A couple of weeks ago, Playbill published an article called “Why You Can’t Stream Broadway Shows,” explaining the many issues (upfront cost, unions, residuals, fear) that keep Broadway producers from filming their shows and making it available for viewers on demand. Our readers had A LOT of opinions on the topic. One of the recurring questions that came up was, “What about live streaming?”
If Broadway producers are worried about the cost of making their shows available on demand, and the risk of it cannibalizing in-person attendance, why not live stream the shows as they’re being performed and sell individual tickets to a virtual audience?
We reached out to Jessica Ryan, who is a broadcast director that specializes in theatre: she is currently directing the live stream of Second Stage’s Between Riverside and Crazy on Broadway, starring Stephen McKinley Henderson and Common. The show is currently being live-streamed for every performance until February 19. Ryan also directed the Clyde's live stream last year, which starred Uzo Aduba, also at Second Stage. Ryan and her company, All Together Now, help theatre producers and corporate entities figure out a way to live stream their events—besides Broadway, All Together Now worked on live streams of last year’s MCC Theater Miscast gala and NYCLU/ACLU Sing Out for Freedom Concert.
So you can say Ryan is very passionate about live streaming, as she tells us: “I'm a nerd for stuff outside the theatre, and how it can help us understand how to make a better industry,” she says, adding, “Live streaming doesn't exist, in my opinion, as a replacement.”
Ryan does have a rebuttal to the Internet claims that Broadway producers don’t want to live stream shows because of greed, saying: “There's a lot of incredibly smart, passionate, creative people across this entire ecosystem working to make it happen,” she says. “And they're working really, really freaking hard. And it's really complicated.”
Why is it so complicated? Answers Ryan: “We're going to have to build new business models and new tools to help it all work. This is much bigger than just, why aren’t we doing live streaming?”
That’s the short answer. But here’s a longer answer, for the technologically curious reader.
How Live Streaming Theatre Works
Ryan is currently working on the simulcast of Between Riverside and Crazy, in partnership with Second Stage Theater (the show’s producer) and the League of Live Stream Theater. The live stream is not available on-demand. Instead, viewers buy tickets to it ahead of time and then have to tune in at the same time as the show is being performed on stage on Broadway. As a broadcast director, Ryan is in charge of directing the five to seven cameras for the live stream, and specifying at which part in the show, which camera angle is being directed into the broadcast feed to the viewer. It’s not unlike directing a live broadcast for a sporting event or an awards show.
In order to make the Between Riverside and Crazy live stream happen, there was a lot of advanced legwork that had to be done—aside from renting camera equipment. Second Stage had to figure out how everyone working on the play was to be paid for their time. It was not enough to pay them their normal rate of working on the show—they were also paid an additional fee for the live stream. That includes negotiating with 10 workers' unions, as well as the writer of the show, Stephen Adly Guirgis.
Luckily, because Second Stage is a not-for-profit theatre, their work contracts under the League of Resident Theatre covered how cost distribution works for a live stream. Then Second Stage had to negotiate the pay rate for the camera crew working on the live stream itself, including Ryan—and pay for the broadcast gear rental.
Plus, there’s the cost paid to the platform hosting the live stream, as well as marketing and advertising the special event. Ryan declined to specify how much the Between Riverside and Crazy live stream cost, especially because Second Stage had financial assistance from the League of Live Stream Theater.
But she did say that a typical live stream for a commercial Broadway show would cost, “several million dollars.” For comparison, a live stream from National Theatre in the U.K. costs £350,000, which tells you why they film more plays across the pond.
Then there’s the issue of ticketing. Due to the intricacies of theatre contracts and film contracts, there is not an unlimited amount of tickets that can be sold to a live stream. Instead the amount of streaming tickets are capped to the amount of seats in the theatre itself that were unsold during the run. That cap means the ticket price for the Between Riverside and Crazy live stream is high, at $68—to cover the costs of the stream. Ryan admits it’s not ideal, but it’s the reality until new contracts can be created that satisfies all 10 of the unions involved and the creators of a show.
“I don't know anyone who's super happy about the fact that the tickets are so expensive for some of these theatre streams,” she remarks. “People gotta meet their budgets.” She then exclaims, again, for emphasis, “It's so complicated!”
But despite the growing pains, it wouldn’t be off the mark to say that the live streams at Second Stage have been a success. “Clyde’s did awesome, there were tens of thousands of people who watched that,” says Ryan. “They’re there. There is an audience.”
Why Aren’t There More Live Streams?
So if there is an audience, why aren’t more shows doing it? Ryan says aside from the issue of cost, the problem is not because no one wants to do it. “Theatre owners, commercial producers, platform CEOs, my friends that are on Actors’ Equity Council—everyone I run into wants this to happen,” says Ryan. “And they want it to happen for all the right reasons—which are all the way from access, to growing new audiences, to just making money.” And big Broadway musicals have been live-streamed, such as She Loves Me and Holiday Inn, both done with the help of Broadway HD.
In Ryan’s estimation, there are multiple hurdles. For one, there is a lack of industry-wide knowledge that live streaming is even doable—which is why All Together Now and the League of Live Stream Theater were launched, so that producers who were interested could be provided with guidance, so they’re not stumbling through this new process in the dark.
Then there’s logistics. Standard contracts for Broadway need to be created, so a big part of the live streaming legwork (fee negotiations) is taken care of. “You’ll probably, in my opinion, going to need something that looks closer to the SAG-AFTRA commercial rate sheet: If I book a commercial, and I go looking for what my pay rates are, it's a 27-page document that outlines all the usage fees under all these different use cases,” explains Ryan. “That's something that doesn't really exist in the same way in theatre. So that's a whole new thing that has to get built.”
There is also the fear: not that live streaming will replace live, in-person attendance. But if Broadway built the live streaming apparatus, will the people come? If any producer wants to dive into the streaming space, they need to be okay with fronting millions of dollars—a large proposition especially when many shows fail to find their audiences on Broadway and have to close. If producers can’t guarantee that people will show up for their live show, what makes them think people will show up for the live stream?
“It's just hard for a producer to be able to feel confident about saying, ‘Yeah, let's do this live stream that's going to cost several million dollars. And just cross our fingers that people show up,’” remarks Ryan. “There's good, sound business models that need to exist. So that's another challenge, especially because no one's done this a bunch of times yet.”
What Does the Future Look Like?
Despite those reservations, Ryan is optimistic that live streaming is the future of theatre. That’s because of efforts like Between Riverside and Crazy and Clyde’s. Those successes, and the ones to come, will pave the way for more producers to feel safe trying it out. It will also help provide data on what kind of audiences attend a live stream performance, and help theatre-makers figure out how to keep those audiences coming back.
“It's like, who gets in the cold pool first?” she remarks with a chuckle. “I think it's like anything else: you get that one success, you build the case study out of it, help to simplify it—make it easier to understand what it is and why someone should do it. And prove it out on paper. And then it's undeniable, right?” She also adds, bluntly, “There's just a lot of money on the line.”
Ryan compares it to how cast albums became a mainstream practice for most Broadway shows. Cast albums were not always a guarantee for every show. But eventually, producers started building a budget for a music record at the same time as the show’s production budget—because cast albums became known as a way to prolong the post-performance life of their show.
“I just keep thinking of the cast album. No one knew what it was at the time, or how it was going to help a show … Now, here we are, a million years later and there is always a cast album. That is always a line item in the original [show] budget because over the years, it had proved to drive licensing, sheet music purchases, other points of revenue,” explains Ryan. “People are not thinking about live streaming until later in the process of the show. And I think there is a future world not very far away where, just like the cast album, this is being planned for ahead of time as a marketing mechanism, as a licensing lever, et cetera.”
Ryan can also see a future where these live streams, after they’ve proven to be profitable, can pave the way for more pro-shots—footage that can be viewed after the initial run of the show is over. Right now, the simulcast revolution on Broadway is in its infancy. And Ryan is confident that seeing Broadway shows from the comfort of your own home will be more common in the future.
In the meantime, just keep clamoring for it. Tell producers that there is an at-home audience for their shows, she says. “Asking questions is the best thing we can do to help get it moving. A lot of people are trying very hard to make this happen.”