Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Disruptive Digital kisses the movies, flirts with the theatre

People are by nature social beasts and whatever happens with the net and TV there is always going to be a place for mass social entertainment, or 'going out'.

As disruptive digital technologies become more pervasive they are starting to more than just nibble at today's area of interest, cinema and theatre. We all know about one man and keyboard replacing orchestras in the West End, and we're all really used to CGI creating amazing effects in Hollywood movies.

But the underlying fundamentals of these industries will and are changing. Now cinema is a lot more advanced than anything happening in theatre: Piracy and global media have combined to create 'Day and Date' releases - movies like Harry Potter or Spiderman that get released pretty much on the same day globally. More interestingly on the distribution side, we are slowly moving from being served by film projectors (incidentally I started my work career as a projectionist) to being served by digital projectors - in effect very posh, high powered TVs. Cinema owners even have the same kind of hi-def discussions as home consumers pondering whether to go for 2k or 4k projectors.

These projectors are now becoming more ubiquitous in the states, and in the UK a combination of government pump-priming and commercial alliances are getting these digital beatss into our multiplexes. There are three main results of these changes. Firstly, clearer, crisper and cleaner pictures that don't degrade as the massive rolls of film chundle through cogs and spinning things, which is very nice for the audience.

Commercially, one of the things that always restricted movie releases, like non-blockbusters and especially art-house and niche fair are 'P&A' costs, that's prints and advertising. Now we all know advertising can cost lots and how viral and net marketing can now help bring down costs. The cost that couldn't be changed, were copies of film prints, it cost around £1k for each a copy of a movie for each screen it played in - and as movies may open say in the UK in 750 screens - that's a big upfront cost. With digital, you can put a movie on a hard-disk and that's under a hundred quid - eventually you might send the movie to the cinema over the net.

Also remember that the projectors are essentially really big TVs. It means they can show boxing matches, gigs or the season finale of Heroes. Equally it might be a movie you've shot on a high def camcorder, edited on a laptop (and that equipment might cost less than £1k all in) and then get it projected at screen 4 in your local movie house. With this kind of technology the cinema could actually be the local pub with a 60 inch plasma or a church hall/youth centre with a cheap video projector - you can see the economics and type of content played might change somewhat.

In the UK, you are beginning to see the effect: Places like my local cinema taking part in a season of classic British movies re-released for the summer - it also has small festivals and plays 'niche' low budget movies aimed at the big local Bangladeshi community. Some cinemas have a couple of screens dedicated to the current Rugby World Cup. It's also my mate who made a movie with some massive TV stars, shot relatively cheaply on HD cameras and soon to be released in cinemas and on DVD - those economics just wouldn't have stacked up 5 years ago.

The result, well who knows. I imagine a lot more specialised niche content - more choice and more opportunity to see things that speak to you. Blockbusters will still be there though. The cinema itself will be less of a place to see movies, and more of a venue for all kinds of entertainment - maybe your 10 screen multiple will have 4 screens of 'blockbusters', 2 screen showing a variety of 'niche' movies, 2 screens having play-offs for an X-box championship and another 2 showing sports events.

Now whilst the cinema is increasingly being fundamentally changed by Digital, the theatre is taking its time. That's cool, its a grand old dame who's currently flirting with online marketing and computer controlled lighting.

But think back 2,500 years ago and theatre was a bunch of greek blokes wearing non-expressive masks pretending to be women going on a sex strike. 400 years ago theatre was still a bunch of blokes -t his time in expressive make-up with pretty young boys playing the ladies, still acting in a stilted, artificial style.

Nowadays, pretty much anything goes - its an audience mainly, but not exclusively looking at some kind of stage and being entertained, stimulated or perhaps bored.

There is a lot of discussion about theatre being out of touch with a mass market audience and some people are trying to shake that up and redefine what theatre is for a new age. That could be by the choice of content (Shopping & F****ing); by how they interact with the audience, say having the actors outside the theatre and in the lobby being in character and getting the crowd in the mood (The Old Vic) or its even a whole bunch of experimental theatres taking plays on walking tours, or using multiple rooms in industrial spaces as their stage and auditorium.

I'd like them to start moving to the next stage, taking hints from Alternative Reality Gaming, and online dramas such as Bebo's Kate Modern. Imagine booking a play ticket, but the performance starts a week beforehand with a more immersive experience: maybe love emails from one of the characters; You Tube'd clues ahead of a whodunnit; background articles for a political play; or playful text messages or vlog entries ahead of a comedy.
It might be as simple as having a lyrics sheets emailed ahead of a musical. Imagine a school show for teens where they can text their advice onto screens on stage and have actors react.

Maybe the performance is 'flashmobbed' where the audience get texted an hour beforehand and get told which venue/space to show up in - now that would be a great unsettling start for a creepy Macbeth, or a ghost story.

Now that's just a bunch of random ideas, and I know some Directors will throw their hands up in horror, but I think its a great creative tool and I'd pay money to have my comfort zone played with.

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