From Cats to Hamilton, theatre's greatest hits have relied on risky decisions. But, says renowned producer Eleanor Lloyd, what is planned to be the Theatre Returns Fund will allow more innovative productions to be made with less uncertainty for investors.
Eleanor Lloyd knows better than most the hustle needed to get a show off the ground. The young independent theatre producer of productions in London's West End, on tour and internationally has seen her business go through seismic changes over the past few years, adding an extra level of uncertainty to what is already a traditionally speculative industry.
However, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there's now a unique opportunity to invest across a host of new shows. The Theatre Returns Fund aims to be the first major, institutional-style pool to offer diversified investment opportunities in theatrical productions (and associated revenue streams) for eligible sophisticated investors. It is still in the early design stage, with fund structure and management arrangements yet to be finalised and put in place, but the key elements of the proposition are clearly identified and formulated.
"A lot of our existing investors love the world of theatre. There's always been a relationship between corporate money and the theatre business, but it's on a very ad hoc basis," says Lloyd, who is currently riding high with an acclaimed and inventive production of Agatha Christie's Witness For The Prosecution at London's County Hall.
"The [Theatre Returns Fund] concept has been talked about on and off over the past few years. Last year, conversations started to really form about the offering, making it more structurally robust and doing something to take away the smoke and mirrors of theatrical investment as a whole.
"In normal times, we're busy producing shows. All day, every day, we're dealing with the running of our businesses. So during the pandemic when we could not perform, former Lazard banker and KPMG partner David Reitman took a moment to think much more about the bigger picture.
"Usually, independent theatre producers are quite solitary in their setups but we're a strong group who really care about each other. It was just a natural coming together of people on a WhatsApp group that had all the major West End producers and theatre owners saying, 'How are you dealing with this? How are you dealing with that?', which would never have normally happened."
While still in the early planning stages, Lloyd was convinced that the fund had great potential during an initial call with prospective board members and creative producers.
"I remember the first Zoom call we had and looking at the screen, thinking these are some of the biggest commercial independent producers working in the West End," says Lloyd. "Of course, we are usually very protective of our investors but here we were on a call together saying, 'How can we help each other raise money?'"
Others involved in the fund include Nicholas Allott OBE, vice-chairman of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd; with creative producers including the likes of Caro Newling OBE, founder of Neal Street Productions with Sam Mendes and producer of The Lehman Trilogy and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory; Kenny Wax, producer of smash-hits SIX the musical and The Play That Goes Wrong; Matthew Byam Shaw (Wolf Hall, Kinky Boots, Frost/Nixon); Sonia Friedman (Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, The Book of Mormon, Leopoldstadt); Dafydd Rogers (ART, Calendar Girls); Mark Rubinstein (TINA, the Tina Turner Musical, Beautiful – The Carole King Musical); and Ed Snape (Hairspray, Fleabag).
The benefit of investing in such a swathe of experienced talent is clear to see, says Lloyd.
"This could be an incredible opportunity to work together with a structured fund. These kinds of investments work best when you hedge across multiple shows, so the idea that you could get together with this group of producers all on the same page is a really profound thing. If we come together, be stronger together. That I think is what this prospective fund offers.
From a creative point of view, the fund could be a game changer for bringing brilliant and bold theatre back to audiences.
"We do a huge amount of work before we can raise any money," says Lloyd. "To be able to pitch to an investor, you've got to have a script, a director and stars. To get to that point is sometimes years of work, which the producers are usually doing on their own time and on their own money.
"But I have faith that ultimately, we're going to be in a new golden age of theatre. Audiences have been sitting at home not able to do anything, they've engaged online, they're looking for that live cultural opportunity, they're desperate to have the opportunity to go out with friends to dinner and a show.
"It's something that we're particularly seeing with the new shows that are opening since the pandemic. There have been incredible numbers for productions like Cabaret, Moulin Rouge and the Prima Facie starring Jodie Comer."
While Lloyd is the first to admit that hers can be a perilous industry, when the formula is right it can reap huge rewards.
"I think the joy and challenge of investing in theatre is it's quite unpredictable," she says. "Judy Craymer famously struggled to make Mamma Mia! – people were like 'A musical about the songs of Abba? Really?'. Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber found it really hard to raise money for Cats. Kenny Wax, who is part of the Theatre Returns Fund's group and a producer of SIX the musical, faced investors who questioned whether it would ever work - right now it's a huge hit on Broadway.
"Even my own production of Witness For The Prosecution - my most successful show - was hard to get off the ground because the setting was in a non-theatre space, which nobody had done before. Now, of course, sometimes things don't work, but when they do work they really work.
"History shows us that those riskier projects are ultimately what changes the game. Take [Hamilton creator] Lin-Manuel Miranda, if you said to somebody, 'I'm going to write a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton', everybody would have said, 'I'm sorry, but you're crazy'. Hamilton could have been terrible but of course, it was genius."
Nicholas Allott, former chief executive and now vice-chairman of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd, will be discussing the proposition of investment in theatre as part of the 18th Family Alternative Investment Forum at County Hall, London, from February 23-24, 2022. More details here.
Note: This article of a conversation with Eleanor Lloyd has been prepared/issued by Campden Wealth for its members. Comments regarding a fund are purely preliminary and should not be regarded as an invitation to engage in investment activity. The fund and its management arrangements are still in its early design phase and so are yet to be established. If established, any offer to investment in the fund will be based solely on the documents presented to prospective investors in due course. The comments reported here concern Eleanor Lloyd's personal views on the potential investment proposition for the Fund, setting out generic information about investing in theatre.