How Event Cinema and streaming are changing the future of theatre – according to StageScreen co-founder, Chris Hunt

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One of the many things the pandemic has taken from us is access to a good night out. From a glitzy evening at the theatre, to simple trips to the cinema – since March 2020, we’ve all been stuck inside our homes with nothing but Netflix for company. While the entertainment sector quietly makes plans for its grand return, a number of creative businesses are hard at work trying to bring the glamour of live entertainment direct to audiences by combining two well-loved mediums. One team of experts currently leading the way is Creative Enterprise cohort company Stagescreen Ltd, run by entrepreneur and award-winning film and TV producer/director Chris Hunt.

“We’re not solving a problem, we’re filling a gap,” suggests Hunt when we speak to him part way through his time on Creative England’s scheme for helping high-end screen sector businesses become investor ready. After noticing a lucrative area of the market wasn’t being adequately filled, Hunt founded Stagescreen in 2019 with the goal of broadening the horizons of Event Cinema. This quickly-growing industry, which sees large-scale Broadway/West End productions captured and repackaged as exclusive, high-end home viewing experiences that place the viewer in the best seat in the house, has been catalysed by the restrictions posed by COVID-19. With Stagescreen, Hunt, alongside his experienced co-founders and board members, are well on their way to capitalise on this swiftly growing niche. “Event cinema revenues increased by 37% in 2019”, notes Hunt.

“There are a lot of operas and people doing serious plays from NTLive but there aren’t many commercial shows and musicals. It only ever happens every now and then,” says Hunt of the current Event Cinema market. “Musicals are badly served and things like Riverdance and other big shows very seldom turn up there. When the Event Cinema market does put out musicals, they all make a profit – not one has failed to do so.” As for the reason behind this issue? It’s complicated: “They’re very hard to do,” he admits. “Rights entanglements can be a real problem. You’ve got unions, artists, creative directors, lighting designers and most important of all, the owners of the actual work – which in most cases can be film companies if you’re doing something which was once a movie. It’s difficult turf and it can take months to navigate.”

It’s here where Hunt’s extensive industry experience comes in handy. “We happen to know our way around this,” he tells us. “In addition to our three company heads, we’ve also got an advisory board with another four people who are all theatre producers. If I don’t know the person who can solve a problem, they do. Very few people can fill the gap we are now setting out to fill.” Shortly before COVID hit, Stagescreen put their expertise in action by presenting a filmed production of Riverdance in celebration of its 25th birthday, and while the pandemic stifled its profit potential, the show still came out on top. “It went into cinemas just before the UK lockdown and did rather well. From what we did in the UK – plus some television sales – it was in cash flow and P&L profit from the moment we started filming it. We’ve now made about 50% net profit already just on contracted sales and we’ve still got a lot of its screenings to go.”

Despite this positive start, there are a few common misconceptions that sometimes throw potential investors off. “We usually get a fair degree of interest because the story in a sentence is quite interesting: there’s a gap in the market and it’s very profitable, let’s do more of it,” explains Hunt. “The thing is, as soon as you start talking about Event Cinema, people think you’re a film company making feature films, which we’re absolutely not. More education is generally needed,” he suggests. “Revenues come back in three to six months, not three to six years for a start. Event Cinema audiences are quite predictable whereas ordinary cinema audiences are not. You can forecast revenues in a much more reliable way than you can for anything film based.” Additionally the meteoric rise in streaming adds a lucrative extra revenue source for Stagescreen, which is both hosting its own ‘event VOD’ streams and discussing possibilities with Netflix and other platforms. What’s more, Stagescreen’s industry connections help them prepare for their future: “We’re developing new productions and doing first look deals with a number of theatre companies that generate the best musicals,” reveals Hunt. “We’ll get the rights to them before they get into the West End.”

With a library of performing arts titles under their belt and an eye on eventually delving into the live music arena, Hunt is confident about Stagescreen’s future. Plus, by working with Creative England his team have been able to fine-tune their offering under the mentorship of business advisor Travis Baxter. “We needed a kick start to grow the business at the speed it ought to grow,” says Hunt on his decisions to work with Creative England. “We’re acutely aware that we can’t be the only people who have noticed just how good this gap in the market is and we’re way ahead of anybody who may think to get into it, so we wanted to get on with it. We wanted somebody to take a fresh look at what we’re doing and offer some fresh ideas. I think we’ve developed our pitch but also our plans have developed quite a long way in what feels to be the right direction,” he adds. “That’s all thanks to certain people at Creative Enterprise.”