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Arts eyeing film and TV

Arts companies' digital production plans are both commercial and altruistic.

Local subsidised arts companies led by Opera Australia are on track to try to replicate the successes seen at London's National Theatre and New York's Metropolitan Opera, which have found new income and audiences by recording stage productions for cinema release.

Sue Donnelly, the executive director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group, which represents all 28 of the major subsidised companies, says it's inevitable these companies will move beyond live presentations and produce works for screen distribution and downloads.

Opera Australia has a commitment to record five of its productions a year for DVD release and in July launched its arrangement with Greater Union cinemas to screen its operas beginning with Rigoletto and The Mikado.

"We want to record our works for altruistic and commercial reasons," says OA chief executive Adrian Collette, arguing that its purpose is to cover - or surpass - costs of a recording (which can be up to $250,000 a shoot) and reach new audiences outside Sydney and Melbourne where it performs.

The prospect of the National Broadband Network (NBN) has also hastened the way arts companies are looking at digital technology - and what better way to use it than to show the works that taxpayers subsidise?

"I would like to see as much produced for screen as on stage in 20 years," says Collette of his company's output. "I would like to think of Opera Australia as a production house making opera to be delivered on many platforms." In addition to its DVD releases and cinema contract, the OA is talking to SBS's pay-per-view arts channel, Stvdio, to produce opera on purpose-built sets for a television audience.

SBS's head of subscription channels, Sandra Bender, says she has $1 million a year to spend on local production and is discussing premiering Opera Australia productions on television that may or may not be produced on stage later.

"Many people don't know how to make great art content for TV. Just recording a live show isn't worth it 80 per cent of the time," says Bender, who is excited by the prospect of producing arts content in partnership with the OA and its artistic director Lyndon Terracini. "The guy's a genius," says Bender. "He thinks outside the box. If he can get a show up that can be shot on set, then it will be a whole other experience than recording a piece on stage."

Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company have also been pursuing the recording of shows for DVD and digital delivery, but have been frustrated by the recording costs, which must come out of existing budgets.

"If you have a super year at the box office then you could manage the costs to film a show which are between $150,000 and $250,000," says MTC general manager Anne Tonks. She agrees that it's a tragedy that last year's hit Richard III starring Ewen Leslie was not filmed and will never be seen again.

But the biggest impediment to filming live shows, as experienced by STC, MTC and Chunky Move, has been securing an agreement with each performer to use their image on screen. While digital delivery of stage shows is in its infancy, no one knows how much money can be made, if any, and how to pay performers.

Simon Whipp, federal secretary of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, argues that each performer has the right to give or withhold consent to having his or her performance recorded, but agrees that there is growing awareness of the importance of digital recording in the live industry. He says an agreement struck with STC this year to record its production of The White Guard for a pilot cinema release in New South Wales last month could act as a framework for dealing with all AMPAG companies.


Raymond Gill

WA Today 

September 5, 2011