Category Archives: The Arts

What Now? Entertainment in a Post-Pandemic World Pt. 3

In my last post, I wrote about the current circumstances the entertainment world finds itself in, focusing on the movie industry. Now, let’s turn our attention to the music industry.

What we’ve seen so far from the performing arts is all over the map. Putting the music from home thing aside, artists have limited live performances to outdoor venues with small, socially-distanced audiences. Performances have been mainly smaller groups that are able to keep their distance on stage, playing to an empty hall and broadcasting online. No Mahler 8 anytime soon…

We’ve also seen instances in places like Germany, Austria, and Italy where orchestras are performing in a mostly normal configuration – the conductor leaning over close to the musicians to wring out that last bit of emotion, the musicians close to each other as always. The two main discernible differences being the placement of the winds – more separated and with plexiglass shielding – and the sparse audience. Musicians and audience members are being required to wear masks while moving about and are having their temperatures taken; no concessions either to avoid gathering hotspots. One has to wonder: will they be able to make enough money if they have to continue in this fashion – paying all of their musicians while taking in perhaps 20-30 percent of the receipts they normally would? Perhaps in countries where the arts are state-sponsored; in the United States?

Maestro Barenboim leading the Vienna Philharmonic in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in a June concert for a limited audience.

Interestingly, the Los Angeles Philharmonic – one of the most forward-thinking orchestras in the world – was pretty slow to get in on the live-streaming game. Instead, they focused on radio, broadcasting previously recorded concerts, and doing their “from home” series with Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel. Dipping into their endowment to bide their time, they planned their next steps. But, they will most certainly feel the affect of cancelling their Spring and Fall seasons while not benefiting from the “cash cow” that is renting out the Hollywood Bowl – I read somewhere that they lost upwards of $90M in revenue. It is the Hollywood Bowl (and LA’s climate) that will allow the LA Phil to begin broadcasting live performances on PBS television in a physically distanced environment with their full orchestra. That is their plan beginning in August. What comes after that? We shall see.

The Field Band took a different tact than our friends at the Philharmonic. As an organization built and funded to tour the United States as representatives of the U.S. Army and the Government, charged with connecting the American people to their Army and representing the United States around the world, the pandemic represents an existential threat. If we’re not connecting Americans to their Army or making people feel good about their country, the Army will quickly find other things for us to do and other things to fund; hence our pivot to online engagement within days of returning home from Spring tour. As I mentioned in my first post, the tactic paid off, but the question is: what now – for us and the industry?

One factor I alluded to in my first post, and was front and center in my last one about the movie industry, is the relationship between performing organizations and venues. While performing organizations may find a way to survive online, without audiences (revenue), venues will continue to struggle, if not fold. Any course of action to get back in the game has to consider not only the performers, but also the spaces they play in.

There is no doubt that organizations and venues (sometimes they are the same entity like the Chicago Symphony and their Symphony Center) need to invest in video, streaming, and broadcast capabilities. This is where the Berlin Philharmonic, for instance, has a head start on many organizations with their Digital Concert Hall initiative. For over a decade, they’ve invested in creating broadcast capabilities and a business model that allows people to watch their concerts through slick tablet, phone, and TV apps by purchasing a 7-day, 30-day, or 1-year pass.

Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall is very user-friendly.
A recent performance by members of Berlin led by their music director.

Pop acts have other challenges. How do you publicize your newly recorded album and sell merchandise around the globe if you can’t tour? There are a few possibilities…

1. Virtual album release. I’ve seen several artists do this over the last four months, and the Field Band is preparing to do something similar with our upcoming release of Soundtrack of the American Soldier (look for it August 28:-)…Create a social media campaign and an online event to announce the release of an album in lieu of the usual listening party.

2. Online / virtual touring. Some acts have been doing this for a while like Phish. For acts that are big enough, I could see doing multiple performances from one venue location that is broadcast online. To create unique events that approximate touring, it is possible to geo-fence broadcasts to specific regions, the artist virtually making their way across the country or around the world. This would provide revenue to the chosen venue and the contractors to create the staging, lighting, and video assets. How much would you pay to see your favorite artist perform live from the comfort of your home?

3. A tactic that is more in the future, perhaps, but is slowly gaining traction is performances in virtual reality. I definitely see possibilities here. Ever read or seen the movie Ready Player One? Last August, electric violinist Lindsey Sterling performed a concert in virtual reality for 400,000 viewers who watched her performance in 2D on Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube, and in VR using a SteamVR or Occulus-compatible headset. Those watching in VR had their avatars “in the audience” in front of Sterling or as floating stars. John Legend recently got in on the act, doing a 17-minute set in VR. With immersive audio becoming more and more prevalent (see the Apple EarPods update this Fall), this may have a place in the future of entertainment. This won’t solve any COVID-related problems, but it certainly points to a potential way ahead. How many households already have the latest gaming platforms with the technical capabilities ripe for this kind of utilization? I may write more about this subject in a later post…

Lindsey Sterling performing in VR for over 400K people. Image Credit: Wave, Lindsey Sterling

For orchestras and other larger mediums, I could see multiple performances in one location to accommodate demand with venues only able to fill at perhaps 40-50 percent capacity. This would help venues get some money from hall rentals and limited ticket sales.

Another possibility is moving to a seasonal approach where in-person performances are exclusively in larger, outdoor venues and all other performances are online broadcasts in indoor venues.

Frankly, there are a lot of possibilities. But, anything different from the norm requires imagination and a re-thinking of what is possible. There will be contraction, unfortunately. But, like other industries, there is also opportunity there for those willing and able to take it.

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What Now? Entertainment in a Post-Pandemic World Pt. 2

In my last post, I wrote about the current circumstances the entertainment world finds itself in – from orchestras to pop acts, sports to movies – none have escaped the effects of COVID-19. Until there is an effective and readily available vaccine, any “opening up” has risks. We’ve already seen this in places that have tried to return to normal. Coming back too soon and/or without protocols being followed has led to a resurgence of the virus. Normal ain’t walking through that door until not only a vaccine has taken hold, but people’s confidence has returned. So now what? How will these industries adapt?

One industry that is truly reeling is the movie industry (see what I did there). With movie theaters around the world mostly shuttered – there are small pockets of hope in Asia and Europe – movie production companies have largely held off releasing their movies. We’ve seen tectonic shifts from Disney, Sony, Paramount, and Universal to name a few. Tent pole movies like Tenet, Black Widow, Wonder Woman 84, and Mulan have seen their release dates moved to the right more than once. In fact, Marvel Entertainment has shifted their entire Phase 4 lineup to the right as well as delaying the release of their shows on Disney+.

The symbiotic relationship between production companies and theaters has come under tremendous pressure as a result of COVID-19. Without the ability to safely allow audiences in theaters, production companies are generally balking on releasing their money-makers; and without these movies, theaters (who generally split profits 50-50 with production companies), are quickly losing their ability to remain in business. Unlike restaurants, which could at lease phase back into business with carry-out and outdoor seating, movie theaters really don’t have many options.

What we’ve seen is delaying tactics on the big movies and a combination of moves on smaller budget movies. Tom Hanks’ WWII film Greyhound, which had a production cost of approximately $50M and was originally set for a theatrical release by Sony Pictures, was purchased by Apple for about $70M to be released exclusively on their new streaming platform.

Trolls: World Tour was originally set to be released April 10. With theaters beginning to close all over the country and around the world, Universal decided to make the movie available for digital rental on the same day it opened in limited theater locations. It later made it available for digital purchase, and three months later for purchase on physical discs. While reports are sketchy on how much money they actually made, it’s success (albeit during an unprecedented time when people and their children were stuck inside) showed some potential. AMC Theaters, unable to reap the rewards of the movie’s success, vowed to stop showing Universal’s movies. If AMC is still around in a year, we’ll see if they still feel the same way…

So what’s the answer? For movie theaters, I honestly don’t know what they can do in the short-term. Theater chains have spent a serious amount of money over the last several years upgrading the viewers’ experience – from recliners to sound systems – all in the hopes of providing an experience that would warrant a higher price tag. Without the cash to reinvent themselves, a serious contraction is on the horizon, and perhaps a reinvestment in drive-ins…and HVAC systems.

Theater chains will need to spend capital on cleaning (much like the hospitality industry) and marketing their cleaning protocols. This will necessarily include fewer showings to accommodate the time it will take to properly sanitize each theater. I would think these companies would invest in designing a new kind of theater experience that would help isolate people from each other and more immerse them in the movie. We’re already halfway there with the recliner model. My wife and I generally only go to the theater to see big movies. I honestly don’t see us going unless there’s a readily available and effective vaccine. That’s the brutal truth.

What about the production of the movies themselves? It costs money to make a blockbuster, and it will only keep happening if companies can make a profit. Avengers: Endgame cost approximately $500M to produce and market. That’s a lot of money. It paid off, of course, as Marvel and Disney took in $2.8 billion at the box office. How many digital rentals and purchases would it take to make even $1B? Those big profits not only fund the next blockbuster, but they allow studios to take risks on smaller films. Are they in danger now too? I could certainly see in the mid-term only money-makers go to theaters and the rest go digital in an effort to maximize profits.

From a distribution perspective, I think production houses are going to have to re-think the world theatrical release model (when a movie is released around the world on a singular day) and go back to the way it used to be when movies were released in phases. I could see something like:

1. Theatrical release in countries that are “open” for business.

2. Depending on the situation, the movie is made available for digital rental one month later. If other countries have curbed the virus to the point that theaters are open, then the movie is released there. For tent pole movies particularly, there will be a market to see them in theaters so long as the viewer feels safe.

3. Two-three months after initial release, the movie is made available for digital purchase.

4. After four months (as opposed to the usual three), the movie is released on physical media.

5. After six months, it’s made available on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon; for Disney properties, on their streaming service.

These companies will not be able to continue kicking the can down the road forever. They borrow money to make movies, take in profits, then fund the next project. Disney, without Mulan or Black Widow, and without much help from their parks because of the pandemic, will have to slow things down at some point until money starts flowing in. This phased approach in the short to mid-term could be a way to keep things afloat. Honestly, if they released Mulan for digital on-demand next week and six months from now re-release it in theaters, I think a lot of families would go (if they deem it safe).

Originally set for May, the release date is now November 6…

Now, I’ll be honest. If Marvel announced Black Widow was available for digital rental tomorrow, I’d spend $15-20 for my wife and I to watch it on our home theater. Would you? The problem is, I don’t think those rentals, digital purchases (for say $30), and Blu-Ray sales down the road would be enough to make the profit Disney looks for when it invests in movies like this. (The film cost about $200M to make and market.) For these major films, the revenue of each person buying a ticket (as opposed to one “ticket” per household in the digital scenario) and the very real phenomenon of repeat attendees for movies like this makes it difficult for me to imagine a world without movies theaters. There’s no doubt that Disney was (is?) expecting Black Widow to give them a $1B payday (an $800M profit margin).

I think theaters will be back. They just might look different. Eventually. I just wonder if the contraction will cause tent pole movies to hit theaters and the lower tier movies to go straight to video-on-demand. That is a very real possibility.

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So You Want to Support the Arts…

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the impending doom of civilization due to the possible defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts. If all of the people displaying social media outrage actually supported the arts – you know, with their actual time and/or money – there wouldn’t be an issue. If you want to “live in a country that supports the Arts” then…support the Arts.  Continue reading

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