Sam Mendes calls on Amazon and Netflix to rescue theatre industry after streaming services make millions during lockdown

Posted on 11 June 2020

James Bond director Sam Mendes (Spectre, Skyfall), who is perhaps best known in the West End for directing the hit plays The Ferryman and The Lehman Trilogy, has pointed the finger at streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime for making millions on the coronavirus lockdown whilst UK theatres have been left in the dust.

The performing arts need to be saved now,” Mendes urged in a recent op-ed he wrote for the Financial Times. The English stage and film director has called for streaming services to help share the windfall from COVID-19. When you do the math, this certainly isn't asking for much. Back in April, Netflix announced a surprisingly large increase in new subscriptions with approximately 15.8 million new users from around the world signing up for the service in March — when lockdown measures swept Western society.

This is in stark contrast with performing arts spaces, 70% of which are forecast to exhaust all of their funds by the end of the year. And while some entertainment venues such as cinemas and drive-in theatres can continue to stay solvent after lockdown, social distancing measures spell disaster for most UK theatre venues. The industry has been, without a doubt, left high and dry and we can only hope Sam Mendes' rescue package ideas will catch on... and fast!

                    “The performing arts need to be saved now,” Mendes wrote for The Financial Times. “Not next week, or next month. If they die, an ecosystem this intricate and evolved cannot be rebuilt from scratch. If it stops breathing, it cannot be resuscitated. It is the product of decades of capital projects, loyal audiences, and of communities large and small.

Sam Mendes challenges streaming services to pitch in as UK theatre is left "mortally wounded"

Mendes' recent op-ed for the Financial Times has received a standing ovation from key figures within the theatre industry, including choreographer Matthew Bourne who declared it a "great call to arms." But will their applause be heard by the government and streaming services?

Criticising how these streaming companies have profited off people who've been staying home during the coronavirus pandemic, Mendes wrote:

                    “While a huge percentage of working people have suffered over these past three months, there are also many (whisper it) whom COVID-19 has made rich. It would be deeply ironic if the streaming services – Netflix, Amazon Prime et al – should be making lockdown millions from our finest acting, producing, writing and directing talent, while the very arts culture that nurtured that talent pool is allowed to die. Is there anyone among those people willing to use a fraction of their Covid-19 windfall to help those who have been mortally wounded? If so, I hope you’re reading this, and that you are able to think of the arts landscape as more than just a ‘content provider’, but instead as an ecosystem that supports us all.

Sam Mendes: The COVID-19 pandemic is “the biggest challenge to Britain’s cultural life since the outbreak of [WWII]”

Sam Mendes has emphasised that the arts are a "giant economic growth engine," with the theatre industry often being the seedbed for emerging artists to grow and develop their careers as they cross over into film and TV. Mendes alone started out as a director for the Donmar Warehouse in London for several years before eventually going on to direct his breakout, Oscar Award-winning film, American Beauty. And in a nod to the hit 1999 film, it would be a shame if the fate of UK theatre were doomed to plastic bags floating down Shaftesbury Avenue like tumbleweeds in a future cultural wasteland. Nevertheless, this dark scenario can be completely avoided, almost too easily, it seems.

Sam Mendes' rescue package ideas on how to save West End and UK theatre

  • Continue the job retention scheme
  • A new package to support the theatre's vital network of freelancers
  • Increase the theatre's tax-relief scheme from 20% to 50%
  • Have the government become a "theatrical angel," i.e. investors in the business

West End theatre industry generates £133 million in VAT revenue for the London treasury alone

The UK theatre industry is a lucrative business and under normal circumstances would not need special government handouts or long-term financial support. What's more telling is how a single West End show with a relatively short run can still manage to gross millions of pounds. Sam Mendes' hit production of The Lehman Trilogy, for example, which transferred from the National Theatre to play a limited season at the Piccadilly Theatre, still managed to rake in £8.75 million despite running for just under three and a half months.

This just goes to show that although theatres and productions run on very low-profit margins, profitable they can be. So what exactly is the holdup?

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Nicholas Ephram Ryan Daniels

By Nicholas Ephram Ryan Daniels

Ephram is a jack of all trades and enjoys attending theatre, classical music concerts and the opera.