Pulse report: Screenings - who benefits?

The growth of screenings in recent years has been exponential, given massive technological developments and a groundswell of support from the 'big players'. But what impact are they having on the theatre industry? Christy Romer highlights some of the findings from ArtsProfessional’s latest Pulse survey. 550 respondents took part in the research from 30 March –8 April 2015.

Read the full survey responses in the pdf document here, including over 1000 comments related to how and why screenings have affected respondents.

Screenings of theatre, opera and dance have emerged from relative obscurity in recent years to be a regular feature on mixed arts venue and cinema programmes across the UK. It’s no longer uncommon to weigh up the chance to see a National Theatre (NT) live production, such as War Horse, against the latest Michael Bay blockbuster. It’s also no longer uncommon to make a choice between that same NT Live production and a touring company’s offering at a local theatre. But whilst the opportunities for artistic innovation and for audience accessibility have expanded considerably, what cost have they come at for emerging and regional arts organisations? And, ultimately, at what cost for the theatre ecology as a whole?

It seems as if national bodies have already begun to answer that question for themselves. The Arts Council’s Peter Bazalgette, writing in The Independent, said that he guessed that “the more we promote our arts content digitally, the more we will drive audiences to the live events.” When the Government was pressed to respond to a Select Committee inquiry into the rebalancing of national arts funding, it made reference to screenings, saying that “...there is great potential in this area and the Government is keen for arts organisations and the Arts Council to continue to embrace and develop this.”

Not all figures in the arts sector are quite so gushing about screening’s potential. The Warwick Commission Inquiry into cultural value – completed in 2014 – said that it hoped “watching something live-streamed in a cinema does not become the default baseline entitlement of local communities outside of major population centres.” Given the comments above, however, and the fact that organisations such as the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Globe have established themselves as leading screeners, it’s clear that the technology and the desire to host screenings will continue for the foreseeable future. All that’s left is for other elements of the arts ecology to work out how they respond.

It is in such a context that AP conducted a PULSE survey to find an answer to the question: who really benefits from the existence of screenings? 550 people responded to our questions, from junior to senior employees in the UK and internationally. The answers to the questions, and the comments section - in which the bulk of the most illuminating responses came – provide a valuable gauge of the sector’s current attitudes to screenings.

 

EXPERIENCE + VALUE

Questions:

  • Have you ever attended a live or recorded screening of a performance?
  • Compared to the price you would pay for a ticket to a live performance, roughly how much would you expect to pay for a ticket to a screening of that performance?

Attendance

78% of the people surveyed had seen a screened performance of some sort. This lends credence to the view of Digital Theatre’s Robert Delamere, speaking to AP, who said that, “we’ve moved beyond a test market scenario with screening.” Those in a senior position have had slightly more contact with screenings than others - 51% of those in senior roles saying that they had seen both a live screened and an encore screened production, compared to 36% of those in junior roles.

Cost

The vast majority of people surveyed signalled that they would only pay up to 75% of the price of a live theatre ticket, with only 15% saying that the two prices should be exactly the same. 69% thought that the prices should be less than half the price to see the performance in-house.Explaining the reasoning for such a position, one respondent said, “It's not live. That's what I'm paying for. I'm not getting the best 100% experience that a full-price ticket in a theatre would give me, so why should I pay the same?” Others, however, worried about the health of the industry and audience expectations in the event of reduced prices, with one person saying that the idea of “buying a cinema ticket for less devalues the live experience.”

Comparative value

For many, however, the desired difference in price was not simply a question of whether the live and screened performances should be charged at the same rate - it emerged more as a practicality: “Price for screenings is brilliant value. With theatre ticket prices easily between £40-£60+ a cinema screening will usually be a quarter of the price, or even less. The screenings I have been to have also been local to me, saving on travel expenses.” This reflects thinking in a 2014 Nesta report into digital innovation, ‘Beyond Live’, citing the additional costs involved when considering watching a live production. For those that live outside of the capital, they may have to pay for transport into London, a place to stay for a night, food for the evening. In comparison, a £15 ticket for a cinema show emerges as good value.

 

ENGAGEMENT

Questions:

  • Is the experience of watching a live screened production as engaging as a live performance in a theatre?
  • And is the experience of watching a recorded screening as engaging as a live screened performance?

The question of whether screenings are as engaging as live theatre produced mixed results. 24% of respondents answered that the screenings were ‘always’ or ‘often’ as engaging; 31% answered that they were ‘never’ or ‘seldom’ as exciting. This more negative view was summed up by one respondent, who said, “I'm not getting the same experience: I'm not there, I'm not in the space with the vibrations, shared communication, I'm not being responded to live by the performers, they're responding to somebody else in a theatre miles away (and possibly in another time frame altogether).”

Little distinction is drawn between recorded and live screenings. Some respondents insisted that the process of buying a ticket in advance, having a similar style programme to the one in the live venue, and sitting down at the same time as people in an auditorium hundreds of miles away had a certain energy - but the majority of people seemed to confirm that watching a live or an encore (recorded) screening was pretty much a parallel experience: “Its nice to have that feeling of 'this is happening now, somewhere else, but we are a part of it' - but not essential. If you really want to see a particular play, opera or event, it often doesn't matter if you're watching it later.”

Undemocratic

The manner in which the production is filtered through the screening process is an issue for some viewers: “...for all artforms, the choice of where to look is being made by the screening director, not the audience member...Live performance is a two-way process -- with screenings, it becomes a one-way event, as performers may react to the audience at their venue but (obviously) not to screening audiences.”

 

IMPACT

Questions:

  • If you work for a performing arts producer or venue, has the introduction and growth of screenings had any impact on your organisation?

Perhaps the most illuminating of the questions posed centred around the impact of screening on arts organisations. 36% of those answering said that the impact on their organisation was good, and reported either ‘very positive’ and ‘mainly positive’ experiences. On the other end of the spectrum, 16% said the impact on their organisations had been ‘mainly negative’ or ‘very negative’. The two other options available to people – ‘no impact’ and ‘unsure’ –comprised 26% and 22% of respondents respectively. So, despite the polarising rhetoric surrounding screening, the largest proportion of those surveyed – 48% – felt unable to give a definitive response to screenings. And of those that did, more than twice as many were positive than negative about the impact of this technology.

Improved accessibility

The strongest argument in favour of screening is one of increased access. For venues, this means more revenue streams, and for arts producers, it means greater and more consistent engagement with their work. This is summed up in a comment by someone who said: “our live simulcasts have expanded our reach and connection with regional communities who would otherwise not be able to attend the live performance. Audience feedback is overwhelmingly positive.” This accessibility extends to forms of diverse work that may not otherwise have been shown. Said one respondent: “Screenings are a good way to present more leftfield and quirky work that fits the remit of the festival I work with.”

Financial lifeline

Carrying this forward, for some venues screenings have emerged as a vital money-spinner in a hostile funding atmosphere. One respondent said: ““we are multi arts centre – two theatres, two cinemas, so we have programmed a lot of live screenings and made income from them.” Another said: “we have had a very very positive response from audiences in our rural area since we started NT Live, RSC, ballet etc. It has also benefited us financially.” On the back of a number of comments that expressed similar sentiments, AP spoke to Liz Leyton, Theatre Manager for 348-seat Strode Theatre in Somerset, who had said that that screenings “literally kept us open following loss of all local authority funding in 2011.” 

Problems

Bearing in mind the caveat that those with a negative attitude towards screening appear to be a minority, if vocal, they do have a substantial concerns. When explaining why the impact of screenings on their organisation had been negative, one respondent listed the issues as they saw them in turn:

“Being unable to book touring productions into any venue on the night of a big live show screening. Being unable to book touring productions into any venue the week before or after a big live screening. Being unable to book touring productions into any venue 6-8 weeks after because of repeat or encore screenings. Venues cancelling pre-existing bookings of our shows when a last minute opportunity to host a live screening comes up.”

A key issue in the comment above centres around a clash of programming, summed up by another participant:“...people only have so much money to spend on theatre and so I wonder what the financial impact of them choosing to attend [screenings] is – what is the sacrifice they are making – is it something less established, more daring, less polished, more regional??” The inevitable conclusion, it is said, is that venues programme the ‘easier’ sell on as many days on their roster as possible. This eats up days that a venue would have originally reserved for touring companies, and, as a result, reduces the pot on money that touring companies would have had access to.

Consolidating the establishment

The wider point about the future of the theatre ecology comes in to play in such a context, extolled by one respondent: “ The BIG ISSUE, though, is this: is this [screening] a fig leaf to enable our London-based so-called 'National' companies to try to justify the completely unjust proportion of public funds that they receive, by saying "look how we reach all parts of the country?"...The problem is that the resources are so poorly spread round, that it is a challenge to get really high quality stuff happening outside London.”

 

FUTURE

Questions:

  • Looking ahead, do you see any potential for your organisation to benefit, or benefit more fully, from the development of screening?

As for whether there was any potential for the organisation to benefit from the development of screening, 48% of people said yes, 28% said ‘Possibly’, and 23% said no. The most interesting dichotomy here is between those who thought they would ‘Definitely’ benefit and ‘Definitely not’ benefit: 27% said the former, compared to only 4% who said the latter. It’s clear that there’s a strong appetite for the technology.

Exposure

Some companies are considering opening up their audiences. One respondent said that they “would not exclude [screening] as an option. We were recently considering it for providing the Polish audiences in Ireland with screenings of outstanding productions and concerts happening in Poland which they otherwise miss.” Not everybody can see a great, niche production that only runs for a couple of weeks in a different city – let alone a different country. By having live simulcasts, with a low cost to entry, enterprising venue managers can cater to a latent audience. This is corroborated by some who mention that by “making shows more widely available, they might become more of a common talking point for audiences and thereby raise discussion about theatre in the way that people might discuss House of Cards [an online-only TV show].”

Nothing new?

For all of the talk about screening, it remains clear that the distribution is targeted at those who already have an interest in theatre. Said one respondent: “Generally I find that the audiences at these screenings are people who are ALREADY patrons of the arts (a fairly narrow demographic)... So you are definitely helping these kind of people, but you are failing to attract a new audience.”

Two way process

One respondent expressed an interest in working with the technology, providing that it was financially viable to do so. They said that they would consider using the technology “if there's a fair distribution of funding and regional companies get to stream their work into London.” However appealing such an idea appears at a first glance, a dose of realism is a necessary corollary to the story. In conversation with AP, both David Sabel of NT Live and a spokesperson for RSC’s Live from Stratford Upon Avon stressed the need to recognise the financial costs involved in screening anything.

 

CONCLUSION

In all, the conclusions were surprising. Despite the extreme rhetoric surrounding any debate about screening – in that it’s either the death knell for live touring and grassroots creativity, or the perfect solution to declining attendance in theatre and the ultimate satisfaction for Arts Council England’s remit to ‘provide art for all’ – we found a groundswell of support for the technology, couched in a desire to reform the current system. Most felt as if tickets should be cheaper than live theatre, because the experiences are evidently different, but affirmed a passion for the experience as a whole. On the whole, respondents to the question of whether screenings had impacted upon their organisation stated that the impact had been positive, with positive attitudes outstripping more hostile elements by 2 to 1. However, a common thread throughout the comments and our subsequent conversations with the sector was a concern for the direction of the industry if it continues without any form of national communication between the ‘big’ producers (NT, RSC, Globe), coordinating bodies (ACE), and smaller companies feeding the fragile ecology.

Read the full responses: