We read with interest Ambassador Theatre Group co-owner Howard Panter’s spread in the Sunday Times Money section this weekend, “Fame and fortune: I put my savings on the stage”, in the hope of getting some tips.
Alongside his wife and business partner Rosemary Squire, they are now the most powerful people in British Theatre and certainly the largest theatre owners. Their deal last year to buy Live Nation’s venues boosted their portfolio to 39 theatres in the UK, including London’s Apollo Victoria, Comedy, Duke of York’s, Fortune, Lyceum, Phoenix, Piccadilly, Playhouse, Savoy, Trafalgar Studios and Donmar Warehouse. That means they manage more than 11,000 theatre seats in London. Powerful indeed.
In the feature, Panter, 61, revealed his ambition to capitalise on the current overseas interest in London shows. His aim is to export shows to other countries by selling the intellectual property of a show but getting it backed by investment from the home country, and populating it with the host country’s local talent.
Presumably it’s a similar model to Cameron Mackintosh but without actually producing the show – more in line with TV companies exporting formats overseas. This makes sense given ATG’s increasing emphasis on production (recent examples include Keira Knightly in The Misanthrope, Legally Blonde at the Savoy and a new tour of The Rocky Horror Show – which Panter owns the rights to). This virtuous circle of owning venues and then producing plays for them makes perfect business sense and mirrors Mackintosh in reverse (a producer who moved into theatre ownership).
Panter is also lobbying hard for tax breaks to help “angels” invest in commercial theatre. Angels – usually rich theatre-loving individuals who take a punt on backing a show in the hope of making some money (rare) and getting a bit of West End glamour (guaranteed) – have long been the life-blood of commercial theatre financing. As Panter says, “With the cuts that are coming, commercial theatre is the bit that’s going to grow, while the publicly subsidised sector of the theatre will be under huge additional strain. The problem, though, is how you sell this politically right now”.
Hard to do, I imagine, when you put it like that.
If commercial theatre is going to grow then tax breaks are going to be less likely. The argument needs to be that, like productions and venues, the subsidised and commercial theatre run in a virtuous circle of talent and creativity – generating lots of money for the UK in the process. It doesn’t pay to have one without the other, so in the short-term commercial theatre will grow as it takes audiences away from a dwindling subsidised world, but in the long-run the whole thing dries up.
We also learnt that Howard has minor dyslexia, likes a good holiday, started in theatre with £1 but now turns over about £230m a year, and has got showbiz in his bones: he originally studied lighting, sound, design, stage management and direction at Lamda.
Which is good to know because with great power comes great responsibility (ref: Spider-man), and we are going to need some seriously passionate, powerful and benevolent theatre people to see us through the next few years.