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Innovative Live Stream of Off Broadway Musical Tests the Stage Perks of Digital

Tonight the Off Broadway musical “Daddy Long Legs” will become the first show, on or Off Broadway, to live stream a full performance, free of charge on any computer or mobile device. In doing so, it’ll reap all the benefits that digital distribution can shower on live theater.

Which are what, exactly? Good question.

For the producers of “Daddy Long Legs” — not to mention the industry observers also scratching their heads over the potential of digital — the live stream serves as a test case for a promotional tactic that could either yield new ticket sales or cannibalize them. And it’s happening just as the theater world at large, which has been slow to embrace the possibilities of digital, has started to get serious about streaming.

“I really believe that digital distribution of our content is the most powerful audience development tool that we’re not using,” said “Daddy Long Legs” producer Ken Davenport.

That’s a sentiment echoed by the founders of the New York-based BroadwayHD, the Netflix-for-theater service that launched in October with the hope of not only making a buck on streamed, pre-recorded stage fare, but also of stirring up the enthusiasm to check it out live. And across the Atlantic, Digital Theatre, the London-based firm offering a similar service, was acquired by private equity-backed Big Clever Learning with an eye toward what the company sees as major growth potential.

The audience for streamed theater appears to be out there. Still in its early days, BroadwayHD didn’t provide any figures beyond the fact that since launch, it’s picked up users in nearly 150 country. But according to Big Clever Learning, the six-year-old Digital Theatre reached 190 countries and racked up 3.3 million views across its two websites over the course of 2015. Big Clever Learning chairman Justin Cooke said more than 70% of its audiences come from outside the U.K. — primarily from the U.S.

The streaming of pre-recorded productions, most which have already finished their run, is a markedly different thing than a live stream of a show still playing in New York. But there’s overlap in the audience, as evidenced by the fact that BroadwayHD has made a place on its site for the “Daddy Long Legs” live stream (captured and distributed via Livestream.com’s video platform).

For both BroadwayHD and Digital Theatre, the path to profitability lies in aggregation and a proprietary, on-demand platform. In addition to direct consumer sales, Digital Theatre generates revenue with Digital Theatre Plus, which caters specifically to schools, colleges and universities. Some 725 institutions currently subscribe. (The company also banks on the high quality of its performance captures, produced with a dozen cameras and 4K resolution.)

In the case of “Daddy Long Legs,” however, the sales drummed up by a live stream captured with two cameras and a GoPro will be hard to measure. “All of a sudden, is my box office going to explode tomorrow?” said Davenport. “No. But that’s not the goal. It’s a marketing event.”

Like any Off Broadway show, “Daddy Long Legs” struggles to attract attention in the shadow of major Broadway titles and their hefty marketing budgets. And smaller Off Broadway houses (“Daddy Long Legs” seats 150) mean word-of-mouth is slower to spread than it is for Broadway shows that can get 10,000 ticketbuyers in the door each week.

“In one night, I am hopefully getting a year’s worth of audiences to tune in and talk about the show,” Davenport said. “I just want as many eyeballs on this as possible.” To that end, he’s making the live stream’s feed readily available to be embedded anywhere from BroadwayHD to your own Facebook page, arguing that the word-of-mouth benefits far outweigh the risk of losing ticket sales from consumers content simply to stream the show at home, free of charge.

The hope is that the new awareness of the title will sustain box office long into the future, helping the $800,000 production make it into the black. The profile boost could also raise interest in revenue-generating licensed productions. (Theatrical licensor Music Theater International made the worldwide licensing rights to the show available Dec. 8.)

But while producers can identify the potential benefits of a live stream, it’s not yet clear how much they’re worth. “Right now, no one really knows how to put a value on it,” Davenport said.

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