Theatre screenings in cinemas – help or hindrance?

Beckenham Odeon. Photo: Adam McCulloch
Beckenham Odeon. Photo: Adam McCulloch
Richard Jordan is an award-winning UK and international theatre producer. He has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2005.
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Screenings of theatre in cinemas are becoming a more and more common feature of our industry.

This can be wonderful for audiences around the world to have the opportunity of watching a performance from the UK at their local cinema in the knowledge that they themselves would be unlikely to see it live.

Closer to home, though, there is a question to be asked: are these screenings at cinemas across the UK of UK productions actually changing (and even damaging) regional live drama presentation?

Executive director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre Stephen Wood recently made a comment in The Stage raising concern about digital theatre and its impact regionally. My own concern is whether, at this time of further impending arts cuts, there is a risk that some regional venues might consider that theatre screenings - with their easy accessibility - should become the dominant component of its drama content programming?

Could this then mean that for some venues we would see live music, dance or comedy toured but when it came to drama, especially when it is new work (which is often the hardest art form to sell), theatre screenings presented as "live" end up serving the majority of its drama programming, reducing both its in-house theatre presentations and risk?

It was only back in the eighties when producers once used to worry that touring a show at the same time as it was playing in the West End could impact greatly on ticket sales. A similar view was taken with stage-to-film presentations. Today, it is almost a given that a production, especially a successful musical, will tour immediately post or even during a West End run. Meanwhile, Les Miserables the movie has created a renewed interest in the musical that has led to its return to Broadway this spring.

While musicals boast regular return business, when it comes to plays it is often a different scenario. I wonder, had I seen the National Theatre live presentation of one of its plays at the cinema, would I then also be compelled to book to see it live at the theatre?

One could argue that the star of the show would make audiences want to also go to the theatre as well, or that in many of the UK's rural locations where NT Live is presented, these audiences gain access to these main-stage presentations that they could otherwise not have afforded. Equally, it could be suggested that digital theatre actually serves a purpose of bringing focus back to theatre, meaning that an audience may not be booking for that show but are now thinking about going to see a live performance of something else.

The question to be asked is: does digital theatre impact on the box office? Is it also damaging to the commercial sector? While the West End production of The Audience was shown in cinemas, very few commercial productions have been broadcast, meaning that the focus in these digital broadcasts is predominately on the subsidised sector. But if you can see a range of significant main-stage works broadcast at your local cinema for a lot less money than a theatre ticket, do you any longer even need to go as often to your local town or city theatre to see a production?

Conversely, when a production like the Donmar Warehouse's Coriolanus is a sell-out, audiences are provided with the opportunity to see the production live through its cinema broadcast, when they could not otherwise have got a ticket. Perhaps it is here that a solution may be considered where during a production run if there is no possibility for it to tour or extend its run, then these broadcasts are shown nationally and internationally at the same time. If, however, there is the possibility of the work touring, then the broadcast is shown in the UK once the production run ends and internationally to locations where it is apparent this work will not be presented.

Theatre screenings have the ability to reach a new and younger audience. Perhaps, for the UK screenings, there is a scheme to consider whereby such showings take place in conjunction with that region’s theatre. The digital theatre ticket could then be redeemed for a discount to selected performances at that local theatre, thus forging a link between the digital and live performances which may also illicit sponsorship opportunities for such a programme.

As we all know, nothing can beat the experience of attending a live performance. However, the success of these cinema screenings should be seen as a great asset and support to the global theatre industry. In a difficult financial climate, though, it should never risk becoming a quick-fix for a venue’s programme or a substitution for the live performance.


  1. So much is written about this topic these days, but it’s very interesting to get a producer’s viewpoint here. As someone who loves to attend both live theatre and screenings of plays/operas, I’d certainly love to see someone introduce the ‘cinema ticket gives you a discount at your local theatre’ idea. Great way to encourage people to try new works they might otherwise be reluctant about.
    By the way, though, it’s ‘elicit’ not ‘illicit’ – save that for the moonshine! ;-)

  2. I love live theatre, and whilst a theatre screening for me can never be as amazing as going to see the production, and I would choose live theatre over a screening any day, I think it is fantastic that screenings enable me to see productions I wouldn’t ever be able to see live.

  3. One very important point that has been lost in this contraversy is that of the act of recording a production.The sad thing about the history of the theatre is that so little of it has been preserved for posterity.Great Productions and acting performances have been lost; seen only by a very lucky few who by chance and good fortune just happened to be in a position to witness them.For the rest of us who love theatre all we are left with are some – obviously posed- still photos of these presentations, recollections in memoirs and – sometimes- a brief clip or two from a tv production.
    So, whatever the commercial problems with digital theatre let us all be thankful that at last at least a few recent outstanding West End productions are being taped for the appreciation and study of future generations!

  4. Thanks for your comments. In response to your point Richard, I believe the Theatre Museum (now housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum) certainly used to film a number of West End Productions which the public could then book to go into the museum and view. In New York the New York Public Library of the Perforning Arts at Lincoln Center has filmed for many years every Broadway show. These are archived and available for public view at the Library – you book a time to attend and are generally well filmed. However the show itself is not made available until the run ends. I agree with your point about filming of work and personally wish it was a policy that BBC 4 had continued to pursue which it did when first launched with broadcasts of works such as Ian Holm’s King Lear and Elmina’s Kitchen, all after their respective runs had ended. Sadly the level of theatre coverage both in news and performance broadcasts has continued to diminish from TV network schedules over the past decade and we should all keep fighting to get that back.

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