Paying for Reviews, Take 2

userpic=99loveTime 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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>)



Paying for Reviews… The Right Way

userpic=99loveIn the last few days, there has been a… discussion… over on one of my Facebook groups regarding a decision by Bitter Lemons to allow theatres to pay money to get a critic to review their show. General reaction to the decision has been poor, there have even been a few blogs (one, two, three) railing against the issue. There has even been criticism on Bitter Lemons itself.

Now, when I first heard about it, I thought it might be a good way for theatres that are never reviewed to get known. But the discussion has made me realize that that benefit is offset by too many negatives: it looks like pay for good reviews, theatres would be upset paying for bad reviews. It also takes away money that theatres don’t have, according to our pro99 arguments. In short, it’s a bad idea. [I’ll also note that if it is done, there must be transparency: such paid reviews must be clearly marked and segregated.] [ETA: Edited to add emphasis. Note that the segregation mentioned in the previous bracketed comment is so that people can clearly know to ignore the pay-for-play review — I suggested on BL that a glyph such as 💩 (a steaming pile of poo) be used.]

But I’m not an actor. I’m an engineer. I solve problems. These are the problems as I see it:

  1. Bitter Lemons needs to raise funds to support their work.
  2. We need to increase the amount of theatre criticism being published.
  3. Lesser known theatres and theatres off the beaten path with no reputation need an equal chance to be reviewed.

I thought about this a bit, and was musing about how even comp tickets provided to reviewers are a conflict of interest. True independence would be critics buying their own tickets to shows (something I do). This would be just like Consumers Reports buying cars off the lot, not having them be provided by manufactures.

Buying cars off the lot. Like Consumers Reports. Then it hit me…

Perhaps that’s the model we need to move to (and I think someone suggested something like this in the discussion). Theatres and individuals can pay into a fund managed by Bitter Lemons to get reviews for theatres in general, just like people can donate to the Consumers Union foundation. [My wife pointed out that even Consumers Union prohibits manufacturers from donating; in that vein, my original notion was wrong. If we create such a fund — indeed, if reviews are funded — it can only be done by media outlets or perhaps non-profits with no connection to theatre production. Again, this averts any actual or perceived conflict of interest.] This fund can then send critics out to theatres that traditionally don’t get a sufficient threshhold of reviews on Bitter Lemons. That may well be the theatre that has donated, but the theatre did not fund that particular review — there’s not a direct causation of the payment to the review like you have now. In fact, it might be in the interest of larger theatres that regularly get reviewed — and have the funds — to contribute to this fund to help the entire Theatre community get visibility. [The indirect payment notion goes away if we do not permit funding by theatrical entities. The last notion has been pointed out to me to be unworkable — small theatres don’t have the funds to spare; larger theatres would not spare them.]

This, my friends, meets the three goals: (1) Bitter Lemons can still get its cut for reviews; (2) more theatre reviews are published; and (3) theatres that don’t get reviewed get reviewed. It does away with the negative: the theatre is not directly paying for the review of its show. It also permits the “haves” in the community to help those who have not.

[When one raises ideas up the flagpole, sometimes they get shot down. Sometimes it is a BB gun, sometimes a bazooka. In any case, it appears that I, like Colin, didn’t think this through completely. I would still like to come up with a solution to get the theatres that don’t have visibility — and cannot afford publicists — visibility. I have some other ideas to address that, but any idea that does address it must be done under the auspices and funding of a media outlet, not even indirectly funded by the entities reviewed.]

I have suggested this idea to Colin. We shall see what happens.