Last week, following in the footsteps of Patti LuPone, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dear Evan Hansen actor Will Roland became the latest actor to take to social media to request audience members stop illegally filming the show.
The responses ranged from enraged supporters cheering Roland on, to far-away fans claiming they have no other way to access Broadway.
I want to make very clear that I absolutely do not support audience members going into a theatre, taking out their cellphones/devices and filming the show. First of all, it’s incredibly distracting to the performers and to their fellow audience members. Secondly, bootlegs mean cast/crew/creatives are not being properly compensated for their work being captured and distributed. Finally, we live in an age where professional filmed live recordings are becoming more and more prevalent.
We know bootlegs exist. We knows there’s a demand for them, no matter how shoddy the quality. So what are we going to do about it?
The following is an anecdotal study, compiled by reading through published articles, message board threads, and talking with fans.
Why do people bootleg?
People bootleg musical theatre to have a record of an ephemeral performance, trade videos with other fans, and to make a profit.
Why do people watch bootlegs?
It comes down to a few crucial reasons, geography, cost, high ticket demand, and the desire to see specific performances (eg. original cast, replacements, first/final performances). Across all of these reasons, the theme that constantly came up was the sense of “being deprived” of not being able to see theatre performances live.
Who is watching bootlegs?
Anecdotally, everyone… From audience members to the creators making new shows, people who love theatre are watching bootlegs. In the past two years I’ve been lucky enough to attend BroadwayCon, and in almost every single panel, theatre professionals, writers, directors, actors, and fans, all spoke openly about their avid consumption of bootlegs.
What happens when people watch bootlegs?
The availability of bootlegs encourage fans to seek out more bootlegs. Bootlegs inspire many people to pursue a life in the performing arts. Crucially, illegal recordings leave fans with a desire to see, and experience, the show in the theatre.
Why can’t we just film stage musicals?
Union contracts and agreements are a big factor, which are important to ensure casts and creatives are properly compensated for their work being captured and distributed. Another significant hindrance is an industry fear that making videos available will jeopardize box office sales. Add into these factors the cost of filming and distribution, and, finally, the ingrained belief that filmed theatre is no longer theatre.
What about ticket sales?!
The worlds of classical music, ballet, and opera, have all shown that filming concerts for public distribution, boosts ticket sales at the box office.
In 2011, The Detroit Symphony Orchestra had an in-person attendance rate of around 50%. After introducing free livestreams of some of their concerts, in-person attendance rose to 90%. Anne Parsons, CEO of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra stated of the change, “I think the digital world makes us hungrier for the real world.” In 2014, the DSO introduced robotic cameras, lessening the intrusion of cameras for the live audiences.
In the National Theatre Annual Review 2016-17, the company announced its shows had a 93% percent audience capacity, the highest numbers it has seen in a decade. What happened just under a decade ago? The launch of NT Live, where select National Theatre productions are broadcast live in cinemas around the world.
Research on the The Met Opera’s The Met Live in HD has shown that while the program appeals mainly to people who are already opera devotees, the program has also been able to attract a more diverse audience, including younger people, and people with lower incomes. The program has also encouraged people who had not previously seen a live opera to seek one out.
As noted by Sean Douglass of The Clyde Fitch Report, even though sport is widely available to watch on television, fans still flock to live games. Even though concerts and performances are freely available on YouTube, fans still pack out stadiums to see musicians live.
We already know that movie versions of stage musicals boost attendance at the Broadway box office. As noted by Broadway producer Ken Davenport, “…every time, even if the movies have sucked, the Broadway box office has gone up. It happened every time. So we know it doesn’t cannibalize.”
Will filmed live musicals replace live musical theatre?
All existing research points to the fact that at the end of the day, people want tangible in-person real-life experiences. Like movie musicals, like cast recordings, like digital content, making filmed live recordings available to the general public will only encourage people to seek out more live theatre.
What can we do?
Bootlegs aren’t going away. So why not tap into the market and provide professionally recorded, legal, captures that fairly compensate the artists?
It doesn’t mean a musical capture should be released globally on YouTube on opening night. As Jennifer Tepper noted in response to Will Roland’s tweet, “producers [need to] make a strategic educated decision about when to create and release this based on when the show needs it most.”
But for high-demand sold-out shows like Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen, why not adopt the NT Live model and hold a one-night-only livestream to cinemas, as the National Theatre did for Fela and Follies? Or like Legally Blonde, use a television broadcast to boost ticket sales for the national tour? Allegiance continues to build a fan base through its select cinema screenings, while Newsies was screened in cinemas, and later released online for on demand viewing.
More and More
The great news is that more and more producers and creatives are realizing the importance, and benefits, of filming stage musicals for public distribution. I look forward to continuing to catalogue them here, and celebrating the joy of filmed live musicals.
Want to read more on bootlegs?
Check out my guest post for New Musical Theatre on Kicking the Bootlegs!