The novel coronavirus outbreak may prompt some changes to decades-old approaches to entertainment and more. With no end in sight to the need for social distancing, we may soon be going just a bit stir crazy, in need of something to take our minds off the stress of COVID-19.
Which is why The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout may be onto something. In a recent article, Teachout, the Journal’s theater critic, suggested that with Broadway shut down, “[T]here is a way for the show to go on without putting the public at risk. That way is online live streaming.” Historically Broadway, along with Hollywood, has kept to its tried-and-true business models, no matter the technological advances. But, just as the music industry learned to get comfortable with streaming, perhaps other areas of entertainment can, too.
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Experimenting with the future
As Teachout pointed out, it’s not as if there isn’t some precedent for streaming the stage:
Starting with the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, a fast-growing number of performing-arts groups have been using digital technology to beam their shows into movie houses on both sides of the Atlantic, and many older performances can also be viewed online. “Leopoldstadt,” Tom Stoppard’s universally acclaimed new play, which opened in London in January, will be simulcast live on June 25, and audiences throughout the world are awaiting it with excitement.
I’m not much of an opera guy (read: you couldn’t pay me enough to watch opera), but the idea is sound. I have neighbors who love going to the movie theater Saturday mornings to watch the Met’s productions. (Fortunately, they’ve given up on inviting me to join them.) The technology is there. Or could be. “New York theaters lack the technological infrastructure needed to simulcast their performances,” said Teachout. But as The Met has shown, this is just a temporary problem, and it’s one with obvious solutions.
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Technology isn’t the problem, not really. It’s just getting past the idea of “we don’t stream the theater.” But why not? It’s going to be weeks, perhaps months, before Broadway will be able to welcome live audiences again. What do theater companies have to lose by opening up their offering to a much broader audience through live (or even pre-recorded) streaming? I, for one, would pay a lot to be able to watch Brian Dennehy play Willy Loman again in Death of a Salesman (a mind-blowingly great production of perhaps my favorite play).
Watching the future at home
Of course, not everyone is into theater. And most people won’t be venturing into movie theaters anytime soon, either. So maybe, just maybe, it’s time for Hollywood to lay waste to its staggered release strategy. That is, start making first-run films available on streaming services immediately.
Here, there’s not even a technology impediment. We already have a bevy of streaming services that could immediately start selling access to new movies. No, what we have is a business model impediment. As Julia Greenberg wrote, “First-run movies at home could have a cataclysmic effect on the way the film industry works…[because of] the billions of dollars we still pay to see movies in theaters.”
Except that we don’t. Not for weeks, anyway, and it’s possible that in that time we’ll reprogram how we expect to see entertainment. The movie theater is already starting to lose its luster, and the current health pandemic may further weaken its hold on our interest.
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Even if Hollywood doesn’t want to take that step, it could still experiment during this downtime. There are signs that Hollywood is coming around to the idea, with Universal Pictures making some of its current releases available to rent for $20. It’s a great start, but all signs point to this being a temporary measure. Still, it’s a useful trial to allow consumers to try renting new releases on streaming services, as it might show the studios that the billions just might still stream in, albeit through a different avenue. If it turns out the old-school staggered release makes the most sense (and cents), great. But why not use this time to trial a new way while also earning goodwill with a populace increasingly confined to their homes?
Disclosure: I work for AWS, but nothing herein relates to my employment there.
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