The UK’s theatres have been closed since mid-March to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus and the knock-on effect has been devastating for everyone whose livelihood depends on the performing arts sector. The government’s £1.57bn bail-out package will barely scratch the surface of the damage lockdown has caused to the live culture economy. But one enterprise has been doing its bit to bring performances to audiences in their living rooms while helping to generate a much-needed revenue stream for venues and personnel.

Enter stage left Marquee TV, a specialist live arts streaming platform that bills itself as the home of dance, opera and theatre on demand; the Financial Times dubbed it ‘Netflix for the arts’. Lockdown saw subscriptions by culture-starved theatre fans soar in March and April. While it seems very zeitgeist, mediatech incubator for “global passion niches” Maidthorn Partners – whose ventures all have female founders – launched Marquee TV two years ago.

Founder Simon Walker spoke exclusively to Verdict about his vision to commodify streaming performances and the live-digital hybrid future of performing arts.

Walker, who previously held global strategy and business roles at the BBC, EMI Music and EMAP, says that the current investment model for subscription video on demand (SVOD) is a deeply polarised one.

“At one end you’ve got the global giants dominated by Silicon Valley and Hollywood,” he says. “If it’s an awfully big bucket of content for $5 to $10 a month, then it’s Amazon Prime, Apple, Comcast, Sky or Netflix. Or it’s all free like YouTube and Facebook but they are scraping your data and all of that. That’s impossible to compete with any more.

“The middle ground goes away when challenged. So my old lot, the BBC owns The Crown – it’s on Netflix but the BBC created it. Why is it not on the BBC? Well the BBC don’t have a global platform. So they can’t compete in that way.”

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The opportunity at the other end is niche content, which is Maidthorn’s specialism.

Walker says: “You could probably find ballet on YouTube, but they’ve probably ripped off rights from somewhere, or it’s amateur hour stuff, and you can probably find opera on Amazon Prime. But none of those is building a brand for all arts lovers. If you can build a global brand for a niche, content-led global passion, then that is a really interesting space to be in so that’s what Maidthorn does; we incubate businesses in that space.”

Creating Marquee TV

Walker formulated the idea for Marquee TV when he worked for the BBC Arts channel and discovered that a lot of arts organisations film their content anyway but do nothing with it as they do not understand the value of the assets they own or that they have a ready-made audience.

“For example, the Royal Opera House are our partners and they film a lot of the performances for cinema distribution but then don’t do much with them,” Walker says.

“They’ve got these most amazing productions and we can make them available globally on our SVOD platform. Not only that, but they also have a ready-made audience; they have tens of thousands of people who pay £200 a year to be a Friend of the Royal Opera House. You get a card that lets you buy early bird tickets – not even discounted tickets – and a brochure in the post a couple of times a year.

“My guess as an entrepreneur is a Royal Opera House friend is probably going to like Royal Opera House content. So if you can give them an app with their membership details and pre-packed with wonderful performances, that’s probably going to work as a business.”

Marquee TV’s master vision

There are tens of thousands of arts organisations but, as they compete with each other, they are reluctant to share data that would make it easier for, say, an Old Vic customer to visit the Donmar, or a Royal Opera House regular to go to the English National Opera. Walker’s vision is to create a Marquee TV master brand to offer an opportunity not just to build a streaming service for the arts but a global brand for the arts to help them sell tickets again.

Marquee’s role slots conveniently into the five-stage reopening plan Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden announced on 5 July, along with a £1.57bn investment in the sector.

“Stage one is rehearsal and training with no audiences and strict social distancing, and we’ve done that,” says Walker. “Stage two is performances for broadcast and recording purposes only, adhering to social distancing. Well, why would you do that if you have no route to market? Stage three is outdoor performance and stage four is indoors with a limited audience, and stage five you’re allowed to reopen.

“We are the obvious partner of choice for stage two, which is what every wise arts organisation in the UK – in fact around the world – is now thinking they should do. My team are not just helping them think about capturing performances and getting back on stage, but also how do you reinvent the performance in an environment where the audience isn’t there?”

“There’s no better influencer marketing than the Royal Shakespeare Company”

Walker says that the lockdown has accelerated the drive for arts organisations to record more of their content, not least in the US where a heavily-unionised sector means that performances are sometimes available for one night only.

“What we’ve seen in the last three months is three to five years of acceleration in people’s thinking, and the audience acceptance and the expectation is that these organisations are sitting there thinking ‘if we hadn’t thrown that away, we could be streaming it’ because we would pay them for that and we would be monetising that for them globally right now.”

Walker also predicts that the post-pandemic “new normal” could herald the return of event television.

“When we have wonderful theatre which might be a livestream or a premiere, we bring it onto the platform and announce it to make an appointment to view, in the old-fashioned sense,” he says. “We’ll all sit down on a Zoom call because Twelfth Night from the Royal Shakespeare Company is going live. And then if the arts organisation promotes that to their user base too, there’s no better influencer marketing if you’ve got a Shakespeare product than the Royal Shakespeare Company. If you can then add in the talent to be promoting it as well, then it becomes a wonderful win-win-win and super-engaging.

Simon Walker is the creator of Marquee TV.

“When Ade Edmondson played Malvolio in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Twelfth Night, their social media team created a bingo card to look out the recurring themes you get in Shakespeare, like mistaken identities. They created a series of cocktails to drink that evening while you watch it. Edmondson was live-tweeting himself and giving people a second-screen experience while watching the event.”

Marquee TV even helped with home-schooling during the lockdown. The company owns all the Royal Shakespeare Company library, including the plays on the school curriculum. Marquee made its service free to help children and worked with teachers and schools to make sure that they were staying within the curriculum, with the added benefit that accessing Shakespeare via an app is a more engaging way to keep kids locked into drama.

Making the arts more accessible with technology

Attracting a younger audience is an important goal for Walker, not least because much of it has a reputation for being stuffy and inaccessible.

“Alex Beard who runs the Royal Opera House says the problem is three words – Royal, Opera and House,” says Walker. “If you’re an 18-year-old in Scarborough just getting into ballet, it’s a big experience. If you can put that in an app in your hand that you can watch at home and also create an experience where people can engage with that, that is a future I’d like to be part of for the sector generally.”

Marquee has helped arts organisations navigate the live-to-digital shift during lockdown and will also support the digital-to-live move as restrictions lift, though the experience has done much to ingrain digital into viewing experiences.

“Sadly, we know from research that a lot of the in-person audience for, say, opera are older generations, and they are the ones who are saying they’re not going to come back into central London in a crowded theatre unless and until there’s a vaccine,” says Walker. “There may or may not ever be a vaccine; what we know is that the future will be a mix of in-person and at home. But that doesn’t mean that every night gets filmed and broadcast.”

Marquee TVWalker describes Marquee TV as “a data business masquerading as a content business”, and that presents technical challenges as well as offering business opportunities.

“We understand audiences at scale and we can drive someone who’s interested in the Old Vic to the Donmar in a way that individual organisations can’t,” he says. “Some of the data science, GDPR and regulations around how you integrate, say, the Southbank Centre’s membership database with a streaming platform in a safe, useful and interesting way – those are technical challenges.

“The other thing about tech is when you do go back into live theatre the last thing these organisations want is people handling membership cards, cash and tickets. Having an app that handles all this in a contactless mode is very interesting, from a tech perspective.

“Sometimes people think ‘oh you’re just broadcasting films’. At one level, yeah, that technology is pretty well-cooked. But creating a membership club that comes with content that enables podcast, audio, video, membership, loyalty rewards and mobile payment; the technical challenges attached to that is significant. We’re having to integrate all of these things in a way which is genuinely very novel.”

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