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ENTERTAINMENT: Live events go virtual, change way we see arts

by Emily Yahr, The Washington Post | January 19, 2021 at 1:54 a.m.
Bootsy Collins performs a virtual show on StageIt. (StageIt)

Liz Locke wasn't sure what to expect when she logged on to Twitter in April, cocktail in hand, for a virtual watch party of classic films. She was supposed to be attending the 2020 TCM Classic Film Festival, but when it was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, organizers announced they would instead air previous festival programming on the TCM cable channel that weekend. Locke gamely followed the #TCMParty hashtag and chatted with fellow movie fans as she watched "Network," "Casablanca" and "Auntie Mame," until something surprising happened — she realized she was having fun.

"Had I attended the festival in-person, I know I would have had a great time. But I don't know that I would have put myself out there to the degree that I did on social media," said Locke, who after that weekend saw lots of new followers for her movie-and-cocktail blog, Cinema Sips. "It was a really good way to build a community."

As with Locke, everyone is counting the days until gatherings can resume safely. But despite the disappointing cancellation of countless cultural activities during the pandemic — film and arts festivals, concerts, book tours, speaking engagements, etc. — a small silver lining has emerged: virtual entertainment events can actually be pretty great. Even more importantly, they open doors to people who might have otherwise not been able to attend, because of geography or mobility or finances. As a result, accessibility to entertainment could change for the better, forever.

CLICK OF A BUTTON

These days, with the click of a button, people can watch an artist they thought they would never see in concert, or "battles" between their favorites on Instagram. Or a Q&A with a movie director that would typically be industry people only. Or an interview with their favorite author who would normally skip their town on a book tour. While livestreaming can never replace real-life options and is unlikely to have the same financial benefits, organizers and artists have witnessed the power of opening up events to a larger audience online and have realized that fans may still crave these opportunities when the world resumes.

"This is not a short-term change. This is a shift in the way the business operates," said Stephen White, chief executive officer of StageIt, a platform that hosts ticketed virtual concerts and has been a lifeline for musicians sidelined from the road. "It's not going back to the way it was before — livestreaming is definitely here to stay."

Artists themselves agree. "None of this will be thrown away," said musician Bootsy Collins, who calls livestream concerts his "saving grace" since touring shut down. "To me, it's really just the beginning. Even when we do get back to normal ... whatever the shows or entertainment looks like, this is definitely going to be part of it."

Brit Bennett appeared on “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” as part of her virtual book tour. (The Daily Show)
Brit Bennett appeared on “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” as part of her virtual book tour. (The Daily Show)

INITIALLY WORRIED

Author Brit Bennett — whose best-selling book "The Vanishing Half" was published in June — was initially worried about her virtual book tour. "There's so many things anyone can be watching at any given time, why would anyone want to watch me talk?" she said. But the tour quickly took off. While staying put in New York, she appeared on livestreams from her hometown bookstore in San Diego as well as Zoom stops in countries such as Germany, Canada and France. She liked that anyone from anywhere could tune in, giving her the chance to connect with readers all across the world.

"I think it made the experience of publishing the book feel very global, paradoxically, while life was physically restricted to my apartment," Bennett said. She imagines that in the future, there will be hybrid live and virtual book talks and hopes one takeaway is publishers diversifying where they send their authors. "Some of the best events I've done in person have been cities and towns that people may not expect, and that's true for online events."

Musicians have experienced a similar phenomenon. As the pandemic shuttered the touring industry, artists struggled to find ways to earn money and keep momentum going from their homes. Many turned to StageIt, the online venue that also offers a chat function and the ability for fans to tip singers during the show.

WATCHED IN AMAZEMENT

Rhett Miller, lead singer of alt-country band the Old 97s, was shocked by how quickly he adapted to the virtual platform. He has played about 160 shows on StageIt so far from his home in Hudson Valley, N.Y., and watched in amazement as his viewers from around the globe have created a community. While he looks forward to the day he can get back on tour, he already knows that he'll never stop livestream concerts.

"It's hard to imagine to going back to 200 shows a year on the road, which is what I've done for my whole adult life," said Miller, who has relished the ability to spend more time with his children. Instead, he pictures a combination of in-person and virtual concerts. While a show at home is obviously different from onstage, "We're sharing a moment, and that's at the heart of any live musical performance."

White, the chief executive officer of StageIt who joined the company in May as demand for the site was exploding, said they are in talks with venues to partner on integrations, which would allow them to put cameras in bars and clubs across the country to stream shows even when touring resumes — along with clear restrictions, such as not offering a streaming option until the in-person show sells out.

'LIVE MUSIC CULTURE'

"We believe very strongly in live music and live music culture ... we don't want these clubs to die, and we're trying to help them generate revenue however they can," he said. "We also believe very strongly in a hybrid model as the world starts to reopen. ... It behooves them to be able to stream performances for folks who can't be in the room."

The shuttering of live events has also been a game-changer for local events and institutions. The Sundance Film Festival, which has taken place in Park City, Utah, every January since 1981, is going virtual later this month. A critical component of the event is filmmakers being able to interact with the audience, so executives had to rethink everything. This year, fans who live in the United States can buy tickets to screen world premieres of films in real time and view Q&As with the filmmakers; there's also another window where viewers can watch a movie on their own schedule.

"The most gratifying part of this year's festival is that Sundance fans around the country, who would never be able to go to Park City, will be able to participate," said Kim Yutani, director of programming. "It's really exciting for all parties involved, and I think especially the filmmakers."

Eva Longoria interviews Natalie Portman about her new children’s book during a Sixth & I live stream. (Sixth & I)
Eva Longoria interviews Natalie Portman about her new children’s book during a Sixth & I live stream. (Sixth & I)

UPLOADING TO PODCAST

Sixth & I, the historic synagogue and arts and entertainment center in Washington, started airing its programs online and uploading subsequent recordings to a podcast. Now, the local event space has seen 35% of its audience originate from outside the Washington area. While the building holds about 800 people, some of the recent virtual events, such as interviews with Georgia politician Stacey Abrams and "Barefoot Contessa" Ina Garten, saw well over that number.

Going virtual has also led to opportunities for the venue to showcase intriguing Q&A pairings that don't necessarily have to be in the Washington area: Andrew Yang interviewed Colin Jost; Eva Longoria led a conversation with Natalie Portman. Even when audiences can return to in-person, Sixth & I plans to maintain virtual attendance options, said chief brand and content officer Jackie Leventhal. "I think it further positions Sixth & I to be a national organization in addition to local, and there's potential there for the reach we can have and the impact we can have."

92nd Street Y, the nonprofit cultural and community center in New York, has also seen a massive jump in attendance by going virtual. In an average year, approximately 300,000 people come through the doors. In 2020, they had nearly 4 million views of programs and classes that were moved online. While they don't accrue anywhere near the revenue they used to, chief executive Seth Pinsky noted, the level of interest outside the New York area has been overwhelming, and livestreaming will now always be a part of their events.

92nd Street Y aired a performance of the Brentano String Quartet in October. While there was no one in the venue, plenty of people watched at home. (Michael Priest Photography)
92nd Street Y aired a performance of the Brentano String Quartet in October. While there was no one in the venue, plenty of people watched at home. (Michael Priest Photography)

'KEPT THEM GOING'

"It's just incredible what we've heard from people — everything from individuals who live across the country or on the other side of the world who never heard of 92nd Street Y and are now regular attendees, to people who are elderly or infirm and are essentially in isolation during the pandemic," Pinsky said. "They view the programming we produced as a lifeline that kept them going."

Sometimes, it leads to people realizing they can go beyond their original plans. The Gaithersburg Book Festival in Maryland traditionally took place over the course of one day, but when they moved online, organizers saw that far more people watched the author talks on their own time rather than live. They realized they didn't have to contain their activities to one set time: During the country's racial reckoning last summer — and weeks after the original festival date — they put together a panel of authors who talked about how diverse books can open people's minds.

"We're now going to be more intentional in the way we think about video programming," said Gaithersburg mayor and festival founder Jud Ashman. "We still need in-person (events) back ... but this will change us, and I think it will ultimately change us for the better."

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