Live-to-digital is a growing medium, primarily driven by three factors. Once producers understand such audience motivations, it will become easier to strategize within the space.
- The experience is economical, costing less money and requiring less time than traditional theatre, as travel is largely taken out the equation and ticket price is either less or negated.
- Digital offers a convenience that cannot be matched by traditional productions, as streaming can occur anywhere.
- Digital offers a new means of exploring content – whether live or not – which is of great benefit to audiences who wish to discover innovative theatre.
Alongside these three considerations, elements such as advanced camera work help smooth the transition between live and digital, as audiences can enjoy the visual experience from a new perspective. However, many still refuse to give up on the actual live performance, or travel for Event Cinema.
While the digital medium presents clear benefits to the audience, producers are feeling the strain. Tackling new projects is intimidating, although widespread industry expertise can smooth the learning curve. Moreover, while the cost can be prohibitive, streaming is an economical means of growing an audience, and also a method many pursue in search of new fans. Given an infrastructure has been put in place in cinemas throughout the country, this can also help reduce the required investment.
What might spur momentum across the industry could be increased transparency, with viewer numbers and financial data shared between venues and producers. Until this happens, a reluctance to progress is likely to prevail.
In recent articles, you have witnessed first-hand the advent of live-to-digital in theatre. With audiences turning to the medium in droves, there is little question about whether suppliers should engage.
However, in light of widespread support for the transition, questions remain as to the factors that drive consumption, as much as why many suppliers are reluctant to enter the space. While some voice concerns over how to fund production, others surface different barriers to entry.
Perhaps the question could be better approached from a different perspective.
Once industry players better understand audience motivations, such hurdles won’t seem so daunting and new players – as much as existing participants – will be able to spur on the category, for its transformational potential is immense.
Why Theatrical Content is King
Let’s be clear; one truth remains: Those who want to see a live performance will, in no uncertain terms, do their best to see that live performance. The arrival of digital is not competing on those terms. Much in the same way Hollywood still draws an audience to the cinema, the intimacy of live theatre will always preserve its place.
That said, digital content is carving a niche, and the audience advantages are clear.
In short, for the audience, live-to-digital is:
- And, perhaps most poignantly, not necessarily ‘live’ (that is, consumers are not looking to replace the live experience)
The audience still very much appreciates the thrill of going to the theatre, which is why shows up and down the country continue to sell out with touring at stable levels. Digital is solely a means of increasing one’s consumption of ‘live’ performance, in a way that is both convenient and economical.
It is the audience’s way of supplementing their exposure to the arts while exploring lesser-known productions that they might otherwise not have seen. The economics, both in terms of time and money, allow experimentation. Something that was, in a previous era, unfathomable.
What the industry is witnessing is a new crowd mobilised through technology, or those who are too far from a theatre now able to enjoy the latest productions at a reasonable personal cost.
You see, it is this newfound ability to enjoy a performance without having to sacrifice a day or an entire paycheck that is most exciting. In fact, two-thirds of respondents stated that their greatest motivation for attending Event Cinema – particularly among older or rural respondents – was simplicity.
“Living in Sheffield, going to London is pricey. There are shows I couldn’t see live for financial reasons, or time constraints.” Audience Member, 25-44, Yorkshire & Humberside.
And yet, in its own confidence-boosting way, there is still a sizeable segment who travel at least one hour to attend live theatre, which reinforces the belief that ‘live’ is here to stay.
When focusing purely on financials, streaming evidently comes into its own. Yet, this is not a singular motivation.
Live performances have inherent limitations with strict schedules, while those who stream appreciate the opportunity of watching a performance outside of the traditional tour. In fact, almost half of those who streamed a production did so because no live version of the performance was available at the time.
Similarly, as shows continue to sell out, streaming may be the only option. Very few people suggest they prefer streaming to live, showing how they are not economising on the quality of their experience, rather doing what is necessary to preserve their enjoyment. To worry about cannibalisation of ticket sales is understandable, however, when producers realise that ‘going digital’ has previously had no adverse effect, they can put their fears to bed.
The reality is that more people are tuning in at their convenience, likely watching something they otherwise might not have chosen to see. Digital is a great means for broadening the mind and testing new waters.
If you had said to me, here’s a ticket to see Hip Hop Othello [the Q Brothers] live at the Globe [in 2012], I wouldn’t have gone. But watching it on the iPlayer [The Space], I thought it was fantastic – I wish I had seen it live.”—audience member, 45-64, West Midlands
Offering a Fresh Perspective
The proximity of the actors; their on-stage presence; the inherent risk of the live performance – these are all visceral reasons to attend the theatre. However, when it comes to Event Cinema or streaming, the primitive nature of the performance takes on new meaning.
What an audience loses in authenticity, they gain in perspective as, through this shift in medium, they can appreciate the performance in new ways.
When sat at the back of the National Theatre, it is difficult to appreciate the detail of an actor’s performance. When watching on screen, the depth of the actor’s expression is something that can be genuinely appreciated as the camera zooms in. This is a distinctively different experience, and one reason people enjoy productions in the digital form.
This is a message to production houses that the quality of their camera work is implicit in the success of any screening, underlining that – to bring a top-class production to the screen – they need to appreciate the different perspectives at play, and offer the audience the viewpoints they want.
Where the viewer has relinquished control of their focus, they get to appreciate the intensity of the emotion on display.
Barriers to Consumption
Not everything is simple in the digital world, and consumers do have their concerns. Much to the theatres’ delight, many simply choose not to participate in Event Cinema – or stream – for the reason they would rather be there in person.
Event Cinema does, in many ways, have similar issues as traditional theatre in its reliance on a physical venue, so audiences who struggle to attend the theatre may well lack access to Event Cinema as well. Similarly, viewing schedules deter those who live too far away, which could be an opportunity for exhibitors – more regular screenings could increase attendance.
Primarily, inadequate technology and lack of awareness are decisive factors for those who choose not to stream. More often than not, rather than not wanting to stream, it is more the crowd simply do not know that this is an option.
The all-too-common ‘build it and they will come’ mentality does not work. If you offer content via a streaming service, do not hide the fact. Market it well, and you will have a captive audience.
Of the largest segment of streamers – those between 16 and 24 – these were the least likely to know where to find content. This is an opportunity lost and a possible reason for scepticism around the effectiveness of live-to-digital.
There seems to be an invisible barrier in many production houses – the hurdle of going from zero to one live-to-digital projects.
For those who have experience with at least one production, the likelihood of producing a second is vastly higher than amongst those who have yet to dip their toe. This suggests that if producers can understand what motivates those who do operate in the category, they can work to reduce their fears and take steps towards new horizons.
Do Not Fear the Cost
While the positive economics for digital consumers is self-evident, digital producers are more sceptical. Rather than embracing any potential gain in online audiences, the upfront investment is likelier to halt the project.
Society is risk averse, and the thought of losing money is an understandable deterrent; however, artistic directors should try to reframe the purpose of live-to-digital. In general terms, few approach it as a means of driving revenues – at least, not in the immediate. So, for those wondering ‘how will I my make my return?’ – well, stop wondering.
Put cost aside for one moment and focus on the other core motivations of those who produce.
The opportunity to build a new audience base is a clear winner, as this new audience will tune in to lesser-known productions. The prospect of growing your brand in a new segment is also very real, as are the benefits of innovative partnerships that could lead to further prospects down the line.
What’s Really Holding Productions Back?
A barrier for anyone, anywhere, doing just about anything, is not knowing how. Do not be afraid to admit this if it is the case; you are in great company. Moreover, a lack of internal expertise is to be expected – you are new to this, after all.
Suffice to say, with the ever-increasing volume of live-to-digital performances, industry expertise has grown and, among those who produce, they cite external expertise as the best way to overcome the knowledge-gap. They attest there is plenty of help around and this can be a great way to upskill your team.
Understandably, the cost will always be a consideration, and the investment required will reduce appetite for participation. Two-thirds state this as their primary concern, so this cannot be ignored.
However, thanks to projects such as the Digital Screen Network, which was established in 2005, 212 cinemas received funding to install digital projectors with priority given to smaller, independent houses who likely did not have the capital to support such an investment. In 2009, this was followed by an initiative of the UK Film Council who encouraged the transition from DVD to digital projection.
The infrastructure in place is robust which, in turn, should help reduce production costs if you find out who in your local area has such facilities.
Equally, while access to funding will always be top-of-mind, the reality is that obtaining financing for both live productions, or live-to-digital, is of the same difficulty. So, perhaps success lies in an appetite to take the risk. Positively, four-in-five senior leaders within the industry suggested they were ready to take a punt on live-to-digital, meaning it could be up to funders to open their eyes to the opportunity.
Sharing Positive Vibes
Arguably, the most integral element to garner support for digital transformation lies in sharing the data behind the growth. While many positive stories exist, there is, admittedly, still a dearth of publicly-available information.
The first two articles demonstrated the levels of participation; however, other issues lie in the fact that almost half of suppliers have little-to-no access to audience data from their own live-to-digital productions.
This needs to change.
To encourage productions, it is vital that exhibitors collaborate with suppliers to share audience or streaming data to disseminate the positive statistics gathered as part AEA’s report. Not only would real data provide a reason for those currently in the category to expand their offering, but they would also have a story to sell to those on the sidelines.
Step into Centre Stage
The motivations behind live-to-digital from a producer’s perspective are clear. As soon as you understand your live audience is under no threat, it becomes about three benefits:
- Building new audiences, including those who cannot attend
- Marketing and growing a brand through new partnerships
- Pushing boundaries in pursuit of artistic acclaim
In general, the overriding emotion around the current digital landscape is one of positivity. Growing audiences and encouraging larger viewing figures can only be healthy for an industry that is limited to venues that, by their very nature, can be cost-prohibitive.
Disseminating work in ways that promote access must be perceived as exciting – an artistic challenge as much as a threat – while appreciating the work done to reduce the barriers to entry may even help sceptics overcome their concerns.
Given that almost nine-in-ten exhibitors plan to maintain or increase both the current number of live performances as well as their current number of screenings suggests an industry in the ascent. The bigger risk appears to be others missing out, rather than producers succumbing to a valueless fad.
In the final scene, the article will cover the future of live-to-digital, reviewing where the category may go from here. As part of this, it helps to look at several productions that have leveraged digital, revealing their core learnings and helping readers establish a strategy for tackling the live-to-digital world.