Where Are All The Good Theatre DVDs?

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.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


4 thoughts on “Where Are All The Good Theatre DVDs?”

  1. 1) Live performance has also worked very well in the music world. They sell plenty of DVDs of just about every band in the universe performing.

    2) It’s just a short jump from Live Music performances to Live Musicals. Granted, movie adaptations of musicals blunts the impact of musicals.

    3) Actually, on that note, are we counting movie adaptations of plays? Frost/Nixon? Sleuth? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? Hairspray? Mama Mia? It does become difficult for a taping of Frost/Nixon’s stage production to compete with something like Frost/Nixon the movie. Therefore, if a play is popular enough to merit putting on DVD, some intrepid film producer will one-up it by putting it on film.

    4) YouTube and Vimeo have become establishments of large amounts of live performance. Check out the vast numbers of classical music performances on YouTube, for instance. That might be the future of video-plays.

    Some thoughts I had.

    • Guy-

      Thanks for the comment. If you read the comments for the entry, you will see that people agree with you that music works well on DVDs, partially because it is a different animal altogether.

      As for the plays you mentioned-Rosencrantz movie is pretty awful and was not filmed on stage. Though it had few enough settings that it could have been.

      Frost/Nixon while not awful also did not translate well.

      Hairspray was a movie before it was a musical before it was a movie. Personally, I much prefer the music from the original movie (and the original movie.) Mama Mia I haven’t seen in any iteration, but from the movie trailers, it doesn’t appear to have been filmed on stage.

      Of those I have seen, the only movie adaptations I can think of which were not so location dependent that they could not have easily moved right on to a stage are Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations. I don’t remember if I liked his Hamlet, but I enjoyed Much Ado About Nothing. But I like that play anyway.

  2. Well, since you mentioned it – I loved the movie version of G & R are dead. Or is it R & G are dead? Anyway, I later bought the play in bookform and have now read it many many times. I’d pay to see the play if it showed up anywhere near me . . . all inspired by an “awful” DVD! 🙂

    • @Andrea, well when I first saw the movie, I kept wondering why people kept raving about it. I thought it was just boring and pretty awful. I was ready to write the show off until I happened upon a live performance and found the connection missing from the movie.


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