thought when I saw it was, “Geez I bet that cost a fortune.” Rates for outsourcing video work often *start* at $1,000/minute and can skyrocket from there based on complex editing, sound mixing, titling and colour correction work.

    Aside from being jealous over the quality of their camera, lighting and sound set-up I was heartened that a) someone at Crow’s got the buy-in from all of the artists involved to participate – this is a difficult task sometimes when actors have only ever seen web video done poorly a la static b-roll footage with poor audio; and b) that someone at Crow’s recognized the intrinsic value of marketing the production online through video and committed a sizeable investment of time and money into making it happen.

    At Soulpepper, we’ve been rolling out different video strategies over the past 18 months to varying degrees of success. Michael is right that a purchase results after many interactions with information about a production, but if a video can drive a patron to click through an email and stay on your website for 2 or 3 minutes, that’s putting them a few steps closer to getting a ticket. The flip side is, that if the video reflects poorly on a show it’s better to eat the investment and shelve the project as sometimes is the case.

    I also created a series of promo videos for a Fringe show I directed last summer and those proved to be even more successful in a Fringe environment when patrons are trying to sift through 150 shows. 

    Have a look, because we used projected filmed segments in the production, there was enough footage to assemble into a trailer with audio:

    Hope this discussion continues over the next few weeks…


  12. Jason Howell says:

    None of these videos are particularly effective if their sole purpose is “hyping” or “going viral”. There is nothing particularly “catchy” about any of them to hook the general internet user (not to say they aren’t well made for the most part.) It’s like watching a home video: interesting for the people who know the people in the movie, not so much for a stranger off the street.

    This is not to say that the videos are not effective as pure “advertisement” within a given theatre community. But a good poster and word of mouth campaign can do just as well if not better than a clip. Because there is a very high potential of making a very lame clip!

    Many of the weaknesses of “the Theatre” (capital T) shine through in video clips. Using the three clips above as examples: The heightened theatrical acting and language of “The Misanthrope” clip makes it feel “stagy” (especially when coupled with the acoustics of the recording). The interview style of the “Eternal Hydra” clip is a bit academic and “talk, blah, blah,” even though it looks and sounds great. And while the “Bravislovia” clip is more “modern” in its tone and style, it feels a bit amateurish. All of the clips, however, feel a bit “elitist”, which is the primary flaw of the theatre in this ultra-modern age, and what makes people avoid “the Theatre” in the first place. “The Misanthrope” plays well to the masses of 1666, but only to a very narrow audience in 2011. And the internet/”going viral” is about the masses.

    The whole concept of “video” or “viral” advertising for a live theatre show is a bit strange anyway. I live in Montreal, and I’m not about to drive/take a train/fly to Toronto to see ANY show because of a YouTube clip. To think otherwise is rather absurd. However, I would potentially travel to see a show that has been praised by friends and colleagues in the theatre community. That would have much more resonance with me.

    Anyway, I’m only writing this because Aislinn’s Facebook post led me here. On that note, I have to say that Facebook events have really boosted our ticket sales for the College I teach at. If there is a place to focus … that’s where it’s at. Word of mouth. And Facebook.

  13. So much good stuff here.

    Michael Murphy- thanks for that video which I remember from the summer and it did actually convince me to see the show in part. Essentially I was like, “Any show that has their shit together enough to get Olivia Chow and Adam Giambrone submit to mock interviews is probably worth investigating.” And it was. I was at the midnight show and it was packed and a great time was had by all. 

    Also – good point about shelving a video if you think it will do more harm than good.

    Jason – I knew if I waited long enough I could find someone to disagree with. I totally reject the notion of “elitism” as it is being used in the context of artists and intellectuals in the current socio-political environment. It is a completely constructed paradigm created to allow non-rational but pro-corporate strategies to thrive during a period of economic uncertainty. Embracing this language just reinforces this frame of reference.

    I also feel I should advocate on behalf of The Misanthrope as I had the fortune to sit in on a number of their rehearsals as Director in Training at the theatre. I think it’s a fabulously acted show and actually Martin Crimp’s adaptation is quite relevant and accessible to more than just the tea and crumpet crowd. I remember wondering why Tarragon was doing Moliere, and then I saw what they were doing with it and I was like, “Oh yeah of course!”

    Interesting about Facebook. I stopped checking my events about 8 months ago when it became overwhelming, but that’s just me. I agree Facebook in our market is key with Toronto identified as the urban centre with the highest saturation of Facebook users. 

  14. Aislinn Rose says:

    I’m delighted and encouraged by the level of discussion this post has encouraged. Here’s another great video that Ecce Homo Theatre released today for its Of a Monstrous Child: a gaga musical. Tell me you aren’t enticed.

  15. My work with Ecce Homo is so visually based and a video trailer can communicate some flavour of the aesthetic at the very least.  I suppose my only ‘evidence’ is coincidental – the trailer I created for ‘Loving the Stranger or how to recognize an invert’ which we staged at last seasons’ SummerWorks was viewed just over 450 times…roughly the same number of people who saw the show.

    As for the above video, it has already been viewed 110 and it was posted last night.  I hope that translates into an audience boost; theses things are laborious to construct! 

    I’m happy that other people are interested in debating this method of advertising too as it’s been a tool for Ecce Homo for the past couple years and I’m never certain if its actually helping.  This discussion is helpful thanks!

  16. That’s a great video. Thanks Aislinn/Alistair.

    I think I’m starting to form the opinion that modest returns from this approach are happening now, but there is a huge growth potential in the future as the market encourages everyone to starts having tablet computers on their coffee tables l and watching videos on their smartphones.
    There is also probably a generational factor in terms of ROI. The under 45 set (and I am just assuming all of this data is true) isn’t attending all that much theatre, wants to make same-day decisions instead of buying a subscription for a season, and much more likely to check Facebook and other social media tools. So even if the ROI is poor currently – I still think most organizations should probably consider this approach if for no other reason than to give the next Artistic Director who comes in a decade from now a hope in hell.

  17. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by QDF, Praxis Theatre. Praxis Theatre said: Three new videos from Tarragon Theatre, @crowstheatre, and Suburban Beast. Will they put more bums in seats? […]

  18. Phillipa Lloyd Chambers says:

    I find a lot of the debate somewhat insular here..mostly people “in the business” I assume, but form the perspective of an audience member, a theatre lover who does NOT work in the theatre, but follows it avidly, I think the idea of the promotional videos is a fine one, and the effectiveness for me in terms of attracting me into the three productions represented here is directly proportional to the quality, intelligence and execution of the videos..what are the ideas behind each, what is the communication savvy and how well do they intuit a specific audience….I think that the Hydra video talks to me most successfully because it’s message is clearest and it respects my intelligence as an average audience member. It does not exist to just sell me a seat, but asks me to get involved in a relationship. Yes it helps that it is the better executed from a technical and editing POV , but really it has a strong message and asks me to take an action to share in the creation of theatre…by being the listener.

  19. Michael Wheeler says:

    Hi Phillipa – Thanks for this comment. I agree the conversation is somewhat insular, but itn is really about what appeals to people like yourself – who might attend, but don’t work in theatre. So thanks for your thoughts. They are particularly relevant. Hope to hear them in future conversations!

  20. Ben Chaisson says:

    Hi all,
    Video is a bit of my bread and butter so I have a vested interest in this topic. I find all marketing strategies for small scale theatre a bit difficult. Filming something has never been cheaper and easier to do, that being said it still costs more than you want it to especially if you want it to sound and look good. Television commercials cost millions of dollars with large labour pools and skilled trades persons. Editing titling and dubbing are important processes in production value. Should you spend more on promotion than on production of your show? (Probably Not) I am not advocating that DYI video isn’t useful but it is a choice in aesthetic, and does it reflect your piece well? Your Iphone can shoot video but that doesn’t mean it should. You tube is tool we should embrace by all means but as is the case with all video it needs to be of quality in both message and production value.
    It should also be noted that some promo videos are not just intended to sell tickets but also to sell shows to future presenters. Attached is a link for a show i worked on in calgary and I think it looks great but it was shot while the show was running. It’s not a video of process but rather a glimpse of what the show looks like.

    I am happy to present myself as someone who can do some shooting some editting and recording. If anyone is interested contact me.

    Great conversation.

  21. Ben Chaisson says:

    I also wanted to say that for independent theatre or commercial theatre video can still be cheezy. Think of those God awful Mama Mia ads the Mirvishes did.

    “in conversation style” interviews have a limited appeal but really all marketing for theatre has a limited appeal. We should try anything but realize that there is no one gun solution to marketing and it takes a lot of effort to convince anyone to buy a ticket.

  22. Thanks Ben. Great points. Yeah it’s probably good to realize – if a show is up and running and you are trying to sell it to new markets, then you have way different options in terms of what you can put together on video. 

    If you think about the budget for a 30 second Hyundai commercial (to pick a corporation at random), it is probably four times that of the ENTIRE BUDGET (not the marketing budget) of an indie theatre production. So, you know, production values of the sorts of videos theatre produces will often be below that of other things the public is used to seeing. Fortunately, artists are imaginative and there is an allure to being “genuine”, but this will likely always be a problem due to economies of scale and the relative resources at our disposal.

    On a different note, bearing in mind that Augusto Boal was onto something – i present this youtube clip sent to me by a friend this morning which is part theatre/part video all community engagement.

  23. […] were interested to see this recent post from our friends at Praxis Theatre (Artistic Director Michael Wheeler spoke at another Lunch and […]

  24. Henry Sansom says:

    It seems that budget is a central factor in this discussion, and that it’s a shame when production costs diminish a production value. If it weren’t so cost prohibitive, there would unquestionably be more advertisements for your efforts on the web.
    IMO, most of you involved in the theater have two strong skills going for you that you flex under big budgetary confines; Innovation and Curation.
    So I suggest that if a Red Camera is Canadian Stage, and an iphone is someone’s living room, you have ideas on how to chose and create art for those spaces.
    Make videos with what you have, and don’t try to hide the medium. Genuineness and smart choices will appeal to new audiences a lot more than production value.
    Furthermore, if you know what your season is going to consist of, make all your videos at once and release them as the time is appropriate. It is more cost/resource effective, and having a consistent aesthetic throughout your growing video library is only a good thing. Plus, there’s no last minute rush to get the damn thing done.
    The more of you there is out there, the easier is will be for people to find you. I, for one, am liking all these video links.