It had been a grueling few months for John Benjamin Hickey.
Not only had he wrapped up a long run playing a pivotal supporting role in Matthew Lopez’s two-part AIDS epic “The Inheritance,” but Hickey was also making his Broadway directing debut with “Plaza Suite,” a romantic comedy starring real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker. The Neil Simon revival had finished a smash tryout in Boston and was shaping up to be one of the season’s hottest tickets when it opened in April. As he juggled his work, Hickey started feeling sick.
“I felt awful, but I thought it was just the stress of getting through that final dress rehearsal,” he says.
Opening night never came. With the coronavirus spreading across the country and cases rising exponentially in New York, Broadway dimmed its lights and lurched into an indefinite shutdown. Hickey left the Hudson Theatre, where “Plaza Suite” was in previews, and soon visited his doctor’s office, where he was tested for COVID-19. Like hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, he had the virus. What followed were days of fevers, chills, labored breathing, a loss of taste and smell and a litany of other symptoms that have become the well-known harbingers of a disease that has capsized American civic and cultural life.
From restaurants to retail, film production to professional sports, the U.S. is in the process of reopening for business. But one sector of the economy is destined to be among the last to welcome back customers. Forms of live entertainment, such as theater and concerts, that depend on attracting large gatherings in contained spaces will mostly remain on hiatus until 2021. It’s not clear when they will be able to return, barring a medical breakthrough.
That has many who make their living on the Great White Way calling for government support to help a devastated community survive what is sure to be a period of protracted limbo. But there’s skepticism that assistance will be forthcoming. President Trump doesn’t strike them as a theater aficionado and the Senate is controlled by Republicans, who wouldn’t love the optics of throwing a financial lifeline to one of the most left-leaning parts of the very liberal arts sector. Local help isn’t likely to be coming, either: Both New York state and New York City face massive budget deficits brought on by the coronavirus.
“The chances that Broadway gets a bailout are slim to none,” says Charlotte St. Martin, president of the national trade association The Broadway League.
Given those bleak prospects, Broadway power brokers believe their best and only option may be to devise a way to reopen safely, even if there’s no vaccine yet. Plans are in place to test casts and crews before every show, to implement contactless ticketing, to outfit HVAC systems with better filters and to have orchestra members play offstage or at a social distance from each other. Producers are also discussing mounting more one-person shows and looking at productions that have run times of less than two hours, so audiences won’t be exposed to one another for as long.
One thing that’s not being considered, however, is playing to houses that are a quarter to half full. Plays cost roughly $300,000 a week to run, and musicals typically cost just under $600,000 to operate weekly. Turning a profit would be impossible without filling seats. That’s an even harder proposition given that tickets may have to be discounted initially to lure audiences back.
“We won’t be doing social distancing, at least not on purpose,” says St. Martin.
Broadway took in a record $1.8 billion in 2019 and supported an estimated 96,900 jobs. Concert industry trade Pollstar’s 2019 Top 100 global tours grossed $5.55 billion in ticket sales alone. As the historic Broadway shutdown stretches into its fifth month, anyone who had plans to work in theater this year has had to confront the harsh reality that the pandemic has wiped out job prospects through at least early 2021.
“I don’t know how we’re going to be able to perform unless real progress is made in how we fight this thing,” says Hickey. “What does that mean? There either has to be a vaccine or people have to feel safe going back into a crowded room and sitting elbow-to-elbow. People aren’t going to see plays if they feel like they’re taking their life into their hands.”
“People aren’t going to see plays if they feel like they’re taking their life into their hands.”
John Benjamin Hickey
That’s left the thousands of people Broadway employs to design costumes, take tickets, choreograph dance numbers and perform eight shows a week suddenly forced to seek alternate work in a terrible job market.
“The abruptness of the damage is so hard,” says Caesar Samayoa, a cast member of the musical “Come From Away.” “People work all their lives to get to Broadway, and then something like this happens and everything stops. You’re left trying to figure out how to make it a year with zero income. No one can make it that long.”
There’s an emotional toll as well.
“The theater is my second home,” says Kenny Nunez, house manager of the Longacre Theater. “It’s weird not taking the train every day and pushing through all the people in Times Square. It’s sad not to witness the look of awe in an audience member who is about to go to their first show. To have that taken away is devastating.”
Along with most businesses that involve mass gatherings, the live music industry — the financial engine of the music business, which Pollstar had projected would generate $12.2 billion in box office this year — was flattened by the pandemic in a matter of days. All major concert tours and festivals have been scrubbed or postponed indefinitely; layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts have hit every major live entertainment company; the SXSW conference, a vital showcase for new talent and the primary gathering point for industry professionals, was canceled outright. Pollstar has since estimated the concert industry could lose as much as $9 billion in 2020 alone — and that figure doesn’t include the losses of income by musicians, technicians, dancers and others in its sprawling supply chain.
While streaming is often cited as the savior of the music business — which lost half its value in the early aughts as CD sales plummeted due to illegal downloading — it was actually the concert industry that brought it back to health, spawning multiple nine-figure-grossing tours each year for the past decade. The relationship is a symbiotic one: People rarely pay to see acts they don’t know, and streaming drastically reduced the cost and effort of discovering music. Thus, artists came to accept that the small amount most musicians earn from recorded music is a fair exchange for drawing audiences to the place they really make their living: concerts, where fans not only buy tickets but merchandise. That model is on life support because of COVID-19.
Singer-songwriter Brian Fallon — former frontman of the Gaslight Anthem — is an independent solo artist who was set to launch a 10-week tour of North America and Europe and drop a new album the week the coronavirus took hold in the U.S.
“The first date of the tour was in Delaware on March 11,” he says. “During rehearsals, we kept hearing about places getting shut down — and on the morning of the first show, we were told, ‘You’re doing this one show and then everybody goes home.’ We had a one-day tour!”
Fallon runs every aspect of his business, so he was responsible not only for paying his band and crew but also for the vinyl and CDs manufactured to sell on tour. He estimates that he’s out at least $20,000 and possibly as much as $80,000 due to the postponement — but his band and crew were in an even more precarious situation. “They were depending on the tour” for income, he says, so he thought of a way to help by making money quickly. “I’d seen that some artists were writing out song lyrics and selling them, so I did 140 of them and asked for $200 each, and they sold out in an hour. I got everyone to waive their fees — my manager, lawyer, even the merchandise company that sent them out — and gave all the money to my band and crew.”
The situation is dire for smaller venues, which currently have little revenue but substantial overheard: rent, utilities, insurance and the salaries of the employees they haven’t laid off or furloughed. Spaces that aren’t affiliated with large companies like Live Nation and AEG are experiencing the downside of independence. Although some have found creative solutions — Brooklyn metal mecca Saint Vitus created a Kickstarter program that raised six figures; Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry has managed to make a business out of livestreamed performances with no live audience — most are struggling.
Graham Williams of Margin Walker Presents, which promotes shows at multiple spots across Texas, says venues have been able to generate a small amount of income from sponsored livestreamed concerts, T-shirts or “show bonds” (discounted vouchers for future concerts), but “none of them come close to what you make on live shows.”
He outlines the steep road to recovery independent venues are facing: “Most of the acts we book are on tour, and that takes months of advance planning and promotion; local acts will only take you so far.”
Audrey Fix Schaefer, who handles PR for several Washington, D.C.-area venues as well as the recently formed National Independent Venue Assn., estimates that without government assistance, some 90% of independent venues will not survive the pandemic.
The one remedy, Williams and Schaefer agree, is government assistance; Schaefer has been able to play a key role in that, as she is D.C.-based and has connections with lobbyists. Ultimately, NIVA selected the giant firm Akin Gump to be its advocate, because it understood the mission.
“This isn’t just about art and keeping a nightclub going — independent venues are economic drivers for their communities,” Schaefer says. “For every dollar spent on a ticket, there’s $12 of economic activity generated for restaurants and parking lots and other businesses.”
The support their efforts have seen so far from the public has been enthusiastic. “From our website — saveourstages.com — people sent 600,000 emails to their legislators, and every single member of Congress has had a constituent reach out,” she says. “The lobbyists said they had never seen anything like it.” That government funding “would allow us to hold on until the reopening, and we will be major economic drivers of renewal.”
“This isn’t just about art and keeping a nightclub going — independent venues are economic drivers for their communities.”
Audrey Fix Schaefer
However, a combination of desperation, impatience and (many believe) stupidity has led some artists, agents and venues to schedule concerts anyway. A mid-May performance in Arkansas by country singer Travis McCready was held with the venue at 20% capacity and mandatory face masks and social distancing; that event seems like a paragon of responsibility compared with two country concerts held in late June — possibly inspired by President Trump’s flagrantly non-socially distanced rallies — that threw caution, and plenty else, to the wind. A Chase Rice show in rural Tennessee and a Chris Janson concert in Idaho featured close-packed audiences of 1,000 to 2,000 and little to no social distancing. The Tennessee venue offered a detailed explanation — essentially saying that it held the show according to state guidelines, with reduced capacity and many signs calling for social distancing, but, well, when the lights went down, it had no effective way to enforce those recommendations. The venue canceled its next show and said it was reconceiving its procedure for future concerts.
Those events met with blowback not only from thousands of online commenters but from many in the concert industry, who say that such recklessness will only make reopening more difficult. “It’s not our timeline — it’s the virus’ timeline — and we have to be patient,” says Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, an entertainment and sports facilities company he co-founded with Irving Azoff. “The virus is going to slow us down, if not stop us, for some period, but until we get it under control, we’re just not going to be in business.”
In the best-case scenario, Leiweke sees concerts returning in early to mid-2021 — “depending on all of the knuckleheads walking around without masks,” he says. “What people don’t seem to understand is that when they have a social event without masks or social distancing, they’re stopping us from getting back to normal.”
In the U.K., theaters have been dark since March 16, dealing a crippling blow that has paralyzed the industry, with several regional theaters going into bankruptcy and some venues enacting layoffs. While theaters were technically allowed to reopen on July 4, albeit without live shows performed to audiences, newly reduced one-meter (a bit more than 3 feet) social distancing requirements still limit most to operating at 30%-40% capacity.
“We need social distancing to go (away). We need confidence by audiences to come back to a public space, and we need to build an audience back up,” says Julian Bird, chief executive of West End trade organization the Society of London Theatre. “Things like international tourism are nonexistent at the moment, so if you’re looking at the West End, we have an issue with audiences as well as social distancing. There’s a whole range of things that need to come together before a major show will take the risk of reopening.”
According to a recent report commissioned by the Creative Industries Federation, the coronavirus is projected to cost the theater sector around $3.8 billion (£3 billion) in revenue, with up to 70% of jobs lost. Research by UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre, which acts on behalf of 230 London-based producers, theater owners and managers, indicates that around 70% of theaters will run out of money by the end of 2020. Although the government delivered a $1.9 billion relief package for the arts in early July, the sector still waits for clear guidance on reopening dates, without which theaters can’t budget for the months ahead.
As warnings that venues could be closed until 2021 quietly become reality, tolerance for the government’s belated response to the arts industries is wearing thin.
“We can’t hang on much longer,” says Philip Bernays, chief executive of the historic Theatre Royal in Newcastle Upon Tyne in northern England.
Even with more safety measures, performers and creatives are concerned that returning to work could be too risky. Backstages are cramped. Dressing rooms are usually shared. Costumes have to be fitted, requiring designers to be close to the people they’re dressing. Depending on the show, actors sing, kiss and fight on a nightly basis — activities that are hard to manage six feet apart.
“My innate way of creating dances is to have a lot of intertwined bodies navigate space and bob and weave together,” says Sonya Tayeh, choreographer of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” “That might not be possible right now.”
Tired of indecision, some in the theater world have taken matters into their own hands. Andrew Lloyd Webber unveiled an ambitious plan last month to reopen one of his own venues — his biggest, the 2,300-seat London Palladium — without social distancing in place.
Instead, the “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera” composer has installed about $300,000 worth of safety measures, including thermal sensors, self-cleaning door handles and disinfectant-loaded archways, all of which have been modeled on a Korean production of “Phantom” that has been running, largely uninterrupted, throughout the pandemic.
“We’ve got to (take) the lead ourselves,” says Lloyd Webber. “There has to be a voice that says, ‘Look, we as theater people have a duty to try and see whether we can suggest ways of getting our theaters open,’ rather than sitting around on our hands and saying, ‘Oh God, can we have some more money from the government? Why don’t you print more money for us?’”
Jon Morgan, director of Theatres Trust, warns that smaller venues lack the same resources. “Lloyd Webber is throwing everything at it, all of which could be helpful … but if I’m running a 200-seat theater, I won’t be able to afford heat sensors,” he says.
“The institutions that house these shows could benefit from self-examination. If we didn’t have the pandemic, I’m not sure we’d take that look.”
While theaters have been closed, performers have come up with novel ways to stay in touch. They have weekly Zoom calls to go over scenes or to socialize. In the case of the Broadway production of “Company,” a revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical that was forced to stop performances before ever having an opening night, what started as a way to rehearse evolved into informal hangs.
“At the very beginning, we were running lines, and I backed away from it because I thought it wasn’t healthy,” says Patti LuPone. “We’re not even close to returning to the stage, so we’ve turned them into cocktail parties and birthday parties and bingo games.”
There’s also a growing sense among veterans that when Broadway does return, it will need to change the types of shows it champions. The Black Lives Matter movement and the protests that have erupted around the world have put pressure on the theater business to do more than pay lip service to issues of diversity. Director Kenny Leon was ending a Broadway run of “A Soldier’s Play,” a searing indictment of racism in the military, when the coronavirus struck. He believes the business will be fundamentally different when it welcomes back audiences.
“We can do better in terms of the stories that we present,” says Leon. “We can do better in terms of tackling the lack of diversity in our crews backstage and our casts onstage. The institutions that house these shows could benefit from self-examination. If we didn’t have the pandemic, I’m not sure we’d take that look.”
André De Shields, the Tony Award winning star of “Hadestown,” has been appearing on Broadway since 1973. He calls himself “radically optimistic” that a new theater industry will re-emerge from these plague times, one fueled by activism and a commitment to a more equitable future.
“This pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to consider what we have done to this point and to consider what we do hereafter,” he says. “We have the privilege of deciding what kind of new Earth we’re going to create.”
When De Shields first found himself out of work and grappling with the changes wrought by COVID-19, a song by the Supremes kept coming back to him. He came to see it as a philosophical touchstone.
“Stop in the name of love before you break my heart,” De Shields sings, his voice rising with emotion, before falling into a lower register, for the final part of the refrain. “Think it over.”
Broadway, the financial engine of the theater industry, has never been shut down for such a prolonged period of time. Even in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, “The Main Stem” only stayed closed for 48 hours. Matthew Lopez, the playwright behind “The Inheritance,” a drama that looks at the devastating effect of an earlier epidemic and the ways in which AIDS left an indelible mark on New York, believes that there is a Phoenix-like quality to the five boroughs. Once again, New York City and by extension Broadway, is at the epicenter of an international heath crisis, and once again it will find a way to endure, Lopez predicts.
“New York City has burned many times before,” he says. “That’s one of the taxes we pay as residents of New York City — we often find ourselves at the center of a global tragedy. But New York will rebuild and recover and redefine itself. It’s a city of survivors.”
After getting his diagnosis, Hickey retreated to a house in the Hamptons to recover. As he got better, he started having conversations with Broderick and Parker about fine-tuning “Plaza Suite” so that the show that returns to Broadway will be even better than the one that found its run abruptly curtailed.
It’s been hard, he admits, to live with the nagging anxiety of not knowing when, if or how theaters will reopen. He reflects on the careers that have been disrupted and the friends who have had the disease, some of whom suffered far worse cases than he did. But Hickey has also allowed himself to daydream. That’s when he thinks about what it will be like to stand on stage or watch from the wings as the lights on Broadway flicker back on — to look out as theaters that have been vacant for months fill with crowds shuffling in to take their seats — and to hold his breath for that moment when the curtain finally lifts.
“It’s going to be incredible,” he says. “To celebrate all those actors and crew members who lost livelihoods but found a way to endure. I know we’ll come back bigger and better than before. Just please God, let us come back.”
Dune Shows WB Learned Nothing From Zack Snyder’s DCEU
The handling of Dune and its necessary sequel shows Warner Bros. failed to learn its lesson from Justice League and their original DCEU plans with Zack Snyder. Despite the fallout of Snyder’s departure from the DC franchise, the studio handed another epic, bug budget sci-fi project to an auteur director without fully committing to the creative vision.
After Man of Steel, Warner Bros. announced a slate of director-driven DCEU projects surrounding Zack Snyder’s planned Justice League arc, seemingly committing to Snyder’s vision for the DC universe, but after a rocky start, the Snyderverse was abandoned, leaving the future of the DCEU in the lurch. While there was a specific plan in place for a grand culmination of Snyder’s 5-part Justice League story, including a number of spin-offs from other directors, Warner Bros. says there’s no plans to see this original plan to completion, meaning the story set up by the original slate of DCEU films will never be fully realized.
While WB gave auteur director Denis Villeneuve $165 million to adapt the first half of the epic sci-fi novel Dune, the studio decided not to approve the sequel until after they could see how the initial installment, only half the story, performed at the box office. This continues WB’s history of embarking on big director-driven projects without fully committing to the vision, an approach that is virtually guaranteed to ensure the resulting product will be less than its original conception, even if a Dune sequel still happens.
WB’s Failed Director-Driven DCEU Plan
After the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, Warner Bros. had Nolan develop a modern adaptation for Superman, and Nolan selected Zack Snyder as the director due to his approach with his adaptation of Watchmen. Man of Steel became the highest-grossing Superman movie, so Warner Bros. had Snyder develop a larger DCEU plan, which became Snyder’s 5-part Justice League saga. The story would center on Superman but would bring in the rest of the Justice League members, and a full slate of movies was planned, including Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, Aquaman, The Flash, Cyborg, Green Lantern Corps., and a solo Batman movie. Warner Bros.’original DCEU plan was to follow the model established by Nolan with The Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel by bringing in directors with distinct styles to head each project, including David Ayer, Patty Jenkins, Rick Famuyiwa, James Wan, and Ben Affleck.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were among 2016’s top-grossing movies, but their polarizing reviews resulted in notoriously low Rotten Tomatoes scores, resulting in Warners taking drastic action to change plans for the rest of the franchise. The changes immediately impacted Justice League the most even though it was already in production, resulting in conflict with Snyder that eventually resulted in him exiting the project following a family tragedy, allowing WB to bring in Joss Whedon to drastically reshape the project in reshoots, abandoning most of the sequel set-up and erasing as much of Snyder’s distinctive style as possible. The fallout impacted almost all the remaining movies in the slate. Aquaman was already in production, but both Famuyiwa and Affleck left their respective movies. Versions of The Flash and The Batman are coming out next year, but both are drastically different versions than originally planned (and The Batman isn’t even part of DCEU canon)
Snyder’s plan was very clearly leading to a big culmination, with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice teasing a post-apocalyptic “Knightmare” future that had been conquered by Superman who was under the control of DC ultra-baddie, Darkseid. Snyder would eventually get the chance to release his intended version of the movie, the 4-hour long Zack Snyder’s Justice League, spurring excitement for what would have been, but with no plans for Snyder to return and the current slate servicing a different plan, Warner Bros. seems content to leave this epic set-up forever unresolved.
The odd part is Warner Bros.’ biggest successes with DC movies have always come from the bold visions of distinct directors like Richard Donner, Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan, and even Zack Snyder, while attempts to make more broadly appealing crowd-pleasers didn’t work, like Batman & Robin, Superman Returns, and Green Lantern. As if to double down on the point, Snyder’s Watchmen, Batman v Superman, and Justice League saw significant changes for their theatrical releases, only for Snyder’s director’s cuts to be nearly universally regarded as the superior product. Despite the problems caused by their decision to abandon the original DCEU plans, Warner Bros. didn’t learn their lesson and made similar decisions with Villeneuve’s Dune.
Warner Bros. Repeated Their DCEU Mistakes With Dune
Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 was lauded by critics, but bombed at the box office, bringing in less than $260 million from a $150 million budget, failing to hit the typical twice-budget break-even point. Blade Runner 2049 was Villeneuve’s highest-grossing movie, despite its box office failure, but his ability to adapt stunning high-concept sci-fi convinced Warner Bros. to hand him the reins to Dune, although they didn’t opt to film it back-to-back with a sequel, or even greenlight a sequel at all, despite knowing Villeneuve was only adapting half the book in the first movie.
While WB’s caution is understandable due to Villeneuve’s box office history, the willingness to begin work on the $165 Dune part 1 without committing to part 2 upfront immediately shortchanges the franchise’s potential. Under this strategy, the absolute best-case scenario was Villeneuve produces a monster hit with an incomplete story and WB has to start the sequel from scratch and can’t capitalize on Dune‘s performance for three years. In addition to the time delay, they also miss out on the massive cost savings of shooting back-to-back, reducing the overall profitability of both movies. The worst-case scenario would be the movie flops and the whole thing looks like a massive, ill-conceived blunder on the part of WB, who would have a massive bomb on their hands after entrusting a big-budget sci-fi epic to an auteur director whose last big-budget sci-fi epic also flopped. While Villeneuve and WB escaped harsh criticism for Blade Runner 2049 due to the movie’s quality, that likely wouldn’t be the case if Dune flopped, since the movie is only half the story of the Dune book, and adapting it would likely burn a chance for another director to take a swing at the property in the near future.
Meanwhile, committing to the whole vision up-front would have been better all-around, even if WB’s concerns came true and Dune flopped. The cost-savings of back-to-back production would at least partially offset box office losses, audiences wouldn’t be deprived of the second half of the story, and there’s always the chance the sequel could be a bigger hit, salvaging the hypothetical losses from part 1. Like with Blade Runner 2049, the quality of the film would offset a lot of the criticism over the box office losses.
Dune had a solid box office opening and seems to have fair chances of getting a sequel, but it won’t be soon enough for audiences hungry for a sequel and may see a reduced budget, ironically missing out on the cost savings that could have accompanied a back-to-back sequel production. If Warner Bros. was willing to take the risk of the first installment, why not commit to the whole vision?
Warner Bros. Needs To Follow Through On Director Driven Visions
Warner Bros. has a history of being a studio that takes big swings on grand director visions, but changes in leadership in recent years, such as the departure of former Warner Bros. Pictures Group president Jeff Robinov (who brought iconic directors like Nolan, Affleck, Snyder, the Wachowskis, and others to the studio) has seen a rise in situations like Justice League and Dune. As if to punctuate the severity of the decline, Nolan decided to make his next movie at Universal after working with Warner Bros. exclusively for nearly 20 years.
The problem isn’t that the days of bold director-driven projects are in the rearview mirror at Warner Bros., those still exist, there’s even a new Matrix movie coming out December, but there is a concerning pattern of self-sabotage of big projects brought on by a lack of trust in their directors. Situations like Justice League and Dune make the studio’s decision-making suspect and erode consumer confidence in their projects, particularly for big IP adaptations.
The whole thing is also incredibly short-sighted. It’s common for a franchise to overcome early stumbles only for those movies to be well regarded after the franchise finds its footing. The Marvel Cinematic Universe had several films in Phase 1 that were considered underwhelming at the time and Fast and Furious powered through several films with a mediocre reception to become one of the biggest franchises in film. Even films like the original Blade Runner got poor reviews and underperformed at the box office and are now considered required viewing. In the case of the DCEU, Warner Bros. was scared away from Zack Snyder’s plan because of reviews for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but that movie was so impactful in the zeitgeist that WB’s attempts to pivot away from Snyder couldn’t outpace their momentum, and they eventually had to cave to demands for the Snyder Cut when simply committing to the plan and finishing the plan they started would have seen Zack Snyder’s arc completed by now, allowing them to start fresh without having to deal with the unending reminders of the incomplete Snyderverse.
Fortunately, Dune is well received and performing well at the box office, which bodes well for sequel potential, but the lost time, momentum, and wasted money will ultimately hold back the complete vision from what it could have been if they’d produced the movies back-to-back. If WB wants to retain (or regain) its reputation for being the studio that produces this kind of movie, they need to gain some confidence and stop with the half measures and deliver on the director visions they sell to audiences.
Next: Why Warner Bros Losing Christopher Nolan Is Such A Big Deal
No Way Home Trailer Hopes Mocked By Spider-Man & Doc Ock Meme
About The Author
Capturing the entertainment proclivities of racing fans
Simon fraser, Senior Vice President of International at XB Net, discusses how XB Net is taking the sting out of protracted integration processes for sportsbook operators.
Backed by 1/ST Technology, Fraser walks us through the ways that XB Net is helping bettors to engage in all aspects of horse racing, before explaining how the company plans to use the Breeders’ Cup to broaden North American racing’s international reach.
SBC Americas: For those that might not know, can you tell us a little bit about XB Net? What’s the story behind the company and which markets are you targeting?
SF: XB Net provides a comprehensive North American racing service to international gaming operators across both fixed-odds and pool betting. The service covers the popular codes of thoroughbred, quarter-horse, harness and greyhound racing. Our key markets currently include the UK, Ireland, France, Italy, Turkey, Australia and New Zealand.
We manage the rights and distribute this premium content (data, odds, live broadcast and video streaming) on behalf of a broad progressive portfolio of global partners, allowing them to deploy ground-breaking technologies to attract and educate new audiences.
We’re lucky enough to be backed by a true powerhouse in 1/ST Group, whose consumer-facing brand forms a world-class technology, entertainment, and real estate development company with thoroughbred horse racing wagering at its heart – anchored by best-in-breed horse racing operations at the company’s premier racetracks, including (to name but a few): Santa Anita Park, Gulfstream Park – home of the Pegasus World Cup Championship Invitational Series; Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course – site of the legendary Preakness Stakes.
And now the stateside stage is set for this year’s flagship finale at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships (5-6 November) in Del Mar. It all represents 1/ST’s continued movement towards redefining thoroughbred horse racing for a modern audience, and optimizing the ecosystem that drives it.
As a result, we can draw from an unrivalled network of over 60 North American tracks which account for over 75% of U.S. racing, opening the door to many of the planet’s most prestigious horse races.
SBC Americas: How is XB Net ensuring that it stands out from the competition?
SF: That aforementioned deep well of resources and racetracks isn’t a bad place to start from when you’re trying to positively delineate XB Net from the competition. And as a basic premise, we are planning to work with our partners across the globe to increase the awareness of North American horse racing, both as an exciting sport and as a high-quality betting medium.
By harnessing low-latency feeds from more than 2,500 meetings, showcasing over 25,000 races per year, North American racing is steadily accruing more global viewers and bettors, especially after a spell in which the pandemic has badly disrupted, if not decimated, so many events on the typical sporting calendar. While many of those sports have since recovered from the treatment table, North American racing – which mostly continued unaffected during the outbreak – has largely retained its enlarged audience share.
In the UK, some of that success and enduring retention can be attributed to the popular nightly pictures on Sky Sports Racing, whose friendly, informative GFN was instructive in “home-schooling” many new viewers to North American racing during the lockdowns.
Accordingly, with many heads having been turned by North American racing, the sport is now pulling up a comfortable seat in their wider entertainment choices. Particularly considering the nature of its rapid-cycling events, which conveniently fill the recreational gaps for drop-in audiences who might like a bet. Providing the right content at the right time remains so important, wherever you stick your pin on the international map.
XB Net’s steady stream of short-form premium content captures eyeballs and improves digital hang-time, allowing our partners to engage untapped audiences, deliver 24/7 horse racing, and also guard against any unforeseen impediments to the global sporting calendar.
SBC Americas: Tell us about your EasyGate™ products. How are they eliminating the complexity of North American racing?
SF: EasyGate is a breakthrough multitote technology and software architecture, providing structured race content, betting pathways and secure track video streams to our partners. Long story short, EasyGate navigates an intuitive path through the complexity of North American racing (from streaming formats to different data sources and their multivariate components), and also simplifies access to other content from other countries.
We give operators everything they need to succeed and take the sting out of protracted integration processes – just plug in and go, whatever the channel.
SBC Americas: Tote betting, and arguably horse racing in general, across the UK has had a tricky few years. How is XB Net making sure that racing is still the ‘product of choice’ for your partners?
SF: Our ability to present North American racing as a fixed-odds product allows us to take advantage of the UK market where Tote betting will always be a marginal betting product. Elsewhere, innovation around in-running betting can really allow horse racing to catch-up on any lost ground and reconsolidate its market position.
The complex variables of horse racing have meant this sport, for so long the retention backbone of many operators, hadn’t previously been able to seize the opportunities that other sports have secured with in-play. After all, nowadays, betting products must smoothly transition from pre-play to in-play, which is why operators must employ the latest trading tools and reactive in-play odds to attract modern-day audiences.
XB Net has now successfully trialed a ground-breaking feed that couples the Starting Price with the best of automated trading via Total Performance Data’s (TPD) astonishing array of consequential in-running analytics, including stride length, stride frequency and sectional timings enabled by saddle-cloth GPS tracking. These variables are accordingly harvested in-play by TPD’s machine-learning trading tools whose algorithms train themselves on race pace for precise pricing that delivers a distinct step-change in live fixed-odds wagering.
SBC Americas: How does your company help bolster revenue and support sometimes struggling traditional racetracks?
SF: I’d take issue with the word struggling. On the US side of the pond, the prize money at most tracks is very positive and betting turnover is up significantly. As a core technology in the wider arsenal of 1/ST and 1/ST Technology, XB Net is part of a broader company wide goal to sustain a successful business model while ensuring all stakeholders who work in the industry are cared for and supported.
That means delivering a fresh and holistic racing experience for the fans which captures the entertainment proclivities of every age group at the racetrack, especially the younger generation that is coming through. We are embracing this challenge and opportunity (sometimes two sides of the same coin!) at every touchpoint we have with our customers.
Just take our recent efforts with Historical Horse Racing (HHR) and how these terminals can provide workarounds for their local racetracks, increasing revenues where slots aren’t legal. As a result, HHR games can bolster revenues at traditional racetracks through direct new gaming revenue for operators who are directly tied to horse racing.
We also pay back a percentage to each host racetrack for every single wager placed, using each respective track’s historical races. This is akin to the simulcast live horse racing host-fee structures, in addition to paying horse racing industry stakeholders for the requisite historical race information data (e.g. Equibase).
At the tracks, our teams are working to modernize the horse racing experience, leveraging technology to bring an on-demand, digital experience to our customers. Ultimately, we’re targeting a growing audience looking for quick-fire action and engaging gameplay experiences driven by end-user thinking and the best interfaces that support that. Providing opportunities for consumers to engage in all aspects of horse racing – from live racetrack visits to simulcast viewing, online wagering and mobile – is the best way to grow our sport in a modern world.
SBC Americas: XB Net holds the international distribution rights for the upcoming Breeders’ Cup. In what ways is this agreement helping to broaden North American racing’s international reach?
SF: Self-evidently, our three-year contract extension with the Breeders’ Cup was a welcome endorsement of our team’s efforts over the past few years. The agreement comprises worldwide broadcast and video-streaming distribution rights from the Breeders’ Cup whose 2021 renewal, consisting of 14 Championship races and over $31 million in prize money and awards, is fast-approaching (5-6 November) at Del Mar racetrack in California next month. Del Mar is one of my favourite venues in all of sport, and its most common epithet of “where the surf meets the turf” tells you what sets it apart.
When the standard-bearer for elite North American racing selects you to further broaden the international reach of its world-class festival, you must be doing something right, and I’m pleased to say that sports fans and bettors around the globe can look forward to even more coverage of the World Championships.
You’re even seeing a suite of domestic host broadcasters (for example Sky Sports Racing and ITV in the UK) broadcasting all 14 races this year, which is ideal for growing the sport. Of course, the increasingly international make-up of these fields, bringing the best horses together from all around the world, only adds to the allure and transcendent appeal of the Breeders’ Cup for global audiences.
SBC Americas: And how will you help optimise and increase the returns to North American racing following what has undoubtedly been a challenging economic period?
SF: For us, it’s all about expanding markets and coverage, coupled with enhancements to our cutting-edge technologies. We’ve already launched in India, while we also have new Tote and fixed-odds roll-outs set for Asia and Africa.
Regarding the race tracks themselves, the more we can add to the service, the better-value our proposition will inherently become through sheer economies of scale. Again, we can return these cost advantages to the tracks. That even applies in Australia, where we’ve recently agreed a deal to add thoroughbred racing from the principal racing state of Victoria to our service which runs off the same infrastructure. We’re thrilled to be able to add more world-class contests for our partners, with the Victorian Spring Racing Carnival already capturing players’ imaginations.
As for what’s under the hood, we’re always refining and fine-tuning, despite having some of the most durable and trusted tech around. For instance, we actually just classified our pari-mutuel totalisator and fixed-odds wagering platform as a “legacy” product.
Instead, we’re replacing it with a next-gen wagering platform that will play a key role as 1/ST Technology continues to deliver on our vision to build upon the strengths of our current gambling platform while also extending its capabilities (e.g. quickly adding new bet types) – increasing speed to market, enhanced support of our customers’ needs, and unlocking the ability to efficiently onboard new consumers via verticals such as sports betting, esports, and other emerging opportunities. In short, it will allow us to react to the market with peerless agility.
Window on Arts & Entertainment: Oct. 14, 2021 | Diversions
The Majesty of Rock set to perform at First Friday Seminole
SEMINOLE — The Majesty of Rock, one of Florida’s most prestigious bands, will salute the music of Journey and Styx at First Friday Seminole, on Friday, Nov. 5, 6 to 9 p.m., on the main street in front of Studio Movie Grill at Seminole City Center, 11201 Park Blvd. N., Seminole.
Sponsored by Seminole City Center and The Rotary Club of Seminole Lake, this will be the final First Friday Seminole of 2021. The event will feature a variety of Seminole City Center merchants, food, prizes, and games, as well as a special concert by The Majesty of Rock. Attendees are asked to bring their own chairs. Coolers are not allowed. Vendors other than Seminole City Center tenants are not permitted.
The Majesty of Rock features the voice of John D’Agostino, coupled with the exceptional musical talents of four equally sophisticated and experienced musicians. That combination soon propelled the group to become one of the premier Journey reverence bands of our time. The band strives to re-create the exact sounds and nuances of Journey. Their passion for authenticity and attention to detail go a long way toward ensuring that the audience feels like they’re at a real Journey concert.
While the band has enjoyed performing the music of Journey, front man John D’Agostino also loves another American super group: Styx. Turns out the rest of the band are huge Styx fans, too. So, they began adding some of Styx’s best tunes to their already expansive repertoire of Journey material.
CWP to stage ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’
TAMPA — Carrollwood Players Theatre will present its production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang, running Oct. 15-30, at the theater, 4333 Gunn Highway, Tampa.
Tickets are $24. Tickets now on sale at tinyurl.com/vanyacwp. Performances will be Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; and Sundays, 2 p.m. For information, call 813-265-4000 or visit carrollwoodplayers.org.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play.
Middle-aged siblings Vanya and Sonia share a home, where they bicker and complain about the circumstances of their lives. When Marsha, their movie-star sister, swoops in with her new boy toy, Spike, old resentments flare up, eventually leading to threats and chaos. Contributing to the excitement are a sassy maid who can predict the future, and a lovely young aspiring actress who can’t. Audiences will discover why Durang is lauded as the master of mining the absurdities of human folly.
Presented with the support of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County and the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, this production will be directed by Alicia Spiegel.
“‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ is not exactly a well-known show, and the title can be a bit hard to remember … but audiences won’t soon forget the hilarious storyline,” Spiegel said. “I think everyone will relate to the family/relationship dynamics in this modern comedy laced with emotional baggage and heartfelt moments.”
The cast features Kenneth Grace as Vanya, Se’a Ryan as Sonia, Kari Velguth as Marsha, Jason Goetluck as Spike, Pauline Lara as Nina, and Stephanie Russell Krebs as Cassandra.
“Our cast has been perfecting their characters for almost a year a half since we were supposed to put this show on in April 2020 before the world changed,” Spiegel continued. “Luckily, CWP has decided to put it on this season and we are very ready to entertain audiences. They will be treated to sibling rivalry, a sexy young man barely wearing anything, a clairvoyant housekeeper whose predictions can’t be trusted, and a sweet girl next door who doesn’t know what she’s in for.”
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service Inc., New York.
Carrollwood Players offers a limited number of free tickets to every performance for low-income families receiving Florida SNAP benefits. For more information, visit carrollwoodplayers.org/theatreforall/.
Syd Entel Galleries to present Borowski glass exhibition
SAFETY HARBOR — An opening reception for a new glass exhibition by the world-famous Glass Studio Borowski will take place Friday, Nov. 12, 4 to 7 p.m.; and Saturday, Nov. 13, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at Syd Entel Galleries and Susan Benjamin Glass Etc., 247 Main St., Safety Harbor.
The Borowski’s “Odd Birds Walk of Fame,” a tribute to 20th century celebrities in glass, will run through Nov. 27. The show is open to the public. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For information, call 727-725-1808 or email email@example.com.
Borowski is one of the leading modern glass studios worldwide. Stani Jan Borowski transforms the iconic Fat Gonzo light object into the wildly successful Odd Bird Series. The Odd Bird series has continued to grow into a collection of 22 famous celebrities from the world of art, music, media and science. These hand-blown glass creations are a work of art, unique and distinctive. All are wildly imaginative with recognizable characteristics of the many famous characters, such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Elton John, Micheal Jackson, and Marilyn Monroe.
In addition to the Odd Bird Series, the gallery will have on hand a huge selection of work from the Borowski art objects, studio line and outdoor collection.
Cool Art Shop presents artisan holiday ornament tree
DUNEDIN — The Professional Association of Visual Artists will celebrate the upcoming holiday season with the annual Holiday Ornament Tree featuring handcrafted artisan ornaments, holiday décor, small gift items, and holiday greeting cards by various PAVA fine art and fine craft artists.
The tree is on display at The Cool Art Shop, 1240 County Road 1, Dunedin, in the Independence Plaza Square, through Thursday, Dec. 23. An open house reception will take place Friday, Oct. 15, 6 to 8 p.m., at the shop.
In addition to the Holiday Ornament Tree, The Cool Art Shop also displays and sells PAVA’s artists’ artwork which is comprised of an impressive collection of both visual and functional art for sale in both 2D and 3D mediums including painting, ceramics, photography, mixed media, drawing, pastels, sculpture, and jewelry in all price points. The artwork is rotated on a 6- to 8-week basis to keep the artwork fresh and new. Shop hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
PAVA is a nonprofit organization run by volunteer artists to serve local artisans and support the arts community in the Tampa Bay area. It provides exhibition, education and grant opportunities for its members. Additionally, PAVA supports local art centers, and is a local sponsor of the Pinellas County Regional National Scholastic Art Awards where scholarships are provided to students for art instruction. Visit www.pava-artists.org.
Mat Kearney concert canceled
CLEARWATER — The Mat Kearney concert scheduled at the Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre on Wednesday, Nov. 3, has been canceled.
Ticket holders will be contacted about refunds. For more information, visit www.RuthEckerdHall.com.
Creative Clay virtual exhibit opens
ST. PETERSBURG — Creative Clay presents “Celebrating Disability Employment Awareness,” October’s virtual exhibit, featuring artwork by Creative Clay’s member artists who actively create, market and sell their work. The exhitib opened Oct. 9.
This new exhibit coincides with National Disability Employment Awareness Month. According to the United States Department of Labor, the theme this year is “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion,” which reflects the importance of ensuring that people with disabilities have full access to employment and community involvement during the national recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Creative Clay promotes inclusion by empowering its artists to create art that is exhibited in its Good Folk Gallery, exhibited throughout the community and online, and market themselves as working artists. Many of Creative Clay’s member artists engage in training for potential employment. Creative Clay’s artists receive commission on all works sold.
NDEAM is held each October to commemorate the many and varied contributions of people with disabilities to America’s workplaces and economy. Employers, community organizations, state and local governments, advocacy groups and schools participate in celebrating NDEAM through events and activities centered around the theme of America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion.
Creative Clay’s Virtual Gallery also includes the artwork of many of Creative Clay’s member artists. All artwork is for sale through our online gallery at creativeclay.org.
St. Pete Arts Alliance awards to help young artists
ST. PETERSBURG — Awards received from the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance’s Funding Futures Program allowed 14 talented Pinellas County students to attend an arts camp this summer.
These students aspire to be musicians, actors, dancers, writers or visual artists. Creative Clay, American Stage, St. Pete MAD and others nominated creative, aspiring at-risk and/or low income students to attend their arts programs for the summer while parents of these students filled out applications showing artistic and financial need.
St. Petersburg Arts Alliance’s Funding Futures programs are dedicated to helping students nurture their creative interests and develop their expressive talent by providing funding to eligible students and connecting them to local after school arts programs or summer arts camps.
“It’s not just about the art for these students,” said Tracy Kennard, associate director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance. “It’s about gaining confidence, understanding collaboration and feeling compassionate towards others and how the simple act of learning new artistic traits, can teach skills that are the building blocks of a promising future in any industry.”
The St. Petersburg Arts Alliance’s Funding Futures Student Award program is designed to identify and encourage talented at-risk and/or low income emerging artists, ages 10-17 in Pinellas County seeking St. Petersburg programs in the categories of dance, music, jazz, voice, theater, digital arts, photography, cinematic arts, literary or visual arts. Funding Futures is open to all talented artists regardless of ethnic, social or economic background, or ability/disability.
Major funding sources from Tampa Bay Times Employee Matching Gifts, Suncoast Credit Union Foundation, and the Jacarlene Family Foundation have helped build the Funding Futures Grant Program for the past six years. For information on supporting this program, visit stpeteartsalliance.org/donate.
Livingston Taylor, Tom Chapin concert rescheduled
CLEARWATER — Due to a scheduling conflict, Livingston Taylor and Tom Chapin have rescheduled their concert at the Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre.
Tickets purchased for the concert on Friday, April 1, will be honored on the new date, Sunday, April 3, at 8 p.m. Tickets, starting at $29, are on sale now. Visit www.RuthEckerdHall.com.
Sinbad show postponed
CLEARWATER — The Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre recently announced stand-up comedian Sinbad has postponed his upcoming performance scheduled for Saturday, April 16, at 8 p.m.
Tickets will be honored on the new date to be announced soon. For more information, visit www.RuthEckerdHall.com.
Steep Canyon Rangers reschedule Capitol Theatre show
CLEARWATER — The Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre recently announced that the Steep Canyon Rangers concert originally scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m., has been rescheduled.
Tickets will be honored on the new date Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, at 8 p.m. Tickets, starting at $25, are on sale now. Visit www.RuthEckerdHall.com.
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