Live theatre on the cinema screen

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A few weeks ago, the Guardian‘s film critic Peter Bradshaw wrote the following in a weekly ‘op ed’ column (i.e. not on the film pages):

Another Fiennes mess
There comes a time when you must put your hands up and confess you don’t get something. I don’t get people wanting to watch live theatre beamed into a cinema. But there it is: everyone except me loves it. These events are box-office gold, especially for hot-ticket events such as the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet.

Yet there’s an unintended consequence here: possible danger to actual Shakespeare films. In Sight and Sound magazine, the industry observer Charles Gant reports that when Ralph Fiennes made his excellent film version of Coriolanus, it failed to break the £1m barrier; but the live-feed of the Donmar Warehouse theatre Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston has breezed up to £1.2m – and counting.

This could alter the economics of Shakespeare on the big screen: if cinemas prefer live-feed Shakespeare, it could dissuade producers from tackling the expensive business of original adaptation. The future equivalent of Welles’s Chimes at Midnight or Kozintsev’s Lear could be at risk. So there. I knew my live-feed prejudice was justified. (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/13/john-lewis-christmas-advert)

As many of this blog’s followers will know I am wont to moan about Bradshaw’s reviews. But mainly this is because he appears to have a great deal of influence on whether people go to see the films he reviews. Whether we agree or not in our views on films isn’t important but if a bad review stops people seeing a worthwhile film it is important. In this case, however, I am pleased to see him airing a subject which, increasingly, I find alarming.

I should say first that Bradshaw was immediately criticised in some quarters for his London-centric view. For people near enough to a multiplex or a specialised cinema, live theatre (or opera which appears to be the most popular, according to some figures) is an unexpected bonus. Non-metropolitan audiences don’t have to visit London or pay the very high prices to watch a version of a particular production. So far, so good. But there are several points to make.

Who are these audiences for live theatre/opera? I haven’t attended any such screenings so I haven’t got much first-hand evidence but there have been various audience surveys. One by Nesta and The Audience Agency published in 2014 found that ‘National Theatre Live’ had had no impact on attendance figures at regional theatres and that in London, live audiences had actually risen by 6.9% in theatres close to those which had been used to broadcast live shows. This report refuted the claim that ‘live theatre’ broadcasts would ‘cannibalise’ theatre admissions. The National Theatre’s own Annual Report for 2013-4 claimed:

“NT Live reached a total UK audience of 890,000 (in over 500 cinema screens across the country) and overseas audience of 597,000. It is now regularly available in 1,000 cinemas across the world in more than 35 countries; the worldwide audience since National Theatre Live launched in 2009 has now reached 2.7 million”. (see http://www.cabi.org/leisuretourism/news/24080)

This research mirrors earlier NESTA findings. One conclusion is that the audience for live theatre/opera/ballet is the same mainly middle-class audience that goes to London shows, but now they are able to experience those shows nearer home. In general these are not ‘new’ theatre audiences, nor are many of them ‘cinema’ audiences. I have to rely on first-hand observation now. When I first saw the crowds coming for live theatre broadcasts in Bradford I realised that I didn’t recognise anyone and that they all seemed ‘dressed up’. They also flocked to the café-bar and had paid twice the usual ticket price. My observations were confirmed when I ran a day event on Kurosawa Akira and his film Throne of Blood (Japan 1957), a version of Macbeth. All seemed to enjoy the day but when I tried to interest them in future film screenings, one small group told me that they were ‘theatre people’ and didn’t go to the cinema!

The question about what ‘live theatre’ actually is – since it isn’t cinema and it isn’t the same as watching a play ‘in the flesh’ – hasn’t really been explored to any great extent that I’ve come across. In response to Bradshaw, some liked the idea of close-ups via the camera’s lens and others didn’t. I’m not in a position to judge and all I can say is that I don’t find the prospect of something staged for one medium being mediated through another a particularly attractive proposition. I’ve now seen dozens of trailers for NT Live shows and none of them appeal. But I’ve no problem with people who do want to see theatre in this way. Which leads me back to Bradshaw’s comments.

I’m not particularly bothered about filmed Shakespeare. I’ll watch Kurosawa or Kozintsev quite happily but Shakespeare in English leaves me cold. I know, but there it is. What I am bothered about is that every ‘live theatre broadcast’ takes away a screen that could be showing a real film and often a specialised film desperately searching for an outlet. The number of films released in the UK has increased to over 700 a year, but there hasn’t been a similar increase in screens. Compared to other major film markets, the UK is ‘under-screened’. France and the UK have roughly the same population (65-66 million) but there is a disparity in screens:

France (data from Cineuropa)

5,653 screens, 2,020 cinemas

Number of inhabitants per screen: 11,731

UK (data from Statistical Yearbook 2014)

3,867 screens, 756 cinemas

Number of inhabitants per screen: 16,394

Keith has recently come across examples of archive films he wanted to see that have been moved out of the most suitable screen because it was reserved for ‘live broadcasts’ on specific days. This will happen more and more as the funding of arts in the UK suffers under the Tories. It is worth noting that some of the screens used for ‘live broadcasts’ were upgraded (since they must be digital for the satellite feed) with public funds and that the BFI attempted to see that they were used to screen a diverse range of specialised cinema. That commitment to what was once called ‘cultural cinema’ is now gradually dying out. What were once publically-funded cinemas are being taken over or displaced by the privately-owned chains Picturehouse, Curzon and Everyman. The purpose of these chains is to make money and live theatre provides not only a sell-out crowd but also a ready supply of patrons for restaurant catering. Cinema managers can claim that they are bringing ‘high art’ to local cinemas (Picturehouse calls its programme that includes live broadcasts ‘Screen Arts’). But those ‘arts’ are being offered to the same people who go to local theatres, not introducing art cinema to new patrons.

My conclusion is that ‘live events’ should be put on in new buildings managed for that purpose or that cultural policy should be to create new publically-funded cinema screens for the diverse range of cinema. It’s not going to happen under this current government, but the cinema lobby needs to get back to concepts of cultural cinema (or something similar with a different title) and prepare for future funding opportunities. We’ve got to start talking about the missing screens and getting some agreements about what to do. And if we need concrete evidence of the problem, the statement by Unifrance, the French film export body, this week makes painful reading. French exports did very well around the world in 2014, except in the UK:

. . . the poor performance of French films in the UK market, the state of which the report described as “alarming”.

The report said that the UK remained a difficult market with fewer and fewer French films making it onto screens in the territory and only one majority French production generating more than 50,000 entries. (Screendaily 1/12/2015)

The decline of opportunities to see films from Europe’s biggest film industry is very noticeable. Back in the summer we noted the pathetic distribution of several major titles and it’s something we are going to keep banging on about. If audiences don’t get a chance to see foreign language films they are going to lose interest in the possibilities pretty quickly. Chains like Picturehouse now regularly show foreign language films just once in their Tuesday ‘Discovery’ slot and they promote their restaurants and live events as major attractions alongside a programme increasingly dominated by ‘Hollywood art’ films.

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5 comments

  1. Ray Bignell

    I can only endorse Roy’s comments based on my local ‘arts cinema’. When I moved here eight years ago I was able to see foreign language films on a regular basis but they have almost disappeared now. Theatre and opera now appear on a frequent basis and it’s also common to have films which have had a widespread commercial cinema release filling up the schedule. A current example is Spectre which can hardly be described as under marketed elsewhere. Independent movies (however defined) do still appear but only if english language.
    It’s now the case that a 50 mile trip is required to see interesting but under-promoted foreign language films. The alternative is to fire up the TV and rent them, always assuming they are available on line.

  2. john hall

    The two best films (by a long way) that I have seen this year were ‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’ and ‘Phoenix’, which both got a single airing at the so-called National Media Museum which is now just another Picturehouse outlet. This single screening was in the traditionally quiet and unpopular time of 6 pm on a Tuesday night. This will not develop an audience that will appreciate quality output for the future. Honourable mention also for ‘Goodnight Mommy’ at the Leeds Film Festival which comes along once a year.

  3. Bill Lawrence

    Fully agree with everything said. Just to add that Picturehouse claims to be a “predominantly Art House Cinema chain” the capitals are theirs. How they square this with dropping art house cinema titles in order to show ‘screen arts’ events is difficult to understand. If they had the honesty to admit they are just another commercial cinema chain owned by Cineworld fair enough, but they are making claims that are false. There are commercial cinemas that make no airs or claims that show more art house titles. The Unifrance comment is alarming, but no surprise. The titles are in distribution, but cinemas won’t play them, even those with public funding for this very purpose. As Ray highlights, those of us who love cinema have been driven back into our homes and the arms of Netflix and Love Film in order to keep up with foreign language cinema.

  4. nicklacey

    I’ve seen a couple of NT Live; Danny Boyle’s ‘Frankenstein’ was excellent. As Roy says the opportunity to see these productions ‘in the sticks’ is a major selling point and it’s good that art cinemas can boost revenues given the broadcasts’ popularity. You’d’ve thought that so-called arthouses, like Picturehouse, could then afford to run non-commercial films; however we know that our ability to see such movies in cinemas has been greatly reduced.

    Aesthetically, given they are filmed live performances, they are not particularly cinematic. As such, I suspect they would work as well on TV. Of course being in an audience does alter the experience but who wants to spend time with those who describe themselves as ‘theatre people’?

  5. keith1942

    A really instructive piece by Roy.
    I have actually been to a ‘live’ performance. The idea of a transmitted play does not do much for me, but I thought opera might work better.
    So I went along to Vue for Berg’s Lulu from the NY Grand Met.
    First the audience, in a rather nice auditorium, there were only 18. So I do not think ‘live opera’ is catering much for Opera buffs. This would go in the top five operas of the C20th.
    The singing and music was great, the staging was over the top: but the Grand Met. has large proscenium and this is a small-scale opera.
    Technically it was presented mainly in long shot and mid-shot, which was OK but this, of course, changed the staging effect.
    There were interviews and such like in the intermissions, which were interesting. I enjoyed it but it would have been as good musically on a Radio 3 broadcast.
    I incline to like the idea of being able to see opera in this way when it is performances that I am unlikely to see live.
    Roy’s argument about specialist venues is a good one. Setting up a digital system at Leeds Grand would be nice and would help subsidise Opera North.
    I doubt thought that this is viable. Apart form the capital costs the exhibitors now rely on this for income. I know that the Hyde Park are concerned that they cannot use this as being listed building they are not allowed a satellite dish. That will come.
    I think there is scope to pressurise exhibitors. I have sent several email complaints to Picture House about their programming. Are other people doing this? It might impact on them.
    PH at National Media Museum are clearly in trouble with audiences for film. Maybe they could be persuaded to try being more adventurous.

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