Cast your eye over the listings at your local cinema and chances are you’ll spot something which looks a bit out of place. Over the last couple of years, live transmissions of theatre productions and operas have become increasingly prevalent in cinemas up and down the country. So now instead of the latest Liam Neeson revenge flick, audiences can marvel at Maxine Peake in Hamlet or Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge while still enjoying a face full of popcorn. So what to make of this development? Well, some might say that permitting live broadcasts of The Royal Ballet provides yet another reason for people to steer clear of the theatre – resulting in a drop in theatre attendances as audiences opt for a more practical (and cheaper) alternative.
The stats tell a compelling story. Last year’s live broadcast of War Horse attracted an audience of 120,000, dwarfing the 1,024 people who were watching the performance live in the theatre. Are we seeing the start of a trend, which will result in the majority of people experiencing a live theatrical performance via a cinema screen?
Let’s not get carried away. Research conducted by the innovation foundation Nesta found that these live cinema screenings have had no negative impact on the number of people attending regional theatre productions in England. On the contrary, in London there was a 6.4% increase in local theatre attendance in areas nearest a National Theatre Live screening in the following year.
Far from discouraging people from attending a theatrical performance in the flesh, the greater exposure afforded to the medium through live broadcasts has whetted the appetites of people up and down the country who are enjoying unprecedented access to the arts.
In terms of the impact on cinemas, you’ll not find any complaints from this blog about more people streaming through the doors at your local multiplex or arthouse. A diverse cinema experience is a positive one as far as we’re concerned. Indeed, anything which offers respite from the latest Michael Bay gluttony project is a welcome development.
Moreover, whilst you might initially think that watching a live broadcast would be a slightly detached and isolated experience, the reverse is true. Whether it’s in a cinema or a theatre, both venues offer the chance to enjoy a truly immersive experience in a communal surrounding. The fact that you may be watching something which is taking place hundreds of miles away is irrelevant. The truly great cinematic experiences occur when the rest of the audience is as engaged and gripped by the unfolding action as you are. The same is arguably true in the theatre.
On the monetary front, the advent of National Theatre Live has offered a timely alternative stream of income for cinemas, particularly local independent ones. Is it too much to hope that the money from these live broadcasts might be used to subsidise the cost of a regular cinema ticket? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
So far this story has been about the triumph of bringing live theatre to a cinema near you. The other side of the coin is what impact does that have on the amount of films that are being shown? A cinema has a limited number of screens and only so many hours in the day in which to make best use of them. Something will have to give, but what?
Chances are that films such as 50 Shades of Grey, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are probably safe in terms of the number of screenings that will be afforded them on a given day. Those less well known, independent ventures are the ones that run the risk of being squeezed out. Noted director Peter Strickland’s latest film The Duke of Burgundy has been widely acclaimed by critics, but was granted only a limited release, making it difficult to find for those based outside of London. Audiences are left to seek out their local independent cinemas, which in many cases are few and far between.
Whilst the possible marginalisation of lesser-known cinematic works is a cause for concern, ultimately what these National Theatre broadcasts offer cinemagoers is choice. Live broadcasting offers a new and tantalising reason to venture to the cinema. Where once cinemas were simply curators of celluloid, now they are moving into an age where they can act as curators for the arts as a whole. From live broadcasts of Shakespeare plays, to tours of museums and exhibitions, the cinema now acts as a gateway to new cultural experiences. Despite appearing at first sight to be at odds with each other, the worlds of cinema and theatre have found powerful allies in each other as they attempt to win back some territory from the arena of home entertainment.