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On Broadway and Online

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On March 12, 2020, Broadway shut down, along with almost everything else in New York City. And while other businesses in the city have begun to reopen, the lights in Broadway's 41 theaters have remained dark (with the exception of the St. James Theatre, which recently opened for Springsteen on Broadway). With capacities ranging from 597 to 1,933, social distancing simply isn't possible, and even if it were, a limited-capacity opening just doesn't makes sense financially. The economic hit to Broadway has been huge—$22 billion if the shutdown lasts through September, when most theaters are set to reopen—not to mention the human impact, with 100,000 jobs affected.

Theater fans in New York and around the world have been able to get their fix virtually thanks to BroadwayHD, a premium niche service that brings hundreds of musicals, plays, and related content to viewers for a $99.99-per-year subscription. And while its catalog doesn't feature the latest Broadway hits, it includes legendary musicals old and new (42nd Street and Kinky Boots, for example), multiple versions of Shakespeare classics, plenty of one-person shows and off-Broadway productions, and even films and TV shows that have been curated to appeal to a theatergoing audience.

BroadwayHD is the brainchild of Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley (pictured above), both former Broadway producers who boast many Tony Awards between them. The husband-and-wife team launched BroadwayHD in 2015 to fulfill their desire to bring Broadway and other theater productions to a wide audience, from regular theatergoers who simply can't get enough to fans who, for reasons of geography or economics, will never have the chance to see a show in person. 

But the BroadwayHD story really begins in 1993, when Comley and Lane did a digital video capture of The Will Rogers Follies at the Palace Theater. "It was an opportunity to extend the life of the show and extend it beyond the walls of the theater, so it would live on after the curtain came down the final time," Comley says. And they filmed 10 other productions over the next decade. "Then about 7 or 8 years ago, we were clawing and scratching to break even on these things, and we said, 'Where's the business?' And it was clear the business was streaming."

"It's very expensive to shoot in New York and on Broadway, and there weren't enough platforms out there to support that kind of expense," says Lane. "I've seen people try over the decades, with cable TV and pay-per-view, and that wasn't enough. Then came DVDs, and that wasn't enough. And then Blu-ray, and that wasn't enough. And then even alternate content in movie theaters by themselves wasn't enough. That's when Bonnie and I said, 'We want to be the first ones out there to capture the live theater experience on a streaming platform.'"

I talked to Comley and Lane, along with CTO Wally Sedgewick, about BroadwayHD's past, present, and future.

So tell me a little more about how those dozen or so productions eventually became BroadwayHD.

Bonnie Comley: Ten or 12 [productions] doesn't make a destination, so we went out and started licensing from other organizations because we didn't invent that stage-to-screen art form, but we were looking to put it all together. I think that's probably the legacy that BroadwayHD will leave behind is to be the aggregator of all of this content. If we don't have Hamilton or the Diana musical, at some point they will probably come back and land on BroadwayHD because that's the long tail for these types of shows. In 2015, we were trying to build the technology part of the site, put that all together, trying to be as lean and mean as possible with our marketing dollars with every single spend. We said we'd get 100 shows, that's when we can launch, so everything launched in October of 2015. And within days of launching, we had people reaching out through customer service and through different social media saying like, "I'm trying to watch your shows, but you don't collect my currency." So it was an eye-popping moment of, "I wasn't talking to you, how do you know that I'm here?" But Broadway is a luxury brand that's recognized around the world. Today, we have subscribers in around 100 countries.

Stewart F. Lane: Well, as Bonnie indicated, we were able to expand our library. So not only could we include Broadway, but we also could include West End. In fact, West End shows that were American musicals being done in the West End. So, we have West End shows, and we've got regional shows. We have Broadway shows, but always high-quality content.

Comley: We believe by the time a show gets to one of these 41 Broadway theaters, it really is worth being seen by a global audience, and so we're trying so hard to get every single show.

And it's not just Broadway, right? Your vision of theater goes far beyond Manhattan.

Lane: New York has a certain mentality, and sometimes it doesn't reflect the general public at large. So, a show that would do really well anywhere else in the country just would not click with a New York audience. We give them an opportunity to expand on that, to let other people and other states share what they might like. It's a show like First Date. Bonnie and I saw this in New York. It was a charming show, but it didn't hit the audience the way they wanted it to, so it closed. We just shot it recently and have it on our website as a "COVID production," and it's doing really well because it's worthy of being seen. It just couldn't economically support itself in the Broadway environment.

Wally, what's the technology behind BroadwayHD?

Wally Sedgewick: All of our work is trying to meet consumer expectations. How do we deliver on the streaming side a product that they're comfortable using, is intuitive to use, and is also a high-enough quality to reflect the high quality of the content that we're putting up there? 

We work with 24i on the front end and Cleeng on the back end. Originally, we had a very custom platform that was very expensive to maintain. But we realized that by going with third-party providers, it improved the quality of our product and made it much easier for us to improve it and to be nimble as the consumer expectations changed. It lets us share those risks with other [subscription video-on-demand] services or other streamers in general on any sort of the development, and that allows us to keep pace then with the innovation by the big players in the world.

As far as the digital capture, you don't simply set up a couple of cameras in the back. You, or your partners, shoot these productions in a way that captures the essence of the theater experience but also creates something unique.

Lane: We've really created this new art form. We don't just take a camera and stick it in the back of the theater and record. We were able to use 14 cameras when we shot She Loves Me. So you not only get the best seat in the house, you get all the seats in the house. Plus, you get point-of-view shots, pick-up shots, close-ups. With an audience, we'll shoot maybe three shows and then edit them together with the best scenes. It gives you a new experience, maybe in some cases, a better experience, but certainly a different one than you would get in the audience. We also had a camera on the conductor as well during that, so you get the whole ball of wax there. That's part of the experience of BroadwayHD.

Comley: It's always respecting the vision and the integrity of the stage creators. If you go in with a camera, you could make it a very different show. But we go in, and we want it to look and want it to feel as if you have an experience within the theater. So, as Stew said, we have all these different cameras, so it's all these different angles. We enhance lighting and sound, and the lighting is more enhanced for the purpose of making it look on your screen the way it would look to your eye if you were in the theater. With HD and the 4K cameras, it's getting closer and closer to being there, but we still need to enhance the lighting and the sound. But other than that, there's no redirection of the actors or their performances.

It's supposed to be as if you were in the theater, unlike when you do a movie [version of a theater production], and you take it to a totally different place. If you've ever brought children to the theater, you know the value of theater and using your imagination and suspending disbelief. You go into the theater and somebody says, "Oh, yes. And so here we are on the moon," or "Here we are. We're underwater." They don't need to be underwater, but people will just go along for the ride. The same way when two people get done talking and then they pick up their chair and walk away. You don't say, "What the ...?" You just accept that we're going to the next scene. But in a movie, you need to see whoever it is, Matt Damon, I need to be convinced he's on the moon. I want all the special effects. I want it to cut from one scene to another. I don't want to see somebody moving the set piece to go off to the next scene. You're just using your brain in a very different way, and I think that nothing does that the way theater does.

You mention children and families. You're really bringing Broadway and other theater to people who might not otherwise get to experience it.

Comley: We're getting more requests for family-friendly content, more for children because these people that love theater as an art form are seeing the value of BroadwayHD as the training wheels. [On Broadway,] we're talking about $100-plus a ticket. [To take kids] to a theater when the curtain's going up at 8:00 and tell them to sit quietly, don't fidget, and … save your questions till the end of the show or the ride home—that's a lot for young people. Stew will tell you, they used to run down the aisle in the Palace Theater and out the door for Beauty and the Beast because it was so … scary at the beginning of that show.

Lane: They were paying full price for that too, and then no refunds to the show!

Where do you want BroadwayHD to go in the next couple of years?

Sedgewick: We're at a very interesting inflection point within the theater industry and where we see ourselves. Technology-wise, our goals all center around usability and scalability. We see, as theater evolves, a real opportunity for us to grow, and so we want to make sure that we're able to give the user the experience that they deserve and at the same time make sure that we're strong enough and robust enough on the back end that we are able to meet some of our content goals. We really rely on Cleeng and 24i quite a bit on that in managing them to make sure that we're able to do that.

Going over to the strategy side—we're a New York company, and New York theater has been decimated here. Our real strategy is to be part of the community in relaunching [live theater]. We have this open geography, so we're able to reach quite a bit more and help develop that Broadway brand we talked about earlier outside of New York. We're figuring out ways via content and marketing to help not only BroadwayHD but the fuller Broadway community too. We're partnering with people. It's show business too, so we've got to sell it. It's got to be something big and splashy. We're seeing that as an opportunity to help the full community recover.

Comley: We were about accessibility before the pandemic. It was about bringing Broadway to the rest of the world that can't get there. We're about eliminating barriers, whether it's geography, that they just couldn't get to Broadway or one of the touring Broadway theaters; whether it was the economics of they couldn't afford the $125 for the average musical single ticket; or whether it was any sort of physical limitations or they couldn't get to Times Square. They don't drive at night. They're not comfortable in a crowd.

But it's just like the world ended a year ago, and so now we're serving a terribly under­served global audience with this content that's not ac­ces­sible and not available anywhere else. Our fans are ... a very sticky demographic, and they're always trying to bring in friends. BroadwayHD is now how these people pass this art form on to the next generation or the one after that. So, they're giving these gift certificates to their children or their grandchildren.

Lane: An extension of that going forward is to get more content. BroadwayHD is going to be much more active in producing and partnering with live stage productions to shoot for BroadwayHD exclusively. We're already talking to many producers about not only shows that have been done and are touring companies, but shows that are about to be done, shows that haven't been on Broadway yet. In fact, shows that are hoping to come to Broadway and want to use BroadwayHD as a platform to market their show and raise money to say, "Listen, this is the show we want to bring to Broadway. You saw it up in Canada. This is the production. We want to bring it to Broadway." They actually see us as a money enhancer for their product. We see a big expansion there. We're just scratching the surface of what we have here, but we're the pioneers. The wilderness is out there for us, so we're ready to go.

Beyond these other accessibility issues, how are you trying to address issues of diversity around Broadway in specific and the theater in general?

Comley: The demographic of the Broadway ticket buyer is a female over 40, white, higher disposable income, and a master's degree. That is even more exaggerated once you do the touring theaters and who gets to see those shows. It's all made primarily by white men. So how come all these women are buying these tickets but none of the shows are written by women? If you look at the last full season, there were like two female directors, two composers, one playwright, and one lyricist.

Imagine the amount of people that would come in if you had different stories. And the BIPOC community is even less represented. So, when we see shows that are the high-quality shows like Pipeline, like Indecent—these things that we can then put out for the rest of the world, and they can inspire. So, it's not just the accessibility of who gets to see the shows, but whose shows get to be seen. I think that's a huge responsibility for us and an honor to be able to present those things.

[This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Streaming Media Magazine]

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