Event Cinema – Theater Goes to the Movies

Digital technologies are opening up new possibilities for long-established art forms. An example is so-called event cinema: broadcasts of concerts, plays or other events to movie theaters.

Event cinema is feasible only because digital technology has made it much cheaper and easier to make and transmit recordings. Digital movie cameras are lighter and more affordable than their analog predecessors, while sharing digital files is quicker and far less expensive than printing and distributing celluloid film.

(Photo: Michael Wharley/National Theatre Live)

This enables a potential win-win deal for cinemas and performing arts companies. Cinemas can diversify their program and attract new audiences by showing major theatrical events, while performing arts companies gain an extra revenue stream.

New life for old classics

Event cinema may be particularly appealing for “classic” spectacles such as opera and ballet, where it is often a challenge to recoup high production costs. The financial benefits can be huge. The Metropolitan Opera in New York, which pioneered high-definition cinema broadcast of its performances, now earns millions of dollars from them each year.

It is not just about money, however. For many performing arts companies, showing films of their work is also an important part of their outreach mission, allowing people to enjoy shows without having to travel to the host venue.

The New York Met’s broadcasts can be seen by people all around the United States and in more than 70 other countries. And institutions such as the Paris Opera, the Royal Ballet in the United Kingdom and the Bolshoi Ballet of the Russian Federation sometimes offer free broadcasts, to try to reach as large an audience as possible.

All access pass

Digital technology can also give audiences a higher level of access than they had in the past, showing life behind the scenes through streaming and recording of rehearsals, classes and interviews.

But there are challenges as well as opportunities.

On a purely practical level, filming plays, ballet and opera is not straightforward. It requires investment not only in equipment, but also in staff with the technical skill to capture live performances effectively.

Even more importantly, artistic directors and performers need to craft and deliver shows that work both for audiences in the theater and those watching through film. While some critics and artists see this as a welcome creative stimulus, others believe that performing for the cameras undermines the special quality and appeal of a live event.

Intellectual property issues

And inevitably, event cinema raises important issues in terms of intellectual property (IP) too.

Performing arts companies need to make sure that they secure IP rights from performers that cover recording and transmission of the performance. Performers need to make sure they receive adequate compensation for those rights. And licensing deals with cinemas and distributors need careful handling, especially if they cover multiple legal jurisdictions.