Ensuring the show goes on in a Wild West business culture

Starvox Entertainment cashes in on growing Mexican middle class

 
Potted Potter (Starvox Entertainment)
Potted Potter (Starvox Entertainment)

Toronto impresario Corey Ross burst onto the international live theatre scene in a fit of impatience.

It was 2007, and Ross, who was by then the head of his nine-year-old company, Starvox Entertainment, decided to set up a booth at the Arts Presenters Conference, an influential New York trade show where the world’s top theatre producers, promoters and venues converge.

Early on in his career, he had decided to focus on mounting music, mime and dance-based shows suited for non-English-speaking audiences—performances such as Alberta Ballet’s “Love Lies Bleeding” and “Evil Dead: The Musical.” The conference seemed to be the perfect venue to find foreign buyers.

However, when he inquired about a booth, the organizers said that Starvox would be set up in a corner, and would likely have to attend for a few years before gaining the trust of the buyers. Ross asked how he might expedite the acceptance process, and was told to consider mounting African Footprint, one of his most popular shows, during the conference.

Ross calculated that the outlay—renting a venue, bringing the actors down to the Big Apple, etc.—would set him back $250,000. Instead, he offered to sign on as the conference’s “gold sponsor,” albeit on his own terms: in exchange for the $30,000 sponsorship fee—a booth normally runs between $850 and $1,870—he asked for a booth in the middle of the hall, the exclusive right to put Starvox’s ads on the hotel’s room key cards, and permission to run a continuous video loop featuring the company’s shows on the screens in the elevators. Lastly, he bought 3,000 bottles of chardonnay, and branded them with the African Footprint logo.

Ross’s promotional chutzpah could have been taken from theatrical producer and entrepreneur Garth Drabinsky’s playbook: “We had a central booth and were giving out free booze to a bunch of theatre people,” Ross recounts with a coy smile. “It made us very popular.”

In the years since that splashy debut, Starvox (ranked No. 45 on the 2013 PROFIT 500) has sold or toured shows across the U.S., Europe, China, the Middle East, South America, the Caribbean and Mexico. Last year, $3.5 million of the company’s $5.1 million in revenues came from abroad.

Mexico has been an especially lucrative market for Starvox. But, as Ross points out, “they are definitely their own world.” For a number of reasons, he says, it is a highly appealing market. In terms of the basic logistics of developing an export presence, the prevailing language of business in Mexico is English, and several of Canada’s leading banks have subsidiaries there. What’s more, he says, travelling to Mexico isn’t especially cumbersome.

On a macro-economic level, Ross continues, the country’s gross domestic product is growing, as is the proportion of the population with sufficient wealth to buy theatre tickets. “The interest in culture and going out is there.”

Still, he cautions, Mexico’s wild west business culture means that entrepreneurs need to pay especially close attention to seemingly routine elements of a transaction. “Making sure you get paid is a serious concern,” Ross notes. “Out of a potential group of buyers, figuring out someone dependable to work with is important.”

At one point, he says, Starvox sold African Footprint to a local promoter. The firm had put a 50% down payment on the show, but when Ross went to collect the balance, he encountered “an elaborate ruse” to avoid payment that had been cooked up by the promoter and Starvox’s Mexican bank manager. When it became clear that the funds were not forthcoming, Ross recalls, “we got my bank manager to admit to [the scheme].” He suspended the show and successfully sued for the balance.

The manager of the venue, a state-owned theatre, was “mortified” by Ross’ tale, and helped him find a more suitable partner—the show went on.

Such encounters, however, have not cooled Ross’s enthusiasm for the Latin American live entertainment scene, and Starvox has continued to invest in selling and mounting shows to audiences in other Spanish-speaking countries, including Cuba and Argentina.

Ross points out that his firm has been able to make good use of Toronto’s multi-cultural labour force, hiring Spanish-speaking employees—many of them recent immigrants—to work as intermediaries with Starvox’s Latin American counterparts. “They’re here,” he says, “and they’re looking for jobs.”

The company is also moving beyond its original mandate and is now beginning to tour language-based shows in translation. After mounting “Potted Potter,” an unauthorized Harry Potter spoof in Toronto, Starvox not only toured the show in English-speaking markets, but is now producing a Spanish-language version for Mexican audiences.

Strategically, Ross intends to capitalize on the translation costs by selling “Potted” elsewhere in Latin America. And he is already looking ahead to the next translated Starvox show, which will be “Evil Dead.”

Such foreign-language shows, one could say, represent Starvox’s next big act.

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