A round of applause erupted around the theatre. The actors took their bows on stage. You could feel the exhilaration in the air.
Except it wasn’t a theatre, it was a cinema. And the actors weren’t on stage, but on screen. Yet it very much felt like being in a theatre in London’s West End. This is NT Live, or National Theatre Live, where hit shows, starring big names from the big screen and from the stage, many of which are sold out months in advance, are beamed into audiences in cinemas around the world. And it’s been a phenomenon.
‘When we started NT Live, we wanted to give people access to our work who otherwise may not be able to see it,’ says Flo Buckeridge, a producer at the National Theatre. ‘It was a bit of an experiment but it was really well received, not just in the United Kingdom, but all over the world. Not everyone is able to get to the theatre and this way, we bring theatre to audiences.’
NT Live launched its pilot season in the UK in 2009 with Phèdre, which starred Helen Mirren. It was made available to audiences in 73 cinemas across the UK broadcast live from the theatre and 200 more around the world, which brought a growing global demand. Due to time differences international screenings were usually recordings rather than real time broadcasts, but this didn’t take away from the audience’s enjoyment and feeling of being there.
The success of NT Live meant other performance arts companies followed suit. While The Met in New York City had already been screening operas since 2006, The Royal Shakespeare Company debuted with Richard II starring David Tennant in 2013, and ballets from The Bolshoi launched in cinemas in 2014. More recently event cinema has expanded to include live sports broadcasts and music performances.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been a global hit
Event cinema arrived at AMC Cinemas in Hong Kong in 2011. ‘We seized the opportunity to explore different content from around the globe and to provide alternative entertainment to our audience so that when they come to our cinemas, there are not just movies they can choose from, but all kinds of recorded live performances,’ says Judith Kwong, AMC’s film booking manager.
Since 2011 the popularity – and awareness – of event cinema in Hong Kong has only grown. Each year sees more productions and a greater number of screenings, though in an attempt to garner full houses that recreate the theatre experience more realistically, they are still limited.
There are other ways that event cinema strives for authenticity, too. ‘We really try to get the atmosphere in the theatre to the viewers in the cinema,’ says Buckeridge. Ahead of an NT Live production, for example, there will be shots of the auditorium as people sit down, conveying the buzz of anticipation for what they are about to experience. There’s also a presenter in the theatre introducing the production. “We try to replicate the theatre experience as much as possible for our cinema audiences, and we’ve been told that people clap in the cinema along with the audience in the theatre.’