Jekyll or Hyde – digital theatre screenings

The debate over the Jekyll and Hyde potential of digital screenings has been gathering pace recently.  On the eve of the UK Theatre / ITC Digital Forum I’ve been wondering is it time for the live performance equivalent of the Independent Cinema Office?

Live screenings are becoming an increasingly important part of the programming mix of cinemas, arts venues and indeed other organisations. This weekend the West End show Billy Elliot topped the UK and Ireland box office taking £1.9m, whilst NT Live has reached a global audience of 2.7 million. It’s becoming an increasingly busy market place (tonight I was in the audience of a book launch being beamed into cinemas world wide). There is no doubting the quality of those live and encore streams, nor the fact that it massively extends the reach of those productions.  A market has emerged, and it’s one that is here to stay.  Earlier this week the Arts Council announced ‘the first’ multi channel network for the arts and Nesta research seems to suggest that the impact of live screenings have had no negative effect on audiences (though the London/regional discrepancy is worth noting).

So why an Independent Screening Office (for want of a better term)?

At the moment the screening power rests with a number of large ‘establishment’ organisations (led by NT Live but incorporating the likes of the RSC, ROH, ENO). It appears very London centric and pretty traditional.

So for a start an Independent Screening Office might be based out of London – Bristol (close to Watershed) or Salford/Manchester (Media City and the new HOME) seem the obvious candidates.

Whilst the majority of live screenings would rightly still come from London an independent body might ensure that appropriate, high enough profile work from the regions was also seen. They would champion a wider breadth of work than simply straight theatre, opera, musicals and dance. At  #SB14 (follow the link to see all the presentations) @lyngardner asked ‘Forced Entertainments at the London Palladium, why not’ – and extending the argument why not Forced Ents transmitted live, or Frantic, or 1927.

An ISO would, perhaps, be best positioned to keep the best industry of the sector at heart. They would be looking for a blended return.  The best deal for the sector as well as financially for the ‘content creators’.  So for example with the large chains they might insist on a clause in contracts which allowed local arts venues to have prominent display positions in foyers, the right to exit flyer, opportunity to show trailers, even set up temporary box offices and so on.

They might have more flexible contracts with venues that also hosted live performances being mindful of the fact that those programmers are balancing live and streamed content (a quick glance at venue brochures over time suggests that in many smaller venues as screening slots rise, live performance ‘slots’ fall).  And they might enter into some agreements – with rural touring agencies, with schools or sheltered housing associations (for example) which were entirely about reach and not at all about financial gain.

As an independent body they might apply for funding to both broaden the range of work ‘screened’ and run specific ‘reach’ programmes. They would act as a ‘one stop shop’ for the sector, providing if you like a route to market, with a specific remit to provide a broad ranging, balanced programme. They might ‘curate’ a programme of shorts, or interval content from more alternative artists to be slotted in  to existing ‘block buster’ screenings.

And an ISO wouldn’t just be focused on the broadcast market. They would be pushing the best content (web based as well as satellite) to an ever increasing network.  Whilst cinemas/auditoria would remain the focus for the ‘landmark shows’ book clubs, University of the third age, social groups might become equally important partners on the increasing amount of high quality, interactive experiences which are not limited to the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’ and are easily available on line.

I realise I have a track record here.  In a New Year blog for In Suffolk I wrote ‘I’d love to see, for example, Rufus Norris (the incoming Artistic Director of the National, who also directed Ipswich based London Road) commissioning work that originates in the regions and is screened live into London via NTLive.’ And of course it could be argued that the market dictates what is being screened live, but at the same time its worth remembering it took a significant chunk of ACE investment to r and d and ultimately kick start NT Live.  Is it time for the development of some more alternative models?

More links from the debate (please suggest additions)

Critic Mark Shenton on Billy Elliot screening (Good for publicity but better on the stage)

Michael Billington (lets stop preteding theatre cant be captured on screen)

Alan Ayckbourn (voicing fears on screenings)

Kinura – (why streaming an event doesn’t stop people attending in person)

Lyn Gardner (why digital theatre poses no threat to live performance)

Liz Freeman of Pentabus (what live streaming means for small companies)

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