When Marquee TV launched in 2019 it was described as the “Netflix for the arts”. Since then it has expanded its platform and grown its list of content partners to include the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and The Washington Ballet. Director of Content Susannah Simons takes Juliette Barber behind the scenes of this leading arts streaming service
Firstly, you have an immense catalogue featuring productions and performances of ballet, opera, theatre, classical music and dance. Can you explain how this came about?
We have about 700 titles from companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), The Washington Ballet, The Royal Ballet, La Scala, Teatro Real and the Royal Opera House.
It’s like having a virtual front-row seat and every production is handpicked to make sure audiences are getting the very best.
When we launched in 2019, there was a lot of material sitting on distributor shelves, especially in Europe, as the opera and ballet companies were not only funded by their local governments, but were also paid to make films of their productions for the local television stations and the cinema. The plan was to release all the material on DVD, but of course, that market died a death.
Initially Marquee was able to licence a lot of those very traditional opera and ballet performances from the large European houses, including La Scala and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), who have played a key part in what we do.
What content do your audiences gravitate towards?
Dance is our most popular genre and we have a wonderful collection of contemporary dance, which tends to attract a younger audience. Our classic story ballets are very popular too and we have a number of versions of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. We curate quite heavily and it’s interesting to see how different choreographers and dance companies have responded to Tchaikovsky’s scores.
I did come across a journalist in the States who made her husband sit down and watch all of our versions of The Nutcracker over Christmas one year, but I think she’s the exception. And if you love ballet, then why not?
You have been at Marquee TV since its inception. Can you tell us a bit about your role as its Director
I oversee and work closely with the Acquisitions Manager, Zahra R., making decisions about what we do and don’t buy and being really clear about how we differentiate ourselves from other streaming companies. We don’t always agree, but that’s how it’s evolved.
My role allows me to be creative. I enjoy co-commissioning and working closely with arts organisations and individual artists to make content for film and video. This kind of work has a creative integrity of its own on screen and supports the work they’re doing on a big stage.
Can you explain how you go through the process of curating?
Zahra and I work on the curation six months in advance. We look at what’s happening in the real world, and we’ll set our trays accordingly, for example, romance in February, Halloween, Christmas, and so on. We also curate according to themes and there’s always a “New to Marquee” tray on the homepage.
In August we tend to focus on short films as people don’t necessarily have loads of time. But if you’ve got some really innovative and exciting short form, our audience is more likely to watch a bit of that whilst they’re travelling.
Traditionally, in September everybody’s launching their new season, so we focus on our partnership organisations’ content.
Can you tell us about Marquee’s audience?
Our largest audience is in the US [around 65%]. They may never visit Europe, so watching a Shakespeare production with the RSC is a really lovely thing for them to be able to do. After the US, our largest audience is in the UK, followed by the English-speaking diaspora: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and then our other global subscribers. We have a sizable audience in Germany as well which is interesting.
We do have a younger audience than we originally anticipated. They tend to be more fickle and will come and go, while our older audience [55+] often attends these performances live and then rewatches them on Marquee.
Understanding audience behaviour and making sure that you have a range of material that works across all viewing platforms is key. It makes a difference if you’re watching via the app on your TV as you’re more likely to sit and watch the whole thing because it feels like a big performance. Whereas if it’s on your computer or your phone, then you’ll probably watch it for 20 to 50 minutes, but you tend not to watch a whole recording in one go. Sometimes people do, for example audiences get absolutely hooked on Akram Khan’s Giselle [with the English National Ballet] and will watch that in one go.
Also, our audiences tend to behave quite differently. An opera audience is more likely to watch theatre, a dance audience just wants to watch dance, while an orchestral audience will go to opera as well, because they often have the same conductors.
How much of a role can you play in shaping your audience’s journey?
You can encourage a person’s journey in different ways. If a visitor wants to explore material by a certain performer or organisation, we can curate a journey to introduce them to other recordings that may be of interest and allow them to experience something new. Otherwise, people tend to watch the familiar and we want to direct them to the wealth of really wonderful content available.
As a viewer, you could just visit for a month and consume a whole host of content and then leave, but what usually happens is that audiences return to watch an organisation’s latest offering. It’s like serialised content on the TV.
Obviously the recordings need to be licensed; can you explain how this works?
We licence the recordings for an average of two years because you can only clear the rights for a certain period of time. During this period we promote them and replenish a lot of the content, and hope that people watch them. If we can renew the titles that are working well for us, then we will, and sometimes it’s worth clinging on to a title in the hopes that it’s a slow burn.
We pay a flat fee in advance, which seems fairer all round. The fee will vary enormously on the type of content, its age and whether it’s coming through distributors.
If we’re doing a co-commission, that will be more expensive as we’ll put in more money in return for the SVOD [Subscription Video On Demand] rights for a certain period of time – sometimes that’s two years and sometimes it’s as much as five.
The market is evolving as nobody can afford to do something outright nowadays, so we’re forming lots of partnerships. You’ll find that a single production has four or five people who are each buying a certain proportion of the rights. Some people will want the television rights, others the cinema rights and we want the SVOD rights. And then the poor producer has to sit there and tot it all up and make sure they can afford to do the project with this parcel of rights being bundled out across a range of different people.
When we first launched, we were described as the “Netflix for the Arts” and companies would demand a whole host of things as they thought we had Netflix-type money. When they found out that we were only going to pay them X amount, their faces would fall, and they would disappear. The sums of money aren’t huge, and you have to be realistic and difficult decisions have to be made. Frankly, nobody’s making money yet in this game, not even Netflix.
With the pandemic, lots of artistic organisations seemed to turn to video content to retain their audiences, how did this impact your pandemic response?
Lockdown came at a good time for us and was very important for the whole sector. We’d all been talking about the importance of recording content and making it available in different ways, but people were quite slow to respond to the idea because they thought that as long as they had lots of bums on seats, it didn’t really matter. And then suddenly, with the pandemic, the live audience disappeared, and they had to move much more swiftly into filming and streaming.
There were a large number of artists who still wanted to perform, as far as they could, without the big houses. So we worked with Opera Glassworks to record a film of The Turn of the Screw, and worked more closely with a lot of dancers who were doing small-scale projects.
You’ve recently grown your list of content partners, with The Washington Ballet and OAE joining the LPO and LSO. Can you explain how these work?
Our partnership with the LPO, for example, came about during lockdown. Although the live audience had disappeared, the orchestra was still there, so we experimented with ways in which we could film to provide a service for our online audience. We established a mode of filming which moved away from the traditional cameras at the back of the hall, which tends not to work. Since the orchestra returned to the Festival Hall, we have kept this, to a certain degree, but it’s not without its challenges.
David Burke [CEO of the LPO], the team at the LPO and I decide between us which of the season’s concerts will make the cut and are right for Marquee. We then pay them a flat fee and because it’s a bulk deal it becomes quite a sizable sum for them in the end.
We do joint marketing which includes special offers for their subscribers and friends, and they get 48 hours to watch it for free after each concert before it goes behind the paywall. We do joint social media posts and reposts, and the aim is that more people will go to actual concerts.
With more and more organisations launching their own streaming platforms, do you see this having an impact on Marquee TV?
My belief has always been that the niche channels are exactly that: you can watch the Glyndebourne channel and the Royal Opera House channel, but that’s all you get. Marquee TV is a mixture, and you can get all of the different genres with us. There’s a limit to the number of subscriptions people will take out, so that puts our offering in a strong position.
Deutsche Grammophon’s (DG) streaming channel is interesting because they’re very restrictive about the artists that are signed to their record label. This will impact the concerts that we decide to take from our orchestras or indeed, other orchestras, because if it’s a DG artist, we know that we’ll only have them for a limited time and we will likely face restrictions on how long we can have their recordings and what we can use them for.
Another unforeseen global challenge came in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prompting many artistic organisations to remove Russian content. How did Marquee respond?
We didn’t go so far as to take down all the pieces by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky or all the Russian artists, but we did take down recordings by the Marinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev, a known supporter of Putin. I like to think we were quite subtle about it. In fact, we made a proactive decision to go the other way and earlier this year streamed Dance for Ukraine, a charity gala performed at the London Coliseum.
With regards specific artists and any misdemeanours, thankfully we have never had to make a decision as to whether we should remove their recordings.
However, if an opera company or a ballet company, for example, decided not to use a particular artist anymore, for whatever reason, then we would respect that decision, but we’ve never had pressure externally.
With arts organisations facing a global funding crisis, what role does Marquee TV play in securing the future of the sector?
The arts are so important, and they make us who we are. Funding for the arts is diminishing globally, so we consider ourselves a key vehicle in retaining a sense of excitement around the arts. Without being too pompous, I feel we are all responsible for showcasing the power of the arts and how you can be changed by listening to a great performance or watching a wonderful opera, ballet or theatre performance.
We are still a young company and have a wealth of people still to discover us, so hopefully we’re here to stay.