NEW YORK — Leaders in entertainment, academics and marketing gathered Monday to peer into their crystal balls and try to predict what Broadway will look like in 2032. Many agreed on at least one thing: Change is coming.
They discussed everything from Broadway's aging audience, its fragmented and maddening ticketing systems, the often poor experience it gives patrons, the power of social networks to harness fans and the continuing need to attract world-class talent.
The 13 speakers at the one-day inaugural TEDxBroadway included Jujamcyn Theaters president Jordan Roth, "Sleep No More" producer Randy Weiner, Citibank's social media strategist Frank Eliason and author Juan Enriquez. While some speakers made bold predictions, others demurred.
"I think it's safe to say that 20 years from now, Broadway will be a street in New York," said Kara Larson, founder of Arts Knowledge, a marketing consulting firm. She said people will continue to go there to take in a show. "Beyond that, I'm not willing to go."
Eliason warned that Broadway has become too much like a top-down business and needs to make a better human connection with its audience, which is bombarded by other rival entertainment. "You feel like they're rushing you in and rushing you out," he said. "That human connection is extraordinarily important."
The event, in front of about 200 attendees and peppered by short video clips from actor Neil Patrick Harris, was held in the off-Broadway complex's New World Stages, in the theater where "Million Dollar Quartet" is performed. Organizers hope it will be the first of many annual conclaves.
TEDx events are independently organized but inspired by the nonprofit group TED — standing for Technology, Entertainment, Design — that started in 1984 as a conference dedicated to "ideas worth spreading." Video of the Broadway event is likely to be made available later.
The gathering was the brainchild of three men: Ken Davenport, a writer, director, producer and industry pioneer; Jim McCarthy, the CEO of ticket discounter Goldstar; and Damian Bazadona, the founder of Situation Interactive, an online marketing firm.
"How will our shows be created? How will they be marketed? Who's going to come see them? These were all the questions that Jim, Damian and I sat around one day asking each other. And the only answer that we could all agree on was that we had no idea," Davenport said. "None. So what we decided to do is invite some of the smartest people we knew into this room today and ask them those same questions."
Patricia Martin, an expert on commerce and culture, predicted a new flowering of cultural energy as long as the stories Broadway tells are told with love. "It must lift our spirits and it must help us be compassionate," she said.
Weiner, whose immersive, genre-bending "Sleep No More" is playing off-off-Broadway has routinely sold out due to enthusiastic word-of-mouth, said his experience may help other producers. His marketing cost for "Sleep No More" is zero.
"The show is the marketing. It's about unifying the show, the experience, the marketing — that is in many ways why the show has been so successful," he said, urging fellow producers to sink money into the experience. "There's something to be learned in that for Broadway."
Bazadona said that Broadway shows can overcome their limited supply by embracing different platforms beyond the four walls of a theater, opening the door to the idea of broadcasting a show on screens far away. "To me, innovative development is the best path to artist development," he said.
Barry Kahn, CEO of dynamic ticket pricing company Qcue, made a plea for the box offices to try and work together and not compete. Many theatergoers, he said, just want to see any Broadway show and the cutthroat battles between each theater's box offices drags the whole industry down.
"We have a common goal," he said. "If we compete against each other, we're going to drive each other all out of business. But if we work together, we can all be better off."
One of the most popular speakers was Vincent Gassetto, the principal of a public middle school in the Bronx whose students recently were treated to a performance of the "Spider-Man" musical and came home buzzing about it. For many, it was their first Broadway show.
Gassetto urged listeners not to overlook this diverse and enthusiastic talent pool as arts funding shrivel. "They're going to be your writers, your producers, they're going to be your actors and, at the very least, they're going to be your audience members," he said.
Other speakers included former Lincoln Center Director Gregory Mosher, who predicted that the subscription model for theater would soon become extinct, and Joseph Craig, a marketing expert, said lessons should be learned about how a dusty and dirty Las Vegas turned itself around in the late 1980s to become a booming draw in the late 1990s.Comment on this story
Roth stressed one key thing that makes Broadway different from other entertainment — it is live. He underlined how important the live experience must remain for Broadway to remain a destination hub. "If we don't, whether we're telling stories we make up or stories we license, we will be cultural derivatives — non-essentials," he said.
"If we do, we'll thrive on our cultural primacy. Not because we do it better than any other medium, but because we do what no other medium can do. We do it live. And that's original."
Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits