As a father to two and a stepfather to more, I know exactly how it feels to take a family outing to an arena show. This was long the provenance of Ringling Brothers’ Barnum and Bailey Circus, The Harlem Globetrotters and Disney on Ice. The trick was always threading the balance between keeping the entertainment comprehensible for the tots while keeping Dad happy enough that he doesn’t want to sucker punch the endless parade of vendors hawking twirling toys, frosted treats, and plush animals of every variety. This past weekend I was able to take my youngest, now 14, to see Hair. The path to that tie-died splendor threaded many afternoons visiting the above-described costly clock watching sessions.
Stephen Shaw and Jonathan Linden took their experiences with live entertainment and rock & roll shows to a create a palatable alternative for family shows. They founded Round Room Live which melds child friendly entertainment with higher production values and the recognition that somewhere in the event there needs to be a nod to the parents in attendance – whether it’s a joke beyond the comprehension of the kids, an upgrade to the caliber of the music or using higher production values which hold the eye of everyone in the room.
I spent a little more than half and hour talking with Stephen and Jonathan. I like these guys a lot. Our time together allowed me two discoveries: first, at heart they are both story tellers. Both Stephen and Jonathan know how to communicate, and that is the key to holding attention. Second, their history coming out of the live concert touring business has given them the road map for how to build a show that can move from town to town, stopping only long enough to sell through the demand, and leaving behind a pleasant memory and a whole lot of sold merchandise. These shows are meant to reinforce the fans’ relationship with the characters around whom these shows are constructed.
Here is our conversation in both video and audio podcast format. I think you’ll enjoy the conversation.
Round Room licenses characters which children already know from television, such as Peppa Pig, PJ Masks, or YouTube stars like Blippi. They custom design live arena shows around these characters the kids know, with subtle shading of story elements for the adults to hand onto. Round Room even built a massive show around what was then just the Baby Shark song, somehow taking an earworm into a full arena production and sending around the world to surprisingly brisk demand. Perhaps here’s why: Baby Shark has the most watched video in the history of YouTube.
This is big business, with multiple concurrent companies crossing the country, much in the same way that various companies of Hamilton are playing New York, Los Angeles, Chicago while others move every other week to a new smaller market for a short run of shows. It is a tough undertaking. You must front the money to acquire the rights to use characters, design the show, build the sets, rehearse the cast, and put the whole enterprise out into the world incurring per diems, hotel room expenses, paying riggers and gaffers, drivers, and local labor so the show can come into town, play, and go timely. All this is done with the expectation that you can fill at least 60% or 65% of the house on average to cover the running costs.
IP rights in a digital world are expensive. The toy maker Hasbro
Round Room pays a royalty to the IP holder for use of their character(s) then builds a show and sends it out on the road, complete with licensed unique merchandise, toys, and souvenirs for sale at each stop. This business has two specific risks: the cost of mounting the production won’t be recouped because of lower-than-expected demand for tickets or that success of the production will be so high that renewal of the license for future use might become unaffordable. As a result. Round Room is very focused on being good partners helping build stronger ties between the fans which see the live events, and the ways in which that reinforces their interest in the televised content or other ways in which the brand interacts with the fans.
The ways in which Round Room licenses the characters from which they build their shows gives them a lot of flexibility and autonomy. They have exclusive live theatrical rights along with the license to sell merchandise unique to their event including a cast album. In addition, Round Room keeps the ability to sell sponsorships or advertising within the event. These, plus ticket sales adds up to a considerable revenue engine, particularly when the performers are never the star, instead it’s always the character the audience is there to see. This flows well to meet and greets too. A meet and greet can double or more enhance the price of a ticket just so your child has the chance to meet and get a picture with someone in a Peppa Pig costume. Those meet and greets never fail, because it’s the costume, not the person within it who the fan wants to see. The risk that Aerosmith won’t leave their dressing room is reduced to zero so long as there is someone there who can fit inside the Peppa costumer. In many ways this is the family friendly version of the Blue Man group model – it doesn’t matter who is banging on the drums so long as they put on the blue face before being seen in public.
Round Room’s core capability is their ability to create the entire production and manage it themselves. They operate two separate divisions who execute the live shows. One is the producing side for which they have a creative director, hire writers, directors, choreographers, scenic people to design the stage, lighting designers, costumers, and prop designers. The second is the touring team who find and lock in venue deals along with the marketing, promotion, ticketing, and merchandise.
Stephen and Jonathan share a background in the concert business, and their marketing strategy springs from that experience. The shows are built to use a concert touring model, where they typically do a single night in each town, perhaps two nights over a weekend in a bigger market. Similarly, they are capable of multiple activations, running Baby Shark at the same time in North America, Australia, and Asia. These shows are cast like a touring Broadway show. Once the design is finalized, there can be multiple copies of the show out around the world simultaneously. The singing is performed live by the cast, but the music itself is pre-recorded.
Round Room is trying to have dynamic sets and heightened effects for their shows. They use a lot of music and move the story along quickly, aided by their use of LED screens which greatly increases their capacity to add motion and color to their shows. They also do exhibitions and experiences. They see kids as a division of their business. Their exhibitions appeal to a broader audience. The model there was to build museum quality exhibitions in unconventional spaces like Bodies at the South Street Seaport. They have built Jurassic World, a 20,000 square foot immersive exhibition of animatronic dinosaurs in Dallas with the team and the staff in costume. Jurassic World will remain in Dallas for six months before moving the next stop and has already sold more than 150,000 tickets.
The creative process is long and difficult, fraught with conflicts between artistic intent and budget. Creating a scalable tour by licensing someone else’s characters places even more pressure as your success builds their brand, while you alone own any failure. Round Room has mastered the model and is busy populating the world with their unique vision of how to bring together families globally to share a few hours together taking in the show or walking through the exhibition. At the other end, only those of us truly in the know understand it was Round Room’s team who took the character and built an entire adventure around that familiar face. They are the creatives who make two hours in an arena seat watching a show built around a children’s television show come to life an event which binds a family. That’s a worthy undertaking. Their attention to detail and mastery of the minutiae is why Stephen and Jonathan’s shows are back on the road and succeeding. Their success is well earned. It comes from doing the work well.