NYLP: Welcome to the New York Launch Pod, a podcast highlighting new start-ups, businesses and openings in the New York City area. I’m Hal Coopersmith, and in this episode, we’re going to be talking about theater and there’s nothing more New York than theater, according to Tom Melcher. He’s the founder of Show-Score and he’s stepping on to the New York Launch Pod. Welcome to the New York Launch Pod, Tom.
Tom: Thank you. Great to be here.
NYLP: So you are a big theater fanatic.
Tom: I am.
NYLP: Tell us about that.
Tom: You know, theater is one of these art forms where for many people who love it, you kind of got hooked in elementary school. You know, you saw something. And I’m the kind of theater fan who in a year will see 250 shows. I mean, I’m a big theater fan.
NYLP: I saw that in one of your press releases, 250.
Tom: We did, yeah. We moved to New York a couple of years ago and took a year off to see theater. And we stopped counting at 250 shows. But we’ve been doing this for years. When we lived overseas, we were the kind of family who would fly to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and see 60 shows in 10 days, or we would fly to New York for a weekend and see six shows in a weekend. So theater for us is like sports maybe for another family or food for somebody else.
NYLP: Two-hundred and fifty, that’s five shows a week.
Tom: Two-hundred and fifty in a year, so that’s a little bit less than once a day. You know, if you count matinées and evening performances or during the New York International Fringe Festival, we might see four shows in a day. But, yeah, if you like theater, you can see a lot of New York. I mean, in any given night in New York City there’s 150 shows playing. Most people don’t know that. And once you start to realize that Broadway is terrific but there’s a lot that’s beyond Broadway, you can kind of sample from everything that’s available for theater in New York City and never repeat yourself for a very long time.
NYLP: So you’re a big theater fanatic. You’re the founder of Show-Score. What is Show-Score?
Tom: Show-Score is a free website that helps you figure out, helps you discover shows you’ll love. It’s a lot like Rotten Tomatoes is for movies. If you’re not quite sure about a movie, what you want to see or maybe you’ve heard about it and you want to check it out, you go to Rotten Tomatoes. And they have all of those movies in it. They have the critics’ reviews and the member reviews together. Show-Score is just like that but for New York City Theater. So we list all of the shows in one place. So, tonight there’s probably 160 shows running. For each show, we have all of the critics’ reviews that are organized in an easy way. We have all of the prices from all of the discounters in one place, and we have a fun way for you as a consumer to leave your own review for a show.
NYLP: And we were talking a little bit earlier, but most of the seats in New York are not on Broadway.
Tom: Yeah. So a lot of people of course know Broadway. I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s on the buses, and the taxi cabs and in the subways, and Broadway’s terrific. But it turns out that on any given night in New York, there are about 150 shows running. And right now I think there’s 25 of those on Broadway. So that means there’s 125 shows that are not on Broadway and they’re terrific. If you think about it, it’s the same people. Somebody, an actor might be in Hamilton or Chicago this month, and then next month, they’re going to be in some show in a venue maybe you’ve never heard of, but the talent level is the same. And a lot of people surprisingly in New York City don’t know that.
NYLP: So how are people finding out about these other shows now?
Tom: Well, before Show-Score came along, it was actually really hard to figure out. The reason I started Show-Score was that, in that year that I first moved to New York, when I saw 250 shows, I just found it was incredibly difficult to find these shows. You know, you knew what was on Broadway, like who wouldn’t know that if you’re into theater? But the rest of these shows, they were in places I’d never heard of. You couldn’t find the reviews. I mean, good luck with that. And there are of course great websites like The New York Times has theater listings, TDF, which are the TKTS people, they have theater listings, but as I looked into it, I
found out that nobody had it all in one place. So we created Show-Score. That’s the point of the site. If you’re interested in finding theater Broadway or beyond, you just go to one place. It’s called Show-Score.
NYLP: And there are other theater blogs that are out there. When I was researching Show-Score, I came across these blogs but nothing that lays it out just like you guys.
Tom: Yeah. There are lots of theater sites out there. So if you want news, you go to Playbill or Broadway.com, Broadway World, TheaterMania. If you want sort of up-close-and-personals, you go to theater people or various people’s blogs and that’s all great. Those places are for fans who really want to know the latest about the shows and about the stars and about the industry.
They’re kind of like news sites, right? But if you want to try to figure out what to see, it’s very different. You know, it’s kind of like if you think about movies, movies there are lots of sites like Entertainment Tonight, which is a news and gossipy sort of a site, right? But you never go to Entertainment Tonight to figure out what to see in a movie. You would probably go to Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb. So Show-Score is sort of like that. There’s Playbill and Broadway World and TheaterMania. That’s like the Entertainment Tonight kind of places. Show-Score is much more like a Rotten Tomatoes, trying to help you figure out what to see.
NYLP: So you’re seeing 250 shows in a year. After what number show, did you come up with the idea for Show-Score?
Tom: Oh, gosh. I don’t know the exact count. It was more like it took about three months of just being super frustrated by how hard it is to do something that should be really easy. And, you know, I’m a tech geek. For me, the answer is obvious. Like, well, Rotten Tomatoes. I mean, it’s not like you had to invent something new. It’s already been done, right? TripAdvisor, it’s the same idea. TripAdvisor, it’s already been done. Goodreads for books, it’s already been done. So I was like, “Well, how come there’s not a Rotten Tomatoes for theater?” And I went around and asked people, and there really wasn’t a good reason. And I finally said, “You know, all right, I’m a tech entrepreneur. I’m just going to build it.”
NYLP: So what did you do next?
Tom: So what I did next was that I went around and talked to a lot of people and told them my idea. I don’t believe that there are really any original ideas in the world, so I wasn’t worried about somebody stealing. I actually hoped somebody would take the idea and that I could then fund it and help out a little bit. This for me is start-up number 10. I didn’t really think I wanted to do to another start-up, but then after I decided, I couldn’t find anybody who would do it and so I started a company in February of last year. You know, we filed for incorporation, and wrote a PowerPoint of what the objectives were and how we would measure success, and started to hire a team and built the site.
NYLP: Why do you think that these other rating services didn’t do a Broadway rating service?
Tom: I think that if you are a movie site for instance, like a Rotten Tomatoes, those industries are huge. There’s tons of movies. There’s tons of money. And by comparison, theater is kind of rounding error. It’s small. It’s not that small. Every year, Broadway alone sells 12 million seats for more than $1 billion of revenue. Just Broadway, not counting all the other shows, but I think that a lot of people feel like, “Oh, it’s too small.” I think the other reason is that this idea of Show-Score has actually been tried several times before and it’s failed every time.
So there was a site called StageGrade. The New York Times has tried this. You can go on lots of theater sites like Ticketmaster and leave reviews. And so as I first went around, everybody was like, “Well, first of all, it’s kind of small, and second of all, it’s been done and it failed, so I’m not sure there’s a real opportunity there.” Maybe I’m crazy but I was like, “You know, I think it’s because it hasn’t been done well. And even if I’m the only person that uses it, I want to build it. I can’t find anybody else to do it and I’m obsessed about it, so I’m just going to build it.”
NYLP: So how are you building it well?
Tom: Well, we know it’s working because now we’re six months in and we just passed 50,000 registered members. And to register, you just need to sign up, but getting something from 50,000 from nothing is hard. And what’s more amazing is that they’ve written 76,000 member reviews in 6 months. So if you compare that number to Facebook or Yelp or TripAdvisor to give you a sense of that, if you go on Facebook, Yelp and TripAdvisor and you look at the theater reviews that consumers are writing for New York City Theater, you can count them up and we did.
And if you take those three sites and add them up and you multiply it by six, you get Show-Score. So in the first six months of our existence, we’ve had six times more people writing reviews on Show-Score than Facebook, Twitter and TripAdvisor combined, which is kind of a mind-blowing number for me, because when you go see theater in New York, they’re always saying, “Oh, if you love the show, score it on Facebook. Write a review on TripAdvisor. Say it on Yelp.” They’re doing a lot of marketing. Nobody’s been marketing for Show-Score. Consumers have been finding us and loving the site. So I think that’s the best proof so far that…knock on wood but it seems to be working.
NYLP: I mean, that’s one of the things that really attracted me to bring you on is your site is really well laid out.
Tom: Thank you.
NYLP: It’s really clear. You can search shows. How have you been able to grow the community?
Tom: My feeling for internet sites and internet media sites, this is the tenth start-up I’ve done in the internet space for, gosh, almost 30 years. What I’ve learned, which is not any blinding insight, is that it’s all about the product. So if you don’t get the product right, marketing won’t save you and no amount of marketing can make up for a lousy product. So we just tried to focus on building a really great experience, and it’s not easy to do because you sort of are making it up particularly in a category that people think has been done and didn’t work before. But that’s really how we’ve done it. We’ve built a product that our members are saying they really love. They tell their friends and you go from there.
NYLP: How long did it take for you to develop the site?
Tom: We started the business on February 1. That was literally Day 1. Thirty-five days in, we had alpha. Alpha means, the first version before you’ve actually launched it to the public. We had one round of alpha 35 days in. We had about 20 people try it. That was beginning of March. Between that, we did a total of three alphas and then we went into beta September, 15th. So from February 1 to September 15th, whatever that is, and then we launched September 15th and we’re still technically in beta.
NYLP: What was your inspiration for the design because it is very pretty?
Tom: Yeah, thank you. The site is meant to remind you of Netflix or Amazon Video. We’re all addicted to Netflix and I figure they’ve done a ton of research because they have so much money to sort of figure out what consumers want. So we were inspired by that. And then the rest of it, we just kind of made it up and we tested and we see what people like and we change it. We change the site every single day, so it’s literally being changed every single day.
NYLP: How do you change the site every day?
Tom: Well, you have a great team, and you get feedback, and you have a process to decide what you want to change and you make the change. Some of the changes are in process for a week, and some of the changes are in process for 10 minutes. And you roll out the process, it goes through quality assurance and it goes live.
NYLP: And your site combines user reviews and professional critic reviews?
Tom: We do, yes. Because to a theater fan or someone who’s even casual, you want both, right? The critics are super important. We think they’re very important. They play a very important role because they see everything, and that’s what they’re hired to do and they had to go through an editorial process. They have a newspaper or a magazine or a blog that’s behind them. So we think there’s value, but at the end of the day, they’re just people. And people when it comes to art, particularly performing art, can disagree. So we also want the consumers and the consumer’s taste sometimes is quite different.
If you look at the case of Wicked for example, it’s an interesting story. We score shows on a scale of one to 100, so it’s not like the American score system, where it’s basically 65 to 100. We score 1 to 100. So when Wicked launched, Wicked was 55 out of that scale. It was red. We used red, yellow and green scales. So Wicked was 55 because those people who were in the theater remember that when Wicked came out, the critics hated Wicked. They just thought it was not a great show, right? So it came out as 55 and really right away a lot of fans started discovering Show-Score and using Show-Score, and they were like, “What are you talking about? I love Wicked. Come on. It’s like 90,” or whatever. Wicked is now up to 93, right? Even though on the site, the critics went from 55 to 70 because we found some critics that we hadn’t
found the first time around. But the fans said, “No, no, this is a great show.”
The critics collectively gave Wicked a 70, the fans gave it a 93 and right now the overall score is a 93. So on our site, the fans are actually very important. And in the case of Wicked, we have now I think almost 7,000 member reviews of that show. And as you scan down and read them, it’s super helpful because Wicked is not for everyone. There are a lot of people that actually don’t like Wicked. What’s really great is that you can scroll down two pages of reviews and decide for yourself like, “Yeah, this sounds like a really great night-out,” or, “You know what? Not my show. I don’t want to see that.”
NYLP: And how do you weigh critic reviews versus user reviews?
Tom: So it’s quite interesting and unusual. What we do is that we don’t use a straight average. Keep the math simple. Let’s say there’s 10 critics. We don’t take all of the scores, add them up and divide by 10. Instead what we do is we do what’s called a weighted average, and we weight them, the critics, based on their standing in our community. And the standing is calculated by how many people are following that critic and how many reviews that critic has written.
So not surprisingly, the critic who is most followed and the most prolific on our network is Ben Brantley of The New York Times. He does a great job. He’s very famous. Everybody follows him. So he’s always at the top of the list, but he’s there not because we put him there. It’s because the members said that he’s the most influential critic. So we take the critic scores, those 10 people, we weight them by their standing in the community. So if Ben Brantley were on that list, he would count for more than a person at the bottom who you’ve probably never heard of.
On the member side, we do the same thing. So let’s imagine there are a hundred members. There’s always more members than critics usually. And on that list, there are some people who see a lot. They have a lot of followers. They have a lot of helpful votes. A helpful vote is like a like on Facebook. And then there’s some people who, they see one thing and they wrote one review and nobody really cares that much about what they say. So the first person is at the top of the list, and his or her score counts for more than that second person who’s at the bottom of the list because they don’t do much. So that’s how you get the member score.
So you have the critic score, which happens to be on the left side, and the member score on the right side. Now the overall score, it’s also interesting because some people might think, “Well, how do you do the overall score? Do you take the critics plus the numbers and divide by two and take an average?” The answer is no. Instead what we do is we put the critics and the members together in the exact same weighting system. So in other words, Ben Brantley is up against whoever the top member is and we weight those scores just by their standing in the community. It turns out nobody is more powerful than Ben Brantley in our community yet. There probably never will be, but some of our top community members have far more influence than some theater critics that are actually reasonably well-known. And that’s why in the case of Wicked, when you look at the numbers, the critics gave it 70, the members gave it 93 but there’s almost 7,000 of them, so that’s why the overall score is a 93.
So long, complicated answer, but so far it’s working. And as far as we know, no one’s done it this way. It’s not really the way that Rotten Tomatoes does it or IMDB does it. It’s unusual and it’s withstood quite a lot of scrutiny because people questioned about it. But so far, at least everybody’s like, “You know, this is actually pretty useful.”
NYLP: It also seems very interesting because it can give a big theater enthusiast a platform to evaluate shows and become known where they otherwise wouldn’t be known.
Tom: Yeah, that’s right. Listen, if you think about it in any endeavor, you’ve always got some friend who really knows it. It’s like, “I want to buy a laptop. Call my laptop guy. I want to buy an iPhone. Call my iPhone guy.” It turns out theater is the same way. So I’m thinking about going to a show with my girlfriend or my wife or whatever. I’m going to call my friend who sees everything. Those people, they actually are very well-informed. So it seemed to us that it made sense that those people should have more of a voice.
On Show-Score, you’re anonymous. You can choose to use your Facebook log-in and your photograph and your real name or not. Most people choose not, so it really is just somebody saying, “This is what I think about this art form.” And if you look at our top member out of the 50,000 members, top member I think has scored 190 shows in the first 6 months. And, you know, that person has very strong opinions and you can see at a glance whether you agree with this person or not. And if you do, you follow him. It happens to be a man.
And then as he sees stuff that he gives a score of, I think it’s 80 better or maybe 90 better, I don’t remember, you then get an alert, which is how it works in real life. It’s kind of what you want. You want sort of like, “Well, I would love my theater person to shoot me an email every time they see something amazing.” Well, of course they don’t. I mean, who would do that, right? Show-Score automates it, so you don’t have to ask that person to do anything. It just automatically happens.
NYLP: Since you’ve had Show-Score, have you seen smaller shows, for lack of a better term, be unlocked or be found better or whereas they otherwise wouldn’t have survived?
Tom: Absolutely. We have this thing called trending, and it’s the best category, the most fun category on the homepage. We have trending for Broadway and we have trending for Beyond Broadway. We call it Beyond Broadway because everybody is confused what’s the difference between off and off-off Broadway, so we just say, “Yeah, that’s confusing. Let’s just call it Beeyond Broadway.” So we’ve now had a number of situations where a show has gotten to the trending list.
You have to have a certain number of reviews, of above a certain score level, but they’re all new stuff. And once they get onto that trending list, we’re seeing a very strong pattern that they sell a lot more tickets, and in some cases, sell out. Now we’d love to think that’s entirely because of Show-Score. I don’t think so. I think it’s because that’s because it’s a really good show, but we certainly add fuel to the fire. So for instance right now in New York if you’re listening, Sense and Sensibility by Bedlam – that’s a show, it’s about the Jane Austen novel – is one of those, or Dear Evan Hansen is another one that’s at second stage. It’s the shows we saw in preview three. The third performance ever of these shows, we knew it was going to sell out in three days just because of the buzz that we’re seeing on the site.
NYLP: There are a lot of shows in New York that aren’t very expensive seats, and a great thing about your site is you can find out more about those shows and they aren’t expensive. They’re not $100 or more than…
Tom: Yeah. I mean, this is another thing that many people just don’t know, like why would you know, right? If you ask people, it’s like, “Well, so how much does theater cost you?” Like, “Oh my God, it’s like hundreds of dollars.” Well, it is sometimes but the interesting statistic in New York City is that out of those 150 shows a night, 30% are $25 or less. So for basically the cost of a movie, you can see a show. Now, some people may say, “Well, yeah, but you know like how good is that? Like high school kids or whatever?” It’s like, “No, it’s the same people, the same talent that does Broadway that’s doing something that’s beyond Broadway.”
And then they’d be like, “Well, yeah, okay, but I mean how do I know if I’m going to like it? How do I even find out about it?” It’s like, bingo. It’s called Show-Score. So you can go into the site and filter by “show me everything that’s below $25,” “show me everything that’s below $50,” and you can then say, “All right, show me everything that’s below $25 and it’s a comedy and it’s in Brooklyn.” You can do that. So we really hope that people will see more theater because they’ll recognize that it’s not an expensive hobby. I mean, if shows all cost hundreds of dollars, I couldn’t have seen 250 of them in a year.
NYLP: And are you only covering New York?
Tom: Right now, we’re only covering New York. It’s the world capital for theater. Once we figure out New York, then we will move to the other major centers in the United States and then to London and Toronto. We’ve designed the site so that it will work easily in different geographies. It’s the same basic idea.
NYLP: And are most of your visitors New Yorkers or from out of town?
Tom: You know, it’s a wonderful mix. We’ve been focusing initially on people who are theater fans, as opposed to, say, the tourist who comes to New York and sees one show in his or her lifetime. Those people, many of whom are of the tri-state area but a lot of them are not. You know, they’re theater fans all over the country and they’re all starting to use Show-Score, which is exciting.
NYLP: What do you think is the key to having a good show in New York?
Tom: The first thing I’d say is to really push a little bit on what does good mean, right? It’d be almost like asking…it’s a good question, but you’ll always be asking, “What does it take to have a good painting at an exhibition in New York?” If you ask that question, you’d be instantly like, “Well, what’s a good painting? Who’s judging?” With theater, I think we have this assumption that there’s some shared taste, when in fact, that’s really not true.
You know, if you think about shows today, you have a show called “The King and I” that’s a Broadway show that’s very traditional. And then you might have a show…well, you do have a show that’s like “Curious Incident” on Broadway that’s very nontraditional. They’re both great. So the first thing that makes that really hard to answer is, “Well, what does good exactly mean?” I think with good as being not clear what it means, I think that really the key for all of these shows is to come up with something that…however you define your audience, well, whoever that person may be, come up with something that makes your audience care.
You know, that’s the key. It’s like, “Do you care what happens? Do you care about the story? Do you care about the people who are on the stage?” If you don’t care, you’re done for. It won’t work. It doesn’t matter what it is. But if you can figure out something, so that the audience cares, then my feeling is that it doesn’t matter what it is. The audience will really like it, depending on what kind of audience you want.
NYLP: What percent New York theater audience is out of town versus in the New York area?
Tom: So this is a very interesting question, because the honest truth is that nobody really knows. We are the closest to figuring that out, but we’re only six months old. To give you a sense of how unknown this field is, soon after we started, somebody, a friend of mine introduced me to the Mayor’s Office for Film Television and Theater. There’s actually an office of the city, and they’re wonderful people, super smart, work really hard. They didn’t know how many shows there were in New York. When I went to The New York Times and asked, they didn’t know either. Like, The New York Times didn’t know. Simple questions like the one you asked, like a lot of people just, they don’t know. So we’re figuring out the answer, and right now, it’s too early. I’ll tell you in another six months.
NYLP: It’s shocking that big New York institutions, government, New York Times, don’t know how many shows are playing.
Tom: Yeah, they don’t, because if you think about it, you can have a show of course on Broadway, but there are all these venues all over the place. And how do you even keep track? Let’s say, you and I wanted to do a comedy show. Not comedy, but you and I wanted to do a comedic play. Well, we don’t have to ask any permission. We don’t have to file
any permits. We can go to our buddy who’s got an empty space somewhere and boom.
So I can fully sympathize with how difficult it is from a governmental or journalistic perspective to keep track of all of these shows, but it’s actually turned out to be easier than I would have thought because they’re in pieces. Here’s a great example of a funny little story of New York Theater. We were called into a meeting for the first annual Latino Theater Festival. I’m like, “Okay, we’ll go to that. I don’t know what that is actually, but we’ll go.” So we go and we meet this group of Latino theater companies. There are like 15 of them in New York City, 15 companies that just create Latino Theater, which by the way is theater about the Latino culture. I didn’t know these existed. One of them is like 30 years old in Queens. They’ve been doing this for 30 years. They had never put together a festival of this really interesting theater.
I was like, “Of course we’re going to promote this. This is so cool.” So we built like a little piece of Show-Score that was like a webpage for them, and we listed all of their shows and there you go. So this stuff happens to us every week. We uncover something like, “Wow, I didn’t know that. How cool is that?” And it’s a really important part of the culture and the fabric of the city. People, again, they know Broadway, but think of Broadway as like the hot core of something that’s actually much, much larger.
NYLP: Are people approaching you at this point to tell you about theater or how are you finding out more about these different corners or these different layers of theater?
Tom: People are starting to send us e-mails, and our policy is that we list all shows for free with seven performances or more. They don’t have to be contiguous. They don’t have to be in the same venue, but you need at least seven performances. We do that just because frankly it’s a lot of work to put a show into the website. Over time, we will relax that requirement and go down as low as one performance and include workshops and readings, which for real theater fans are very, very fun but we’re not there yet. And you’ll be able to filter those. I don’t want to see the workshops and the readings. I just want to see plays or musicals that are long time.
And unlike some other sites, we don’t charge for those listings. So if you are listening and you have a show that’s theatrical, you just send an e-mail to email@example.com and we list you if you have seven performances or more. So people are starting to find us particularly for those smaller shows. My heart really feels for them, because they’re killing themselves to create this performance piece and they don’t know how they could possibly figure out who’s going to come. I mean, they invite their friends, which is great, but that’s not going to fill all the seats. So they’re thrilled when they hear about Show-Score. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, there’s a website that cares about us and we can list our shows for free? Okay, where do I sign up?”
NYLP: It’s wonderful.
Tom: Yeah, thank you.
NYLP: How are you going to make money?
Tom: Yeah, so we’re going to make money through four different ways and we’re just starting now. So we intentionally spent the first six months not trying to make money, because in my experience, building start-ups, we have to have critical mass before anybody would want to buy anything anyway. So we might as well get critical mass first. And luckily we’re a critical mass now. So we have to make money from four different ways.
The first way is advertising, ads for shows on the site. We’re going to be launching that and doing that in a very unusual way. But at the end of the day, it’s a form of advertising. The second is that we get commissions from the ticketing companies. We don’t sell tickets ourselves. We don’t think that you need another ticketing company out there. But when we refer a consumer to the ticketing company, they already traditionally pay a commission. We think that’s fine. There’s no conflict of interest or anything like that. The third source of revenue are services to the shows and the non-profit theater companies, basically like software as a service kind of service, like, “Tell me the demographics of the people who are coming to my show,” things like that. And then the final are fees from our members themselves. We have a really cool program called Show-Score Member Nights. Show-Score Member Nights are a way to get free tickets to shows that you’ll love. So if you are active on the site and you start to score a lot of shows, we learn what your taste is and then we use that learning to match you with shows who want to invite you to their show because you’re influential. You know, you don’t get tickets to everything. You just get the tickets and stuff we think you’re going to like. And because the demand for that is so high, we implemented a small fee. We say like, “You got to a pay processing fee.” People are like, “Yeah, fine.” So those are the four revenue streams.
NYLP: How many reviews does the average member leave?
Tom: On average, if we have 75,000 reviews and 50,000 members, so that’s 75 divided by 50, whatever that number is. Five, whatever, I’m not good at that kind of math.
NYLP: A little more than one.
Tom: Yeah, a little more than one. It’s more than one, but actually the way that it works out is that a bunch of people who join the site don’t write any reviews, which is normal. How many times have you used TripAdvisor and how many times have you actually written a review, right? Then we have some people that write a lot of reviews, but on average, it’s 75 divided by 50.
NYLP: And how do you control for some of the reviews? Either there are people involved with the show, promoting the show or just someone who was having a bad night that night and decides to take it out for no good reason?
Tom: So that one is fascinating because there has been really almost no abuse of the system from normal consumers, which is a wonderfully heartening thing to see, because I used to read all the reviews. Now I can’t because there’s so many that come in every day. The way we try to solve that problem is that the process of writing a review on Show-Score is unusual. So with Yelp, you give it stars, thumbs up, thumbs down. Yay, love that restaurant, right? TripAdvisor is a little bit more complicated, but not much more. And Facebook, you don’t have to do anything. You give it stars and just write whatever you want.
On Show-Score, it’s much more complicated because we didn’t want a bunch of reviews like, “Thumbs up, three stars.” That’s not useful. I didn’t want to read those. So we make you go through a three-step process where, first, you choose a number for the show. This all works on your cellphone with your thumbs. It’s not complicated. The first is you choose a number, 1 to 100. The second is that we show you a list of adjectives and you pick five of the adjectives that you think describe the show. And if you want to write one in yourself, you can. And then the third is that we ask you, “What did you think of the show? Even if you didn’t like it, who would?” And you have to fill in two blanks. One is “see it if…” fill in the blank and the second is “don’t see it if…” fill in the blank. And the blank is a tweet length, and you have to fill in both sides. You can’t just do one side. You have to do both. And then at the end, you publish it. Believe it or not, although that sounds very complicated, that’s been done 76,000 times in six months.
And the result of that for the consumer is that even people who didn’t like the show have to sit there and sort of try to imagine who would, right? And this has happened to me a lot of times. I’m sitting there in the show saying like, “This is not my show. It’s well done but not my show.” Right now, I don’t review things, but if I did, I would say something like, “See it if you like traditional music, beautifully sung and you’re over 60 years old. Don’t see it if you want something that moves along really quickly, has innovative music and amazing staging and lighting effects.” Okay, that’s a balanced review.
All of that said, we also have the ability for any member in the community at any time to mark any review as abuse. So our policy is that we immediately publish everything, and then we allow the community to tell us when something is a problem. And when they flag it as a problem, we then review it to see whether it’s a problem or not. And most of the time, it’s not a problem and we go far with that.
We’ve also found that the shows, you know, I’m sure there are people on the shows who boyfriend or girlfriend went on. Oh, I love this show, it’s so great. When you have like 7,000 reviews of a show, how many of those can you fake? Even when you have 30. And what’s really interesting is that, as you read these reviews, you can really easily tell the ones that are just like so fluffernutter that you’re like, “Oh, please. Give me a break.” And those people don’t rise up on the community. Nobody follows them, nobody gives them helpful votes and…it just doesn’t work.
NYLP: It’s kind of like TripAdvisor. You can tell which ones are fake except now you can say, “Well, this person has a lot less influence now.”
Tom: Yeah, it’s like Amazon. Luckily what this business is like in that respect is that we’re not inventing anything new. I mean, this has been figured out. We’re just applying it to a new vertical.
NYLP: Are critics going on to your site and rating it themselves 0 to 100 or you’re taking their review and assigning a number to it?
Tom: Critics are fascinating. We decided at the get-go that no critic would ever give two bits about Show-Score, so we had to do the work ourselves. So we find every review. We have three different people who are theater people – I’m not one of them – who reads the review and gives it a number and then we excerpt the review. So we are sitting there saying, “Well, is this an 80 or an 85 or 90?” Now, we are deeply uncomfortable about this. We say this loud and clear because it’s not our work. We are second-guessing. We would much prefer that the critics did this themselves.
And I would say a handful, maybe like a dozen are doing that now, where they’ll actually say, “I reviewed this show. Here’s my score. Here’s an excerpt,” but most of them, they’re too busy. The good news is that many of them, including many of the most famous critics, they’re watching what we do. And every so often, they shoot us an e-mail and they ask us to change the score.
The biggest score change we’ve seen in six months is five points, and it’s almost always down. Like, “Oh, you gave that an 85. No, give that an 80.” And we don’t argue with the critics. I don’t think we should. Once we’ve validated that in fact you are who you say you are, it’s like, “You tell us. If you want that to be a number and you want this excerpt, fine, we’ll do it,” so that’s how we do with the critics.
NYLP: And how are you funded?
Tom: We’re bootstrapped. So we’re bootstrapped and then we have some friends involved. It’s still not clear to us what size business this is, and I’ve done so many different start-ups over the years. This is not a traditional venture capital kind of a thing. It might be but it’s not right now. We’re doing it this way. It’s kind of old-fashioned.
NYLP: You have 20 employees?
Tom: Yeah, more than 20. Mm-hmm.
NYLP: That’s a lot of bootstrapping.
NYLP: So you’ve done a whole lot of start-ups. At what point do you think you’ll want to leave this business? Because you’ve left 10 others before or 9 others before.
Tom: This one is different in that…well, yes, it is different and it’s not. I have been lucky in my life that I’ve really only ever done exactly what I wanted to do. In the start-up world, I’ve pretty much only done product companies or internet companies that are products that I love. It’s a problem that I care about. And in the past, the ones that I’ve left… I’ve never really sort of done a start-up where I just was very cold and calculating about it like, “Oh, there’s an opportunity. Let’s build this and we’ll sell it for a lot of money.” It doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes it’s actually worked out that way but that wasn’t my intention.
This one feels different to me because I’ve really been a theater fan since like, I don’t know, elementary school. So I can’t really honestly imagine not being involved with this because I frankly love it. And I sort of tried to retire when I hit 50, and that’s when we saw all of those shows and I saw theater. I think I’m going to see theater anyway. And whether I’m the right guy to run this company when it gets bigger, I don’t know. Whether we need to raise a lot more money and find more capital and so the capital structure changes, I don’t know either. But I sort of feel like if I’m not in the company or running the company, I’m going to be using the product.
This doesn’t feel like… It’s sort of like CNET. I was one of the key guys at CNET.com in the ’90s. I didn’t of course found CNET, but I was one of the key guys there and I still use CNET today. I mean, I check it out every day. I think CNET is a great site, and I think CBS has done a great job with it after they bought it. So am I still involved with CNET? No, but do I use it? Yeah. Do I know people who are still there? Yeah. I might send them an email every so often asking them, “Well, what about this?” or, “What about that?” So I don’t know, these things are more like my babies and my kids, and they can grow up and maybe move away, but in a way, they’re always still your kid.
NYLP: What do you think makes a show successful in New York? Is it a star? Is it the plot? What are audiences generally gravitating to?
Tom: So I think that the answer to that question depends a lot on who you ask. If you’re asking a commercial theatrical producer, they would probably tell you that a star is the least risky path toward success but the formula is certainly not without peril. If you look, recently the show Hughie, with Forest Whitaker or the show China Doll, with Al Pacino, I think most people including probably the producers of those shows would say that they were very disappointed with the outcome. Those were two shows that have brand name stars. You don’t get more brand name than Al Pacino. It didn’t work.
So the first reaction that most people would say is, “Well, get a star. Get Bradley Cooper.” It doesn’t always work. I think the second is to take a show that is a derivative of a story that you already know like Aladdin from Disney – that was a fantastic movie – or Finding Neverland that’s playing right now. That was a great movie with Johnny Depp in it. So that’s another formula and that works. Those franchises have a lot of recognition, a lot of love. Chicago is another example and they do a really good job with the show, but there are examples where actually that didn’t work at all. There was a very well-known franchise and they tried to transfer it to theater and it didn’t work.
Tom: Spider-Man, great example. Spider-Man is an example of where that formula didn’t work, right? My feeling about all of that, and as a fan and now getting to know a lot of the commercial producers is that in the commercial space and the nonprofit space, it’s really about this magical mixture of a story and the way it’s told that makes you care. Now on the nonprofit side of theater, it’s different. So the nonprofit side of theater, meaning like Signature Theatre or The Public or Manhattan Theatre Club or The Flea.
The definition of success in those theater companies, which by the way account for the majority of all theater in New York in terms of shows, is different. Those theater companies because they’re nonprofit, they’re not motivated by making shows that will necessarily make a profit. They’re non-profit. In fact, they all lose money. And so they all have motivations around the imperative of the art where they’re really trying to tell a story that needs to be told or to support an artist.
For instance, Signature Theatre is a good example. I happened to be on the board of that one. Signature Theatre has had this 25-year history of supporting the playwright. Their whole thing is that, “We, the theater company, we’re going to pick a playwright and we are going to unconditionally guarantee that playwright will have three plays produced during a five-year period. And we don’t get to tell him or her what the plays are.” That’s unprecedented, right? Most theater companies don’t work that way at all. They’re like, “Oh, so you’re a playwright?” “Uh-huh.” “Let me see your stuff. I’m going to judge whether I like that or not.” That’s not what Signature does.
So that’s an example that commercially you might think is a disaster. Like, “Oh, my gosh, how could you possibly do that?” It turns out that over 25 years, it’s financially just as successful as any other approach. It’s just consistent. So I guess the bottom line is that there is no formula. I think looking at the data certainly, there’s no formula that can conclusively say this is a success. I think that if there is such a formula, it’s so obvious as to be banal, which is you have to find your audience fast.
I mean, theater is an expensive thing to do, to make, and you need to find that audience within your first five or six performances because then word of mouth can build. And really that’s what Show-Score is very good at doing. It’s helping the audience find those shows that they’re going to love and helps the show find the audience that’s going to love the show. It doesn’t matter really what the show is.
Honestly they’re seeing some stuff that I would guess most people would say like, “Oh, my God, you couldn’t pay me to go see that show.” And yet it succeeds because they found the people who said, “Wow, this is my show. I love this show.” And then there are other shows that everybody thinks should be successful and they’re not. Not because they’re bad, but because they couldn’t find their audience fast enough.
NYLP: We’re wrapping up and I didn’t want to ask this at the beginning because I didn’t want to lose our audience, but everyone wants to know, how can you get Hamilton tickets?
Tom: So Hamilton tickets, your best bet these days is either to pay $300. So if you’re willing to pay $350, you can in fact find seats. Don’t buy them from any secondary market other than Ticketmaster, because you might get scalped or scammed or whatever. You can enter the digital lottery. I’ve met a lot of people who won the lottery, which is cool, or you can just wait. If you look at the history, Hamilton, based on having seen that show and knowing a bit about the finances of it, Hamilton is going to be running for 10 years.
And the way Broadway shows work, in fact, most shows work, is that by contract they cannot be changed once they’ve opened. Literally, they can’t change a thing. You can change the cast, but you can’t change the blocking, you can’t change the lighting, you can’t change anything. It is an exact replica. That show’s going to running a very long time, and it’s not going to be priced stratospherically for a very long time. It just can’t.
There’s not that much endless demand and the final thing would be to… It’s going to travel around the country. It’s starting to already travel to Boston I think and San Francisco. Those markets of course initially are just incredibly bought out, but they won’t always be. And given the numbers of that show, it may be cheaper to fly cheaply or take the train cheaper to another market and catch the show there instead of seeing it.
I think the final thing I would say about Hamilton for those people who want it is that, before you rush to go see it because everybody says you should, you really should listen to it end to end without skipping around, because Hamilton is an opera. It’s not actually a musical. It’s technically an opera. There’s no spoken words, everything is sung and it’s really amazing just to listen to Hamilton, to just to sit and listen to it, more so than almost any other musical. It has four times as many words as other musicals, and it tells this extraordinary story, most of which it seems to be true I guess.
You really can get a ton out of listening to that, from just listening – and the soundtrack is free, they made it free – that you can’t get by listening to another show like a Wicked or a Book of Mormon or something else like that because they don’t record the dialogue. So you listen like song to song to song, but you sort of miss the parts in between. You can’t figure it out. Whereas, in Hamilton, there’s just songs. I think that for many people, they really want to see it, which they should. It’s cool. It’s actually I think worthy of the hype, but in that case, listening to it which is free is a wonderful alternative.
NYLP: We didn’t really get to talk about it. Hamilton is emblematic, but there really is a rebirth in theater it seems to go in waves and it seems like we’re really hitting a wave right now. It’s a perfect opportunity for Show-Score.
Tom: Yeah. I think it’s a perfect opportunity for humanity. If you look at the history of this, I sort of chart it from the TV show Glee, that came out now I guess six or seven years ago, which suddenly made singing and musical theater cool. When I was a kid back in the ’70s and ’80s, trust me, musical theater was not cool. It was just so not cool and then it got cool for a little while but it was never cool. That TV show suddenly for kids who were in their tweens made it cool, and that was a starting point around the same time as American Idol. American Idol also is like, “Oh, gosh, it’s really fun to watch people sing. This is interesting.” And they all kind of came together.
So I think that this phenomenal interest in musical theater has been building for quite some time. And Hamilton, because it is such an extraordinary achievement creatively by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the guy who wrote it, is just this perfect storm. It literally is like it’s a perfect storm, but it was building for quite some time and it’s exciting to me, because for all of us who are bombarded by media like this podcast or Netflix or Amazon. We’re bombarded by media.
NYLP: We’re not bombarding.
Tom: No, we’re not bombarding but bombarding is a bad word maybe. We are surrounded. We are relentlessly capable of consuming every minute with media and that’s great. If you’re on a subway now, you don’t have to listen to the announcements. You can listen to this podcast.
NYLP: Which you should be doing.
Tom: Which you should be doing. And if you are at home instead of sitting around doing something stupid, you could be watching something that’s good for you, but theater because it’s uniquely in-person, because it’s uniquely a room full of an audience and performers who are interacting with each other, to me, and of course I’m biased, but it’s a really special experience, that in these days of digitally-delivered entertainment and information is a very special thing.
If nothing else, I hope that people who are listening really sort of say like, “Okay, I’m willing to dip my toe in here. I don’t actually care for Broadway shows. I don’t like tap dance and musicals and what most people think of as Broadway shows, but what about these other 125 shows out there? Maybe there is something for me.” Seriously just go to Show-Score and surf around like you would on Netflix and see something that catches your eye, read all the reviews. It’s probably going to cost you $25. Just go. And I hope, we hope that you will get hooked and say, “You know what? I didn’t know that I like theater because I’ve never seen theater that I liked and I just like that. Actually you know what? I do like theater and the problem was that I couldn’t figure out what to see.”
NYLP: You can afford theater.
Tom: You can afford it.
NYLP: How do people find out more about you?
Tom: You just simply go to Show-Score. It’s show-score.com. You can just go to show-score.com with a hyphen in the middle. And if it isn’t self-explanatory, then we have a problem. So that’s all you need to do.
NYLP: Tom, thank you very much for explaining the whole world of theater to us. You’ve really unlocked a whole lot of entertainment and thank you for sharing your time with us.
Tom: Great. You’re welcome. It’s great to meet you and I hope your listeners see more theater.
NYLP: If you want to learn more about the New York Launch Pod, you can follow us @NYLaunchPod or visit at nylaunchpod.com.SHARE THIS: