Ideas for a Practical Approach to Fringe Festivals, PART 3

(Part one is here.)

(Part two is here.)

(Also, yes this 3rd part was very delayed. Once you read through you’ll see why. This took a lot of work to flesh out and make somewhat easy to follow.)

Using data from past fringe festivals and based upon my experiences, I started tinkering with formulas in a spreadsheet and soon discovered a hypothetical formula for figuring out the EV of performing in a festival.


Like itself, the formula’s methodology is based on some hypotheticals.

– We know how much it costs to apply for and (if accepted) secure a spot in a festival.

– We (usually) know how many shows you get to perform if accepted.

– We can even put some fairly reliable numbers on travel costs (airfare, gas, lodging if necessary), and on promotion materials (printing fliers, posters, professional photos/video when applicable).

– If you know the venues available to you, you can even put a headcount on the possible number of seats, in some cases the exact number of seats, of your potential venue.

– If you dig into past festival data, you can even approximate the average dollar return per person at the show. The good news is almost every reputable festival gives 100% of all ticket revenue back to the artists.

That said, you can’t just multiply the cost of tickets by attendance: Some people are comped. Some pay for all-fest passes which only gives you a reduced payout per head for those.

I’ll give you a hint as to how much you can expect to earn: On average, US fests pay about $6-7 per person, while Canadian fests pay about $8 (but of course you’ve got to convert between US and Canadian currency). You can fuzz that number up or down a bit depending on contextual factors, like if a fest doesn’t pay back 100% of ticket sales (however, if that fest puts firm numbers on money paid to artists and actual attendance, your original number should still be accurate).

– You can figure out your rough probability of getting into the fest if it’s determined by lottery. If you know there’s about 150 entrants and they’re drawing for about 30 slots, then figure your base chance is 20% = 30/150. Of course, a given festival might divide into sublotteries based on geography (e.g. half local acts, half outside acts) and other factors, so you have to consider how that affects your chances of getting drawn.

Getting In, Subpoint 1: With juried festivals, it’s not so random, but if you look at the quality of other previous shows and stack it up against yours, you probably already have a good idea of your chances of getting in. Obviously, you should only apply to juried fests if you feel there’s a very good chance you’ll get in. In many juried cases, an inexperienced or relatively unknown group probably has very little chance of getting accepted and it’s probably not worth applying until you get some other festival experience under your belt.

Getting In, Subpoint 2: First come first served festivals are easy to figure. You pay to get in and you’re in! Your probability of entry is 100%! Obviously, you should probably register as soon after applications open as possible. These festivals fill up quickly, as in within a day or so.

– The real uncertain factor, the one you have to flat out guesstimate, is the number of seats your show can fill relative to the number of seats available. A total novice to festivals can’t possibly know, though their number is probably pretty low. You can promote your ass off and get 10 people per show. A similar person could make half the effort and fill 2/3 of the house. Even an experienced performer familiar to the audience can have similarly inconsistent results depending on the time of shows, what kind of show they’re producing, what other acts they’re up against at the festivals, how their promotion is received by the community, etc etc etc.

That said, if you do fringe theatre for a bit and are bluntly realistic with yourself, you can get a good general ballpark of how many people you can reasonably expect to show up. And you can use that estimate to get an expected value for applying to a given festival.


Follow me on this. Let’s presume we’re applying for, say, the Chicago Fringe Festival.

– We’re applying for the lowest level slot, three shows in a small venue for $250.
– It costs $25 to apply.
– A small venue can hold, say, 50 people.
– Based on past history at this given festival, an artist averages $6.75 for every attendee, after factoring in pass discounts and comps. (While that can change or vary in the future, that’s based off previous data)

– Let’s say we live in Chicago 😉 and travel will not cost much for us in this case… say, $20 for gas/parking if for some reason I can’t use my pre-paid Ventra pass and take transit. (Let’s also say my hypothetical show is about how cab, Uber or Lyft drivers really suck and every driver knows about it and wants to kill me… and that’s why I’m not considering rideshares as a transport option. Obviously, if ridesharing works, you’ll want to factor in those costs per ride.)

– There’s a very small number of available slots being drawn in the lottery relative to applicants, especially considering the slots are subdivided between local acts, outside domestic acts, outside international acts, minority “diversity” acts. After factoring in the number of applicants vs slots, plus adding 2% to account for not being drawn at the lottery but being drawn afterward as a top alternate that gets into the show anyway after someone else drops out (which happens a lot: Often, a top five alternate will get their chance to play thanks to dropouts)… I have about a 15% chance of getting into the festival.

Let’s say I think, with no promotion other than telling my friends on Facebook/Twitter and running my mouth among colleagues, I can fill about 30% of the available seats at my three shows.

First, let’s figure out how much we can hope to make if our show is accepted.

FestivalEV-2With an expectation of filling 30% of the seats, we see we can expect an average of $303.75 in revenue.

Now, let’s figure out how much it will cost to produce and perform our show if it’s accepted.

FestivalEV-3The combination of the app fee, the festival entry fee and assorted costs is $295.00.

Again, this is only if we’re accepted. Obviously, if the show is not accepted, our application fee is down the toilet.

FestivalEV-4(Yes, it’s a sunk cost and economics/poker-nerds say you should ignore sunk costs. But remember, you’re considering applying for the festival. You haven’t applied and spent the money to do so yet. We’re figuring out the expected value of *applying*, if it’s worth your while.)

Now, take your expected revenue if the show gets in, and subtract the expected cost to get the expected net value of doing the fest.

FestivalEV-5If you get accepted, you’ll make on average $303.75, expect to spend about $295.00 total to do the fest, and typically end up $8.75 in the black.

Multiply that expected value times the probability of your show getting accepted, then subtract the probability of the show not getting accepted times the lost application fee. THIS is the expected value of applying for this festival.

FestivalEV-6Is the value negative? In this case, it is: On average, if you hypothetically had many many chances to apply for this festival, you will lose $19.94 per attempt to do this festival. The times you get in and make a profit will not make up for the times you don’t get in, or the times you get in and lose your shirt anyway.

Given that, applying for the festival has less expected value than not applying at all. You’ll lose money in the long run by making the choice to do it.

If it’s positive, then there’s more value in applying. Even if you’re not drawn, it was a decision that if you repeated it 100+ times would pay off over time.

Rather than post a bunch of examples, I will provide you with a link to a Google Sheet of the formula. You can plug in numbers next to the respective columns and the bottom line should spit out a result. Because this is publicly viewable, I would highly encourage you to save a copy to your own Google Drive and use it there.

You can tinker with numbers on your own, and see what value you can expect from your respective situation, as well as how that EV changes if you change various factors, e.g. you spend $50 to produce a few hundred fliers for distribution, plus some posters to hang at businesses (with their permission), and you think it’ll improve attendance by 20%. Or if you’re applying to a festival and the venue will actually have 30 or 100 seats. Or you’ll get 5 or 6 shows instead of 4. Or it costs $50 to apply, or it costs $550 to enter, or the fest should pay an average of $7 per attendee, etc etc etc.

Most of all, let’s say you do apply for a show and you get in, or no matter the odds you’re going to apply for a festival. This formula can also tell you how much you need to make to break even, or how much you can hope to make if your show does well. Just make the entry probability 100%, since the show is absolutely accepted and you absolutely get to do it once the entry fee is paid. Tinker with the numbers and see for yourself.

If you have questions or want me to clarify any info here, you can comment here or shoot me an e-mail at


Now, again, I’m not trying to mechanize your passion for performance art. If you really want to apply for Edmonton Fringe, you’ve got the money to throw down and you giveth not a single fucke how much money you make or don’t make… then apply for it no matter what and don’t sweat this at all.

This is more so for:

– People who are on the fence about applying for a festival.
– People for whom this, for whatever reason, *is* a profession or business to them, and want to determine the value of applying to a festival or not, or have to choose one festival other another when all other factors are relatively equal.
– People who could otherwise use the time productively if they don’t do the festival, but still have an interest in considering it… i.e. they could produce shows at home, or work for pay during that time.
– People who in general or principle are interested but just unsure if a festival is worth the investment.

Also, of course, there are going to be people for which this is mostly irrelevant. For example, if Martin Dockery plugged in his stats for a given festival, he’s going to get a massively positive expected value no matter what, because he’s probably going to sell out every show or close to it. Maybe, MAYBE, he might want to compare the value of two concurrent festivals he’s been accepted to in order to see which one he ought to do. (But knowing him however much I do, I highly doubt that’s much of a factor to him.)

And of course there’s the flip side that you’re new and despite your best efforts you’re simply not going to draw well, almost certainly will finish a festival at a loss and this is by and large a learning experience. You can use this information to figure out roughly how much of a sunk cost you’re looking at.

Of course, if you want the experience and have the money to spend on it, don’t let me stop you! Knock yourself out, enjoy it, and consider any money you make back a bonus on top of the new experiences and friends you make.

For everyone else, it might be a suitable judgment call to look at this data and crunch the numbers. Maybe it does matter a lot if you’ve got a realistic shot of breaking even or better at a festival. Also, a lot of performers aren’t rich or otherwise subsidized, and for many the pursuit of fringe festivals may be one of their best shots to make a living doing what they love. This can help them be realistic about what they can expect and whether making a trip to a far flung land is worth the effort.

By tinkering with the capacity filled stat, you can get a baseline of how well your show needs to draw to make a given festival worth your while. If this were an algebra equation and you had to find x, the x in this equation would be the percentage of seats you need to fill to make your money back, i.e. achieve an expected value of $0.00.

Do with this information what you will, and thanks for reading.

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