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#6 - Is Streaming Steamrolling Theatre?

Filmmakers interviewed by The New York Times last month contemplated a reckoning for film as a result of the rise of Netflix and its streaming siblings. There are “so many options for viewing content that there has to be a need for you to leave your home. What is going to drive you to do that?” said Joe Russo, the director of Avengers: Endgame. “I don’t feel particularly optimistic about the traditional theatrical experience, especially for independent films,” said Jordan Horowitz, producer of La La Land.

If filmmakers are so keenly feeling the competition, what are theatre makers to do? The rise of cable and streaming services offers relatively affordable access to a virtually inexhaustible catalog of entertainment – films, TV shows, documentaries, and more – on demand and from a comfortable position on your couch. Netflix is frequently high on the long list of reasons given for shrinking theatre audiences, too.

Some filmmakers argued for fighting to preserve the traditional experience of film in the theatre. “I don’t want people to not show their movies in a movie theater first. I like the idea of movies showing there and then going to streaming and devices. I’m a loyalist,” said actor Octavia Spencer. But Ava DuVernay argued that fighting the new technologies was a fool’s errand. Selma, her theatrical release with an Oscar promotion campaign behind it was seen by a quarter the number that watched 13th, her Netflix documentary on the prison-industrial complex. She warned that the traditional theatrical film experience was “privilege-preferred, outdated and unsustainable.”

A few of those interviewed focused on the imperative of making films more compelling, whether made for theatrical or streaming distribution. Nancy Utley, the chair of Fox Searchlight argued for making fewer, more powerful films. “We have to be even more selective, because if the audience perceives that it’s something similar to what they have seen on a streaming service or a cable service, it may not rise to the level of theatricality for them.” Tom Rothman, chair of Sony Pictures, suggested that competing effectively means raising the bar, no matter the kind of film. “There now has to be something that gives it that theatrical urgency, whether it is a small-budget horror film, a gigantic event film, or a mid-budget original drama.”

The subtext of those remarks may remind us that the success of streaming is not just a triumph of technology. Lots of new technologies have failed. The success of streaming has also been built on the production of excellent and compelling art that aligned with growing demand for the more expansive and diverse representation and content on our screens -- from The Wire, still available from HBO, to Orange is the New Black, GLOW, Homecoming, Dear White People, Pose, and DuVernay’s When They See Us on Netflix, to Transparent, Catastrophe, and Fleabag on Amazon Prime, to The Handmaidens on Hulu.

Some theatre advocates hold that television can't compete with the intrinsic power of live theatre, when audiences and artists breathe the same air in a dark room together. What that notion leaves out, though, is the dependent variable -- the play and its production must breathe meaning and life -- and draw an audience -- into that dark room. Dismal live performance audience trends indicate that this just does not happen consistently enough to sustain theatre as we know it.

The premise of Moonshot is that the best, and perhaps only, way for theatre to compete successfully is to make theatre that more consistently reaches that threshold. Theatre artists aspire to this every day without access to the enormous resources available in the film sector. The premise of Moonshot and its value proposition is that the critical decisions made at the front end of the production cycle, when the plays to be produced are selected, lay the foundation for all that follows. Better decisions are likely to precipitate from better processes and lead to better outcomes artistically and at the box office. Our early work with pilot cases Rivendell Theatre Ensemble and The New Colony is suggesting that careful examination of how these decisions are made in and of itself stimulates new ideas on ways to improve the process.

We are pleased that Lifeline Theatre, the highly esteemed company in Rogers Park that has produced outstanding adaptations from literature, original plays, and fine children’s theatre since 1982, will be Moonshot’s third case study. We are grateful that Lifeline’s case study is partially supported by a CityArts Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, with Year of Chicago Theatre funding from BMO Harris Bank and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The Lifeline Moonshot case study is one of seventeen special CityArts grants awarded as part of the 2019 Year of Chicago Theatre. (For more information visit, #2019isYOCT and #ChiTheatre.)

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