Shifts in supply and demand for theatre: quality, yield and live-streaming

Derek Jacobi as King Lear Photograph: C  Johan Persson The Guardian

The hottest ticket in Scotland is for the NT Live streaming of King Lear this week. Its been sold out in the Edinburgh Cameo Cinema and Dundee’s DCA for some time, against the engrained booking patterns for all the other cinematic and theatrical offerings in those cities. You can get a ticket for any other theatre performance or film screening this week but not for NT Live. Its a signal of significant change in the theatre market.

Demand far exceeds supply for NT Live. With 10o screens in the UK  only four of which are  in Scotland, and with only one live streaming per production, its hardly surprising that NT Live is a premium event, pounced upon by sharp members of the cultural cognoscenti.  NESTA’s research into NT Live audiences for the first two  productions found that audiences for the cinema streamings were similar to audiences at the theatre in terms of education and level of cultural knowledge- a third  had already been to the New York Met streamings. These are the people who know how to bag a hot ticket.

The market for theatre is changing fairly significantly right now.  There is consistent anecdotal evidence throughout the UK and Ireland as to how audience behaviour has changed since the economic downturn began.  Equal and opposite trends are becoming entrenched. On the one hand, people will book in advance and be happy to pay the top prices for anything regarded as guaranteed quality, whether that is quality of enjoyment, entertainment, spectacle and laughter; or of actors, production values and plays and companies with pedigrees; or in festivals where risk-taking is part of the brand.   On the other hand, the less exciting, well-known or enticing productions will suffer from late booking, price resistance and a general reticence until assured by others that its worth seeing.

There was harder evidence published last week  by the Society of London Theatres, showing that audiences for London theatre overall have held, considering the ash and snow,  while box office income is going up.   For the seventh year running, box office increased and was  £512m  in 2010, up 1.5% on 2009 while attendances remained around £14m,  falling  0.79%    This compares with cinema attendances in the UK falling 2.4% in the last year to around 168m but also showing a 5% increase in revenues to £988m, similarly increasing ticket yield at a greater rate than increasing attendances, through charging more and boxing more cleverly about managing yield.

The area where demand has increased most is  in drama. In London theatre the audiences for plays have increased 2% while the ticket income has increased by 10%. The hard evidence complements the anecdotal.  The demand for quality theatre is high and audiences are prepared to pay more for their tickets to see it.

A thriving theatre economy needs a healthy balance between demand and supply, just as it needs a diverse eco-system which encourages experiment.

The supply-side of theatre in the UK is heavily dependent on public subsidy.  Its likely that some of that supply will have its funding cut by Arts Council England, already trailing that up to 6o0 arts organisations could lose funding as ACE has to make cuts of nearly 30% and as local authorities have to reduce spend.  Meanwhile in the USA, where the theatre economy is less supported by state subsidy, Rocco Landesman, Broadway producer and Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts has created consternation by firmly stating that there is an oversupply of theatre in America and that “Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply”.

But there is demand for high- quality theatre in the British isles and there is no sign of demand diminishing.   Its the supply that needs to change.  Some of the theatre supply we built up over the last 100 years, in the days when every self-respecting  town of a certain size had a civic theatre, will not have the resources in the future to produce, present or promote quality theatre.

Meantime demand far outstrips supply for NT Live.  The potential for a much larger and more diverse audience is enormous but won’t be achieved while the scarcity of venues means that its the cognoscenti who snap up the tickets and not the average cinema attender. Venues who can kit themselves out with the digital projection and satellite equipment can sign up to NT Live, should they have the notion.  Many theatre managers are sceptical about NT live, having not experienced it first hand. Its not a substitute for home -produced theatre, rather an additional channel.  Live -streaming will be an increasingly essential part of the supply of quality theatre in the 21st century so please, could more venues sign up – particularly in Scotland.

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