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U.K. Theater Companies Get on Board with Cinemacasts

With bigscreen berths for 'Merrily We Roll Along' and the Royal Shakespeare Company, Brit companies embrace a growing trend

Can’t make it over to London to check out notable stage shows there? Don’t fret: You can probably catch them in a movie theater near you.

With the launch of a new West End Theater Series of cinemacasts, kicking off next month with “Merrily We Roll Along,” and the upcoming start of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon” cinema programming, two more Blighty-born options for alternative bigscreen content join the National Theater’s ongoing NT Live series, broadcast in cineplexes in the U.S., the U.K. and beyond.

Arts organizations around the world are increasingly experimenting with the new revenue streams and brand expansion afforded by the theatrical and online distribution of live-performance fare. But while those initiatives follow in the footsteps of the Metropolitan Opera’s successful Live in HD programming, which kicked off the trend in 2006, U.K. theater companies seem to have made the most concerted push into the market.

Part of that stems from the fact that both the 140-year-old RSC and the National, with its string of transatlantic stage hits (“War Horse,” “The History Boys”), have the kind of well-established global profile that could make cinemacasts a viable attraction in countries around the world. In contrast, Gotham’s biggest theater nonprofits, including Manhattan Theater Club and Roundabout Theater Company (which tried out a cinemacast with “The Importance of Being Earnest” in 2011), are major U.S. legit producers but don’t have quite the same global profile.

It’s also easier for producing institutions, such as the Met or the National, to rally around a cinemacast series as a brand-builder that benefits not just a single show but the organization and its overall output as a whole. Commercial productions can be trickier to corral, because each individual title tends to be shepherded by a unique team of producers with its own vision for a show’s business model, marketing plan and dissemination.

That’s part of what makes the new West End Theater Series notable: The revival of “Merrily We Roll Along” may have originated at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, but the version seen on screen will be the show’s commercial transfer to the West End, with Chocolate Factory Prods. joined by producers including Neal Street Prods., Sonia Friedman Prods., Bob Bartner and Norman Tulchin, Debbie Bisno, Scott M. Delman, Just for Laughs Theatricals and Tanya Link.

Gotham legiters will recognize several of the names on that list. As the notable New York-based contingent on the producing team indicates, the possibility of an eventual U.S. transfer is on the table, and the Stateside cinemacast of “Merrily,” playing in hundreds of U.S. theaters for one night only on Oct. 23, is an opportunity to gauge local interest in the title — and potentially stir up buzz at the same time.

The companies behind the bigscreen West End Series also seems to have enough of a foothold in the U.K. theater scene to suggest that an ongoing slate of multiple commercial titles isn’t out of reach. One partner in the initiative, CinemaLive, is an Australia and U.K.-based producer and distributor of arts-oriented bigscreen content (including cinemacasts of Opera Australia productions). The other, Digital Theater, has captured live performances in the U.K. for digital download since 2009.

The West End series comes fast on the heels of Broadway’s own effort to kickstart a similar cinema series of commercial Rialto fare. One of those offerings is “Memphis,” a rare Main Stem titles to give a cinemacast a go while it was still running.

For now, however, it’ll remain more common in the U.S. to catch cinema screenings of nonprofit legit fare, including NT Live’s upcoming dates for “Othello” (Sept. 26) and the org’s starry 50th anniversary perf (Nov. 2). Just added to the list of legit-centric alternative cinema content is “Richard II,” the upcoming RSC staging starring David Tennant and launching the “Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon” series (in partnership with Picturehouse Entertainment) with limited U.S. screenings between Dec. 3 and Jan. 2. It’ll be the first of four titles to be filmed live over the next year and subsequently distributed theatrically.

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