Bringing Theatre into the Digital Age
While theatres struggle throughout America, London has embraced the digital age by distributing theatre productions online by streaming to movie theaters and through digitaltheatre.com. By bringing American theatre into the digital age, we can create a larger market for productions and artists. Why hasn’t the US theatre community caught up and done this? Our licensing and union restrictions that prevent film distribution were put in place with the best of intentions, but are now holding the theatre industry back.
But, what if all of this changed? Even better, what if we could use technology to transform the theatre industry?
Licensing and Equity rules that prevent filming of theatre productions are in place to protect against piracy and exploitation of performers. Currently, under the Los Angeles 99-seat theatre code, filming of theatre productions is banned, which protects the actors who are working for little to no money. Unfortunately, this solution solves a tiny problem instead of fixing a bigger one.
The bigger problem is the business model of theatre. It’s become prohibitively expensive to produce theatre. When it does get produced, it’s often more predictable and less groundbreaking. For producers to risk their money, they reasonably want to know that they will lose the least amount possible, and hopefully make some. The more profitable they can make one show, the more shows they can produce.
But producers are limited to how much money they can ever make. They are still confined to how many seats they can cram into the four walls of a theatre. Sure, they can raise ticket prices, or sell alcohol, or extend the run, or tour, but the rules are still the same: how much money can I get from the people within these four walls? It’s time to change the rules. Let’s look to ourselves for the solution: break the fourth wall. Or in this case, tear down all four walls.
The biggest threat to live theatre isn’t high ticket prices, or unoriginal productions, or production costs. It’s Netflix.
We have a choice: either we’re Tower Records, or we’re iTunes. We are at a critical moment in theatre’s history, and we can choose whether we sink or swim. If we swim, if we adapt, if we embrace technology, we can get back to the joy of theatre.
As a culture, we’ve trained ourselves to embrace online content. We’re conditioned to consume entertainment over WiFi. Sitting at home and watching a great performance on Netflix is tempting. It’s convenient, affordable, and it’s on demand. It may be our deep dark secret, but I’m sure most of us have chosen to stay in some nights and watch Netflix instead of seeking out a live theatre production. Sure, we could keep doing what we’re doing now: putting bad quality clips on YouTube, where we have no way to monetize it, no way to distribute full-length content, and no way to provide our audiences with a legitimate, fair way to buy our shows online. What if we stopped treating technology as the enemy, and started thinking of it as a way to make even more art?
Think of what happened way back in the olden days with Napster. People wanted an additional way to listen to the music they love, but there was no legitimate marketplace to do that, outside of paying twenty dollars for a CD when you only cared about a single song. Instead of spending their time fighting Napster, Apple adapted and overhauled the entire business model with iTunes. They bet that consumers would pay for music if they had a legitimate way to buy it on the internet, and they were right. Let’s create an online marketplace for theatre where everyone can make money and share the profits fairly.
“But you can’t put content online! Nobody will come to live theatre anymore! We’ll cannibalize our own audiences!”
Except, we won’t. Luckily, Peter Gelb has already begun experimenting with this by broadcasting the Metropolitan Opera into movie theatres around the country. If the mission is to bring the best quality opera to as many people as possible, then broadcasting operas live in HD has absolutely accomplished that. As opera attendance fell, the Met adapted and found a way to distribute its art to as many people as possible at an accessible price point.
Of course, not every theatre experience is as grand as attending the Met. We have small intimate black boxes, magnificent historical proscenium theatres, and everything in between. We all want to get our art out to as many people as possible. It’s one of the best moments you can have as a theatre artist: knowing your work is good, and knowing people will see it. Nothing will ever compare to the feeling you get in live theatre: the magic of house lights dimming and a curtain rising, but we have to find a way for online and live content to coexist.
I’ve had times when I get the urge to go see a show, but it’s after 10 o’clock on a Monday night. I can pretty safely guarantee that if I were to log online and watch theatre at that time, it wouldn’t be taking away from any live theatre.
Let’s look at another scenario: I had a friend in New York City who wrote a hilarious musical. I was dying to support her and go see the show, but I couldn’t get to NYC from Los Angeles with all my other commitments. Was I willing to fork over five hundred dollars to fly to NYC for thirty-six hours to see her show? No. Would I have paid twenty bucks to see her show online? You bet.
I’m going to pose one more scenario. This time, it’s a personal one. When I was fourteen years old, I would go into an AOL chat room to find bootlegged cassette tapes of Rent on Broadway. I was happy to fork over my babysitting money to feel closer to live theatre. That taste of theatre gave me the hunger to move to New York to be closer to the theatre ecosystem. The early internet version of online content—my bootlegged cassette tape—didn’t replace my need for the real live show, it ignited it.
American theatre attracted 46 million attendees in 2013. A single YouTube video of the Lion King cast singing the “Circle of Life” on the subway raked in over eight million views in just two months. It sounds like a big pie, but everybody wants a piece—the venue, the actors, the technical crew, the designers, the writers, the composers, the marketing professionals, the creative team—and the list goes on.
Imagine we could actually monetize theatre that is broadcast online. Imagine a world where it’s just like buying a theatre ticket, but online. We can work with Actors Equity, the licensing companies, and writers to come up with a fair and equitable split of the online ticket sales. I’ll use the common Los Angeles example: at an innovative 99-seat theatre, actors will work for seven dollars per performance, since it’s seen as more of a showcase contract. If I’m a 99-seat producer (and I have been), and I can broadcast to thousands across America in addition to my ninety-nine seats, I can make much more from that production and adhere to my mission of getting my show seen. When that revenue comes in from online sales, I can distribute that to my actors long after the show closes, much like the residual model for TV actors. Now that I’ve made more money by broadcasting online, I feel bolder. I know that people in Iowa or Missouri can log on and pay to view my show, and I can make my money back faster. With more money in hand, I don’t have to wait as long to produce another show. I can take a risk on a weirder, less popular show, now that I’m not depending only on people within the four walls of my theatre. I can go back to pushing the artistic envelope and paying my actors a living wage where we all make money together.
Right now, the vast majority of Equity contracts prohibit filming. But, what if filming and broadcasting in a way that guaranteed online sales actually created more work for actors? And what if that work was more and more interesting because producers could take broader artistic risks? As long as Actors Equity can hold the producers accountable for distributing a fair percentage of that revenue to actors (perhaps basing it on the fifteen–twenty percent of revenues from the Cast Recording contract), this is in the best interest of their members. Otherwise, they risk producers simply using non-Equity actors and still getting the benefits of online broadcasting. Let’s take a lesson from SAG-AFTRA and adopt the concept of the residual. The sooner we as a theatre community embrace the digital revolution, the quicker we can get our beloved theatre industry back on track.
As theatre artists, many of us have been conditioned to believe that money is a dirty word, and that if we don’t struggle, it isn’t art. We’ve been struggling enough. We have a choice: either we’re Tower Records, or we’re iTunes. We are at a critical moment in theatre’s history, and we can choose whether we sink or swim. If we swim, if we adapt, if we embrace technology, we can get back to the joy of theatre.
Let’s develop a contract rider with Actors Equity that allows filming and guarantees an appropriate share of proceeds from online revenue gets back to actors. Let’s quit arguing over who gets a tiny slice of the existing pie. It’s time to make the pie bigger by broadcasting theatre online, and bringing theatre into the digital age. If we engage the unions and the licensing companies, we can work together to make theatre commercially viable and globally accessible. More resources means more art, and that’s something we can all stand behind.