About eight years ago, when her new venture was still starting up, Julie Borchard-Young called up a movie theater owner in Cape Cod. She explained—or tried to explain—that she had entered into a partnership with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, designed to deliver the Met’s live performances into movie theaters like his around the world. The movie theater man was puzzled. "I can’t fit the Met’s orchestra on my stage," he said.
Borchard-Young has clarified her sales pitch since then. Admittedly, her idea—which she shares with her husband Robert—is something of an odd one: briefly transforming movie theaters into portals that deliver live, or near-live content. Since launching BY Experience, the Borchard-Youngs have beamed live opera, rock concerts, radio shows, festival performances, and more via satellite into theaters in 60 countries around the globe. Millions of tickets have been sold.
The idea first came to them back in 2003. Julie was living in London at the time, running Sony Music’s European operations. Julie faced a puzzle: She wanted to promote David Bowie’s new album throughout the U.K. and the continent, but didn’t want to take up too much of Bowie’s time. Since the U.K. was one of the first territories to transform their cinemas from 35mm into digital, she had an idea: Why not film Bowie live in a studio, and simply beam that signal to digital cinemas throughout the U.K. and Europe? "50,000 people showed up," she says. She and Robert knew they were onto something.
A few years later, a former Sony colleague, Peter Gelb, was appointed as head of the Metropolitan Opera. The Borchard-Youngs took their pitch to Gelb, who loved it. So the husband-and-wife team "built the program brick by brick," making the necessary contacts to assemble a distribution platform for the Met’s performances. That launched in 2006 to great acclaim; for seven seasons now, all across the U.S., Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, New Zealand, and South Africa, opera fans gather in theaters on Saturdays to see a live or near-live opera broadcast.
Now that Hollywood has essentially strong-armed the last of the 35mm holdouts into investing in digital projectors, the road is paved for the Borchard-Youngs's business to grow even more (revenue growth has already been "huge," they report, declining to specify further). The smallest theater BY Experience has partnered with is a 92-seater in New Zealand; the largest is a 6,000-seat venue in Mexico City.
"Our feelings are that like-minded individuals want to be assembled, whether they know it or not," says Julie. If you go to a movie theater to see a film, odds are you won’t exit with a new friend. But the Borchard-Youngs have witnessed the various ways in which live event behavior has replicated itself, tentatively, within the cinemas. "When the opera started, people were nervous to clap at the end of the act," Robert observed at first. But now audiences are getting used to the strange idea of a live event on the movie screen; opera goers will mingle and kibitz after the screenings. When BY Experience beamed the Anthrax/Metallica/Megadeth/Slayer summit in Bulgaria in June of 2010, kids were "moshpitting in front of the screen," says Robert. "It was incredible to see, actually," says Julie, who saw the spectacle at Regal Union Square in New York.
It was four hours spent at the cinema, but there "was a lot of spontaneity, hooting at the screen," recalls Julie. "I thought, ‘That’s great.’ It was like the wall was broken, there was no division between those sitting there, and Bulgaria." BY Experience itself has received fan mail for its events, as though they were the rock stars.
As their events have become more common, the Borchard-Youngs have had to condition the people who film these events to break their TV concert habits of swooping camera angles and fast cuts. On a 50-foot screen, they say, a simple static image can be most powerful. It’s about "allowing the camera to linger longer than you’d think the eye would want to stay on a picture...it’s a real art, and a lot of the directors have grown over time to understand that."
It hasn’t taken long for theater owners to see the value proposition. Who wouldn’t want another excuse to fill those seats? It has delivered new audiences, too. After broadcasting a This American Life radio event in theaters, a cinema owner at a Denver mall called up the Borchard-Youngs. He’d never seen such a well-heeled audience, he said. "He went into the parking lot and saw Audis and Beemers, this upscale audience not typical of the movie theater at all," Julie recalls the man saying.
Cinema is a replicating technology, making BY Experience in the business of breaking through the barriers posed both by time limitations (as was the case with Bowie’s limited availability) and space. BY Experience has recently dipped a toe into the business of producing basic documentaries around hit art gallery shows. Last year, when the National Gallery assembled a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition that completely sold out, the Borchard-Youngs arranged to walk through the exhibit a few days before the opening to take high-definition footage of the paintings.
While people who bought tickets to the actual exhibition were "herded in like cattle," says Robert, and permitted an average artwork-gazing time of 18 seconds, those who bought tickets to the BY Experience production were treated to a leisurely documentary putting up enormous projections of the paintings for 60-90 seconds at a time.
BY Experience continues to radiate into new kinds of events. On June 13th, they’ll be broadcasting Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience on stage in London. On June 27, they’ll broadcast an event paired with an opening of an Edvard Munch exhibition in Oslo.
We'll have to wait and see if mosh pits spontaneously form at either of those.