Wherein the author swears a bunch and does everything in their power to avoid shouting “Praxis.”
I would like to start by pointing out the pure irony of all of this in the face of us trying to open a show called BusinessRealm.
As Paulbert would say: Now onwards, to Business!
To best explain why, it makes sense to highlight some excerpts from our mission statement:
To create a unified, commercially stable transmedia experience centered around a unique hybrid live show (the UVX), and capitalizing on the strength of IP over a single format.
Future Proof has always been independently-funded by private investment. We’re one of the few FOR-profit companies blessed with that opportunity, and we take our investment deadly-serious.
We don’t take advantage of grants or other similar funding options set aside for NON-profits, as there are other fantastic productions and projects that deserve first crack at the depressingly small pool available to them in this crazy town.
We really want to make stuff, and we think it’s stuff people will pay money for. We always wanted to make enough money that we could continue to make stuff ad-infinitum.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a pretty airtight business philosophy right there.
Create a show that is self-sustaining and financially expandable.
Every year from December to February we budget out everything line-by-line and only commit to projects after this process has gone through multiple stages of approval.
I even built a very fancy spreadsheet for the task - lovingly nicknamed The Tabulatron - which breaks down every item to purchase, every paper towel as a cumulative expense, every hour of labor, every screw required- you name it, Almighty Tabulatron will tabulate it.
It also tracks and projects profit from various projects, ticket sales - you name it, Tabulatron tabulates it with some pretty damn good accuracy! We’re talking within a P&L margin-of-error around 2-4% EOY, which is pretty sick as far as business management is concerned.
With the Tabulatron and our combined business experience in various entertainment fields, we have managed every year to come in at or under overhead projections since 2017 (minus one outlier in 2018, and well… you know… 2023).
Once we’ve got the Tabulatron in order and have a roster of things we want to make that we think will work, we sign off on the budget and go into production.
Now, it’s important to remember that we also opened a 16,000 square-foot warehouse in the middle of the absolute horror that was the 2020 COVID lockdown. This is where we get into the ups and downs of running a Capital-B business….
Con: There’s no way in hell we can make enough money to justify renting any kind of space during a historic pandemic.
Pro: We called up our friends who have also been screwed over by their spaces shutting down (aka Doors of Divergence and The Art of Killin’ It), partner with them, and come up with a deal to share space in exchange for reasonable percentages of ticket sales and an alignment of creative styles. The Tabulatron is pleased.
Con: Our in-process lease agreement on a space falls through when the owner panic-demands a 2-million-dollar line of credit (in the middle of a financial panic where banks refuse to do anything remotely this insane) and ctrl-del’s the force majeure clause from the working lease because of something they read in Forbes. Fuck that noise. Now to find a new building in the middle of the apocalypse.
Pro: We managed to get a different building for a fair rate in late 2020. This is when every other landlord in the city was trying to bleed folks dry any way they could in a panic to make as much money as possible during a global disaster.
Con: The warehouse was built in 1918, hasn’t been given any respect since its’ previous owners used it to store weather stripping in 2013, and is falling apart. Our landlord was also in the middle of attempting to excavate a basement underneath the building before lockdown, so the floor is a moonscape.
This means we have to renovate the hell out of it.
We’re talking repair the roof. Install a lighting grid. Rewire the power. Put in bathrooms. Build out a tool shop. Grind down the concrete and pour epoxy sealant. Fire exits. Make sure things are ADA-friendly if not fully compliant. Rat-proof everywhere. Go to war with the rats when they chew through the rat-proofing. The list goes on, and on, and on.
Oh! and do it while everybody needs to avoid COVID exposure or becoming a super-spreader (back before testing was easy to get). There goes the rest of 2020 and half of 2021.
To say the people involved in this part of the process worked miracles is a disservice. They were sorcerers performing black magic the likes of which the world should be in awe of. Unsung heroes, the lot of them.
Semi-pro: I would also like to take this moment to point out that our Landlord was very helpful in the setup process: repairing the roof after a hurricane, building a very cool patio, updating the second floor, assisting in fire code compliance, and generally doing good Landlord things. I’m not legally obligated, but I’m going to say it anyway; by New York standards our landlord was very good to us during a very tough time.
Pro: We developed a custom (patent-pending) interlocking modular steel ‘frame’ system of 10’-high rectangles (as featured in multiple Doors of Divergence BTS episodes for better and worse), allowing us to erect fire-safe temporary structures that also counteract the nightmare floors, permitting issues, safety concerns, build times inherent in traditional flats, and allow for modular design for the future. All we need is some cheap 1” tube steel, and a bunch of OSB plywood cladding and we’re off to the races!
Con: The Evergreen crashes into a sandbar, blocking the Suez Canal for six days and holding up roughly $9 billion in various goods, teaching the world about how fragile globalized supply chains are, as well as triggering a once-in-a-lifetime garden gnome shortage.
This, coupled with the already-crippled shipping and logistics industry in the post-apocalyptic hellscape of COVID, causes capitalism to swoop in like a Miller-era Batman and start stomping on everything beautiful and sacred.
OSB is suddenly 500% more expensive overnight. Tube steel is no longer rolling off the assembly lines. We eventually had to get 19th-century on this crap and organize our own personal supply chain to save some costs. (any costs. sweet god please it’s so expensive) on perforated metal. You might as well just light money on fire and call it a win. There goes the rest of 2021.
Did you see that?
^^^That right here ^^^ is where we made our first and biggest mistake in hindsight.
As a new headquarters for a particular type of Immersive Theater, especially with long-form productions (1 year or more of occupancy planned in advance), you’re not operating on a 50%+ audience-turnout-every-day-model. You’re operating on an institution-style model. You’re a carny booth, restaurant, indie retail, or a paintball arena. You’re not going to have big numbers out the gate unless you’re a celebrity or delusional and hallucinating in a padded cell somewhere. For us, we’re not using words like ‘jackpot,’ or ‘money back in no time.’ We’re saying things like ‘growth’ and ‘start small.’
We knew that when things got better - some day(tm) - everybody would be starved for live entertainment. We stood a good chance of being one of the first out the gate with our act together if we put our heads down, masks on, and broke our backs to get the building up and running. We could supercharge our turnout from 8%-10% to 13-18%. I mean hell, we could get a jumpstart on growth. Maybe even break-even by 2023- after only a year of operation???? This is insane!
At the time, it made sense.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight and seeing how things went down in 2021 and 2022, We should have downsized, sat on the building for a year, and started in 2022 with a three-show grand-open in 2023.
The amount of time spent scheduling COVID-testing, delays due to near-miss outbreaks, cost of materials… the list goes on into the abyss.
We did manage to get Doors of Divergence and The Art of Killin’ it open in 2022… but in the process put our own LUX show (at the time Rock Bottom, which we eventually scrapped in favor of BusinessRealm) on the slow-track, meaning we only had two out of three shows up and running on initial building open, which hits ticket targets where it hurts.
While turnout in 2022 was not dream-come-true, it was on-track with projection and actually a bit better than expected! Nobody was breaking even, but for essentially a brand-new space with brand-new content in a field that audiences have a hard time understanding, we were doing Awesome.
Unfortunately, the money we burned in 2021 and the delayed releases in 2022 came back to haunt us. We are not the only company that is dealing with this, nor will we be the last to wake up in a cold sweat over the long-term damage of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
In late 2022/early 2023, we pulled the trigger on BusinessRealm after half a year of development. We renewed our lease and held consul with the almighty Tabulatron. While margins were slim, we decided to roll a hard six and see if we could make it work. We rolled a five.
Every quarter we review sales numbers, expenses, and generally do business things that a business should do.
This year when we hit the end of Q2 (roughly June), things were not looking great. Both our hosted shows were doing ok. Not amazing, but they were on-track, not off-track.
We took a stab at a business loan out of an abundance of caution, but that fell through due to my abysmal line of credit. But it’s ok! We still had a shot at success, as long as BusinessRealm opened by the end of July...
It is at this point we go back to the mission statement:
Produce all content in-house.
Stretch our budgets to the maximum reach they can take - make a lot with a little.
Critically hammer at our content until it is more than "good enough."
Kill all darlings and make sure only the strongest of concepts survives the culling.
Everybody gets paid.
We could have crunched and rushed BusinessRealm to audiences as a shameless cash-grab, but while our shows may look and feel tacky by design, there is quite a bit of love and care that goes into them. Everybody here did not want to compromise creative principles for the sake of a budget, and we also did not want to work a solid two months of 15-hour days to try and make up the difference.
We take pride in allowing for infinite sick days, infinite PTO, paying people as fair a wage as we can manage, and generally making sure that everybody who works here takes care of themselves and is taken care of as best as they can be. People work better when they are not living dollar-to-dollar. However, this makes people (rightfully) a large budget expense. It also means we avoid crunch at all costs.
This, along with other frustrating complications in shipping, bids, and orders meant multiple minor delays at critical build points.
We kept pushing BusinessRealm back, and it was a death by a thousand cuts.
It is important to stress here that none of these delays were the killer, and nobody individually is at fault - quite the opposite, everybody at Future Proof worked incredibly hard to get BusinessRealm off the ground and did a damn fine job. Morale was high, we were deep into rehearsals, setpieces were in finishing stages, all props and assets were underway, costumes were sourced, and documentation was locked down with rivets.
However, starting in July our new lease terms kicked in. The new rent was high.
It was already high, but this was Very High.
We could make rent and payroll if we opened in July, but delays crept us into a September release date.
Due to expenses from 2020-2022, the treasury was dry. Over the year several additional partnerships, guest shows, and attempts at deals to supplement revenue fell through for fair reasons (space, time, good fit for the space - the usual). Inflation was crushing us from both ends; we couldn’t sell tickets at higher prices without cutting down our audience counts (all shows in our building benefit from “larger” audiences from an experiential standpoint), and staff/cast/crew needed to eat, requiring pay raises across the board.
Unlike many other enterprises in New York, we did not take out a PPP loan or ERC credit (hooray to the former, oops to the latter). We didn’t lay off any staff during the pandemic, get a $30 million grant from Uncle Sam, or any of that cool $1.2 billion tossed out to New York State since we were just getting started as a C-corp in late 2019, and had no meaningful revenue to show to the SBA (it’s worth noting the SBA were nice about it on the phone).
When we got to August, we had the option to say “let’s just do it and be legends. Again.”
Sales for Doors of Divergence and The Art of Killin’ it were up. Wayyyyy up. 3-5% more month-over-month than anticipated. Word-of-mouth and longform marketing was starting to pay off in a big way. Assuming BusinessRealm opened in September and made sales as projected (15%-20% capacity, which is reasonable for us with a new show), we were on track to breaking even and turning a PROFIT as a Company for the first time by December/January.
Sure in the macro-scale, we were crazy in the red to recoup, but for a new business with only two years on the books with this model, this was stellar for an entertainment venue.
Things were looking great!
Except for October and November. October and November were a big void.
Those two months would have had to be picture perfect as far as audience attendance goes in order for us to pay both rent and our staff. And while rent is necessary to continue operations, mission statement is clear: Everybody. Gets. Paid.
All it would take was an uptick in COVID numbers to reduce audience attendance, or a new horrifying international crisis to scare people away from going outside to dip sales by one or two percentage points, and all the sudden we would have to choose between paying rent, or paying people.
Everybody at Future Proof has worked a hell-show. I got together with like-minded friends and started this company fresh off the set of several particularly bad ones. I have seen what happens when productions make this kind of call the wrong way, and therein is nothing but pure, uncut madness. Nothing is more horrifying than showing up on payday at the end of a month you need to pay for your apartment and finding out your boss can’t pay you. Especially when you just worked your ass off to get a show off the ground and people are having a good time seeing it.
Going back to the very end of our internal mission statement:
in other words:
This is not a "passion project." All content is subject to overhaul, all scripts are subject to rewrite, all ideas are subject to deletion in the event something better comes along. The minute LUX becomes a passion project is the minute it needs to stop.
We will gamble with productions and ideas, but not people’s livelihood. Running a business is a trust-fall between you and the people you’ve hired to make the thing you want made. You only need to drop them once without a heads-up and the magic of it all is gone.
We had two choices:
- Take all our remaining capital and use it to provide severances to our staff and pay out remaining hours for cast and crew.
- Go for broke, gamble again, and pray. Passion project stuff.
I don’t blame our landlord. I really don’t. They’re a business, and this is their property. We’re just hanging out as a widget, and landlords are all about the widgets. Our building is smack in the middle of the IBZ, and while it may be across the street from a tile warehouse and a cement plant, according to the all-seeing and all-knowing real-estate nightmare-shamans who probably definitely exist in a subterranean pit at the bottom of the Gowanus canal, this neighborhood is ‘trendy’ due to the “East Williamsburg” label.
It’s gone from a block that you avoided after sundown to one that has a citibike stop around the corner from a K-Pop venue and an artisanal cocktail bar. This means our rent is ‘competitive.’ Like everywhere in NYC these days, it is unsustainably ‘competitive.’ It’s one thing to start a business, it’s another to do it with over half your income going to the rent-monster. Rent abatement was out of the question - why keep us as tenants when you could move us out and get somebody to come in and open up a microbrewery for six months? It doesn’t matter who’s here, just that they pay. Future Proof and our Landlord are just pawns in a greater game of market forces.
You - the business - could make more money by cutting wages, but then you have unhappy people who hate their job and can’t be effective because they have to skip a meal or not pay the power bill.
So in other words the choice wasn’t hard, It was very clear. It was time to stop before we ruined somebody else’s life, or tried to pull stupid stuff with the Landlord. We made the call, and pulled the plug.
The silver lining in all of this is also the final kicker that gave me the energy to make the ultimate call. It’s a story in two articles:
If you’re reading this and you too work in any field of entertainment, take solace in our story not being the only one. It’s happening everywhere right now, and the yarn is the same across the board - entertainment space got hurt by COVID and lockdowns, but the utter lack of real support from government institutions or any meaningful assistance/abatement was the kill-shot.
As long as our mayors spend time giving their police departments their own Big Hero 6 squad while kettling first-amendment protestors (who - unlike some people - did not commit treason) or putting homeless people in boxes instead of houses, the arts scene is beyond the point of ‘crisis.’ Entertainment is fucked.
All I’m saying is; This happened to us. It happened to everybody. It will continue ad infinitum under the current conditions in this city. It can and will happen to you eventually unless you are absurdly cautious or intensely lucky.
[sounds of foaming mouth and revolutionary fervor intensify]
Ok, I know, I know. Such an edgy hot take - nobody respects the arts. Banks get a bailout and the rents get hiked. The beat goes on. Gasp. Shocker. Still, it was nice to know we weren’t the only ones feeling the hurt.
We’d always had a “friendly” unspoken rivalry with “Immersive” Van Gogh; a sure-fire way to print money that throws everything good and true about the concept of immersive entertainment into a toilet and kicks that toilet into a gulch filled with fire in the service of printing more money.
“Immersive” Van Gogh and its kin are nothing but a last-gen multimedia installation with a killer PR person who figured out how to trick people into seeing a bastardized version of famous artwork from a dead guy for plunder and profit. I’m not angry! Who’s jealous!? Me? You’re talking nonsense! The gaslamps have always been off- I mean on - I mean- fuck!
Long story short, the fact that we outlived this branding-abomination on the immersive arts, even by a lousy two weeks, is a feather I will put proudly in my cap until I die of old age.
After seven years of ups and downs, pros and cons, we reached the precipice and decided not to jump again.
Thought I was joking earlier about breaking even in under a year? I wasn’t.
We were. So. Close.
Roughly $96,000-$112,000 short.
While that amount of money is more than most of you or I will see in a personal checking account or unmarked duffel bag in a lifetime, In the scheme of an operation of this scale that is a silly-small amount of money.
It is still enough to miss several paydays back-to-back.
While we have a big building and a bunch of stuff, we didn’t burn money on frivolous things; at the end of the day around 84% of our annual budget was set aside for two things: Rent and Wages, with both of them sharing roughly half of that breakdown.
We recycle everything. We scrounge for props. People are paid competitive rates - nothing fancy, but certainly not the bare minimum. Despite the expense, we were a lean company, and worked miracles with a very modest budget. I wish I could point to either a life-size predator statue or a big boat in a marina somewhere and say “There’s where the money went. Sorry folks!” Alas, the only crime we committed was trying to do right by the people we talked into working at the big, beautiful mess that was this company.
So that’s it. Future Proof HQ is done. The grand 32-Meadow/333 Stagg experiment had a good run, but we need to shut down this building.
Thank you for coming to this TEDtalk.