Streaming Could Help Broadway Bounce Back – but There Are Obstacles in the Great White Way
At a time when movie studios are seeing Broadway musicals as a way to drive streaming views, some theatrical pioneers are advancing an opposite theory: that putting performances online can ultimately help drive in-person ticket sales.
While the general consensus among industry experts is that digital access provides an opportunity for Broadway to reach new audiences and tap new revenue streams, they told TheWrap that there are many financial and logistical challenges that stand in the way of a broader rollout.
Even as Broadway heads into its busy spring season, a lack of audience accessibility due to geography and high ticket prices remains a critical issue for New York City’s 41 theaters looking to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic’s lingering impacts on tourism and large gatherings. There are also a vast number of potential theatergoers who might only learn about a show and become motivated to see it if it’s available to stream.
“Whatever number of people are watching a Broadway show on a given night in a Broadway house, there must be a hundred or thousand times that number of people who would like to be watching a Broadway show,” Jim McCarthy, the founder of the live-streaming and ticketing platform Stellar, told TheWrap. He sees streaming as a way to “build the audience for Broadway and theater everywhere.”
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Broadway is recovering along with other forms of live entertainment. Its 2018-2019 season — the last full year of performances before COVID-19 hit — grossed $1.8 billion and had a total of 14.7 million attendees, according to the Broadway League. Those figures slipped to $1.3 billion and 11.1 million attendees during the pandemic-curtailed 2019-2020 season and $845 million and 6.7 million attendees during the partial reopening for the 2021-2022 season. With 10 weeks left, the 2022-2023 season has surpassed $1.2 billion and 9.5 million to date, up 129% and 120% from $541 million and over 4.3 million attendees in the prior season over the same period.
Yet the theater business seems eager to get back to the stage rather than explore lessons learned during the pandemic. One of the most notable examples of Broadway streaming success was the July 2020 release of Hamilton on Disney+, which cost approximately $75 million for the rights to its digital capture. A Morning Consult poll conducted shortly after the release found that 82% of non-theater fans who watched said the digital capture of “Hamilton” made them interested in seeing other digital captures, while 84% of non-theater fans surveyed were interested in seeing live theatrical performances after watching.
Since then, shows like “Diana: The Musical,” “Springsteen on Broadway,” “Come From Away,” David Byrne’s “American Utopia” and “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical” have found a home on streaming services like Netflix, Paramount+, Apple TV+ and HBO Max.
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Tony Award-winning producers Bonnie Comley and Stewart Lane are the co-founders of BroadwayHD, a niche streaming service that made the Guinness Book of World Records in 2016 for the first livestream of a Broadway show with Roundabout Theatre Company’s “She Loves Me.” BroadwayHD offers access to over 300 recorded theatrical performances for $11.99 a month.
Comley and Lane told TheWrap that a well-produced digital capture can be an opportunity to widen the live Broadway audience while keeping quality control and protecting the on-stage theatrical window. But they also acknowledged that creating a digital capture or streaming a performance live could be expensive, disruptive to the in-theater experience and complicated by rights and labor restrictions.
“To bring cameras into a Broadway theater, there are numerous organizations and individuals involved: the rights holders, the 13 unions and guilds of [The Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds], the theater owners, and producers, among others,” Comley explained. “These entities must agree, or the show cannot be captured or live-streamed.”
The cost of filming a digital capture plus the fees to cover the rights to its distribution can range from $700,000 to $1.5 million for a play and $1.5 million to $4 million for a musical, Comley estimated in an article for Broadway World. Factors that can impact the cost include the specific means of distribution (movie theaters, TV, streaming), the territory (U.S. or worldwide), the length of time and the number of times it can be screened. Other costs associated with digital captures are the salaries paid to a show’s cast and creatives as well as licensing fees and royalties for the rights holder of a theatrical property.
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Another potential option is a hybrid model that offers both in-person and livestreamed versions of the same performance. Under this model, livestream tickets, which are limited under current contracts to a theater’s seating capacity, are generally priced near or below the median price of an in-person ticket. (The average Broadway ticket price is above $125, according to the Broadway League.)
The nonprofit Second Stage Theater in New York City recently tested the hybrid model by simulcasting the final two weeks of its production of “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which wrapped on Feb. 19.
“The biggest advantage to simulcasting our performances was expanding our audience base by bringing live theater to viewers across the country,” Second Stage interim executive director Lisa Post told TheWrap. “We didn’t see any major disadvantage — our ticket sales for in-person performances were not negatively impacted during the two weeks when we were simulcasting.”
A recent survey of 1,000 participants conducted by Stellar found a plurality of respondents, 43%, preferred to watch a live entertainment show via livestream, followed by 41% who preferred a theater or other venue and 16% who preferred watching via video on demand. The survey also found that 60% of respondents were more likely to watch an artist or a similar show in person after watching them online, including 65% of Millennials and 70% of Gen Z surveyed.
Second Stage declined to share how much the simulcast cost. But Jess Ryan, the broadcast director of the production’s livestream, previously told Playbill that a typical livestream of a Broadway show would likely cost “several million dollars.”
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Ryan told TheWrap that the livestream option is a “massive” opportunity for “everybody to make more money” and “inherently accessible” for potential audiences.
“It’s going to potentially help us make sure that our tours are well attended and that our shows are licensed because more people will have access to that original Broadway show in real time,” she added.
But she warned that the current business model for livestreams is intricate, with new contracts focused specifically on livestreaming that need to be negotiated and digital audiences that need to be developed before Broadway producers, unions and guilds will confidently proceed with a broader rollout.
“Big money doesn’t like slow timetables and when you’re talking about migrating theater to online digital access and digital audiences, you can’t say, ‘I’m gonna get this done in two months,'” Jim Augustine, a media and tech entrepreneur involved in Broadway, told TheWrap. “It’s an entire industry that has been around since the dawn of time and migrating those preferences to new business models is just gonna take time.”
Augustine helped finance the “Between Riverside and Crazy” simulcast through his organization, the League of Livestream Theaters.
“We’re all making our best bets here based on what we think audiences want and need and what institutions want and need and what individual theatrical properties want and need and I think over time the path will reveal itself,” he added.
Comley and Lane are skeptical of Second Stage’s daily livestream model, arguing that it’s better-suited for nonprofit theaters than commercial productions. They’d like to see major streamers back more Broadway productions instead of picking off the most successful ones.
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Though McCarthy acknowledged live streaming and digital captures currently face financial and logistical challenges, he cautioned that the commercial theater industry needs to broaden digital access sooner rather than later.
“Theater as an industry should really take this seriously because other parts of the entertainment universe are moving forward with this,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to jump ahead, it’s an opportunity to grow, but it’s also an opportunity to lose ground potentially if somebody else finds a way to stake a claim on people’s attention [which] is finite. So I think there’s a big opportunity for theater to kind of move up in people’s mindset.”
Post emphasized that “nothing will replace live theater,” but acknowledged that the industry “seems to be open to experimenting with ways to bring the theater viewing experience to audiences outside of (New York City).”
“I think the industry will become even more receptive to it in the coming years,” she added.
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