Knighted Impresario of the British Stage Bets on Live Theater During the Pandemic

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With much of the live entertainment industry facing a harrowing moment of retrenchment, Howard Panter sees an opportunity to expand. 

These days, the theater impresario behind such iconic West End productions as “South Pacific” and “The Rocky Horror Show” is steering a global live-entertainment empire that continues to make acquisitions despite widespread uncertainty about when and how performance venues can reopen safely amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

For a quarter-century, Panter and his wife, Rosemary Squire, built up the Ambassador Theatre Group from a single theater into an industry heavyweight.  In 2016, they stepped down as joint chief executive officers. The following year, they co-founded Trafalgar Entertainment, which, in addition to producing new shows, oversees a theater school, a streaming service and an online ticket-selling business.

Recently, Trafalgar Entertainment bought the Theatre Royal in Sydney, which Panter sees as the cornerstone of plans for an international expansion. Backing him are Richard Branson and U.S. pension funds, including MassMutual.

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Panter spoke with Bloomberg about how the theater will recover from the coronavirus impact, the need for more diversity in the industry and whether live productions of Shakespeare can compete with an onslaught of new digital entertainment services like Disney+, HBO Max and Quibi. 

What have the past few months been like for your company?

No one has been made redundant. That’s a good thing. We have furloughed just under half the teams across the various companies within the group. But we’ve managed to keep everybody in touch and, I hope, to be aware of people’s potential hardship issues, and to give support to people where we can.

The other piece has been really trying to find the strands within our business that we can operate. For instance, our Stagecoach business—which is a big performing-arts business—we’ve moved a great deal of it online. We’ve gone into the drive-in movie movement, which is happening all over.

How have you explained to investors that the expansion into Australia and Asia is a good move in the long term?

You either take the view that we’re never going to come back and see theater, musicals and concerts again. Or you take the view that it is going to come back, and that if you concentrate on the right areas, and you have diverse revenue streams, as we have built up, then it’s a good business to be in. And certainly we know now a number of financial institutions that are really interested in the live space.

If you take Netflix, and HBO’s new brand, and Disney+ and all the rest of it, that’s quite a crowded marketplace. If you look at the live-theater space in Australia and Asia Pacific, you’ve got a huge market there that is actually not very comprehensively served. Asia Pacific, Australia and New Zealand are prosperous and growing economies. And we are very lucky that in New Zealand and most states in Australia there is no Covid-19. 

If you believe that people want to come back together again—obviously, I do—then why not expand? Why not grow in a time when it appears to be in a down period? 

You’ve been in the theater business a long time. Have all the new, competing forms of entertainment made it harder to run your business?

It’s become more professionalized. When I started, it was something of a series of cottage industries. 

What we’ve tried to do is to have vertically integrated companies that have content, venues, ticketing, food and beverage, merchandise, IP to develop, live streaming. If you add up all the different revenue streams then you have a much more stable business that financial institutions absolutely can relate to and feel much more comfortable with. It’s moved from, “Let's hope you hit the next ‘Phantom of the Opera’” to, “Well, you probably won’t hit the next ‘Phantom’ or ‘Hamilton,’ but you’ll hit lots of other good stuff.” 

There was a live version of “Hamilton” that was filmed which is going to be a Disney+ movie now. Do you see more of that happening?

I think so, yeah. There used be a view that if you made a movie, or did a live broadcast production of theater, which we do a lot of, it would kill the live business. In fact, all the evidence we have is that it expands the business. One of our brands is “The Rocky Horror Show,” which has been around for a long time. We did a broadcast of a live production, which was actually a charity sort of event. We showed it in x-thousand cinemas, just for one night. It made the tours that followed about 35% better in terms of revenue than previous or post “Rocky Horror Show” tours. Obviously, the version that you do on camera has to be great, and exciting and cinematically cool. But it doesn’t devalue the live production.

There are cautionary tales  with the use of IP from live theater like what happened with “Cats,” which lost a lot of money.

Yes, well, indeed. I know nothing about that particular thing other than what one reads, but I think they’ve got to be done well. 

What’s the outlook for  getting productions and live events restarted?

One needs to work through the precautions with customers. While I hope I’m not tempting fate here, I don’t think any virus has lasted forever. They do actually run their course, and you learn to manage them. I mean, HIV, we’ve learned to manage, have we not? And treat. I believe that the combination of treatment, hygiene, sensible precaution and then, hopefully, a vaccine one day, will get us back. 

What are your thoughts on the protests against racial injustice?

It’s simply refocused that all forms of racism, or sexism, or any form of intolerance is not acceptable. And I think actually, the theater industry and the entertainment industry generally, as long as it’s thoughtful and measured in what it says, is a tremendous advocate for antiracism. 

What is the state of diversity in theater?

It is much, much more diverse than it ever was. Now, clearly, it needs to go further. Clearly, one needs to have greater diversity within the industry in terms of things that represent the population. So, it has gone a long way, but like everything, there’s room for improvement.

Are audiences looking for new content or classic IP?

I don’t detect any underlying changes. Different generations like different things. Whether it’s “Hamlet” or “Sound of Music,” the reason they’re called classics is because they last, and they appeal to people over the generations. I would be surprised if in 100 years’ time “Hamlet” was not being performed.

Is the industry overall  positioned to weather the limited audience sizes and the rules on social distancing?

The truth is, it’s harder than ever to be an independent, smaller producer. That’s unquestionably true. It’s always been really hard. I started as an independent producer. I was a director and lighting designer and God knows what else. But when I was an independent producer, that was really, really hard. Because two or three things go wrong and that could wipe you out, basically.

There will be casualties, I fear. But others will come up because there’s an innate enthusiasm. Look at our performing-arts school, for instance. Why do we have so many people wanting to learn how to sing and dance and act? Why do they want to do it? They’re not forced to do it. They queue up to get into performing-arts institutes.

I’m sure there will be some casualties in the theater industry. But theater itself will continue. And I think, possibly, our model is perhaps a model for others to look at, to think of. The different revenue streams—that’s a lesson my wife and I’ve learned over the years of doing it. You’ve got to think like a business. You can’t just hope your next show is going to be “Hamilton.”

What is happening with student enrollment and applications at your performing-arts institute?

It goes up every year. That’s the trend. And we’re going into more territories. We created more schools in Australia, in Germany and in North America. But clearly the pandemic has moved the classroom, if you like, from bricks to clicks. There’s an argument that the world is a bit Zoomed out at the moment. We are experiencing people saying, “I can’t take one more thing online.” 

Why do you love theater?

It was one of the things I could do at school. I could do sports, and I could do performing arts, basically. That’s what I was quite good at. When I went to my first drama school, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, I did the production course, which was learning directing, lighting, sound, all of those skills. When I had my first day there, they took us into the theater, and just seeing the lights on the curtain, the curtain going up over the darkness, and all this together with the story, I said, “I’m home.”

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