From stage to screen

Event cinema is increasing public access to the arts by bringing cultural experiences to the big screen, from opera to theatre and museum exhibitions

In cinemas up and down the country, promotions for the latest action films and comedies share wall space with posters that draw the eye to a different kind of big screen experience: Swan Lake live from the Royal Opera House, for example, or The Crucible filmed at The Old Vic theatre. These kinds of offerings are known as ‘event cinema’, a snappy catch-all for the screening of non-film content within the cinema environment, and one which stands for an almost limitless variety of on-screen entertainment. Beyond opera and theatre, audiences can now enjoy a tour of Rembrandt’s later works, have a front row seat for the reborn Backstreet Boys, even witness the canonisation of a Pope (in 3D). And they can do so in the knowledge that they’re part of a community of thousands of others doing exactly the same thing at that same moment.

Event cinema is a relatively new offering but has established itself very quickly, in part due to the development of several of the technologies involved in its production and its acceptance as a viable medium by both audiences and cinema exhibitors alike. In 2015, the scene remains full of innovation – from the National Theatre Live initiative that has beamed NT productions to over 1,100 venues, to Digital Theatre’s pioneering work in capturing performances and distributing them online and in schools, as well as cinemas. Indeed, the appeal of event cinema has only increased since it first made headlines in 2006, a key year where, in the UK, Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Ball was ‘cinecast’ to 120 participating screens and, in New York, The Met Opera’s production of The Magic Flute became the very first live HD broadcast, ushering in a new era of access to performances and productions from all over the world.

The groundwork for event cinema’s ascent was laid well before this date, however, and points to why the medium has been able to grow so fast. Opera, in particular, has proved highly successful in cinemas and according to the British Film Institute, while theatre productions took more at the box office in 2013 2 3 (£7.2m from 14 events), a total of 44 operas were screened (generating £4.2m), more than any other single type of event. The Met is a leader in the field – its performance history has incorporated a broadcast element since its Saturday matinees first reached US radio sets in 1931 and its live telecast was introduced on PBS in the late 1970s (a version of which was eventually replaced by its Live in HD series). In the UK, the BBC has long been regarded as the home of live opera outside of the auditorium via Radio 3 and, later, across a widening group of TV channels. Yet just as radio and television brought limited run and often expensive productions to a wider public, digital cinema and the internet have since taken the process even further.

“Opera was very quick to jump on the event cinema opportunity and that surprised some people,” says Alastair Roberts, managing director of enterprises at the Royal Opera House. “But it does come from that sense that it’s always been an art form that’s been actively engaged with relaying its work around the world in whatever technology it can lay its hands on.” Rather than be reliant on broadcasters cherry-picking productions to show from the ROH’s season, Roberts explains, the organisation can now go directly to its audience. “What cinema’s meant is that instead of being on television a couple of times a year, we’re now filming a live cinema relay every month of the year.” The numbers are also encouraging – Roberts says that through the ROH’s live cinema productions, it now reaches a yearly audience “in the high hundreds of thousands. With a following wind, in a year or two, we’ll be reaching over a million.”

From the creative side of the ROH’s endeavours, Jonathan Haswell, a freelance director who has worked on many of its live broadcasts to cinemas, has noticed a significant shift in just the last five years. “Opera and theatre companies, even orchestras, don’t need television anymore,” he says. “In order to get their products out to a wide spectrum of people, they can produce and distribute without it.” While the product has to be good in the first place, Haswell suggests, regardless of the availability of high-tech distribution, the fact that the ROH can transmit live has simply added another dimension to its productions. “That’s an important factor, that the audience does enjoy the ‘liveness’ of it,” he says. “They’re sharing something simultaneously with all these people that’s happening right now.” Questions of whether the cinema experience lives up to the real thing are largely irrelevant, Haswell implies. “There are some people who say it’s not like being ‘live’ in the theatre. Well, when you’re listening to a CD it’s not the same as being in the theatre, but no-one complains. There’s an acceptance [that] this is another legitimate way of enjoying opera – and it’s successful, fundamentally, because it works.”

That event cinema is able to work at all is down to the way that the majority of cinemas now operate. “Digitisation is key to all of this,” says Toby Bradon, executive director of strategy and business improvement at Vue Entertainment. “Previously we would show 35mm film on big mechanical projectors. The film was very expensive, but also very limiting to what you could show because of all the ‘lacing up’ – one film on one screen per week. It was difficult to physically change the film because you’ve got to push it through the whole machine, you don’t want to scratch it. So with digital, you can play film and non-film-related stock, whatever you want.” Since 2011, Vue has used Sony 4K ultra high definition projectors in its cinemas, but the exhibitor was able to look at an event cinema programme in 2009 when modern 3D digital projectors started to come in. “You’d get the hardrive, plug it in and you could show theatre or opera or whatever else it might be.”

While most exhibitors now welcome event cinema as a platform, it hasn’t always been an easy sell. Picturehouse Entertainment was involved in bringing both the Amnesty event and The Met’s inaugural HD broadcast to UK screens (and Monty Python’s 2014 reunion show) but, as its director of distribution Marc Allenby explains, the potential for films of art exhibitions and museum tours was hard to get across initially. “Leonardo Live at the National Gallery was in partnership with Sky Arts three years ago and, at the time, it was really difficult to get any buy-in from cinemas,” he says. “They didn’t understand it conceptually or artistically and thought, ‘why would anyone go?’ But it sold out [at Picturehouse] and in other cinemas who we convinced to take the content.”

Feedback from customers also proved revealing, says Allenby. Rather than acting as a substitute for the gallery-going experience, for many the cinema screening was an opportunity to find out more about Da Vinci and the artworks in the show, prior to seeing them in the flesh. “It was really adding value to people who were already engaged and access for those who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to see it at all,” he says. Jane Burton, head of video at Christie’s and previously creative director at Tate Media, says that Tate Modern’s Matisse Live screening offered the chance to see the artist’s work in unrivalled clarity. “Not only do you get to linger on the brushstrokes and every detail, but you also get a lot of rich additional context which can sometimes be very helpful in appreciating the work,” she says. “But what’s interesting is that people seem to like the social side of it, so that’s why the cinema event has an appeal – it’s an evening out in the same way that going to a gallery is a social experience.”

As Allenby suggests, “access” is resolutely at the heart of event cinema. When the Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington reviewed the cinema version of Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, which was filmed by Digital Theatre, he proclaimed it part of “a revolution which knocks on the head the old argument that theatre is an elitist medium aimed at the privileged few”. The result, he wrote, “is to democratise theatre”. A good thing, no doubt, and not simply because it provides audiences with the chance to enjoy what is effectively a ‘scarce good’ – a sell-out production with a limited run. Rather, it helps to create a more affordable experience, opening up productions to a much wider socio-economic group. With the issue of public access to the arts increasingly on the cultural agenda, cinema distribution has enabled many institutions to reach people they simply otherwise would not.

And contrary to concerns raised last year by playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn, screenings of theatre performances in particular do not seem to be depriving the actual venues of an audience. In fact, according to a report by innovation foundation NESTA, cinema broadcasts have stimulated theatre attendance in the capital while, outside London, established large-scale productions such as NT Live have “had no negative impact on the number of people attending regional threatre productions in England”. In many cases, cinema exhibitors are taking influence from the very theatre venues whose plays they are showing on screens. “We almost change our customer offer to replicate the offer of the theatre,” says Vue film buyer, Johnny Carr. “There’s a cast sheet for every event, for example. At the intermission there might be an ice-cream seller and we talk with theatre companies [about] how to replicate the theatre-going experience and train that into our staff.”

Though it still forms a small part of UK box office sales compared to mainstream film showings, the burgeoning event cinema market has also proved a boon for the cinemas themselves. “There was a whole period of ‘cinemas are dying’ and they were being shut down, then it all went very multiplex for a while and now there’s this explosion again of the independent cinema house,” says Digital Theatre’s co-founder and creative director, Robert Delamere. Launched by Delamere and Tom Shaw in 2009, the company has filmed a wide range of productions at several of the UK’s leading theatres; its highly-crafted films are then made available to buy or rent online, and distributed to cinemas – and schools via the Digital Theatre Plus subscription – all over the world.

Part of Digital Theatre’s success is down to its ability to embed its creative team within a venue, and use discreet cameras and mics to capture a performance. Delamere has a background in both production and theatre direction and Digital Theatre’s films employ the language and technical processes of filmmaking to bring a live production to the screen – an aim of the company’s from the outset that carries through to its most recent work on The Crucible. Director Yaël Farber’s vision of Arthur Miller’s 1951 play concerning the Salem witch trials is an intense piece of theatre and was filmed over three evenings during its run at The Old Vic in London (the final film uses the best single performance). While eight cameras were stitched seamlessly into the theatre, the team worked collaboratively with the actors, stage management, wardrobe department and Farber herself, with Delamere creating storyboards for the film. Atmospheric sequences that would play out at the beginning of the film and during scene changes were also developed. “Then we construct the shoot based on those conversations,” says Delamere. “For example, it’s a confrontational piece so you have to be ‘on’ the eye-line – if you’re above it, it’s objective.” To capture the sound, actors wore hidden ‘stunt’ mics – invisible to the audience, these prevent the echoing ‘auditorium’ sound of an actor’s speech ending up on tape.

The camera technology available to Digital Theatre is also advanced but has a surprising source: reality television. “It’s only all the surveillance technology that went into cameras that has allowed this kind of remote-head, remote-operating scenario to come into play,” says Delamere. “We talk about ‘surveillance shooting’ ie being non-interruptive – we don’t interrupt the experience for the audience, you keep that connection tight.”

The end result is a piece of filmmaking that immerses the cinema viewer in the theatre audience. It’s a transformation that is bringing a host of great performances to more people, while at the same time making each individual experience feel unique. “The event cinema strand has gone from zero to £36m in less than five years,” says Vue’s Carr. “That’s because the quality is getting better, there’s rarely a technical issue and people know what they’re going to see on screen is up there with the actual West End presentation. If you go to the Royal Opera House, you can buy the best seat in the house,” he adds. “But in cinemas, it’s not the best seat in the house; it’s the best six seats in the house.”

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