Arts & Theater

A Netflix-type account to watch live theater? One Sacramento company offers just that

B Street Theatre recently launched a new payment model, similar to Netflix’s.
B Street Theatre recently launched a new payment model, similar to Netflix’s. jvillegas@sacbee.com

You pay a certain amount of dollars each month for a Netflix account or a gym membership. You might not use it every day, but it’s there for you when you want it. Now, what if you could consume live theater in the same way?

That’s the idea behind a new membership plan introduced by Sacramento’s B Street Theatre earlier this month. The company’s “B-Flex” plan takes after the Netflix payment model – a flat monthly rate for unlimited access to all B Street programming.

The move underscores the quandary faced by those offering traditional forms of entertainment in today’s era of streaming services: When a full canon of movies, TV shows and music is available at home at the click of a button, how do you get people – and young people in particular – out to the theater?

B Street’s tentative solution is an all-access plan that charges $20 a month, or $240 over a year. For comparison, a subscription to the company’s Mainstage Series – its prime programming for adults consisting of seven shows a year – costs between $98 and $193.

B-Flex, though, also applies to B Street’s popular Family Series – and potentially more. Next year the company will move into its new midtown home at 27th Street and Capitol Avenue, the Sofia, where it plans to host live music, speakers and comedy acts. The B-Flex plan would provide access to any event produced or presented by B Street.

And unlike a yearly subscription, which includes one showing of each play, a B-Flex pass could be used unlimited times – the incentive being that it gains value the more it’s used. B-Flex members do not have guaranteed seats, so its use would be contingent on availability.

“Theaters all over the country are facing a challenge of audience development, whether that’s young (people) or more diverse or just people in general,” said Lyndsay Burch, an artistic producer at B Street. “There are just so many entertainment options in 2017, and they’re at everyone’s fingertips and you can pull them up on your iPad or computer or Apple TV. Theater has to find a way to adjust to that world.”

It isn’t just live theater having to adjust. Movie theaters reportedly are facing a decline in attendance, giving rise to startups like MoviePass, which allows subscribers to watch one movie a day in certain theaters. MoviePass recently lowered its fees to $9.95 a month.

For live theater, B Street may be better suited to offer that type of subscription than some companies because of its breadth of programming. Anthony Rhine, an assistant professor of theater management at Florida State University, said he knows of only two other live theaters in the country that currently offer a similar subscription plan. Both do a variety of programming and offer the plan in addition to a traditional yearly subscription.

Companies that don’t offer a monthly plan, Rhine said, often say they simply “don’t have enough things going on all the time.”

Rhine last year penned an op-ed piece for the American Theatre publication titled “What Theatre Might Learn From Netflix.” In it, he looked at how many services – TV, gyms, cellphones, internet service – are now paid for by consumers on a monthly, recurring basis, and wondered whether theater can be marketed in the same way.

“You hear a lot about the millennial generation wanting to have access, but they want to have it the way they want it, when they want it,” Rhine said in a phone interview. “What this (subscription model) does is say, ‘You’re buying access, and the access is yours. You can use it however you want, whenever you want.’ ”

There are also benefits to the theaters, Rhine said. A smaller monthly payment may seem more manageable than a big annual one. And the fact that it’s recurring means customers must actively cancel their subscription if they want out. (B Street said anyone who signs up for B-Flex can cancel anytime.) In that way, Rhine likened it to a gym membership.

“I want to be able to use it – if I get up the energy or the gumption to go do it,” Rhine said. “And I think ultimately the same will be true of the arts.”

Burch, the B Street artistic producer, said the hope is people will use their B-Flex plans often. B Street’s goal is ultimately to expand its audience, Burch said, partly by tapping into a “more impulsive” younger generation.

“We kind of hope people are out (in midtown) and are like, ‘What are we going to do tonight? There’s a show at B Street at 9 p.m., and we’ve already paid for it, so let’s just go check it out,’ ” Burch said.

“I think it’s playing into familiarity (with the Netflix model), but also impulsivity. Because I do think also that the world is leaning toward things that are accessible without having to be heavily planned.”

Other arts groups have seized on this trend. Capital Stage in Sacramento offers a flex ticket program that lets customers sign up for a full season and choose their dates as they go. Marketing manager Misty McDowell said Capital Stage has offered the flex plan for at least five years and that it’s “pretty popular.”

A monthly all-access plan, though, would make less sense for Capital Stage, McDowell said: The company puts on one production at a time and operates in a smaller 127-seat theater, so if people returned over and over it could create seating issues and a “money-lost” situation.

Still, McDowell said that from a marketing standpoint, she finds the B-Flex idea “very exciting.”

“When I saw that I was like, ‘Oh, that’s brilliant,’ ” she said, “just putting that notion in someone’s head that it’s the same as being able to watch whatever you want at any time.”

Burch said it’ll probably take about a year to gauge whether the B-Flex plan is a success. She said that while deciding how the subscription would work, B Street looked at other theaters but “found that nowhere was really doing what we envisioned we wanted to do.”

Rhine, the Florida State professor, said that could soon change.

“All entertainment these days, everything’s on a monthly subscription,” Rhine said. “It’s just much more convenient, everything’s taken care of, you don’t have to mess with it.

“I suspect this (B Street) may be one of the first companies. But it won’t be one of the last.”

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