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4328RE: [fulldome] mind-blowing immersive visual music experiences - experience of one planetarium

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  • Christopher Hudson
    Dec 16, 2013

      Ed, thank you for your thoughtful post which helps me understand why as a planetarium we have had no commercial success running 'arts' pieces.  My experience of running a small planetarium might be interesting as the 'other side of the fence'.  If you want to save reading the rest, the short version is that our planetarium runs at a loss with every arts event we put on, which is not to say that we don't value them and keep on running them when we can!



      Our planetarium is a 10m digital one (Evans and Sutherland Digistar 3) with 65 seats plus an area for up to four wheelchairs.  It is physically inside a science centre, the Centre for Life, in Newcastle in the UK.



      The basic economics are badly against us for fulldome art pieces.  We have tried various pricing for events, with about £5 a ticket being a cut-off for much of the student/ young-adult 'impulse' market.  (I'll have a go later at explaining why our audiences seem to be 'impulse' purchases rather than 'concert'-like audiences.)  That makes an income at capacity of about £350 from which we need to pay staffing (the centre has to be opened and not just the planetarium so three staff) and any advertising.  (We, of course, don't mention the costs of heating and lighting and toilets and etc. etc.  We hide the costs of negotiating show licenses including any legal stuff, then the costs of getting the fulldome material and of slicing/installing on our dome together with any testing.)  Even £350 does not buy much advertising.  Even electronic advertising isn't 'free' - someone still has to work on a marketing plan and fit it into our corporate branding.  Getting press interest is time consuming (and remember those free tickets...).  Posters?  Printed material?  Design?  Yes, there are ways you can be clever with marketing and yes we will keep experimenting, but the fundamental problem is little income = little justification for major marketing = lower audience = less interest as an organisation in pushing future events.


      To be clear here, we are a planetarium in a science centre and fulldome art is not part of our core charitable purpose, although we do try to support it!


      Where out of £350 maximum income (not profit) can we give the artists a reasonable reward for their endeavours?  In practise, we have to rely on pieces offered for free or nominal cost or that are funded through grants (the Centre for Life is an educational charity).


      My experience is  that fulldome art is very well received when people see it as part of a wider offering.  For example, at our Maker Faire UK events about 2000 people experience fulldome work over the weekend, a few hundred do so at our themed 'Late' night events.  However, for nearly everyone it is the whole experience that sticks in their mind and that gets us repeat visits.  We get as many visitors as possible to sign up for our events email list but see very little take-up from these lists at pure 'arts' events.  Something like this where we can bundle fulldome art costs into a greater whole does work for us.


      For pure fulldome art, though, what to offer?  As part of a larger event, easy.  There is plenty of short interesting stuff.  But for a fulldome evening, is half an hour of stunning visuals fine or is it perceived as poor value?  Is an hour too much?  Remember that he 'Hobbit', for example, comes in at over two-and-a-half hours long.  Do we combine art pieces with a more traditional fulldome show, in which case how do you manage expectations - is it art or science?  Are we selling new cutting edge fulldome art, as we have commissioned in the past?  Or in effect something 'trippy' like fractals?  Our planetarium doesn't have lasers and they are not cheap to hire in.  And no, you can't dance because the seating is fixed.  And no, we don't operate a bar or serve food because the staffing involved is uneconomic for a small audience (we've tried).  Do we try a bit of everything?


      As a rather depressing case-study, we recently put on three performances of an amazing 30-minute poem on a space theme with a superb musical score:


      This was broadcast to an audience of hundreds of thousands on BBC Radio 4 and featured as the 'Pick of the Week' in their BBC 'Radio Times' magazine.  Both artists had a good track record, including earlier BBC Radio 4 broadcasts.  It was written for our planetarium, launched and recorded there, heavily advertised by both ourselves and the British Science Association as part of their annual Science Fair, was only £3 a ticket ... and yet we were only at about 50% capacity.   About 100 people over three performances.  Did we miss some marketing tricks?  Possibly, but we did a lot of all types of coverage, including a superb full page article in the main local newspaper.  The artists are looking to tour the piece to other planetaria, but are having to seek grant funding to do so and offer it essentially free.  It is I would say impossible to make a commercial case for performing this piece of serious work.


      Okay, art isn't necessarily about money.  We run fulldome art because of what it is, but we have to subsidise it and that subsidy from a  science centre cannot fairly reward the artist financially.  Ed's comments on dedicated digital domes are interesting, but probably apply to mobile domes rather than a fixed dome such as ours.


      The bottom line is that even at relatively cheap prices there is as yet no established audience for fulldome, at least in a fairly small city like Newcastle.  And to be brutal, there is as yet very little fulldome work of the depth and complexity of the better work in an established medium like film.  Yes, there are very good fulldome shorts, yes there are many pieces with impressive visuals, but little with the emotional grab of (your favourite film).  We can argue that the budget isn't there for an equivalent of 'Gravity', true, but hearing the main-stream audience gushing on coming out of a 3D version of that made me realise that fulldome still has a lot of convincing to do.  That audience FELT immersed even if not in 360-degree.  Our local cinemas have over the past few years really upped their game in projector quality and surround-sound experience.  It is a bit sad that I find no difficulty getting friends to go to the cinema, but that few will pay half the price of a 3D cinema ticket for a fulldome experience.  Why?  After one has seen a few fulldome shows, visuals alone aren't engaging enough.  In contrast, we have no difficulty getting audiences for our live planetarium shows.  This is seen as a different and emotionally engaging experience, which you can get by having a real person presenting!


      Can we sell fulldome as a musical experience?  Apparently not at Newcastle, and I think that Ed hit on the main reasons - it is crazy-expensive to get a 'headline' band or orchestra and without that the audience is niche.  Our local 'pop' concert venue has a capacity of 11,000 - do the sums for an audience of 69!  (Okay, an unfair comparison of 'headline' but you get the point.)  Our dome doesn't have a frontal stage area to easily perform live against visuals.  Our independent cinema streams broadcasts at great quality from major events like opera performances, and has the relaxing venue (with bar/ cafe) to make this lengthy experience work.  


      Informal research suggests that for the student/ young adult audience that we need to engage if the medium needs to grow, about £5 is in Newcastle what they will risk on an unknown arts experience.  Remember that our fulldome offer is not a whole night out but realistically only part of one.  £5 is sad, but seemingly true.  For established local bands, perhaps £20, for a large concert at our 'pop' concert arena venue or a classical concert perhaps £40.



      We can readily sell fulldome as part of an experience.  Can we make the content enough of an occasion by itself to justify a £40 ticket?  At Newcastle we are failing to get anywhere near that, and I'd welcome the thoughts of others on how to do better.  (We have a conference and banqueting team that can sell fulldome as part of an entertainment such as a corporate dinner, but we have a 4D Crazy Motion Ride with moving seats and water-squirts etc that is almost always preferred.  Short and unsophisticated fun but with great 3D digital projection.)  Even if we can justify a £40 ticket price, can we do it for event after event to build a loyal and knowledgeable fulldome audience?  Sadly, only then can our planetarium start to offer anything like a living for artists...


      I do wish everyone in the fulldome production field all the best, and do thank so many of you for making exciting and challenging art.  But I can't say it any better than Ed, through coming from the opposite, consumer, end of the spectrum:

      When there are a large number of fine arts, wellness or home domes out there to create demand for your work, Ken, then I expect you can make a living from it.  I honor you for trying to engage planetariums in promoting art and entertainment experiences. I would love to see this succeed, but for now I do not see arts programming taking off in the planetarium market. I have instead focused on promoting alternate venues for the fulldome format that value arts, entertainment and more.

      I would simply add that the planetarium people I know DO value fulldome art, but in the UK at least I can't see how to break even with it (Pink Floyd excepted perhaps) let alone make significant money for anyone out of it!



      Chris Hudson

      Planetarium Supervisor

      Centre for Life



      Christopher Hudson

      Planetarium Supervisor
      Centre for Life
      Management Suite
      Times Square
      Newcastle upon Tyne
      NE1 4EP

      Tel: +44 191 2438220
      Fax: +44 191 2438201
      Email: Christopher.Hudson@...

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