Written evidence submitted by Seabright Productions Ltd
1.2. We are based in London’s West End and produce shows in the UK, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and internationally. Unusually for a commercial production company, we work in the high-risk area of developing new writing, as well as innovative reappraisals and parodies of modern classics.
1.3. Recent titles we developed and produced include UK tours and West End runs of Adam Kay’s show upon which his multi-million bestselling book This Is Going To Hurt is based, a world tour and Las Vegas residency of Potted Potter, and the immersive staging of Irvine Welsh’s classic Trainspotting.
1.4. In 2019, we generated global revenues in excess of £8.5m for 320,000 tickets across 20 shows, with the majority of these sold for shows within the UK.
1.5. Our high level of productivity is achieved with a core team of just five employees, as each of our shows effectively operates as its own micro-business powered by an army of highly skilled freelance staff, reflecting the wider sectoral trend for over 70% of theatre workforce being freelance. As the campaign running online now says on its tin, Freelancers Make Theatre Work.
2.1. Seabright Productions Ltd shut down a worldwide network of shows in March, cancelling or postponing productions which had an advance box office over £2m. Like the rest of the UK theatre industry, we’ve had zero income for over three months, and no certainty about when we might be able to restart shows.
2.2. Of all government schemes, only the Job Retention Scheme has directly helped the company, and it is set to close before theatres reopen. Some of our freelance workers have been able to access SEISS, but many have been excluded by its limitations, and that scheme will also run out too soon.
2.3. Our ability to restart the development and premieres of new productions will be interrupted until such time as our global producing activities may resume – possibly not until July 2021 based on current estimates. To support a rapid reboot, the company supports SOLT’s call for a Cultural Investment Participation Scheme, in addition to a government-backed response to how future shutdowns and Covid-linked show closures can be handled without placing impossible financial burdens upon theatres and producers such as us.
2.4. The theatre sector itself needs to be better prepared to look after its customers in future when performances are interrupted for whatever reason. Pivotal to that, we support the League of Independent Producers’ call for governmental interventions to consider the way that theatre ticketing operates and whether this is in the best interests of consumers and the sector as a whole.
2.5. If appropriate rescue packages are not put into place urgently, the UK is set to lose its status as the world leader in theatre, and that will also have severe knock-on effects on its TV and film industries.
3.1. We were set to have an even busier year in 2020 than 2019. At the time that theatres shut down in mid-March, we had productions touring across the UK, USA and New Zealand, with further tours due to launch in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and the UAE. All of these shows shut down, immediately reducing our revenues to zero, where have they remained.
3.2. At the time of theatres closing, we rescheduled many performances (representing advance ticket sales of around £2m) from spring/summer 2020 into the autumn of 2020. More recently, as it became clear that theatres are unlikely to reopen in the early autumn, we have started moving those performances into 2021. Each rescheduling involves a great deal of work on the part of our staff, as well as for the theatre box offices, who have been offering patrons the option to transfer tickets or get a refund.
3.3. We were planning to stage 11 shows at the world’s largest arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in August 2020, and the most successful of these would have been the backbone of our producing output in 2021 and beyond. The Fringe took the decision to cancel its 2020 edition, so many of these shows will have their premieres delayed by a year. Others may not happen at all.
3.4. Our future planning was immediately thrown into jeopardy due to the uncertainty around when theatres could reopen. This remains the case three months later, leading us unable to enter into new contracts with theatres, freelance creatives, and performers.
3.5. The only green shoot of recovery for us has been that one of our shows will be giving six performances as part of The Drive-In Club at two London locations in July. But this is not possible for most of our shows and cannot fully replace or recreate the wonderful experience of live theatre.
4.1. The majority of our staff have been furloughed since April, and we have received payments through the Job Retention Scheme to support their salaries. It has been a challenge that it is not possible to flexibly furlough staff until July, and it is going to become an even bigger problem when the scheme comes to a close in October, as it is unlikely that we will be able to restart performances as soon as November. We will then be faced with the tough choice between spending our limited reserves on continuing to pay salaries to retain under-employed staff, or to make redundancies. The latter option, although it would achieve short-term cost savings, would hinder our ability to ‘bounce back’ from the pandemic when theatres are able to reopen.
4.2. As almost all participants (including cast, directors, designers and stage management) in our specific productions are engaged on a freelance basis, they have been individually responsible for making claims through the Self Employed Income Support Scheme to make up for some of their lost income due to cancelled performances. Not all have been eligible due to the limits of the scheme, and to help them we have offered and provided some loans and advance payments. We are concerned that once this scheme ends, there is a high risk that these highly-skilled theatre practitioners will be forced to find other work and will be lost to the industry, which will severely impact on the ability of the theatre sector to recover when venues are able to reopen.
4.3. We are a small company occupying an office where business rates are paid directly by the landlord, so have not been able to take advantage of other government schemes and are not eligible for discretionary grants due to not having high ongoing property costs.
5.1. Our ability to continue producing so many shows with such global reach will be compromised for years to come, as the theatre industry works toward reopening and regaining consumer confidence. As our business model is based around reinvesting our profits from successful shows into developing new ones, that virtuous cycle is broken, and will not be fully restored until the UK economy recovers to 2019 levels – and EY forecast this is not going to happen until 2023.
5.2. In common with most theatre producers, we rely on the support of multiple individual investors or ‘angels’ to join us in taking the financial risk on productions. Our ability to raise monies in this way will be compromised unless the government can incentivise such high-risk investment.
5.3. The Society of London Theatre has already made a proposal to your Committee based around a Cultural Investment Participation Scheme and we wholeheartedly support this initiative, together with SOLT’s allied proposals around the enhance of Theatre Tax Relief to reduce the risks of staging new shows and to increase its scope to reduce the costs involved getting existing shows back up and running.
5.4. Our strategy of developing shows in the UK and touring the most successful of them globally will be hampered for as long as international travel is constrained. There is no clarity around the timeline for borders to reopen and for quarantine requirements to end, and we cannot start planning until then. All shows, in the UK and further afield, will have the challenge of dealing with the prospect of temporary closure and short-notice cancellation in the event that those involved display coronavirus symptoms. It would be a great help if the government could make money available to subsidise these costs.
5.5. As identified in the SOLT paper referenced in 5.2, the question of how the sector can gain essential insurance cover to restart shows is an urgent one, which likely requires underwriting by government through a re-insurance scheme along the lines of the well-established Pool Re and Flood Re initiatives.
6.1. The government was slow and uncertain in its guidance to shut gatherings including theatre shows. There needs to be a stronger, clearer response in case such a shutdown is necessary in future.
6.2. Funding streams to support the consequences of Covid-19 have failed to account for the needs of a sector dominated by freelance workers, and have also ignored the distinction between operators of theatres (who benefited through business rates holidays and grant schemes) and production companies like us, which could only directly benefit from the Job Retention Scheme.
6.3. The theatre sector needs to be able to respond better to looking after consumers in the event of performances being cancelled or postponed in future, as retaining consumer confidence is paramount. With the majority of tickets sold online, systems should be developed to allow customers to express their preference for a refund or transfer online, to reduce associated costs and speed the process up. We support the call made by the League of Independent Producers for there to be a closer look at how ticketing can better serve consumers and producers in their submission to this committee.
7.1. As detailed in the latest Creative Industries Federation report, in excess of 400,000 roles in the creative sector are projected to be lost during 2020 as a result of Covid-19, with the majority being freelancers. It is important that freelancers are not forgotten in the recovery plans, as their availability to work in the theatre sector and the nurturing of the next generation of theatre workers is vital to the ongoing health of the sector.
7.2. It would be deeply unfortunate if the future of British theatre is smaller in scope and scale due to Covid-19. But that is a very real possibility if the government rescue package for the sector is focused around interest-free loans. Theatre always operates on tight margins and relies on a steady stream of ticket sales to stay afloat. If theatres and producers are having to repay loans from revenues in the next few years, the inevitable outcome will be that costs need to be cut, ticket prices need to be raised, or both.
7.3. None of those eventualities will serve the consumer well, nor will they help to rebuild confidence and engagement with the performing arts. That would be a great loss to the UK as a whole, as a lesser theatre industry would not be as well placed to feed talent through to other creative endeavours such as TV and film. In the post-Brexit era the consequences of that would be that the UK loses its place as setting the world standard for theatre, and being the preferred source of top-level talent across all creative sectors.
17 June 2020