THERE were mixed views on the viability of having local theatre productions broadcast on television at a forum hosted by the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT).
This was the main topic at the TATT 36th ICT Open Forum, The Missing Link – Moving Local Theatre from the Stage to the Screen, broadcast on September 21 on CNC3.
Before the discussion, TATT CEO Cynthia Reddock-Downes said in a recorded message the purpose of the forum was to critically examine the local theatre and broadcasting industries and examine: "Why, with all the visual and performing arts talent in our twin-island nation, we have not seen that talent transcending (sic) to our local television screen?"
She said the country's substantial local content attracts viewership, but quality plays and other content do not make it to broadcast media.
She added the question was how to generate interest, though the demand may not be in sufficient amounts to generate advertising revenue from the broadcasting of these productions.
Reddock-Downes said there have been excellent theatre performances at sold-out venues, but these are only enjoyed by live audiences. She questioned how to enable the development of the broadcasting sector so that local theatre can become content for broadcasters.
She explained that TATT's role as a regulator is to facilitate the orderly development of local telecommunications and broadcasting sectors in such a way as to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the national, social, cultural and economic well-being of society. She said there is a gap to be filled in terms of made-for-television productions, adding the cost can be prohibitive.
Reddock-Downes pointed out that the National Policy on Broadcast and the Broadcasting Industry recognises the acute challenges to local artistes posed by the overwhelming presence of foreign products.
"We recognise our duty to provide significant opportunities for the development of local culture through broadcasting."
She said the forum will go a long way in restarting the conversation on using national television broadcasters to promote local culture.
The forum was hosted by actor, playwright, director, and producer Wendell Etienne. The panellists were director, actor, writer, producer and Gayelle TV founder Errol Fabien; member of the Orange Economy Committee in the TT Chamber of Industry and Commerce Julie Harris; TT Film Company (FilmTT) general manager Leslie-Ann Wills-Caton; and actress, director, writer, casting director and producer Penelope Spencer.
The covid factor
Fabien said there is a perspective that stage productions are not made for television, as the approach to work is fundamentally different. He recalled during the covid19 pandemic he did a couple of comedy shows online and it was difficult having no audience and no laughter.
"It's just this piece of glass."
Harris said during the pandemic and with the shutdowns, those in the theatre industry had to find another way of creating content for people to consume.
"There was a demand for more interesting content, and a lot of small things were produced."
She explained practitioners had to take something designed for a live audience, from whom energy would be bounced off while on a stage, and package it for the screen. She added it is a different approach and almost needs to be produced differently for the screen.
"It's not that simple."
Wills-Caton recalled during the pandemic, theatre producers asked FilmTT for assistance in getting the productions onscreen, such as how to hire a cinematographer. She added some of them were not aware of how the film pipeline worked, nor did they have a clearly defined script-to-screen process.
She said to respond to this need, FilmTT assisted with education and training, and built on capacity-development programmes.
"We took advantage of covid for education."
Spencer said she liked the fact there is theatre in its purest form and added there was something beautiful for those sitting in an audience and the actors onstage seeing an audience and interacting with the "fourth wall."
"We don't necessarily have to take it and put it in onscreen. We can develop actors and writers and let them write stuff for the screen."
She recalled years ago there was a play of the month broadcast on television.
Fabien said Gayelle had more than 20 plays recorded and put on television. He added that while this gave the theatre producer advertising, playing it on television never did justice to the productions.
"It eh make for that."
Harris said the productions will have to be packaged, and both investment and distribution organised.
"It is not the same as being there. It is its own thing. And it can be a good thing if done well."
She added that having made-for-television productions can expose people outside TT to this country's culture.
Spencer chimed in that the Prime Minister's Best Village Trophy Competition was a prime example of a stage production being put onscreen.
Fabien said having theatre productions on television can drive audiences to the theatre, but expressed concern about the rights issue.
"Who owns it? Who gets the money? How do you divvy it up?"
Harris responded that part of the orange economy was looking at issues of rights and intellectual property.
A Mixed Up example
Wills-Caton said if a play is being put on a television, a producer was needed. She added that some theatre practitioners do not know how to produce, or the process of it.
"FilmTT can train theatre producers to be line producers, to take from theatre to screen."
She said FilmTT did capacity-development with programme Script to Screen and produced the sitcom Mixed Up. She explained it used a theatre format and converted it into a sitcom and was able to film 25 pages a day, compared to the usual six pages.
She said there is an opportunity to convert theatre to television, and in TT there is a large gap for television series. She also said young content creators on platforms such as TikTok need to be embraced and incentivised.
Spencer, who appears in Mixed Up, said it was a good case study of theatre to screen.
"I really wish that us as a people get more invested in us. And respecting the artists and understanding how far theatre can go. It is beyond just screen and stage, it is life."
Spencer said there are studios, writers, and actors ready.
"One thing we don't have is money."
Harris said there is a need to create an ecosystem that combines culture, training, and rigorously disciplined people who are stage practitioners. She added that there needed to be a platform to speak with the government and stakeholders.
"We have as many people living outside as living here who are hungry for this material."
She explained the Chamber sees the film industry as an important area of diversification, and both employment and investment opportunities.
"We have a lot of talk about creative industries, and things available have to be brought together."
The investment issue
Wills-Caton recalled when she started at FilmTT, she went to advertising agencies about investment, and some told her they do not watch local television.
"Where are you placing the ad?"
She said the agencies would spend $2 million for a 30-second advertisement, but were not interested in product placement.
"Film is forever."
She said she has spent three years speaking to the commercial sector and showing it the value of product placement. She added that TT had the stories, but the issue was convincing the corporate sector to see the value of film.
"It is a very viable industry. Hollywood is a billion-dollar industry. When we say we can do the same in the Caribbean they say no, and prefer to spend $2 million on a 30-second ad."
Harris responded that if businesses do not see how investing in film would work for them then it would be a hard case to make.
"We have to find a way to make a case that it is an investment worth making."
Fabien said there are fiscal incentives for investing in local productions, such as a 150 per cent tax rebate.
"But the companies, like they don't get it."
Wills-Caton said a lot of filmmakers go for funding and ask for sponsorship. She advised, however, that they should not use that term, but ask for an investment instead.
"The minute you use the word 'sponsor,' it is not a business. Sponsorship and getting free money is not a business. That's not sustainable."
She said FilmTT has been re-educating filmmakers on how to pitch to investors and not use the word "sponsorship," but show them return on investment.
Spencer said while she saw theatre and film industries working hand in hand, she feared TT was not promoting its culture and history.
"My fear is that we are moving away from us."
During the call-in segment, veteran actor and media personality Hansley Adjodha phoned in and suggested the greater use of technology to get local content streamed into people's living rooms, possibly through legislation created by TATT. He also suggested a partnership with a streaming company strictly for TT producers.
"Bollywood, Nollywood – they are all there."
Fabien also spoke about the importance of film to advertise TT to the world.
"Hollywood is America's 'advertising agency.' We can get something similar.”