Time to wade back into the frey. While finishing my salad at lunch, I was reading another take on the “Pay for Review” situation that I stepped into yesterday. For background, read the introduction on my previous post. I want to say upfront that I do not like, do not approve, do not condone, theatres paying for reviews.
That said, there are two arguments in this discussion that may be red herrings: the argument that theatres cannot afford these reviews, and the argument that if this works, everyone will do it. The two are connected, and let me show why they are wrong.
- Theatres cannot afford to pay for reviews. One of the key things that seems to be forgotten is that no one is holding a gun to the head of a theatre company and making them pay for a review. They can always just ignore the Bitter Lemons Imperative and do what they did before: send out press comps and hope that someone comes. Although the option is there, a theatre that uses it end up with egg on its face if it uses it either due to quality of the result, the tainted nature of the result, or what it implies about the show. Furthermore, they may not want a review from Bitter Lemons, seeing the unpredictable quality that comes out and its reputation as a review source. That’s true even for unsolicited reviews: consider the power of an “LA Times” recommendation vs. a recommendation the North Valley Chamber of Commerce Newsletter (or even this blog 🙂 ). However, that’s neither here nor there. If theatre companies don’t have the money, they just don’t have to pay.
- But Everyone Will Want To Charge. Two schools of thought here. One is that, given the nature of journalism, press outlets may finally stop giving free coverage, unless it is real news, to non-advertisers. They’ll cover your theatre if it burns down or someone dies in a rehearsal. A review, especially a good one? That’s advertising. So — independent of what Bitter Lemons has done — papers may try to start charging anyway. So, you say, perhaps Bitter Lemons will start the trend. Papers will then start charging more and more, and theatres just cannot afford it. This brings us back to the previous point. If they don’t have the money, they don’t have to pay and Bitter Lemons will demonstrate that the idea was a failure. The theatres will just shift even more to word of mouth, recognized theatre bloggers for whom sufficient payment is free tickets, social media promotions, and promotion sites such as Goldstar. Human nature being what it is, you can always find people that will review for free.
Again, let me emphasize that I am not supporting theatre companies paying for reviews. I personally feel it is an incredible conflict of interest (whether real or just perceived) that devalues the review, devalues the theatre, and devalues the publication. That, alone, to me is a reason not to do this. But the two arguments above — affordability and slippery slope — are poor arguments.
P.S.: Lastly, you might say this hurts the “pro99” cause. It only does if theatres buy into it (thereby demonstrating they have the hidden cash in the budget). If they ignore it, they will succeed if they invite legitimate independent theatre critics and recognized bloggers with traditional perqs (accommodating those like me who feel free tickets are also a conflict of interest), and double down on the social media and postcards. If you ignore the “imperative” and just plain and simply do good and compelling work, you’ll succeed far better.
P.P.S.: With respect to these points, the larger theatres (major houses with seating above 300 or so) may be able to afford this. There, well, you get what you pay for. They are also the theatres that can pay $$$ for newspaper advertising, which may make the print journalists in mercenary mode more likely to send the critic. They are also the theatres that tend to get reviewed, and they may not pay for it simply because a Bitter Lemons review buys them no additional attendees. Most importantly, their greyhair audience wouldn’t be able to find Bitter Lemons (<granny-voice>”Where do I find that, Sonny? At my grocery store? I asked, and they said all lemons were bitter.” </end-granny-voice>)