National Theater broadcasts onto bigscreen
Following 'Phedre' success, org tries out Shakespeare
By DAVID BENEDICT
By DAVID BENEDICT
"I’m confident that we have pioneered a new genre," says National Theater artistic director Nicholas Hytner, who has every reason to sound buoyant.
In creating NTLive, Hytner and his producer, David Sabel, have pulled off a trick once regarded as unthinkable, if not unwatchable: they have taken live theater and broadcast it via satellite into movie houses in the U.K. and abroad.
On June 25, 14,000 people watched a live performance of "Phedre" in 73 movie theaters across Britain. More than half the venues sold out, and the average capacity hit 88%. International audiences the same night matched that figure. Screenings delayed by time differences pushed the final global audience figure up to 50,711 in 282 venues across 19 countries; 10,000 of them were in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Admittedly, "Phedre" came with a modicum of insurance in the form of Helen Mirren as the Ancient Greek cougar who falls in love with her handsome stepson, played by Dominic Cooper ("Mamma Mia!"). But persuading audiences across the U.K. and other countries that they might want to go to a cinema to see a play -- a stark and static 17th century French one at that -- was a serious and expensive gamble.
The follow-up went out Oct. 1 when Marianne Elliot’s production of Shakespeare’s "All’s Well That Ends Well" received the NTLive treatment. International figures are still being collated, and certain countries have yet to host time-delayed screenings. But although the U.K. figure of 11,000 people at 73 screens is down by 3,000 from "Phedre," that’s in line with Sabel’s expectations.
"That total is a great result given the broadcast came after a long London run of 70 performances, plus the lack of a cinema star like Helen Mirren," the producer says.
The success of "Phedre" ignited further demand for the series. Seven Blighty cinemas as far apart as Bath, Oxford and Norwich added extra screenings following immediate sellouts for "All’s Well." The number of sites worldwide is now up to 304. Complaints that there were no screenings of "Phedre" in Texas brought Dallas and Houston into the mix, and further European locales have come onboard, including one in Germany and two in Spain (Madrid and Barcelona).
A movie as well as legit helmer, Hytner first experimented with screening live theater in 1998 when a matinee of his "Twelfth Night" was broadcast as part of "Live From Lincoln Center." At the time, he described it as similar to an outside broadcast of a sports event. A decade on, he sees it as more of a hybrid.
"It’s not quite live theater, certainly not cinema, but an exciting approximation of the real thing whose potential reach is limitless," Hytner says. "It means we can reach tens of thousands of people in addition to our work in London and on tour."
Pundits might observe that the enterprise merely copies the formula of the Metropolitan Opera’s successful live-performance screenings, but Sabel disagrees.
"Opera houses largely use cameras in fixed positions," he says. "They’re so dependent on their seat revenue over very short runs that it’s very hard for them to lose seats for moving cameras. Because the National has annual subsidy, we can, for one night, prioritize audiences in cinemas."
"All’s Well" used seven cameras, some on tracks over banks of seats, plus one on a crane.
"We charge audiences £10 ($16) and treat our auditorium like a film studio so as to prioritize cameras," Sabel says. "We adjust lighting, makeup -- for ‘All’s Well,’ we even made a new beard for one of the actors because it didn’t look right on camera."
The priority, however, is not to make a film. "It’s about preserving the integrity of live theater," insists the producer.
The NTLive season continues in January with a matinee of "Nation," a show aimed largely at younger audiences, adapted from the novel by bestselling British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett. Last in the season will be Hytner’s world premiere of Alan Bennett’s "The Habit of Art," starring Richard Griffiths.
But behind-closed-doors discussions are under way for a second season because, from a branding perspective as well as financially, continuing the program makes sense.
To offset initially high costs -- hiring cameras and crew, satellite, distribution and marketing -- the National Endowment for Sport, Technology & the Arts and the Arts Council came up with grants, and Travelex came onboard as sponsor to help subsidize the first NTLive season.
But exposure to box office risk remains, and Sabel admits that the program is unlikely to become a huge moneymaker for the National.
"We only wanted to charge £10 ($15) in the U.K," he says. "By the time you split that with the cinemas and take off the tax, you end up with about $6 per head. But I feel confident that by the time we get to the Alan Bennett play it will be breaking even on box office alone."
The surprise is that the NT is not planning to release the performances on DVD. For starters, it doesn’t have the rights, having deliberately chosen to acquire rights solely to live screenings. Entering what would be protracted negotiations for full media rights could have delayed the project significantly. As it stands, a small percentage of any profit will go to the National, with the rest shared by creatives and actors.
"I cannot deny that there’s probably a market for the record of the show," Sabel concedes. "I keep an open door to that. But we never went in thinking about revenue; we went in with a mission to raise the National’s profile -- to spread the brand.
"We’re focused on building the collective, bigscreen experience, which has a far bigger impact than watching a DVD. Theater is ephemeral. It’s about a live, collective experience. Watching it with other people is the key."
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