Editor’s note: Our new series “Resilience and Reinvention” shines the light on the innovations of organizations in industries decimated by the pandemic. These adaptive organizations have retooled their business model and redirected their workforce to keep their doors open and workers employed.
Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, the San Francisco Ballet was feeling confident about its plans for the future. The organization has what Executive Director Kelly Tweeddale calls a “barbell audience” — attendees tend to skew young or old. So it needed to provide performances with new and multiple points of access, and virtual engagement was top-of-mind. “We had recognized that digital and the online space was a place that we had to develop competency,” she said.
But the ballet decided it could hold off on shifting to digital until the third year of the long-range plan it had just approved. When the pandemic forced a lockdown in California, including the ballet’s home in the iconic San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, the organization needed to put that long-range digital strategy into action in a matter of months, coming up with such innovations as a brief video performance based on a Hitchcock classic.
The SF Ballet is one of the many arts groups that have been hit hard by the pandemic. According to the advocacy organization Americans for the Arts, nonprofit culture and arts groups in the United States have lost more than $14 billion and more than 110 million attendees during the pandemic, and have furloughed or laid off more than 100,000 employees in the wake of COVID-19. According to Californians for the Arts, more than 250,000 people working in the state’s entertainment industry have applied for unemployment assistance.
The ballet was in a dire predicament in terms of audience revenue — it had staged only one performance of a new show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was only the third of eight programs it had slated for the season.
In light of that, one of the ballet’s first priorities was to preserve liquidity. Rather than rush to deliver refunds to ticketholders, it encouraged them to hold tight. “We said, ‘We don’t know how this is going to end, but we’re asking you to take a leap of faith with us,’” Tweeddale said. “We could convert [ticket purchases] to a donation, or use it for a future season, or we’ll convert it to a real ticket if that becomes available.”
The appeal worked: The ballet’s refund rate was only 8%. “It allowed us to keep our artists working, because if we had all that revenue going out the door, we wouldn’t be able to retain our dancers and musicians and their livelihoods,” she said.
With finances stabilized, the ballet began to accelerate its capacity for digital delivery. For a while, it encouraged its dancers to share videos of individual performances in their homes. It also offered an online recording of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and opened up its film archive of some past performances as well. But patrons and performers alike were itching for something that better represented the ballet’s progressive reputation.
Pandemic restrictions and logistics prevented a full-scale production. But in the summer of 2020, the ballet was able to film and record Dance of Dreams, a brief performance with a small cast themed around Alfred Hitchcock’s quintessentially San Francisco 1958 film, Vertigo. It wasn’t a full performance — and since it was made available for free, it was effectively a loss leader for the ballet. But it kept eyes on the organization, and helped it learn what filming ballet for a digital-first audience during a pandemic could look like.
“The thought process was, ‘Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, let’s make a grid of what we can,’” Tweeddale said. “That allowed us to go outside. We only used the dancers who were sheltered in place. We had a director who was able to direct from his iPhone, and a Steadicam operator. We went outside and created this beautiful six-minute piece.”
The ballet also made a digital pivot last winter with its production of The Nutcracker, which is typically the biggest revenue driver for any ballet company. Reusing a recording of a 2008 performance, the ballet built a virtual opera house tour, kids’ activities and some historical context. (SF Ballet was the first company to stage a full-length Nutcracker in 1944.)
The virtual show sold more than 10,000 tickets, which was a significant drop for the show — roughly $500,000 in ticket revenue, compared to around $8 million in a typical year. But it provided a new audience, with 40% of viewers first-time buyers and a similar percentage of viewers outside the Bay Area.
To offset those anticipated losses, SF Ballet ramped up its fundraising efforts. A Critical Relief Fund, launched last March, drew $5 million. Other fundraising initiatives, including a virtual gala this month, brought in about $1 million more. “It opened our eyes that we’re all in this together and there is a different way to expand and monetize content,” Tweeddale said.
Taking performances into virtual spaces has been the most common response to the pandemic among arts groups: 73% of organizations surveyed by Americans for the Arts say they’ve increased their online presence since the pandemic. At SF Ballet, that works because that increase is also wrapped around efforts to innovate in terms of content and fundraising.
"Nothing can replace live, but live actually can grow because of digital,” Tweedale said. “It expands your audiences, it expands your reach, it expands the way you present yourself. It takes away a lot of barriers.”
About the Author
Mark Athitakis is a contributor to WorldatWork.