5 Secrets to Putting On a Successful Comedy Festival

5 Secrets to Putting On a Successful Comedy Festival

I have been getting some people telling me they want to put on a comedy festival in their city.  Being that my Cape Fear Comedy Festival is about to happen, those messages pick up right about now because people see all the posts about the event.  Comics and producers want to know how to do what we do.  Well, in the next few paragraphs I am going to spill the beans on some of the secrets of The Cape Fear Comedy Festival.  In the competitive world of entertainment business most are unwilling to talk about some of the stuff I will mention. Below are 5 Secrets to Putting On a Successful Comedy Festival.

Why do you want to put on a comedy festival?

First off, before we start talking about the secrets to Cape Fear, let’s ask a simple question. Why DO you want to have a comedy festival?  The motivation is the key to the events success.  Do you want to make money?  Start promoting shows until they are profitable.  Money is a bad main reason for wanting to produce a festival initially.  You will constantly make decisions while producing a festival based on the bottom line and NOT based a more mutually beneficial vision.  You have three parties involved that all need to be satisfied during a festival.  The performers first, the fans second and the venues lastly.  ALL three must be happy for a producer to be successful.  Happy performers perform better, making for happy audiences, who buy more food and drinks leading to happy venue owners.  Your motivation has to be true to all of the parties involved.  Here is what motivated me to start Cape Fear..

The comedy community in Wilmington, North Carolina in 2009 was growing at a very rapid rate.  Part because of the success of the Port City’s Top Comic contest that I put on, bringing comics in from all over to compete each spring, but mostly because of the opening of Timmy Sherrill’s club Nutt Street Comedy Room.  A stable open mic allowed for the comics to get better coupled with being able to see some of the best comics in the country perform allowed the small micro-scene to begin to thrive.  A natural progression for us was to put on a festival that showcased the strong local talent, but also brought in some of the best comedians in the country.  It was that simple, The Cape Fear Comedy Festival was created to help build the Wilmington comedy community.  Even in the wake of Nutt Street Comedy Room closing last summer, the festival has been there to hold it together for the scene and keep it on track and Timmy builds the new club and prepares for its launch this summer.

Secret 1: Don’t Be Money Hungry
moneygrabTimmy and I discussed this part of the festival for months before ever deciding when we were going to put on the event.  We attended other comedy festivals, we talked to comics, we talked to producers and we started spit-balling numbers such as operating expenses and the like. We saw a lot of things we didn’t like, one of which was how obvious it was that some festivals were making money hand over fist.  Neither of us have a problem with a festival that is profitable.  We did take issue with the events that over and over put comics 2nd and profits first unapologetically.

The first thing we did was set our submission fee at the ‘market’ average at the time.  The fee to submit was $25.  Why a fee at all?  Because if no fee was in place, the quality of the submissions would be horrendous AND we would have no start-up capital to promote the shows to make sure their was a crowd.  We created one late higher fee of $35 the second year for those that procrastinate and we left it just like that to this day.

This year for the festival we added something not a single other festival does. We took LESS money from comics because we allowed past performers and anyone that had submitted more than once and not been accepted to submit a month early for free.  Comics that had submitted in 2013 and not gotten in got a $10 discount on submissions.  Our goal is to transition away from having comics provide our primary revenue for the event to having the ticket sales provide the primary revenue.

Secret 2: Knowing the Size of your Britches
Note: I have been in the South for a decade, cut me some slack.
Sorry, didn’t mean to get all ‘grandma’ on you, but let’s be honest, the biggest problem facing festivals that are growing and becoming rapidly successful is losing a grip on the local comedy community.  A piece of advice was given to us early on.  Grown smart, not fast.  We have stuck to it.  While we do occasionally pull in higher dollar headliners, we really want our shows selling out regardless of who is on stage because of the reputation of our event.  We want to be able to stay small, manageable and no matter what, local friendly.  Don’t let your festival get too big, too fast.   It will lose touch, and ultimately become a monster that must eat just to SUSTAIN itself, alienating the local comics and community along the way.

Secret 3: Listen to the comics that perform at your event.

The comics that perform at comedy festivals know what makes them comfortable.  They also have seen a lot of comedy shows and many examples of best practices related to larger comedy events.  When you get suggestions from them, listen to them!  It’s that easy.  Over time you will begin to be able to tell when the ideas have legs or if they are just personal preferences for that specific comic.  Most often you will hear the requested addition/change mentioned by multiple comics helping you understand its legitimacy.  The biggest change we have implement for our festival is stage time.  Comics over and over again told us how great it would be to be able to get on stage more than once (which is all most festivals afford them) during their festival visit.  In 2012 we put this in to place, and now each comic gets on stage EACH night they are at the festival.  We even try hard to make sure they get to do as many different venues and time slots as possible.  JUST LISTEN, they will tell you what makes them happy.  Happy comics are funnier and funnier comics sell tickets.  You with me?

Saurin Choksi, Matty Ryan, Shea Spillane, Laura Sander, Danielle Radford, Brandie Posey, Tyler Jackson and David Drake at our Beach outing during #CFCF2013
Saurin Choksi, Matty Ryan, Shea Spillane, Laura Sanders, Danielle Radford, Brandie Posey, Tyler Jackson and David Drake at our Beach outing during #CFCF2013

Secret 4:  Get to know the comics that perform at your festival

I make it a point more so than any comedy festival producer in the country to be RIGHT there, accessible and mingling with the comics that do The Cape Fear Comedy Festival.  I want them to be comfortable telling me whatever it is they feel like telling me.  I want to know them by the time they leave my festival.  I want to hear about how the comedy scene is in their city/town/village/country.  Why?  Because I learn the most all year-long from this one week with these comics.  I share what I have learned with them, give them contacts for getting booked and connect them with others that I think could be beneficial to their comedy endeavours.  You can’t put a price on what I give or gain during this exchange.  It is the BIGGEST deal to the comics that they feel as appreciated as they really are.  Timmy also makes himself equally visible and accessible.  The comics all end up having my mobile number programmed in their phone.  Not an office number somewhere, but my direct mobile number i have had for nearly a decade.

Secret 5: Make Your Festival Walkable!
The biggest change I have made over the 7 years I have done comedy festivals that has had the biggest impact on their success was making all the venues within walking distance of one another.  A 10-minute walk at worst between your futhermost venues is optimal. This not only allows your comics to be able to easily do multiple shows, but it allows your audience to circulate from venue to venue and see multiple shows.  If you use a festival pass system this allows them to get the most for their money.

If ANY of you produces a comedy show and would like to come to the Cape Fear Comedy Festival to see how we do things, email me at book at ward comedy dot com and I will get you all access passes for this year’s event. The 2016 Cape Fear Comedy Festival is Wednesday May 18th through Saturday May 21st, 2016.  More info here>>

Matt Ward produced the Cape Fear Comedy Festival in Wilmington, North Carolina and the Scruffy City Comedy Festival in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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Matt Ward is a comedian, comedy show producer and promoter, web designer, graphic designer, musician, father and occasional fisherman.

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