A Way Forward? Rethinking the Distribution of the Arts.

Following so closely on the heels of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s bankruptcy, the sad news this week is that the wonderful Intiman Theatre Company in Seattle has gone dark for the rest of the season.(The hopeful news is that its board hopes to raise enough to re-open in the fall.)

I found the Intiman news that crossed my desk yesterday to form an interesting juxtaposition with a news release I received from Fathom Events. Fathom is the HD movie distribution company that brings us the Met at movie theaters around the country. And lately, its arts product has started to expand. This spring, for example, there are New York Philharmonic and L.A. Philharmonic HD concert/
productions. And they are also presenting – in movie theaters – two great Broadway productions, Memphis, and the Importance of Being Ernest. Locked as we are in this interminable spring of miserable weather, the prospect of Saturday or Sunday afternoons at the cinema over in the mall sounds pretty nice. And the ticket prices are painless, certainly compared to Broadway.

What Fathom is offering with its slowly expanding fine arts schedule is just the beginning little stumbles, I think, toward what could and should be something much larger – something that could eventually be a revenue generator for the struggling theater companies and symphony orchestras of this country. I have problems with Fathom because it is such an insiders-and-in-the-know thing. There is no marketing outside of Fathom or the Met or other institutions’ email lists, and it is so hit or miss. Just because my local cinema airs Fathom’s Met broadcasts is no guarantee I’ll get to see anything else. For example, I would love to catch the LA Phil’s all Brahms concert the first week of June, but no luck.

Let’s imagine, though, that the marketing was much better and that the product line up was there. One week the Met, the next week LA Phil, maybe the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the week after, maybe New York City Ballet the next, and so on. Pretty great, right? And imagine, too, that you didn’t have to even go to your local theater. As of this month, you don’t.

Roku, that little black box you can buy for $59.99, now lets you have access to free and unbelievably low-cost classical arts programming via its new ClassicalTV channel.(http://www.classicaltv.com) When I say low-cost, I mean it. You can catch the opening night gala from the 2009 Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Phil for the rental cost of $1.99 for 90 hours. (I know what I’m getting my mother for Mother’s Day.)

So we are on the cusp. Imagine making Saturday night popcorn and choosing what orchestra concert you want to see. Or spending Tuesday night’s pizza dinner in front of the opera broadcast of your choice. We are right there.

What will this mean to the repertory theater companies and the symphony orchestras and the ballet companies in your city and mine? The challenge and implications, and the prospective benefits and losses are all huge. For the finest – where the artistic product can stand up to the scrutiny of the screen – the benefits are incredible. For the others, it is clearer than ever that audience development will have to focus on the social and community aspects of attendance. (Why buy a ticket to an iffy production when you can gather your friends around, and enjoy a great evening at the Royal Shakespeare for about a dime a person? Clearly, the social aspects of actually “going” will have to be stupendous to balance that five-star event at its ten-cent-per-person cost.)

If this takes off – and I bet it really will – our entire arts world will be remade in front of us. We’re going to be rethinking everything about who our audience is and why people attend. And arts organization leaders everywhere are going to wonder anew what the opportunities and implications will be for product development.

The real excitement here is the chance to rebuild the market for the arts. As ever, the old question of “What is this, a pencil or a communications device?” is fresh. We may not be going to “live” performances and our performing arts centers may have to rethink their business models. But for those arts organizations that see opportunity through a new distribution mechanism and for the audiences that love arts, this is the dawn of a golden age, not the end of an era that one might think from all the recent bankruptcy news.

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2 responses to “A Way Forward? Rethinking the Distribution of the Arts.

  1. Interesting thoughts…. it provides a quandry… there is nothing like a live performance… while I really liked the movie “Chicago”… it did not come close to the experience of seeing it live on Broadway…. however the other side of the coin is the cost… less than $10 for the movies and $80+ for the live show… the bigger question I believe is how do the local arts organizations play in this new arena…. because everyone is competing for the finite amount of entertainment dollars in a community… be it “live” or sitting in a recliner in your living room….

  2. I am all for making the arts accessible to everyone but to miss out of seeing a live performance with so many different personalities in the hall is what truly makes for the “experience” of how we feel, hear and see it as a common group in the end. Nothing can replace the first nor the last live performance I saw. We have to provide them the worth in their time to get off the couch to walk or drive down to their local theatre/concert hall. The one thing we must do is think how do we use this to have the next generation experience the Arts LIVE…

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