The Broadway musical The Producers famously chronicles a duo who scheme to get rich by betting against the success of their own show. Though it doesn’t work out well for Bialystock and Bloom, the producers’ bet–that a Broadway show would lose money–is typically a sound one. Nowadays, says producer David Binder, only 3 out of 10 Broadway shows ever recoup their investment.
Binder has made a career out of finding his way into that sweet spot of live performance profitability. This week, for instance, he announces that his production of Of Mice and Men, costarring James Franco and Chris O’Dowd, has entered that rarified space of the 30% of Broadway plays that actually make money.
Putting your money and efforts behind Broadway shows or other types of live entertainment is, like building a startup, not for the faint of heart. But over a long career, Binder has had successes with plays both on and off Broadway, with arts festivals, and with entertainment events for corporate clients. “Every show is like a startup,” says Binder. “Every time I have to raise the capital, every time I have to start over. Each show is its own company.”
We caught up with Binder to glean several lessons from a long and successful career in producing.
Binder has a lot of different irons in a lot of different fires. In the course of a day, he might have to quickly toggle between work on a Broadway show, work on a festival, and work for a corporate client like IBM, for whom he recently produced a centennial celebration that featured the likes of Steve Martin and violinist Joshua Bell. “In my day I move very quickly between the commercial theater, the non-profit festival world, and the corporate world. People say, ‘Wow, it’s all so disparate.’ But to me it’s really all kind of one and the same,” says Binder. “What it all boils down to, when I’m talking about commercial theater, or helping IBM tell their story, or working in a festival context–it’s all about creating transformational experiences utilizing live performance.”
Binder produced the original off-Broadway production of a strange little show nearly 20 years ago. When he described it to others–it was about an East German rocker with a botched sex change operation–he recalls, “People were like, ‘What? Why would you want to do that?’” And he had to admit they were right. It sounded crazy.
Still, Binder pulled together about $29,000 and put on the show in a decrepit East Village nightclub. That show was Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which went on to become a cult film and, now, a Broadway show starring Neil Patrick Harris. “I’m aware of the tremendous risk,” he says. “But I just march through.”
Binder faced similar skepticism for two other projects, a genre-bending show called De La Guarda, which was the most expensive Off-Broadway show in history, and a Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic Raisin in the Sun. While he tried to mount the shows, skeptics thought De La Guarda too weird, and Raisin too dated. But Binder felt he couldn’t not do them. “Some would say producers choose projects, but these projects have always chosen me,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t have a choice. The projects must be done.” Both were hits.
Whether it’s using hiring a producer for a big event, or simply bringing your team together for a shared experience, Binder says there’s something galvanizing about live performance. “I’m interested in how arts can transform individuals and how they can transform a community,” he says. “After Of Mice and Men or Hedwig each night, you can see it: after the show, the audiences don’t leave. They literally stand there on the street after the show, because they’ve all experienced something together. In a small way they’ve formed a community.”
Don’t Discount Nonprofit Work
Binder loves arts festivals; he’s given a TED talk on “the arts festival revolution,” and he’s about to bring a Haitian show, Deblozay, to the LIFT festival in London. And while his arts festival consulting is the least lucrative part of his business, he doesn’t value it any less. “I don’t think festivals are about profit,” he says. Yet at the same time, they can be wonderful research and development laboratories where talent is discovered–talent that can become commercialized later. Binder says that the director Julie Taymor was mostly a festival director before Disney got her to helm the fantastically successful Lion King on Broadway. “I often work with artists in the festival context, then bring them into the commercial context or corporate context,” says Binder.