Show business is casino business

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Martin Nievera and Sharon Cuneta performed in Solaire while Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was recently staged in Resorts World Manila.

By Zsarlene B. Chua,

THERE WAS A TIME when keeping up with the cultural zeitgeist — specially in theater circles — meant flying to New York or London to catch big musicals during their Broadway or West End runs. No longer. Filipinos who are willing to wait a couple of years can bank on international production making their way to this part of the world. Phantom of the Opera opened at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 2012; The Lion King, another proven haymaker, will open at The Theatre at Solaire in 2018. Even popstars like Lady Gaga and One Direction are coming over to perform. Manila, producers seem to say, has proven itself a worthy audience.

Beyond these exports, which draw crowds by the thousands, theaters in casino-resorts such as Solaire and Resorts World (RWM) have been hosting local productions: the former is continuing its OPM (Original Pilipino Music) icon series, which has featured the likes of Basil Valdez and Pilita Corrales, while the latter has extended its own production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Though promoting local artists wasn’t in the original plans, Audie Gemora, Solaire’s entertainment director, saw that OPM acts made more sense than the “Gagas and the Biebers” given The Theatre’s 1,700-seat capacity. “Most of the top foreign artists need huge venues,” he told BusinessWorld in an interview in October. “If you bring in a very expensive current act, you’re not going to make your money back. We’re limited by space.” Better for Solaire, then, to let the Mall of Asia Concert Grounds and its Arena have the international A-listers.

The epiphany came in 2016 when concerts by Sharon Cuneta and Regine Velasquez attracted an audience and, as a consequence, boosted gaming. “They realized, why chase after foreign acts when the local acts are bringing in the market we want anyway — and there’s a payback,” Mr. Gemora said. Hosting local celebrities also added to Solaire’s brand equity since it is, thus far, the only Filipino casino-resort. “It was really our chairman [Enrique K. Razon, Jr.] who said the shows people watch is the Rey Valeras. It wasn’t hard to convince him. As a matter of fact, he fully supports it.” 

Basil Valdez kicked off Solaire’s year-long “Icons of OPM” in April with a sold-out show. Due to public demand, Mr. Valdez performed again a month later. As a follow-up, the casino-resort, in August, produced Celeste Legaspi’s first concert in over three decades. Again, the show was sold out. Solaire landed yet another Filipino great with Ms. Corrales, who, like Ms. Legaspi, held her first major concert at The Theatre after a long hiatus. To close 2017, Solaire is featuring Martin Nievera and holiday hitmaker Jose Mari Chan (who is — to Filipinos, anyway — as essential to Christmas as Santa Claus).

“It’s been very well received… I’ve had quite a number of people come up to me and say, ‘hey, I like the entertainment fare in Solaire.’” said Mr. Gemora, who added that “established icons” have thanked him for giving them a vehicle to get their music out.

Of course, praise is always accompanied by criticism, the most common of which is why is Solaire focusing on “the oldies.” Mr. Gemora has heard this so many times that he has a ready — and compelling — answer: “If we want to establish ourselves as a serious venue for OPM, you start with the icons,” he said, adding that Solaire will reach out to the younger market in the future. Already, there are plans to stage a “Rock Icons of the 2000s” series which will see Ebe Dancel of Sugarfree among others perform in a concert.

Aside from concerts, Mr. Gemora is also working on other kinds of shows. Why not place performer and audience on the same stage, for example? Anyone who has been to The Theatre knows how sprawling the stage is; by Mr. Gemora’s estimate, he could probably fit 500 people there. “I’ll give it to anybody who wants to perform here — almost for free just so we can bring in culture and arts,” he said. “It could be anything from dance and modern ballet to acoustic acts, to anything special — even puppet acts. I’ll be open for it. And of course plays.”

The property has also started renovating Eclipse, its casino floor lounge, in order to host acts designed to attract the younger set — cabaret shows featuring local artists, perhaps, or Broadway nights. “It’s more open and it’s easier to fill a 300-seater,” he said of Eclipse, adding that it fills a need because ticket prices at The Theatre aren’t exactly “millennial-friendly.” “We can be a little more creative. We’re opening it to producers who want to do a show there and give them very friendly terms to use the venue.”

This year, Eclipse experimented with Big Band Wednesdays, which featured unlikely artists like rocker Dong Abay singing along with big bands. “Seeing these rockers singing standards and giving it their own flavor, it’s beautiful,” Mr. Gemora said.

Solaire’s preoccupation with entertainment reflects shifts in the gaming industry. According to Mr. Gemora, Las Vegas had to recast itself as a venue for conventions and acts like Cirque du Soleil and Britney Spears after Macau became the gambling destination of choice for high rollers.

Similarly, local casino-resorts have been upping their entertainment value. Resorts World, for example, staged original productions of Bituing Walang Ningning The Musical (2015) and Priscilla Queen of the Desert (2014).

“It has always been our vision to make theater accessible to everyone and ultimately make the Philippines the ‘Broadway of Asia,’ so to speak,” Martin Paz, chief integrated marketing officer of Resorts World Manila (RWM), said in an e-mail interview.

“Entertainment is a vital component of RWM’s integration that makes it a one-stop, non-stop lifestyle and tourism destination. The concept behind RWM was to build a ‘cruise ship on land,’ and entertainment is one of the primary ingredients in luxury cruises. Since we are land-based, we now have the flexibility to provide even more entertainment than we would at sea,” he added. RWM has also seen Filipino acts like Zsa Zsa Padilla, Lea Salonga, and, most recently, Aegis perform at its Newport Performing Arts Theater.

Mr. Gemora tipped his hat to RWM: “Resorts World, to their credit, was the first to put up a theater for the casino-resort, followed by Solaire.” He also noted that after the success of both Solaire’s and RWM’s shows — whether local or international acts — the private sector has started to sit up and pay attention. “That’s good for us,” he said, adding that it’s a welcome change. “After so many years of the performing arts being like beggars — trying to get sponsorships and trying to sell tickets — big businesses are starting to recognize that entertainment can add so much to their business.”

Mr. Gemora knows of what he speaks. He has worked in the performing arts industry as a theater actor and producer for more than three decades and has won several awards, including an Aliw Award for Best Director for Noli in 2011.

The heart of the matter is that there is a very big difference between running a theater housed within casino-resort and an independent one. And that is: a theater housed within a casino-resort is not overly focused on recouping investments through ticket sales, as success is measured through how many people spend money in the property’s other attractions, such as the casino.

“It’s a different business model. We try to be profitable by way of getting rent and when we produce our own shows, we of course want to get our money back but that’s not the main business — the main business is, we are measured by the people who come to watch our shows and play afterwards or eat at our restaurants and book in our hotels, then that’s when we’re successful,” he said.

“That’s also a big relief for me. I’ve been a producer and it’s so stressful for producers to always chase after ticket sales and all that. I welcome the idea that tickets sales not anymore the crux of the business,” Mr. Gemora added.

This also affords him a lot more flexibility when it comes to programming. “It’s a playground!,” he said of his role as Solaire’s entertainment director. “As long as we draw people here and they play, we win.”

While there aren’t any specific metrics to measure a show’s impact yet, Mr. Gemora has his own anecdotal evidence: every time there’s a show at The Theatre, the property’s food court is packed to the point where employees have to find a different place to eat. This was especially true during the run of Les Miserables in 2016. “These are all good signs. That shows that entertainment does drive business,” he said.