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Live screenings ‘won’t kill theatre’

Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theatre’s Hamlet, which was streamed live in 2015. Photo: Johan Persson Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theatre’s Hamlet, which was streamed live in 2015. Photo: Johan Persson
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Cinema broadcasts of plays and musicals are only a “minimal threat” to touring work and have a positive impact on theatre companies, according to a landmark new study.

The research – a joint effort between Arts Council England, UK Theatre, the Society of London Theatre and AEA Consulting – asked theatre companies, producers and audiences about the rise of event cinema and watching theatre online.

In recent years, several theatres across the UK have raised concerns that so-called live-to-digital may lead audiences to abandon going to the theatre for the cinema alternative.

But of 243 companies surveyed, 38% said the advent of live-to-digital has had a positive impact, compared with only 13% who said it had had a negative impact.

In fact, an audience preference for live shows over the recorded alternative was found to be the biggest barrier to attendance of theatre broadcasts at cinemas. Just over half of those surveyed said their preference for live theatre put them off event cinema.

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 Key findings

  • 38% of companies and producers said live-to-digital has had a positive impact on them
  • 13% said it has had a negative impact
  • 33% of audiences said event cinema was more engaging than seeing a live performance
  • 88% of people who had seen a cinema broadcast would recommend them to other people
  • 84% felt an emotional response to the cinema broadcast they had seen

Cheaper tickets and convenience were found to be the biggest motivations for audiences to attend event cinema screenings rather than live performances.

Two-thirds of audience respondents gave “less travel” as a reason to attend event cinema, while 40% cited less expensive tickets. Just under 40% said that the live performance being sold out was motivation to go to a broadcast instead.

A third said event cinema was more engaging than the live experience.

When theatre companies and producers were asked about touring, only six out of 131 said live-to-digital had been cited by venues as a reason their work was not programmed.

The study suggests the theatre sector is out of step with the public when it comes to the importance of ‘liveness’. While 82% of theatre companies place high value on it, only half of event cinema attendees said the same, while nearly a third said it was either not very important or not important at all.

High costs were named by theatre companies as the biggest challenge in producing live-to-digital work, while the potential for new income was found to be the least important driver of making such work.

UK Theatre and SOLT chief executive Julian Bird said the findings would help create a “roadmap” to ensure the industry remained “vibrant and relevant” in the face of digital advances, while “continuing to celebrate live performance, which is so unique to theatre’s appeal”.

He also confirmed work would begin on a standardised agreement for live-to-digital rights, guidelines and royalty fees with Equity and other trade bodies.

Simon Mellor, executive director of arts and culture at Arts Council England, said the research “clearly shows that the threat from live-to-digital to live theatre is minimal”.

“We will also continue to invest in opportunities that support theatremakers to develop the skills they need to take advantage of the new opportunities digital technologies provide,” he added.

Report in full: http://uktheatre.org/theatre-industry/guidance-reports-and-resources/

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