Last week economist Tyler Cowen pondered aloud about why there aren’t more stage plays on DVD. He had three basic theories.
1. It wouldn’t be very good. (This doesn’t stop most of what is put out on DVD. Furthermore the highly complex genre of opera on DVD works just fine and has become the industry standard.)
2. There wouldn’t be much of an audience. Yet you could sell memento copies to people who saw the plays, a few plays on DVD might hit it big, and in any case they wouldn’t cost much to produce. There are plenty of niche products on Netflix.
3. It would squash the demand for live performance. Really? Most people don’t go to the theater anyway. Those who do, in this age of 3-D cinema and TiVo, presumably enjoy live performance in a manner which is robust. It is more likely that DVD viewing would stimulate demand for the live product. Besides, they put these plays out in book form and no one thinks that is a big problem.
In my mind, it is actually the comments that really bear reading. For two pages, people debate the reasons. Some blame all the unions, producers and other entities that seek to preserve their intellectual property and financial interests. One person suggested there are play people and film people and never the twain shall meet. Others blame the cost. When you turn a movie into a DVD the primary material has been edited and is ready to go. With a play, you have the cost of the production and then the cost of filming and editing on top of it. As one commenter implied, there is also an entirely different marketing approach when promoting a DVD than a live performance. Films can effectively adapt the television ad for the theatrical release for the DVD release because people are already familiar with the material from the first advertising campaign.
The biggest general consensus though was that stage productions don’t translate well to film in terms of setting, acting technique, costuming. People have an expectation of video that staged productions can’t deliver and vice versa. An apparent theatre person using the handle, “Meisner-trained,” noted that “Much of the world’s great literature is in the form of a play — I am embarrassed at having to say this, so I won’t even provide examples. (In contrast, even “great” screenplays, like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, aren’t great literature!)”
The real reason I say the comments bear reading is due to the passion with which people argue for the validity of both live performance and film. These are the people you want on your board and advocating to government and civic groups on your behalf. My assumption is, “Meisner-trained” aside, there are more than just arts people reading and commenting on an economist’s blog. The Epicurean Dealmaker, for example runs a blog on mergers and acquisitions and notes, “A great many forms of art derive much of their power from the way they satisfy, push up against, and transgress their own limitations. (Think sonnets, or haiku, for example.)”
Something I was interested to note. Most of the comments dealt with Cowen’s first two hypotheses-quality and lack of demand due to poor quality/different expectations of the DVD medium. Almost no one addressed the idea that DVDs would undermine interest in live performance. Only the person who noted that recordings of Broadway shows aren’t available until after the show closes really addressed that idea. (Though there are a couple of less direct implications). While the comments on a blog entry are hardly scientific, the dearth is enough to make me question the validity of a objections to recordings on the grounds that it will undermine interest in live performance. I wouldn’t roll out a DVD of Les Miz during a local run, but I suspect that the existence of a DVD released a few years prior won’t significantly dampen interest in a live performance.