Live broadcasting at a theater near you
In the expanding world of live theatrical HD broadcasting, most of the business gets done not in some bustling hi-tech office space, but by a husband and wife in a Brooklyn brownstone with a stroller in the front hallway.
That’s where Julie and Robert Borchard-Young live, and also where they run BY Experience. The five-person outfit has cornered the market on a growing sector of the entertainment industry: live events, especially opera and theater performances, broadcast in high definition to movie theaters around the world.
The couple successfully launched NT Live last year with productions beamed from London’s National Theater of “Phedre,” starring Helen Mirren, and “All’s Well That Ends Well.” The series continued with a Jan. 30 broadcast of “Nation,” adapted from the bestselling Terry Pratchett kids’ novel.
Once a show is simulcast to other locations in its timezone, Robert uploads the footage to a satellite. Participating cinemas then download that file (during as small a time window as possible to save on satellite fees). Theaters around the world will show “Nation” at the same matinee time it’s being broadcast in England.
There’s little lag time between events. On Feb. 4, BY will upload a staged broadcast by Garrison Keillor of his popular National Public Radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” Audiences are expected to be huge, with 140 NPR stations promoting the show.
“The theaters are really happy to have something generating business on a Tuesday or a Thursday,” Julie says. “I think we’ve had something every month.”
Julie had a career at Sony music before she and Robert started BY; Robert, who arrived in the U.S. from Ireland by way of the state department’s green card lottery, was a music promoter for trend-setting acts like the Frames (whose frontman Glen Hansard starred in Oscar-winning indie film “Once”) and Pogues singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan.
The Borchard-Youngs started out using the live broadcast tech they developed to get concerts into theaters in places artists wouldn’t be touring.
They began their professional life together with a Melissa Etheridge concert in 2003 (filmed and broadcast in standard def to auds in Germany and Holland), but had their HD breakthrough with David Bowie.
And the genre has ballooned — Disney’s 2008 3D concert film “Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds” opened to a $31.1 million weekend despite being released in fewer than 1,000 theaters.
But the couple were onto something new by then. Julie’s old colleague Peter Gelb, the former head of Sony Classical, had taken charge of Gotham’s Metropolitan Opera, and Julie saw a match. BY began broadcasting the Met’s productions with the 2006-07 season — an enterprise that grew so quickly that a broadcast of “Eugene Onegin” drew 50,000 viewers worldwide.
Gelb has since renewed BY’s contract for three consecutive seasons, and while reported figures put the Met’s per-simulcast cost at more than $1 million, the return on investment has been significant enough to keep the program running. The Met estimates the 2008-09 season alone sold 1.7 million tickets.
Robert says the numbers aren’t hard to fathom — the live simulcasts provide counterprogramming for people who want something new. “A lot of our cinemas in Europe are offering different concessions, like coffee and tea and wine,” he says. “My mother tells me the older people are dressing up to go to the movie theater to see opera now. With this, they can go out and feel really cool.”
Adds Julie: “It’s great if we all make money, but (this is) a little more mission-driven. It’s about bringing great art to people.”
Those might sound like fighting words to the profit-conscious, but mission-driven or not, business is booming, and producers are thrilled to have a nationwide — and sometimes worldwide — outlet. The couple distributed the BBC’s “Last Night of the Proms” concert, BBC’s Electric Proms with Robbie Williams, and two versions of “This American Life Live!”
For the larger events, BY works with a la carte distributor Fathom Events; for the smaller ones it has relationships with a network of some 350 movie theaters across the U.S. (in places ranging from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to Tuscon’s Intl. Wildlife Museum), and more abroad.
Next up, BY will broadcast a New York Times-curated “Times Talks” installment featuring creatives from ABC’s “Lost” on May 20 — five days before the series finale. After that, fresh challenges await.
“It’s possible to do 3D now, although you’d have to sell out six or seven hundred theaters at $20 a pop just to break even,” Robert muses. “But it’s bound to get cheaper.”