Theatre-in-a-Box, One Stop Shopping
by Barry McKinnon
of Mc2Systems Design Group
From the beginning, Systems Contractor News has been looking at the convergence of technology and technology markets, but there are other types of market integration going on out there as well. For example, what image do the words, borders, legs and teasers bring to mind? Do you have a clue what a clew might be? Does a double purchase line sound like an excuse from your purchasing department? Does a beam projector sound like a set piece from as sci-fi movie? Is a gobo something you might step around on a sidewalk? These are all words from the world of theatre lighting, rigging and drapery, one of the areas where systems integration involves disparate technologies only brought together by the customer.
The arts and entertainment fields markets are the best examples of this type of parallel specialization. This trend is not new, in that many of the major players in theatre supply have developed coverage of all aspects of the market since there was a market to pursue. The market opportunities arise when new players, with particular specialties, must enter a specialized competitive field, bidding on the supply of multiple systems. In the ongoing chaotic bubbling of the marketplace, a lighting specialist may leave another supplier, or a theatre, intent on opening a lighting supply company. After a period of time they may establish a reputation for lighting, but lose larger projects to more integrated suppliers because they can't supply the drapery or rigging that is tendered with the lighting. This lighting specialist has two choices, forego bidding on larger projects, or acquire strategic partners to handle other specialties.
It is not uncommon to have lighting, rigging, drapery and sound systems tendered as a single package, even though there is virtually no technological relationship between the systems. Sound systems operate with signals of a fraction of a volt to a few volts, and use all sorts of transducers that range in size from a fraction of a wavelength to multiple wavelengths. Lighting systems operate with things that glow white hot most of the time (a sure danger sign in an audio system), and the "transducers" are all many thousands of wavelengths in size, and all this operates by fiddling with high voltages at current levels that can toast you to a golden brown if you make a mistake. Rigging systems are all ropes, pulleys, knots and counterweights, more like life at sea on a square rigger than what the systems contractor has come to think of as technology. The relationship of systems exists only in the hands of the end-user. Because the market is driven by the end-user, the response from the marketplace is more vertical integration. This is a definite trend, vertical integration of un-related technologies provides the user with one-stop shopping.
In this example of integrated live theatre systems, you can also expect to see the effects of convergence and expansion of technology. More live theatres have discovered the benefits of video show relay, in color for the benefit of late arriving patrons and the ushers who have to manage them, and in B&W/IR for benefit of the stagehands who are busy dodging set pieces being flown in blackout conditions. Video projection is also finding its way into more onstage performances, and even set designs. The one common technical overlap area for live theatre applications will be a computer system. Most lighting systems are able to be computer interfaced, and more audio production systems are computer based. Even the set designer and carpenters may use CAD systems and may want to be networked. This means adding other areas of expertise to one of the other technical systems portfolios or adding new portfolios to the company. This provides more parallel specialization. For the one-stop theatre supplier this means expanding their expertise on a short or long term basis to handle growing client demands for parallel, technically unrelated systems.
Continuing with the theatre example, the companies that have established their market position in theatre supply tend to do so regionally. Except for areas of New York City, the density of live theatres tends to be quite low, and it is necessary to cover a reasonably large market area to maintain an adequate income base. New theatres are not nearly as common as say, new churches, so a company that outfits new theatres is generally prepared to travel. If you have your technical support (lifts, tools, hardware etc.) on a remote site for a lighting installation, it won't cost much more to have that technical support be equipped to handle other systems, and have it available for one or two additional installation crews. Since it is the application and not the technology that integrates the systems, the technical people available for these specialized markets tend to have some overlap in their knowledge base as well, allowing some sharing of both knowledge and labor.
The knowledge of the end-user's application is the critical factor for credibility and success in this type of integrated market. As a sound contractor, you may have done hundreds of successful church installations, but if you have no experience with the sound person's function in live theatre, there is no guarantee of success in theatre. The theatre sound technician's function more closely resembles a broadcast production tech through the construction of the show, and then something between a live sound tech and a shooting gallery target through the run of a show (depends on the stage manager). There may be ten sound cues, or there may be hundreds of sound cues, either on tape or a sampler keyboard, or there may be live music in the show to make it really challenging. The sound systems in theatres can range from fairly simple, with a minimum of loudspeakers and where patching provides all the routing necessary, to fully automated routing and level control to many loudspeaker positions. More often than not, the show relay and paging system is more complicated to install. The technology is not the issue, the important aspect is an understanding of the unique operating environment for the systems, and how they come together during a production.
There are actually two possible routes of partnering that are presented in this type of scenario. There is the opportunity for one-off strategic partnerships, intended to allow several local contractors to come together with at least one specialized theatre supplier and provide a bid on a project where none of them would have the chance to bid otherwise. There is also the opportunity to begin a long term alliance with one or more specialized theatre suppliers providing the technical knowledge in an area outside of their expertise. These relationships can often be the beginning of a relationship that results in a merger or buy-out if the volume of business warrants it. This is the most common trend I have seen in this type of system integration, why grow a specialty from a seed when you can buy a tree.
For the speciality contractor pursuing vertical integration, it has to be demonstrated that each of their sub-specialties carries the same level of expertise. It does not help the marketing effort to have a strong lighting or rigging division, but weak audio or drapery. If there is any demonstrated weakness, the success of the contractor is hampered by the weak-link effect. The double edged sword of integrated companies, if they can win the whole package of systems supply, they have enhanced their profitability, whereas, winning only part of the package may put them in a position where they win the least profitable portion of a project.
I have used live theatre as an example of this integration in the arts and entertainment field, but there are many more. Cinema suppliers became a vertically integrated part of the big theatre chains many years ago, to the point where they handled everything from projection systems, sound systems and film distribution to popcorn, candybars and even the ropes and stanchions to provide the line up to stand in. This is a somewhat unique situation in that most of the larger cinema chains provided enough work for these vertically integrated supply systems that they did not have to pursue outside work, especially a few years ago when multi-plex cinemas where being constructed everywhere. In today's terms this type of integration more closely resembles the computer industry, where hardware and software companies merge and meld their services so that the end-user sees a single full service provider, and they don't have to hunt for accessories or add-ons.
Even in the vertically integrated cinema supply world, there have been opportunities for strategic relationships. Specialty trades such as sound contractors that were also speaker cabinet manufacturers (or speaker recone stations), and acoustical materials fabricators were able to develop good business relations with cinema suppliers because of the modular nature of cinema systems. Each new multi-plex provided the potential for 6-8 theatres worth of speaker enclosures or acoustical wall panels. Every retro-fit provided the opportunity to recone 30 year old theatre woofers, or re-diaphragm old compression drivers, and maybe even build a few dozen surround speakers (this is prior to the advent of THX ® certification which placed more constraints on which products could be used if certification were being sought). It is often possible to develop very good long term business relationships with a vertically integrated supplier in instances where there is no overlap of markets. In this example, if your only contact with the cinema market was through the cinema supplier, you represent a reliable non-threatening source. Because they were totally vertically integrated, they often were not concerned if you also dealt with the audio arm of a competing theatre chain, as it did not affect the business they did in the box office.
There are still new and expanding opportunities for local and regional partnering in specialized subcontracting. Many franchised food chains have novelty attractions using animated figures as part of an all-singing, all-dancing child magnet designed primarily to maximize both the amount of money left behind by parents, and the sheer irritation of the adult dining experience. But these things do work, they are profit centers for the restaurants and the suppliers of these systems. Most of these animated systems are a mixture of pneumatic and electric actuators, computer control, and lighting and audio automation. Because the suppliers of these systems typically operate nationally, there is often a local opportunity for either supply or service. Anything from local supply of audio or video tape for the show tracks to local service of some, or all of the systems, is a possibility.
The Arts and Entertainment industries will continue to offer the most unusual and unique opportunities for integration of electronic systems technology. In terms of novelty and "gee-whiz" factor, nothing pushes the technology envelope harder than leading edge entertainment systems. The way to make money in the mass market entertainment business is to be the first with the niftiest toys. The way to make money as a contractor is to keep an eye open for cutting edge entertainment technology that uses the types systems you work with.
Specialized entertainment systems such as the projection systems used by planetariums or laser shows often require the integration of a proprietary visual display system with more generic audio systems. The suppliers of these projection systems will often recruit local or regional sound contractors for one or more projects. These can be substantial sound systems due to the visceral nature of the material shown, so these are interesting partnerships to foster. In systems of this nature, the integration happens in the system design, and the audio expertise required is literally more generic. The user interface hardware and software is usually developed by the system designer and the audio sub-contractor need only bring a good sound contracting background and the right product lines to the table.
There are other escapees from the theme park world, such as full-motion projection type theatres, and indoor laser tag or even paint-ball games. Both of these offer the chance to get involved in audio, video, or lighting systems installation. Many of these installations also have requirements for security cameras or access control systems to keep people out of restricted areas, or to alert the staff of potentially dangerous situations in low light conditions.
I'm still surprised that there have been so few large scale computer game theatres in evidence. Perhaps with the lower-cost, high resolution video projector technology that is on the way, combined with lower-cost, fast computers and high speed CD-ROM's there will be a market for multi-user computer games rooms which would combine large screen video with big sound systems and a computer hardware supplier to produce a game room for several players and a few spectators. This is just another example of the potential future for systems integration opportunities in the arts and entertainment market.
The key to these markets is recognizing the opportunities, and positioning your company to take advantage of the opportunities when they arise. Which projects involve an outside individual that is providing the expertise of application or integration of the systems, and which projects require you to bring the expertise to the table? Which of the two are you best equipped for? Which projects offer, or require, a long term relationship with other contractors, and is that relationship viable? Which projects offer, or require, long term support of the end-user, and is that something that you are seeking? Which projects require a significant commitment of time and resources away from your bread and butter market areas, and is that sustainable? Will new markets require you to abandon old ones? Is the cost of pursuing the opportunity more than offset by the return? Every step off of a tried and true path requires an expansion of your horizons and a bit of calculated risk taking. The opportunities exist, and a well thought approach could lead to some beautiful (and profitable) friendships.
One important thing to remember if you are going to pursue live theatre sound jobs, never say the name "MacBeth" out loud in a theatre, or you'll have to learn the peculiar song and dance ritual for dispelling the bad luck that uttering that name brings. It is properly called "That Scottish Play." And if you want to expand your horizons a bit and find out what all those words in the first paragraph actually mean, you should pickup a copy of "The Backstage Handbook, an Illustrated Almanac of Technical Information" by Paul Carter, published by Broadway Press. This is useful even if you already can tell stage right from house right, or upstage from downstage, and it has a bit of everything technical in it.
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