Productions’ six-figure contribution to coffers

PRODUCTIONS in Eastbourne’s theatres made a contribution of £826,000 to the Borough Council’s overheads in the 2010-11 financial year.

The figure is revealed in a document released by the council in response to a Freedom of Information request.

But the seeming ‘profit’ on productions  is cancelled out by the annual cost - around £800,000 - of running the council’s theatres department, and spirals into deficit when the cost of maintaining, staffing, insuring and servicing the town’s four theatre buildings is factored in.

That is the claim of Professor John Pick, who submitted the Freedom of Information request to the council. Prof Pick, a leading international authority on cultural management who lives locally, has long questioned the wisdom of the council trying simultaneously to maintain, staff, service, programme and market its four theatres from its own resources - particularly as Eastbourne is now almost alone in the UK in trying to run its theatres in this way.

He told the Herald, “Production accounts tell only a small part of the story - what is paid to each show’s producers set against box office income. The additional cost of maintaining, repairing, licensing, staffing, servicing, heating and lighting the four theatre buildings is a huge factor, though it is scattered throughout the council’s accounts. “When the depreciation is considered and the full cost of marketing the theatres is added in, it is clear that Council Tax payers are in fact annually subsidising Eastbourne’s theatres to the tune of well over £1.5 million.”      

The council document gives a month-by-month breakdown of income and production costs for every show at the four theatres from April 2010 to March 2011 (please click on the external link, above right, to see a copy of the full figures). Also included are total audience figures for shows and the percentage of seats filled.

Not surprisingly, the biggest net contribution - £477,776 - came from the Congress Theatre with 143,425 seats being filled, an average 43 per cent of capacity. Biggest sellers were top comedians such as Dara O’Briain and Jimmy Carr, together with crooner Daniel O’Donnell.

Last year’s three week Sound of Music run was 50 per cent sold and netted £66,000.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra concerts are another bigger seller, but make no profit for the theatre because all revenue goes to the orchestra.

At the Devonshire Park the biggest grossing show was the Christmas pantomime, contributing a net £117,000. But few other shows at the theatre attract more than 35 per cent capacity.

The Royal Hippodrome made a profit on productions of £77,725.

Shows at the Winter Garden contributed £30,700 with the popular Comedy Club consistently proving a near sell-out.

Two years ago Prof Pick led a working group which was asked by the council to help formulate a new cultural strategy for Eastbourne but which was disbanded because of members’ frustrations over the council’s inability to provide information about spending on the theatres, Towner and museums service. Prof Pick thinks the council must rethink its approach both to the theatres and to cultural planning generally.

“It is vital at this time that the council is open with the community about its cultural spending.

“It must release its full expenditures for 2009/10, and for April-December 2010 - as the Government requires it to do.

“Only when they are properly informed can citizens work with the council to develop a long-term cultural strategy - without which Eastbourne will not be able to draw down the funds it so urgently needs.

“In the case of the theatres this is particularly urgent.

“Ten years ago reports to the council estimated that it would cost at least £30 million fully to restore the four theatres to their existing use. 

“That figure is now very much higher, not least because it is clear that new uses, as well as new management structures, have to be found for some, if not all, of the buildings, if they are to survive at all.

“It is time for radical rethinking. With so much else in the town urgently requiring attention, the council can no longer afford to pander to the comfortable pleasures of one minority, by subsidising the upkeep of hugely expensive, half empty theatre buildings that are, sadly, crumbling before our eyes.”

An Eastbourne Borough Council spokesperson said, “Professor Pick raises a number of points and draws various conclusions that are misleading.

“Firstly, many theatres and centres of entertainment in UK towns and cities remain within the control of the relevant local authority. All of these operations are subsidised by the public purse to some degree. Other local authority-run venues in the South East have asked the team in Eastbourne to assist them in driving down their costs.

“They are obviously interested in how Eastbourne is able to service The Congress, The Winter Garden, Devonshire Park Theatre and The Hippodrome for just £744,000 per annum, when some 300 seat venues in other towns receive £400,000 alone in subsidy.

“The council is working hard to develop a new cultural framework.

“Following a number of workshops and consultations involving over 150 people, of all ages and backgrounds.

“Professor Pick recognises that there are many other issues to consider when dealing with the finances of these venues. Marks Barfield will set these in context of the market, comparator destinations, other venues and the wider social and economic benefits of the arts in a town like Eastbourne.”

• To see a copy of the Eastbourne Theatres show report please click on the external link above right.