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China – Tech sector and Film industry moves

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“China is at an end”. This lament was heard to echo through the auditorium of London’s Royal Opera House earlier this month, part of the libretto of Puccini’s Turandot. In it, a ruthless, hereditary ruler presides over the nation with a culture of fear, and everyone in the country appears to have a role affiliated with or subject to the state. A far cry from today then.

In this article, we will look at movements in China’s tech sector and film industry.

Tech: Much news is pouring out of China currently as it looks to accelerate its digital maturity and capabilities, prompting varying degrees of concern, particularly as state actors look to influence the strategy and restrict the processes of individual corporate entities. Apple’s concession of building data centres in China is disappointing. No less ominous is China’s continued investment in artificial intelligence. The opportunity is a potential wellspring of innovation, but one likely to be geared toward autocratic ends (e.g. the identification, if not ‘prediction’, of those not towing the party line). Having relaxed the market only in recent years to allow videogames consoles, China’s regulators are now terrified of the impact of such things on children. Tencent saw >$15bn in market value lost in one day earlier this month when they restricted playing hours on their number one game to two hours a day for 12-18 year olds. This move was anticipatory, after much government and media speculation over the game’s addictive nature. As the Financial Times reports,

“Two weeks ago a 17-year-old boy in Guangzhou suffered a stroke after playing nonstop for 40 hours. Last week state media reported a 13-year-old boy in Hangzhou had broken his legs jumping from a third-floor window after his parents stopped him from playing.”

Surely if Tencent is under pressure, no one is safe? So it seems; Weibo became the victim of over-eager government chin-wagging recently, with shares dropping 6% on the revelation that it was banned from showing user videos without the appropriate licence. As with many other social platforms, video is a key revenue medium. According to the FT, 20% of Weibo’s $170m advertising revenue in the first quarter was from video; Chinese social users dedicate 25% of their time on mobile devices to watching video.

Film: 2017 seems to be a year of reckoning for the motion picture industry in China. The market has spent over a decade providing increasingly huge amounts of revenue to Hollywood studios, gradually relaxing its annual quota of releases further as allegations over nefarious dealings had been largely ignored. At one time, China’s box office was predicted to become the biggest in the world at some point this year. That talk has now ceased. PwC recently made a more sober prediction of 2021. The last twelve months have seen:

  • A dramatic slowdown in overall box office in China
  • Domestic product reaching new lows of box office takings
  • Increased visibility of what appears to be widespread fraud at the box office, allocating ticket sales from one film to another
  • A higher share of revenue for Hollywood fare

These four things are, unsurprisingly, connected! There have long been anecdotal stories about how local exhibitors will give cinema-goers the “wrong” ticket for a movie – especially when it is a foreign film – giving the audience receipts for a local domestic film instead, in order to inflate its box office performance. Also known as fraud. There are non-illegal reasons for relatively poor performance too. Local product still tends to be technically and narratively inferior to Hollywood films, as well as often being extremely derivative. Of the top 10 selling films in the second quarter, only two were made at home; in previous years the balance between revenues from domestic and foreign films has been closer to 50-50. The addition of 9,000 screens has not budged the needle. As a result, Variety points out, “Many Chinese movies have opened strongly, but then faded fast”. The Financial Times writes that “China may still see its first drop in ticket sales in more than 20 years in 2017”. Regulators have added salt to the wound (aka opened up the market), scrapping the annual ‘domestic film industry protection month’, where only Chinese films are allowed to be shown in theatres. Hollywood studios should not celebrate their relative success too much; its tactic of vast amounts of Chinese product placement was commercially successful in the fourth iteration of Transformers; less so with the fifth (and hopefully last) iteration.

M&A in the industry has been affected by a wider clampdown on capital outflow, which has put the kibosh on large deals by companies like Wanda, which recently sought to purchase Dick Clark productions. Political tension means associations with Wanda and AMC Entertainment are under scrutiny, in an effort to de-risk opaque dealings, and explains the absence of any South Korean films at the Shanghai International Film Festival earlier this summer. Signs continue of US/China co-productions (such as Marvel’s planned creation of a Chinese superhero). But further international cooperation could be hit by the factors mentioned above, especially when mixed with economic realities. You may have noticed Alibaba Pictures gracing the opening credits of the last Mission: Impossible film. The company’s $141m loss last year may give pause before further such outings.

All this is happening while Xi Jinping is in the midst of important domestic machinations to reorder his Politburo, on the macro level, while also, at the industry-level, seeking to re-negotiate the existing film important agreement. The MPAA has brought in PwC (the dudes that screwed up the Oscars’ Best Picture result) to audit Chinese box office takings for the first time, in order to presumably provide increased leverage in negotiations. Currently, according to Variety, studios get 25% of gross ticket receipts, “half of what theaters usually cough up in other major territories”. Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at USC who specializes in China, is downbeat regarding the potential scope of the audit, “It would be interesting to see what is allowed and what is off limits. My guess is the most egregious forms of box office manipulation will not be investigated.”

 

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Is the price right? Battling consumer perceptions in the arts

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“Wine is valued by its price, not by its flavour”

– Anthony Trollope

It would be difficult to argue today that attendance and appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays are not, for the most part, restricted to the large niche of the middle classes. This is a pity, and interesting, given that his works are ridden with ribald language, iconoclastic storylines and slapstick humour. In his time, the plays were attended and enjoyed by the masses, ageless and classless. Such reach is the envy of productions performed today. High ticket prices charged by theatres – in a quest to secure enough funding every season to recoup the cost of production – must bear some of the blame. But does price, apart from acting as an immediate barrier to entry for some customers, also act as its own signifier of what the event entails, and the audience it is appropriate for?

In 2009, BBC’s Question Time hosted writer Bonnie Greer and, among others, Nick Griffin, chairman of the radical BNP. The ordeal was such that Greer was inspired to write an opera chronicling the evening’s events. Performed at the end of 2011, Greer hoped Yes would make an effective contribution to the UK debate on both immigration and racism. Such substantive content is what media like opera need in order to maintain relevance.”It’s relatively recently that opera has been seen as an entertainment for the elite”, Greer commented. “It used to be a populist medium – I’d like to play some role in reinstating that status”. This runs counter to other contemporary productions, such as Stockhausen’s operatic sci-fi saga Licht, recently performed in Birmingham. At one point, a string orchestra ascends into the air in helicopters, while later a cellist performs lying on the floor. It would be remiss not to mention the climax of the production, which, Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, fails to describe: “Space does not permit a description of the scene in which [a] camel defecates seven planets”. It is hard to imagine such fare being everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed, it is this sort of seemingly self-interested, arcane and intellectually challenging art that is likely to turn people off an entire medium. Some institutions recognise this. Earlier this month the Royal Opera House hosted what they called the “first in a new series of live-streamed events to feature debate, performance, and audience questions”, around the question ‘Are opera and ballet elitist?‘.

In the past though, the Royal Opera House and other institutions have been too focused on short term gimmicks, with a focus on price, to get people through the door. The thinking is broadly logical: Why don’t more people come to the opera? / The opera is expensive / Lowering prices will attract more people to the opera. These three thoughts have plausible connections, but in reality little in common. Like ‘vulgar Marxism’, such an approach reduces the problem to its most simplistic attributes. It is a fallacy. Despite this, The Sun newspaper has in the past partnered with the ROH to offer tickets from GBP5-20. The scheme was a lottery system, guaranteeing few winners. It provides little opportunity for conversion into a regular customer. Meanwhile, both The Sun and the ROH achieve their aims of shifting brand perceptions. But there is far more that could be accomplished. The BBC reported positive reactions from those that took up the offer, “What The Sun is doing is fantastic – opening the opera up to people who wouldn’t normally be able to come”. This despite the fact that opera tickets are consistently available for GBP10 at the ROH, every season. Away from price, the English National Opera tried their own tactic in October last year, inviting people to enjoy the opera in “jeans and trainers”.  But does the problem of democratising opera really have its answer in allowing people to wear denim? It seems absurd to think that a one-off event of such a nature could really attract new, long-term audiences. Indeed, The Telegraph reported on the affair, saying the ENO was missing the point, that in fact it was the “alluring glamour” of the medium that was what attracted audiences the world over; “It turns opera into an everyday thing, rather than something exceptional and magical”, wrote Rupert Christiansen. He elaborates on the problem,

“[Opera] can make for an atmosphere that outsiders and newcomers find exclusive and intimidating: it’s as though there’s a set of rules that nobody is going to explain or even admit the existence of. This… rubs up the wrong way against the Arts Council’s understandable insistence that the granting of subsidy via taxpayers’ money should mean open access at reasonable prices. Squaring this circle is a formula that nobody has yet managed to crack.”

The outgoing director of the ROH, Tony Hall – on his way to assume a new post at the BBC – wrote diary entries published last weekend in the FT. He wrote about the recent partnership established with the Theatro Municpal in Rio. Like the ROH, they are also looking to attract new audiences: “An idea I particularly like is where every seat in the house for a day a year is sold on the day for a real (about 33p)”. On the face of it this sounds noble and effective. Who wouldn’t want to see any form of entertainment, let alone an extravagantly produced opera, for a mere 33p? But let’s think about it. Doing this one day a year is miserly. It hardly encourages upselling, or long-term commitment. What it most assuredly encourages is that one day a year the opera house attracts plenty of press coverage as people line the streets queueing for such cheap tickets. Cheap tickets for one day a year is an act that smacks of condescension. And what of the price itself? Zeitgeist has written before about the power of behavioural economics. McKinsey have an interesting article on the study. To wit, for most people, consciously or otherwise, price is an overriding symbol of value. Price is used often, especially by premium brands, as a means of framing the product versus its peers. We often make irrational purchases on big-ticket items (a car being chief among these). Conversely, when something is cheap, especially when perceived as ‘too’ cheap, the consumer questions why it is at such a price, acting with suspicion. At its simplest, pricing tickets to the opera at 33p implies that it might not be something you would enjoy. The first reaction – often the most powerful – instilled in the consumer is one of trepidation.

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The Globe theatre has a simple, long-term strategy for attracting new audiences

Just as with the current government’s wrangling over minimum pricing policies for alcohol, the approach from the arts to occasionally allow the unwashed masses into their buildings misses the point. In the case of alcohol, the scheme was mainly invented to curb youth drinking, especially among the ‘working class’. But, as The Economist points out, “People on the lowest incomes, who are most price-sensitive, are surprisingly abstemious anyway; those in rich parts of the country, such as the south-east, consume copiously”. Shakespeare’s Globe does a good job of making the Bard’s plays accessible, with standing tickets for GBP5, something that Zeitgeist has taken advantage of several times over the years. It is one of the few artistic houses to have preserved this manner of watching a performance. It upholds tradition while at the same time ensuring the plays have access to a broader public. The Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square offers a few standing tickets for every performance for a mere 10p. It’s a great idea to have this option as a constant as, apart from anything else, it increases the likelihood of having returning customers who can be upsold to – or cross-sold to in the bar downstairs. Zeitgeist imagines however that the theatre could easily get away with charging ten times the amount for a standing ticket, with zero depreciable effect.

There is no doubt that a certain amount of price elasticity indeed exists with items like tickets to the opera. But occasionally releasing cheap tickets is not the whole answer. There are larger questions here on arts funding and the absence of dedicated, large-scale philanthropy in the UK that have not been discussed here, but will be important in encouraging accessibility to the arts. Earlier we mentioned the recent debate the ROH hosted asking whether people thought opera and ballet to be elitist. The problem with such a question is it immediately consigns the word ‘elitist’ to a pejorative category. One of the greatest points Jon Stewart ever made – now some years back – on The Daily Show, was that the word ‘elite’ should in some contexts be a good thing, something to be embraced. That some people excel in a certain discipline is something to be celebrated. That some art transcends others, is beautiful, challenging, creative and stimulating is something to be cherished. Instead the word and concept have become uniformly demonised. Though one could easily question ‘canon’ texts in any medium, there should be no need to mask something that is perceived as being ‘high art’, rather attention should only be paid to debunking any preconceptions about its exclusivity. Quick price gouges are most certainly not the answer to improving access to these forms of art. It takes time, relevance and above all a security in the knowledge that not everyone has to enjoy every type of entertainment. Just provide them with opportunities to be sufficiently exposed to it, without making it seem like you’re deigning to include them.