Theater a click away

Legit curtain up on the 'Net

The impossible dream of wedding theater to new technology becomes a reality this week: Basil Hero, president and CEO of the Broadway Theater Archive and the newly created Broadway Digital Entertainment, completed a $3 million private placement on Tuesday, making 37 historic taped legit performances immediately available on VHS.

The $3 million comes on top of the company’s initial $1.3 startup investment in 1997, which went for legal research and rights acquisitions to a 300-title library of legit performances originally taped for television by such sources as network TV and PBS’ WNET New York and KCET Los Angeles.

Monies came from founding investor Michael Fuchs, former chairman of HBO and Warner Music; Psicon, a joint venture between Psilos Group Managers and Bear Stearns Constellation Ventures; the New York City Investment Fund; and WaterView Advisers. Broadway producers Chase Mishkin (“Dame Edna”), Anita Waxman (“Cabaret”) and Richard Pechter (“Titanic”) have also invested in BDE.

Tape restoration

“The $3 million goes toward digitally restoring and encoding the tapes, which allows for video streaming on the Internet and the creation of digital video discs,” Hero said.

Money also went to improving and relaunching BDE’s Web site (Broadwayarchive.com), which is the company’s major conduit to the video-buying public.

“Homevideo has not been a fertile area for this,” Fuchs said of taped theater productions. “There hasn’t been the shelf space in video stores. But on the Internet you can focus. The fans are there, this is the most efficient way to distribute these titles.”

This week’s VHS releases include such historic WNET productions as “Journey of the Fifth Horse,” with Dustin Hoffman in his first starring role for TV (1966); “Hogan’s Goat,” with Faye Dunaway (1971); “King Lear,” with James Earl Jones and Raul Julia (1974); and “Secret Service” with Meryl Streep in her television debut (1977).

Historic productions

Other taped productions yet to be released include “The Moon and Sixpence,” with Laurence Olivier (1959); “Hedda Gabler,” with Ingrid Bergman (1963); and “Wuthering Heights,” with Richard Burton and Rosemary Harris (1958).

Hero plans to bring 35 titles to the market every three months. The next installment will be released March 1. In addition, PBS will rebroadcast some of the productions in its new “Stage on Screen” series beginning in January.

Taped theater “is the last great video library to be aggregated,” Hero said. Besides video sales, broadcast syndication will provide the other major source of revenue for the company. “Virtually every one of these productions has not been seen since it was first broadcast. It’s virgin material, particularly overseas.”

Cooperative effort

Surprisingly, securing rights to the taped performances was not a legal nightmare. According to Hero, the theater community — unions, directors, writers and actors — provided full cooperation. “It was a perfect intersection of cultural and economic interests at work,” he said. “We were digitally restoring these prints, which were in real danger of deteriorating completely. Unless we restored them, no one would have made a nickel from these productions.”

Participants received a minimal upfront payment with a percentage of the backend. “We thought 25% (of the taped productions) would fall through the cracks,” Hero said. In the end, only one — David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theater,” with Ellis Rabb, for “Great Performances” — could not be secured. Hero estimated that it has cost $10,000 to $30,000 to digitally restore and encode each production.

In addition to archival activities, BDE has an eye on pay-per-view, hiring TV producer Ellen Krass (“Sweeney Todd,” “Follies,” “The Gin Game” for “Great Performances”) to head its new production division. “We have to offer a season of theater (on TV), not just one production,” Krass said. “There are many ways to do this, but it can’t be done the way it was in the past.”

Where many others have failed, Hero, Fuchs and Krass think they have a chance. Investors Mishkin, Waxman and Pechter have expressed support in making their respective legit productions available on a pay-per-view basis. Hero also mentioned the goodwill generated by the company’s restoration work. “If there is a business for theater, this is the logical place for people to go,” he said.

In his previous career at HBO, Fuchs had more than a little experience with bringing theater to the tube. “In the old world, there wouldn’t be a theater TV channel; in the new world, where everyone is looking for something to do with new digital opportunities, there is a shot,” he said. “If you go to a spot where no one has gone before, you have a chance. And right now there’s not a traffic jam to do this stuff.”

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