These days, it seems like you can get anything on demand: food, toilet paper, any movie or TV show ever made. The only thing that you can’t get whenever you want? Broadway shows. You might be flipping through the streaming services Broadway HD or Disney+ and wonder: why can’t I stream the shows running on Broadway now?
It seems like a simple question to ask. But unfortunately, it’s not an easy question to answer.
With the easy availability of Broadway musicals such as Hamilton, Diana the Musical, American Utopia, and Come From Away on various streaming services (and the library of shows from the U.K. on BroadwayHD), you may be wondering why more shows are not available to stream on demand. If Hamilton can do it, why not Hadestown?
The go-to assumption from theatre fans has always been that producers are scared to make Broadway shows available to purchase and view from anywhere in the world. After all, if you can watch Wicked from the comfort of your own home, why would you pay money to see the show live? It might cut into ticket sales for the live performance. Though Lin-Manuel Miranda once said that ever since Hamilton was released for streaming on Disney+, that demand for the live show only increased. But not every show is Hamilton.
There is a bigger reason why streaming a Broadway show is harder than setting up a few cameras and putting it online.
Reason 1: Upfront Costs
Theatre is expensive. Theatre is expensive to make and it is especially expensive to film. A well-produced pro-shot of a show can easily cost several million dollars. For example, Hamilton cost around $10 million to film, and that was paid for by the show itself. The team then kept it for years until Disney+ offered them $75 million for it. But once again, not every show is Hamilton.
Only 20 percent of musicals on Broadway recoup their costs in their initial run—they usually make money on the back end through tours and licensing. So for a Broadway producer to decide to film their show, they have to consider the economics: Is an entity like PBS willing to pay to fund the proshot? Are there angels (like those who funded the Diana or Sweeney Todd filming) who are willing to fund a proshot even if it doesn’t make them any money because they just love the show so much?
If the proshot is self-funded by the production itself, will the producers be able to make enough money from their stream? Will they be able to find a distributor like PBS, Disney, or Netflix, who will be willing to license the filmed version of their show? If they do make the filmed version of the show available, will that filmed version cut into the profits from the Broadway show or the tour?
There is more to filming a show than just getting cameras.
Reason 2: Unions
When it comes to filming a Broadway show, it’s not just a one-time cost.
In theatre, the playwright, composer, and book-writer gets paid a licensing fee or royalties for their work. But the actors, backstage crew, and everyone working weekly on a show is paid on an ongoing basis. The longer a show runs, the more they get paid.
The pay structure is slightly different for film and television. For instance, TV actors are paid a flat fee when filming a project, but they are also paid an additional fee every time that TV episode they are in is streamed or broadcasted; that is called a residual. The same applies to artists whose work is available for streaming: Everyone involved in the making of the film or TV show gets a percentage as long as their work is available on a streaming platform like Netflix. That is also why HBO Max has begun to remove works from its streaming platform, it saves them from having to pay those artists residuals.
Theatre artists are covered under a variety of unions: actors are in Actors’ Equity Association, directors are in Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, designers are in United Scenic Artists. And for each filmed theatre project, the producers need to negotiate with every member of the show (composers, actors, directors, designers, crew members, etc.) for how much their payout on the project would be—and if they receive a cut every time the work is streamed or purchased on demand.
There is no standard contract, right now, for the pay breakdown when a theatrical production is filmed for streaming—that means every show that is filmed has to negotiate separately how much each person working on it is paid.
During the pandemic, Actors’ Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA (the union for screen actors) did create a contract for when theatres want to do a livestream of a stage performance, such as the upcoming Between Riverside and Crazy livestream from Broadway. In those cases, the number of simultaneous streams are restricted to how many people are in the theatre, so it’s not unlimited or on demand.
But there is no standard contract for an on-demand stream of a Broadway show available on Netflix. So in short, filming a show is a complicated process, filled with negotiations that can fall apart at any moment.
What About Shows From London?
But wait, you might be asking, the National Theatre in London has figured out how to stream its shows, why can’t Broadway producers? Well for one, the National Theatre receives subsidies from the UK government, which helps fund their livestreams. And union rules in the UK are different than the U.S., and the payout for residuals is much less for U.K. productions. That is also why Broadway HD has mostly shows from the West End: residuals. Generally, it's cheaper to film stuff (and license those proshots) if the shows are done outside the U.S.
What About the New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape Archive?
There is one entity that can film actors and not have to pay residuals: the New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape Archive. The archive has complete videos of shows that have played on Broadway since the 1970s. Right now, though it is free to view, the only way to view the Archive is at the library. And there is a librarian in the viewing room with you to make sure you’re not sneakily filming the screen on your phone.
Many have asked: Why doesn’t the Archive just make itself publicly available for streaming?
For one, many of those older archival recordings only feature one camera and the video quality is, to put it kindly, pretty barebones.
Second, it again goes back to residuals. If the Library made it available to viewers for a fee, then they would have to negotiate residuals or royalties with every single person working on every single show in their archives. And most likely, they would have to create new contracts for those older shows and every new show going forward.
If anyone has ever been to the library, you can see that they don’t have the infrastructure to pursue actors from shows recorded 30 years ago to inquire about residuals and get them to sign a new contract. Not to mention that tracking royalties requires its own infrastructure (SAG-AFTRA has dedicated databases just for tracking its members residuals). NYPL had enough trouble going after people for overdue library books (and it's since eliminated late fees for books).
The Library’s status as a research archive that is only available to a select few on an as-needed basis is what enables it to house its archive fee-free.
So for the foreseeable future, you will not be able to stream Broadway on demand. But maybe that’s a good thing, there’s something to be said for delayed gratification and the ephemeral nature of the live experience. After all, not being able to get it whenever you want is what makes theatre special.