With BOND on 817 big screens across Australia opening to the best weekend performance since 2019’s JUMANJI at $11.2m (having now surpassed $700m worldwide), Minister Paul Fletcher sharing an interview with the producer of Moulin Rouge! The Musical as the Tony award-winning show debuted in Melbourne this week, and the Sydney Film Festival in full swing, the Arts are back.

From Broadway going dark in New York to museums everywhere shutting their doors to the curious, it seemed for a time that whole sectors of the Arts and Culture space were either not going to recover or be forever changed as Delta extended the lockdowns and false start re-openings of 2020, deep into 2021. There were casualties. When the iconic Arclight Cinema, the beating heart of LA’s cinephile culture, announced its permanent closure this past April, it was a dagger in the heart of movie lovers everywhere. And in New Zealand, home for the past two decades to all things Middle Earth, there was a collective cross-Tasman gasp when Amazon pulled out of filming the second series of The Lord of the Rings in favour of the UK this past August. With production budgets running into the hundreds of millions, it was a huge blow to both the production community and the local economy. A decision widely considered to be a consequence of the time and expense required to comply with Covid protocols for members of the international cast and crew. It seemed the death of the multiplex was certain, museum collections were going virtual, and live events and concerts would be so limited that only the extremely wealthy and connected could ever hope to see, for example, Adele performing live as she did for a secret performance in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park Observatory in late October, the vision for which we are only seeing now.

The title of the latest Bond film, “NO TIME TO DIE,” is apt for the global cultural space on many levels. As the latest outing in the 50-year franchise box office results show us, even with massive structural changes that have taken place under the hood of the movie industry making it ever easier and more economical to stay on the couch, if you offer the people something they want, they will come out for it. But what do people want? That’s been the perennial question for those working in the industry, from the leadership to the ticket seller.

Across industries, from Retail to Banking, Covid has been deemed the great accelerator. E-commerce smashed records, streaming sites signed up new members at rates well beyond internal forecasts, and Zoom entered the lexicon as something you did regardless of the actual platform you were having your video call on (no doubt much to Microsoft’s chagrin) – akin to Band-Aid, Post-It and Ziploc!

The trend, at least on the audience-focused commercial side of the business is people want BIG. To move the masses off the couch, big brands and big spectacle is the order of the day. Do you want people to buy tickets to the art exhibition? Give the people the warm, joyous colours of Matisse as the Art Gallery of NSW is from November 20. Just remember to have proof of vaccination and a face mask at the ready to attend. Do you want people to come back to the cinema? Give them Bond… James Bond (even the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is about to treat us with Skyfall in Concert!). Want people to come to your live theatre show? Give Melbourne Moulin Rouge and Sydney Phantom. Trade in nostalgia. Trade in proven brand resonance. Audiences are not in the mood for new and daring just quite yet, rather we want to be wrapped in the warm blanket of the familiar and told all is well. After all, as winter settles over the Northern Hemisphere and Covid numbers again spike, it’s clear that while the worst is behind us, Covid is not entirely in the rear-view mirror yet.

These trends were true before Covid. The tendency for big dogs to eat little dogs across sectors including the arts was apparent to those of us in allied industries as Disney bought Fox, and AT&T bought Time Warner before the pandemic. The move towards ever bigger offerings gained momentum from the uncertainties and anxieties of the GFC on but Covid has accelerated the trend. In the Arts and Culture sector, we see that reflected in the global results for Bond, in the excitement for the opening of Moulin Rouge in Melbourne, and the extraordinary morning air time Adele and her Oprah Winfrey interview are getting on our morning shows. This can be difficult to accept and act on when making your mark as a leader is to be different, avant-garde, experimental and cutting edge. To offer audiences, subscribers and customers the familiar, isn’t what many came into the arts to do. So, what is to be done?

Many commentators think that with Covid vaccinations reaching critical levels, a renaissance spurred on by the isolation of the last two years is leading to a wholesale rethink of what business as usual will look like going forward. You can’t go by the newspapers without hearing of “The Great Resignation,” amongst the younger workers whose energy and buying habits spur on our culture. Priorities are changing, fuelled by a sense of coming abundance. This should lead to a surge in personal expression, openness to the new, and an explosion in creativity. We will see more museum exhibits fuelled by virtual reality that will immerse us in the past or transport us to the exotic in ways we never thought possible before. And in Cinema, even as independent films are increasingly no longer seen on the big screen, more and more independents are commissioned for our streaming services as every demographic hungers for new content.

With Bond, Moulin Rouge, Adele, Matisse and a hundred years of Disney Animation extended at ACMI, perhaps the comfort of the old and familiar has reached a zenith or will soon. New thinking is coming.

Seph McKenna
Partner, Arts and Culture
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