Opera and theatre lovers are lapping up the alternate content at Australian cinemas but, Andrew Urban asks: What to call it?
Andrew Urban

19 Jul 2013 - 2:10 PM  UPDATED 19 Jul 2013 - 2:10 PM

James 'Mr 3D' Cameron has teamed with Russia's Mariinsky Ballet to capture a live performance of Tchaikovsky's iconic ballet, Swan Lake – in 3D. Australians can see this latest fusion of stage and screen in cinemas on the weekend of August 8 - 11, 2013, the latest in a growing list of filmed stage productions brought to the screen and filling cinemas.

Is this fusion of stage and screen really cinema?

Those living in the UK or Europe (even the US) get the time zone benefit of having access to the filmed show – live. Celebrating 275 years of Russian ballet, the performance of Swan Lake at the grand, historic Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg was filmed and broadcast live into hundreds of cinemas across Russia, Europe and the United States on June 6, 2013. This was the first time ballet has been broadcast live in 3D. It won't be the last.

“Mariinsky Live is something totally new, not only for us but also for the whole world,” says Mariinsky's Artistic Director Valery Gergiev. “Mariinsky has been exploring ways to create a live 3D broadcast of one of its stage productions for the last few years. We look at this as an opportunity to not only display the qualities of our ballet company, but to do so with the newest possible technology.”

The Americans have always called cinemas theatres and movie releases 'theatrical' but now the fusion of cinema and theatre is not just a linguistic quirk, as cinemas add filmed plays, ballets and operas to augment their movie programs. And their bottom lines. Speaking of bottoms, filmed stage shows help put bums on seats – often at session times when otherwise most of those seats would be empty. More on that later.

Ekaterina Kondaurova stars in the main role of Odette and the production is a re-interpretation of Tchaikovsky's classic by the UK's Glass Slipper Company, directed by Ross MacGibbon, a former Royal Ballet dancer who is now the go-to director for live dance for the cinema.

The “face” of Mariinsky Live is the Paris based, sultry (rich) Russian supermodel, actress and philanthropist, Natalia Vodianova – who presents the show. This is indeed show-business and takes ballet towards the mainstream: Mariinsky's Swan Lake 3D will screen at some 20 locations around Australia including Event Cinemas, Greater Union, Birch Carroll Coyle, as well as at Palace's arthouse cinemas, and another 15 venues in New Zealand.

This is the first venture into filmed ballet by Australian distributor Fourth Wall, which specialises in alternate cinema content, mostly sports and children's events (eg High 5 on the international market), until now. The company's director, Caroline Karsten, says “there are a lot of opportunities for content owners in this field.” Fourth Wall and its participating cinemas are targeting ballet schools for ticket sales to Swan Lake 3D, and if demand is there, will extend the limited season by one or more weekends.

Audience appetite for alternative cinema content has been fed by recent successes such as Jesus Christ Superstar the Arena production, with Australia's Nick Minchin as Judas, a theatrically-charged cinema event and the viciously funny political satire, This House by James Graham in June, captured live at London's Olivier Theatre. Set in the engine rooms of Westminster, This House strips politics down to the practical realities of those behind the scenes. The opening weekend (June 8 – 10) sold out at all 20 participating cinemas and extra sessions were scheduled for the following weekend.

Helen Mirren took to the stage on June 13 at London's Gielgud Theatre as the Queen, in The Audience, which was filmed and released on July 5 on 33 screens around Australia - and took over $470,000 in its first two weekends. Of that figure, about $80,000 was taken at one cinema alone, in just the first 20 sessions: Sydney's Cremorne Orpheum, which made good use of its 700 seater main theatre for many of those sessions.

The Audience has generated the biggest box office of any alternative content at the Orpheum, which has seen alternate content double its share of total revenue from 10 percent last year to 20 percent this year. “Attendances confirm that our patrons recognise the name quality of these presentations and are more likely than ever to decide on seeing a whole series,” says general manager Paul Dravet. “The income from alternate content is shaping up as a major factor and has been scheduled most weekends of this year – double previous years.

“Among the many hits last year a stand-out was One Man Two Guvnors, but all titles had additional screenings due to public response,” adds Dravet.

The NTL drama program continues with Othello in October, Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth in November and Coriolanus in February 2014.

'The Met: Captured in HD' program offers opera lovers in Australia (and there are tens of thousands of them) a chance to experience one of the world's greatest opera companies in a similar way: filmed live and screened concurrently with the New York season. These filmed productions are now screened at both arthouse and mainstream cinemas, from city to regional locations, since last year, when Event cinemas expressed interest.

“We weren't sure how they'd go in a multiplex,” says Natalie Miller of Sharmill Films, who has the Australian rights to the NTL and The Met filmed productions. She also operates Melbourne's Nova, which had The Audience's second largest box office takings.

The eighth filmed season of The Met (the fifth screened in Australia) begins in October with a new production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and includes Puccini's Tosca with Patricia Racette in the title role of the jealous diva, opposite Roberto Alagna as her lover, Cavaradossi and George Gagnidze as the villainous Scarpia.

Karsten says Fourth Wall had been avoiding competing with Sharmill “in the arts area,” but Sharmill's disappointing experience with the Bolshoi on screen last year Fourth Wall felt free to test the market with Swan Lake 3D.

But is this fusion of stage and screen really cinema? Do these filmed performances get rated by film critics as do other films? Not by many; not yet, anyway. But it could be argued that a filmed play or opera is a documentary and that it could be reviewed on two levels: the stage production itself and also the filming (and shooting & editing etc) of it.

For audiences, though, such considerations hardly matter; what matters is that we (even on the other side of the world) can enjoy great stage productions in London, New York or St Petersburg - as great movie experiences and feel connected by their time-proximity to the actual performances.