Two in five independent theatres fear they could close their doors for good this Christmas amid a cost of living crisis that has seen attendance drop by as much as a third.
Small theatres – those with fewer than 300 seats – could lose out on more than £845m in ticket sales this year compared with 2019 as three in five Britons scale back on cultural activities.
The sector has already faced a difficult few years, with venues closed for long periods of time during the pandemic.
Some 80% of smaller venues are hosting a Christmas production – 42% of which are traditional pantomimes – but there are concerns about dwindling audiences.
Three-quarters say their ticket sales have not returned to pre-COVID levels, and most hope to generate around 25% of their revenue for the year during the festive period, according to research from GoDaddy.
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Christmas sales are down by about a third this year against pre-pandemic levels, with just 40% of people expecting to support their local venue’s festive production, compared with 60% who did so in 2019.
“It’s really easy for the arts to be the first thing you cut out of your life, it’s the first thing to go when there are funding cuts and spending cuts,” Luke Mallison, the executive director of Bristol Improv Theatre, told Sky News.
“But it is such an important part of your wellbeing, life, and lifestyle to continue doing that.
“Especially, with a place like ours which is independent, where we are very reliant on people continuing to come through the door.”
Numbers visiting fall – and no one visits the bar
Bristol Improv Theatre is taking steps to become a more professional outfit, including by becoming a live wage employer and paying equity rates (union rates that outline the minimum an actor should be paid).
But all of this comes at a cost.
“In previous years we have always done shows on a profit share basis,” said Mr Mallison.
“But this year we have said we are committed to paying a certain rate, no matter how many tickets we sell.”
The theatre is putting on its own festive show, an improvised play themed on hallmark Christmas movies.
Research among more than 2,000 consumers by GoDaddy, found seven in ten (71%) Brits visited an independent theatre in 2019 – with that number falling to 57% in 2022.
Mr Mallison said it goes beyond just the cost of the ticket sale too.
“What we are finding is people are buying tickets but then not spending any money at the bar – which is another huge revenue stream for us,” he said. As people buy less, he has found the cost of stocking products has increased.
And the ramifications stretch further into the local economy, with 77% of theatre-goers spending money with transport companies and in bars and restaurants – worth an estimated £2.5bn to town centre trade.
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Importance of online ticket sales
Some 90% said driving Christmas online ticket sales is important to their long-term financial health.
Now, GoDaddy and the Society of Independent Theatres have launched an initiative to help theatres improve their online presence and drive more web sales.
Nine in ten independent theatres said driving online ticket sales at Christmas is important to their long-term financial health, yet three-quarters still rely on word of mouth to sell tickets.
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Ben Law, head of GoDaddy UK, said: “Independent theatres are not just local cultural landmarks, they are also micro businesses that are a vital part of their local economies.
“The arts sector has faced a torrid couple of years, and GoDaddy is proud to support the everyday entrepreneurs that keep these important community institutions running. We understand that times are tough, but encourage anyone who can support their local theatre this Christmas to do so.
“They’ll be sorely missed if they are gone.”