Peter Gelb faced many problems when he assumed stewardship of the New York Metropolitan Opera in 2006. Declining ticket sales had badly hit sponsorship revenues, making a charitable bail-out necessary the year before; worse still, an aging market demographic made prospects of rejuvenation seem remote. Gleb’s solution was to find a new audience, broadcasting live opera to cinemas across the world. Its success looks to have sparked a revolution in the way high culture is consumed.
The Met sold out seven cinemas in the UK and over ninety per cent of participating venues in the US; by the end of its second season, they were grossing $18 million a year. Little wonder then that other institutions of sufficient size – the Paris Opera Ballet, NT, and Royal Opera House, et al – are jostling for their share of the market, making posters advertising their wares ubiquitous on the Underground.
Yet the phenomenon has attracted little critical or academic interest despite its profile. Whilst the current paucity of literature can be attributed to sheer novelty, its cause is certainly hindered by its lack of a name. Those working within the film industry have found it useful to use the term “alternative content”; those without hanker after a moniker more focussed on what the format does rather than what it doesn’t.
Offering “Livecasting” as an alternative noun, Michael Barker’s new book considers the challenges it poses to audiences, establishments, and existing aesthetic and theoretical models. But Barker’s main task is to identify areas for future research. Hinting at the contours of future controversies, Live to your Local Cinema is an indispensable primer for those hoping to study this emerging format.
Not that controversy is in short supply. The literature that does exist is markedly polarised – its commentary caught in a dichotomy of vested interests. The current front centres on the meaning and implications of the concept of ‘liveness.’ For the conservative faction – more likely to count practitioners of music and drama amongst its number – the intervention is intrusive and threatens the integrity of the live performance; the progressive side – more likely to be comprised of media studies students and liberal intellectuals – the importance of physical co-presence is defended only as a barrier to inclusion. It is therefore unsurprising that Barker advocates an interdisciplinary approach. The author singles out ‘adaptation studies’ for particular praise because it emphasises mediation. More surprising is the short-shrift given to recent research on virtual spaces. Despite their growing credibility – and the fact that audiences’ familiarity with the use of information technology will surely inflect their relationship with the broadcast – Barker has no time for ‘extended body’ theories.
A left-right split can thus be read into the literature. Whilst the author does not confront this problem directly, he does note a “clear tendency for […] livecasts to be presented as part of a tendency to wish to spread high (good) culture to the less fortunate.” In academia and the popular imagination alike, such initiatives are perceived as an unquestionable social good because they educate and facilitate social mobility. The most obvious rebuff to these claims is that there are other, more effective means to inclusion: ticket prices could be reduced, offers made, or shows staged elsewhere in the country. Nor are the cinema prices especially charitable – indeed, in some cases minimum seat prices are contractually enforced, suggesting that this is less about access and more about protecting the brand.
Accordingly, Barker identifies the economics of Livecasting as an area demanding close scrutiny; the inner workings of the industry are unclear and some hard-headed business practices hint at a darker aspect. The broadcasters are not a benign presence in the market. The promise of sold-out auditoria and premium ticket prices is bound to impact on the number of screens available for independent films, and the increasing digitisation of cinemas will see the inevitable decline of traditional film-stocks. In addition, local theatres nationwide will increasingly find themselves competing with some of the biggest company names in the world.
But the philosophy underpinning arguments that promote social mobility have also come under fire. As Owen Jones writes in Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, the act of championing social mobility suggests that lowbrow (or “working class”) and middlebrow (or “lower-middleclass”) cultures are something to transcend rather than something of intrinsic value in themselves. The validity of these objections is debatable, but they remind us that the notion of Livecasting is a civilising force is one of a number of politically charged assumptions that need unpacking.
Barker declines to examine these exaggerated benefits, insisting that such debates are perpetually renewed in the discussion on the ‘use of the arts.’ But these bear recounting. Livecasting has come to prominence in a world whose current obsession with class – expressed through media frenzies such as Plebgate, tax-funded duck houses and the clamour for welfare reform – may account for a level of success that Barker describes but never fully explains.
How, then, might class consciousness enter the picture? Early research indicates that sports fans like seeing other sports fans when attending broadcast events; these are an opportunity to identify with others and become a part of something larger. By contrast, the presentation of the live event itself appears to belong to a second order of importance. Barker applies this logic to the broadcasting of theatrical performances, arguing that audiences reinvent the cinematic as theatrical space for the duration of the show. Participants dress for the occasion; sitting in numbered seats, they drink wine instead of eating popcorn and applaud the big arias. So too, and accordingly, the prevailing manner of shooting and editing of the event tends not to draw attention to itself – the performers seldom engage with the lens and generally cameras are positioned beyond the fourth-wall. This enables those at the screening feel as though they are receiving the genuine article and thus claim parity with the audience onscreen.
But this is a complex and problematic interpretation. While some aspects of Livecasting may allow a greater number to claim ownership of the ritual, film is at the same time a fundamentally distancing medium; it positions the cinemagoers – structurally – as outsiders, a problem that the architects of the experience spend a good deal of time repressing.
Before the curtain is raised at the opera house or theatre, the camera surveys the stalls. Establishing shots such as these are said to create a sense of occasion and encourage viewers of the transmission to identify with their estranged counterparts. But the screen may have another, contrary effect. Psychoanalytic theory teaches us that the screen is akin to Lacan’s mirror – reflecting back unto the onlooker the image of their perfectly unified ego-ideal. The divine creatures we see taking their seats in the stalls are like us, but somehow perfected, lacking in nothing. Our auditorium is a pale reflection of theirs. They belong whilst we peer in. So too they are a literal, fixed part of the broadcast and subsequent repeats; they become signifiers in the symbolic nexus, a meaningful part of a glamorous cinematic narrative.
Livecasting delivers the spectacle of a spectacle. Barker acknowledges this fact, but doing so under the guise of ‘liveness’ he has allowed the terms of the debate to be dictated to him. Future work should be alert to those aspects that heighten rather than mitigate distance; to some extent, Livecasting may actually make theatregoing more exclusive by raising demand for the social ritual without actually increasing supply.
The strongest message in Live to your Local Cinema pertains to the future of the medium. Although early presentations sought only to preserve the integrity of the source material, there are signs that the observer is now affecting the observed. The camera may start to tease-out thematic and dramatic nuances that are inaccessible to those present in the flesh; so too, a growing tendency for subtle facial acting and restrained vocals sits uncomfortably with the demands of large auditoria. These are things that viewers in the cinema can genuinely claim for themselves.
Herein lays the potential for Livecasting to emerge as an art-form in its own right: one with its own critical language, aesthetic system, and etiquette. Only when there is something for communities to converge around will Livecasting attain a sociosymbolic meaning of its own.