Jamie Hendry set up Jamie Hendry Productions in 2008 to produce and develop high-quality theatre in London’s West End, across the UK and internationally, drawing on his previous experience as an assistant producer in the West End and on Broadway. The hits he has produced include Olivier Award-winning Legally Blonde The Musical and Let It Be, currently one of the West End’s hottest tickets, which recouped its entire £1.6m capital in 18 weeks, as well as La Cage aux Folles and Spring Awakening, two more Olivier winners. Starting a new production is like starting a new business – each one requires its own individual business plan. Hendry’s current project is a musical production of The Wind in the Willows, the much-loved children’s book by Kenneth Grahame, featuring Ratty, Mole, Badger and, of course, Mr Toad. The Wind in the Willows is backed by an original funding model devised by Hendry.
So: how does a young entrepreneur tackle the complexities of theatre production?
“I don’t tend to see myself as a theatre producer, I’m an entrepreneur, and one of my projects is producing a slate of commercial productions. Running a theatre production company is like running a set of businesses. Every production has its own funding and I treat each show as though it were its own company – all have very different business plans. I don’t think it’s possible, in today’s market, to produce a show for the West End and wash your hands of it. The West End’s a good start but you might want to take a production to New York, Australia, the cinema, television, a book, an app – then there’s merchandising and licensing for anything from school trips to cruise ships. I’ve learned to look at the big picture and think on a global scale.”
Think on your feet
“I got involved in the entertainment industry very early on and found on a small scale how to monetise it, how things could be done better, how I could provide a management service that resulted in a smoother project. After university I decided to explore that further – I could have ended up in rock and roll, cinema, TV, anywhere. Theatre interested me because it’s live every night of the week. You can change something if it doesn’t work and your production is being seen by a huge number of people over a long period so you can refine your marketing. It’s not like film, where you bombard the market with advertising very quickly; for theatre you spend similar budgets over a much longer time.. Early in my career I followed the established rules of the industry, but these don’t always work. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs haven’t followed the rules – they’ve had a great idea and brought it to market. I would ultimately like to work in a host of fields, all anchored by creating product to deliver audience satisfaction.”
Work with a team that fits the calibre of the project
“I was looking for a project that we could create from scratch and exploit globally. I approached Julian Fellowes and asked if he would write a script for a production of The Wind in the Willows, along with George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who have written the music and lyrics. For an old book, we had to put a new spin on it and attract people’s attention – we needed a high profile team and that level of writers. They’ve done a really witty take – it has always been portrayed as a kid’s book, so it came with its challenges. We’ve been working on it for over two years.”
If the framework you need isn’t there, develop your own
“I’d been wanting to explore finance theatre differently. The theatre business is continually evolving and we’ve got to finance in a way that’s immune to change – it can take five or six years to get a project on stage. The idea behind using a crowdfunding model was to explore something new, although this isn’t crowdfunding as it’s generally understood. Traditionally, theatre is funded by a small network of HNWIs – theatre is still an old boys’ club and I want to change that. I’m one of a very small group of young producers who have got into this because we want to run it as a business over next 20, 30, 40 years, not because we’ve got lots of money and think producing might be fun. We looked at how crowdfunding works in other sectors, such as tech and smaller films, but nothing quite worked. What we have is a financial investment, a tangible asset for the long term, and we didn’t think any of the existing platforms were good enough. My goal was two-fold: to get PR around the project and to develop relations with investors who would like to invest £1,000 to £5,000. We’re not looking for backers to put a lot of money on the line for a high-risk gamble. We developed a platform which allows investors to invest small amounts of money, via a debit card, and keep the relationship with the production. HNWI investments require a huge amount of administration. We’ve built all that online. You can click in, see the box office figures, see how your investment is doing. The other online platforms all charge the investor a commission. I want to offer the same financial terms our larger backers get, which should be commission-free. There wasn’t a platform so I created my own. It’s FCA regulated which moves the offering away from the small number of High Net Worths and into the public domainThis opens it up to a new breed of investor who until now had not known it possible to invest in theatre!”
Feed your backers’ passion
“People don’t invest in theatre just for the financial gain – investors have to be passionate so you need a personal relationship with your backers. If you’ve developed an exciting project like The Wind in the Willows, you get a lot of attention: people pick up the phone and want to invest with you. That’s far more exciting than you picking up the phone and saying ‘Will you invest in us?’ We gained 400 new investors in the first fortnight. I’ve spoken to the vast majority of them on the phone and they’re incredibly excited and have never done anything like this before. It’s completely new and that’s what’s exciting. If they enjoy the ride with The Wind in the Willows, they’ll hopefully come along for another go, and we won’t have to rely on the old boys’ network that traditionally finances theatre.”
Have a long-term vision
“We have strategic partners around the world and we’re able to explore outlets at very early stages in a production’s lifecycle. The Wind in the Willows, for example, won’t open until 2015 but may run for twenty years – it’s a long term project. But there’s an appetite this far in advance: we can spread the word, explore all the opportunities.”
“You can open a fantastic project, you can have the best creative team in world, and it can still all go wrong. You can be hit by snow so your box office goes dead and you run out of cash, or you can be hit by volcanic ash so tourists stop coming – things can go wrong very quickly, but you can learn. I watch a lot of television and film, always thinking that, if you can adapt to other mediums, you can learn a lot from what other businesses are doing. We work is a business that has a finite inventory: lost seats mean lost revenue and that’s a very difficult market to get right. We learn every day. ‘Why did we have 100 empty seats last night? How can we not have them tomorrow?’ Learning on a daily basis is fascinating.”
Understand all aspects of your field, not just the one in which you have the most expertise
“As well as producing theatre, I also run a management company that looks after a handful of top-level creatives and writers. Working with creatives helped me see it from their point of view and allows me to explore different financial deals and structures that can benefit both the producer and the creators.. It gives me a fascinating double-edged sword. I also run a small ticketing agency so I can continually monitor buying behaviours. If you only concentrate on producing, not looking at the theatre itself, the audience, and seeing how it all fits together, you’re not doing your investors justice.”