More performing arts are finding their way into movie theaters. Ballet and opera, theater and orchestra performances are part of a burgeoning new field that the movie theater industry refers to as “alternative content.” Yet it may be a little too alternative. In today’s glutted media landscape, it’s hard for an organization like the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a vibrantly exciting orchestra but without the street cred of the hoary greats, to get the word out.
“Our biggest challenge is in the marketing,” says Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “We have to compete against Harry Potter and whatever else is happening, and it’s literally that kind of competition.”
The Metropolitan Opera, under Peter Gelb, pioneered live HD movie-theater simulcasts in 2006. Conventional wisdom pounced on him: Clearly, the man who had once headed Sony Classical when the “Titanic” soundtrack set sales records was now going to sell out opera, cheapen the art form, or even, heaven forbid, market it.
Critics have had to eat their words, since the HD broadcasts are the most successful single element of Gelb’s tenure, and have proved truly visionary. They have raised the profile of opera, created excitement where there was none, and rather than bankrupting the company, as many predicted, they have made money. In 2010-11 they netted an impressive $11 million.
This was possible for two reasons. First, the Met had an advantage most arts organizations do not: an international audience built up over decades of weekly radio broadcasts. Second, Gelb thought like a Hollywood studio head — like a businessman. He invested heavily — $1 million per broadcast — but also recouped his investment through television and DVDs. Rather than selling out the art form, this approach revitalized it.
The movie business seems an unlikely savior for opera. To borrow a term from Kurt Hall, chairman of NCM Fathom, the company that markets the Met broadcasts, it’s “niche-y.” But opera does offer an audience of aficionados willing to go to movie theaters to see performances at times the theaters might otherwise be nearly empty.
Emerging Pictures, another alternative content provider, offers an “Opera in Cinema” series of taped and live performances from La Scala, Covent Garden and other great European houses. It doesn’t sell out often, but it does a growing business. Although the conventional wisdom is that opera moviecasts are a way to reach new audiences, anecdotal evidence suggests that the people who go are already opera fans. Josh Levin, general manager of West End Cinema, which shows the “Opera in Cinema” series in Washington, calls them “the opera equivalent of jazzheads.”