A Case for Theater Broadcast Events

I'm hoping that we're seeing the beginning of what could be a huge trend in the way large theater markets approach the availability of their work. Fathom Events has been broadcasting large concert and opera events to select movie screens for a good while already. You can usually see things like Metropolitan Opera performances or special one-off tribute concerts. This year, however, has seen the addition of theatrical events like plays and musicals. Back in April, Memphis--the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical--broadcast the entire show in select movie theaters. This was a huge deal for many reasons. One, most recordings of Broadway shows are never released to the general public. They go into the vaults in the New York Public Library and are available for viewing by special request. Two, the few that are released don't see the light of day until after the show is closed. There is a fear that immediate access to a show while it is running will stop people in the greater NYC area from buying the ticket to see live theater.

I believe this fear is unfounded and outdated. People haven't stopped watching live TV broadcasts because of DVRs and the Internet. People haven't stopped going to live concerts because of iPods and DVDs. People haven't stopped going to live sports events because they're broadcast on TV. So why would allowing more people to see an edited, mixed, and packaged version of a live theatrical event be the exception to this rule?

Guess what happened to Memphis because of the movie theater screenings? Nothing bad. It didn't shutter instantly, putting all those people at the Schubert Theater out of work. Instead, it created enough interest that the producers of Memphis reached a deal with Netflix to allow the show to stream on their instant service.

Frankly, I so disliked this recording of the show that I shut it off after 40 minutes. The music is great, the choreography effective, and the darker production design appealing, but I have never in my life encountered a more irritating leading character than Huey "Hockadoo" Calhoun. If you can get past him, there's a good show with a big heart (no surprise considering the book-writer also cobbled together All Shook Up, which plays on the exact same integration through rock music theme as this show). I just can't. I'll get through the whole thing eventually, but he's too much for one sitting.

But that's not the point of this post. This post is about how, with all the available technology, there's hope that people all across the world will be able to see notable live theatrical events. Fathom Events did an excellent set of screenings of the all-star Company concert featuring Neil Patrick Harris, Patti Lupone, Christina Hendricks, Stephen Colbert, and a slew of others last month. They've also picked up Shakespeare productions at The Globe Theater in London.

That more than anything else makes me excited. I hope these events do well so that the powers that be consider doing more theatrical events like this on a global scale. Imagine one of those explosive design-heavy German musicals (like the actual Dance of the Vampires or the original production of Rebecca) being broadcast worldwide with subtitles. Imagine broadcasting the highlights of a big short play festival or a revival of a work that's never been translated into English before. We could be entering an age where theater is as accessible as a 3D movie screening.

Let's face it. Not everyone can afford $100+ seats to see a show on Broadway. I struggle and I refuse to buy tickets that aren't heavily discounted in a decent part of the house. Shoot, I live 40 minutes outside of NYC. What about the people who plan vacations around seeing as many Broadway shows as they can, including flights, hotel, and transportation? Being able to buy a $20 ticket to see a professionally recorded version of a big production would be extraordinary. Leave it as a limited run one-weekend event and it can't possibly cannibalize sales at the actual theater. Make it available on DVD or streaming online when you know sales are steady enough to keep the show running long enough to recoup. There is an audience for this. It's just a market that hasn't been tapped yet.

Fear is one thing. Producers risk millions of dollars to set up even the small budget shows nowadays. But running away from things because they're scary isn't an acceptable answer, either. Not every show needs to pursue this, and they don't have to. But there are shows that can afford the risk and only increase their earnings by playing this style of broadcast just right. I think Memphis has handled it perfectly.

If this trend picks up, how much longer until a show like Phantom of the Opera or Wicked--shows that are never short of exceeding their operating costs--steps up and says it's ok to do this? I'm sure it will be years before this is common practice. I just hope it doesn't disappear as an option before then.