The fear, as expressed by former National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner and others, that filmed theatre would look like a lot of actors shouting seems to have abated. Indeed, nearly all the doubts and suspicions about this relatively new way of seeing shows – either by watching a one-off live performance streamed to your local cinema, or by digital download on your computer or laptop – have proved invalid.
Far from putting people off the theatre, as many theatre practitioners feared, live cinematic performances would appear to be arousing valuable interest and excitement in the medium, as well as enabling those for whom a trip to London is not viable to see the best it has to offer.
Cinema Live, which has offices in London and Sydney, distributes live theatre, music and operatic performances to cinemas in 70 countries, working in tandem with Digital Theatre. It is an offshoot of the Australian production company Shooting Star, which was established in 1992, and is one of several companies working in the sphere of live theatre streaming.
Not surprisingly, co-director of Cinema Live Janelle Mason believes live streaming has already won its spurs. “When the National Theatre kicked it all off in 2009 with Phedre, people sat up and took notice. It took a while to get it right, but NT Live and others have built up a worldwide audience, and now it is hard to deny that it works, and works well.”
Event cinema, as Mason calls it, now accounts for 5% of the UK cinema box office, and has the potential to earn seven figure numbers for the originating producer.
“The revenue can be substantial, even for a one-night broadcast,” says Helen Jones, head of acquisition and distribution at Cinema Live. “It’s up to producing theatres to find ways of exploiting it to their advantage. Many of the regions we serve are not very well developed in terms of event cinema. There is still a lot of room for growth.”
The strongest box office performers are the UK, Australia, Canada and, increasingly, Eastern Europe. Jones says the US is “tricky” because of the resources needed to promote a theatrical event across the States. “Our focus is London, but we’re open to streaming things from Broadway under the right circumstances,” she says.
Jones is keen to point out that theatres and producers who are interested in a cinema stream would be well advised to make an early approach to Cinema Live. “We can let them know if we think it’s going to work. We’re happy to give out projections and targets of how much revenue a live broadcast will generate, and advise on the likely markets for each individual show. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking we can tell pretty quickly if something is right for live streaming.”
According to Mason, the determining factors as to whether or not a show puts bums on cinema seats are, firstly, star power – Richard Armitage proved a massive draw in The Crucible because it coincided with the release of The Hobbit in which he starred – and a well-known title. For example, War Horse, Lord of the Dance, Walking With Dinosaurs, Spamalot.
In terms of the logistics of filming stage performances, Cinema Live is mindful of the disruption factor. “The absolute priority of the director of a live broadcast is to preserve the integrity of the theatre experience for the theatre audience,” says Mason. “There are usually six or seven hidden cameras for the event, situated at vantage points around the theatre. There are only a small number of people with the right skill set to do this work, and the goal is not to upset or disturb the audience.”
The most consistently successful live transmission since Cinema Live began six years ago has been the annual concerts in Maastricht given by Andre Rieu’s Strauss Orchestra, which has a massive following in Europe and Australia. Rieu employs his own technicians to film the concerts, and Cinema Live provides what they call the “wrap-around elements”, such as introductions, vox pops and an interview with Rieu.
“After six years, we work very well as a team,” says Jones. “Last year Andre Rieu and One Direction were the two biggest crowd-pullers in event cinema history, and Andre’s concert was the highest grossing one-night music concert in UK box office history.”
Clearly Cinema Live and others are excited about the future of live cinema streaming and digital downloads, but Mason believes it is still a work in progress.
“I think we’ve only scratched the surface,” she says. “We’re constantly thinking of ways in which we can develop and move in new directions. Who would have thought the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition would have proved to be so successful as a live cinema event? There is clearly an audience for all kinds of cultural events, as well as more conventional performance.”