When theater companies started live-streaming play readings, concerts, and other events last spring, after Covid-19 shut down stages, most figured it was a temporary fix—but not Stellar CEO Jim
who points to BTS.
On the face of it, K-pop’s global superstar boyband doesn’t seem to have much in common with Broadway, Off-Broadway, or regional theater companies.
But as McCarthy sees it, the lesson BTS recently taught the music industry—that live-streaming is not just a stopgap measure but an innovative tool that’s here to stay—applies to live theater as well.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love live entertainment,” he says, admitting that there’s nothing like the thrill of being packed in a theater or club watching humans on stage. But the option of watching those same humans on screen via live-streaming has enormous potential to expand accessibility, build brand awareness, and earn revenue.
“It’s great when you’re in the theater,” McCarthy says. “But when the seats are full and the door closes, if you’re not inside you miss out.”
Why not open the doors, he suggests, and let more people in virtually?
Stellar does just that, providing an all-in-one ticketing, marketing, and streaming platform to help clients shape, upload, and beam content to fans. Officially launched in October, Stellar has worked with a variety of groups, like Los Angeles’ 661-seat Geffen Playhouse—their buzzed-about, immersive online show The Present, starring sleight-of-hand philosophe
debuted in May and sold 7,394 tickets for its finale stream in October. Or Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill—a cast-reunion concert for the
musical streamed this month, raising funds for regional theaters, with some 12,000 fans trading comments and emojis in an on-screen chatroom in real time. (Total sales figures were not available.)
Stellar is a clever, Covid pivot. In 2002, McCarthy co-founded
a live-event ticket-seller based in Pasadena, Calif., that serves some 8 million members in 26 cities. When live entertainment screeched to a halt this year, McCarthy helped develop Stellar, realizing the sector’s revolutionary potential.
The live-stream revenue can be significant, as BTS proved this year when the band held a blow-out “Bang Bang Con” event in June, charging $35 a ticket ($26 for BTS Army fan club members) and drawing some 756,000 viewers. They topped themselves in October with their Map of the Soul On:E event, which garnered nearly one million viewers in 191 countries.
Rising diva Dua Lipa then snagged more than 5 million viewers for her Studio 2054 live-stream, which debuted in November.
Could it work for live theater? Even a fraction of those numbers could prove lucrative. And artistic directors at regional theaters, from New York’s Public, Signature, and Vineyard theaters to San Diego’s Old Globe, admit they’ve been astounded by the response they’ve gotten to their recent online offerings.
“What I’m saying to the theater industry is there’s this power in your hands now,” McCarthy says. “It grants you the ability to make money and expand your reach in ways you never could before.”
Penta recently caught up with McCarthy by phone to discuss innovators, skeptics, and a crazy pro basketball what-if.
PENTA: When people talk about the pandemic, they usually say how eager they are for life to return to normal. You seem to be hoping for the opposite, at least when it comes to streaming live events.
Jim McCarthy: One of my biggest fears is that we come out of this and haven’t learned anything. I love live events. But the theater has a gigantic opportunity here.
What’s the biggest misconception?
This isn’t just an upgraded Zoom event—the kind of thing we got sick of in April. The idea of pointing a camera at a stage is fine. But people are beginning to say, huh, if we design the experience for this new medium, what might that look like?
Take participation. In live events, you can clap and cheer. With the Jagged Little Pill event, people watching at one point chose the next song. The chat on the screen was a lovefest. Fans shared their favorite songs. Some seemed to know each other, or they’d gotten to know each other by the end. There are close-ups, lighting effects and pre-show content you can do online that you couldn’t in person.
But if we get live theater at home onscreen, will we stop going in person, and lose the essence of it?
The National Theatre Live program [which films British theater for cinemas] is now a decade old. They say it builds audiences in theaters. The reality is there are untold thousands of people around the world who’ll never make it to Broadway. Who’d love to give the industry their money. But can’t. Which is a shame.
For skeptics I offer a kind of thought experiment. The NBA [National Basketball Association] has been one of the most successful leagues since the 1980s. Imagine some bizarro-o version of the world in which the basketball community had gotten the idea that if you made basketball easy to view on TV it would diminish the value of tickets in the arena. Weird, right? What if the basketball commissioner said, “You know what? We really need to protect the live game.” It’s a big part of their business, not to be sniffed at. Imagine a world in which they made it impossible to see basketball on TV. Now flash-forward to 2020. Do you think the NBA would be bigger or smaller, more or less successful than it is today? [He laughs.] I mean, it’s pretty obvious—that would’ve been a bad move.
I’m not saying we should air every show. But think how many tickets you could sell for opening night of a new show? Or the first night “
” returns to Broadway? You could do a lot with that. There’s a lot of potential there.