‘What’s Netflix?’ High Culture Fans Embrace the New Mass Medium
The Phantom of the Opera marquee is seen outside the Majestic Theater in New York. (Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg News.)

‘What’s Netflix?’ High Culture Fans Embrace the New Mass Medium

(Bloomberg) -- Older ballet and opera lovers deprived of their high-culture fix because of shuttered theaters and concert halls are taking the plunge into video streaming for the first time.

U.K.-based Performing arts platform Marquee TV says it’s subscriber base has doubled since national lockdowns forced the closure of prestigious venues like London’s Royal Opera House, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, and the New York Metropolitan Opera. Many of the newcomers are still unfamiliar with TV on-demand.

“Our customer support lines are maxed out dealing with ‘silver streamers’ who would never have dreamed of using an over-the-top streaming service,” said Simon Walker, the founder of Marquee owner Maidthorn Partners. “When we tell them it’s a bit like Netflix, some of them say ‘what’s Netflix?’ ”

While some closed venues like London’s Royal Opera House are already making some content available for free online, Marquee has been helped by big-name theaters recommending it to their patrons. Walker’s challenge is to make sure the recent surge in subscriptions doesn’t fizzle when curtains start going back up. His plan is to begin producing original content, much as Netflix did when it shifted from running other people’s shows to commissioning its own series.

Walker aims to raise another 5 million pounds ($6.2 million) later this month, likely from family offices and high net-worth individuals who are less affected by the virus-induced economic slump. Marquee’s existing investors include Viasat World, an eastern European cable company spun out from MTG AB. About half of the new funds will go to performing artists and adding content, including Marquee’s first two shows commissioned independently of another arts organization.

“These are entirely original projects involving world leaders in their fields. This will be our ‘House of Cards’ moment,” said Walker, who previously worked on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s iPlayer streaming platform and digital broadcast platform Freeview.

Niche Players

Cloud computing has slashed the cost of establishing and scaling up a streaming video platform. Marquee and other specialised services -- covering everything from Bollywood to horror, gay interest and low-budget cult movies -- are tiny compared to the big U.S. platforms like Netflix and Disney+. With outdoor entertainment on hold, they now have a chance to capture bigger audiences.

Kanopy offers films and documentaries to users of libraries and universities. Many institutions have been promoting it with their own members during the lockdowns, leading to a big increase in daily users and new sign-ups, said its Chief Executive Officer Kevin Sayar.

Marquee takes a similar approach to Mubi, a platform for independent and classic movies that’s built a community of users by offering a more limited selection of content than the vast collections of Netflix or Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Video.

Walker said many new Marquee users are millennial culture enthusiasts streaming on their mobile handsets. He wants to expand the service to 1 million subscribers from the high tens of thousands today.

“I’m sure the performing arts will bounce back, but we will also see the mindset will have changed,” he said. “In future, it will probably be a mistake for major performing arts organizations not to invest in a high-quality capture of their productions.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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