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Streamed Silents: Does Live-Scoring Make A Difference?

It’s interesting. I really thought my idea of live-streaming a live-scored and live-hosted silent film program would catch on. Perhaps slowly at first, and then at some point it would start to snowball. After all, so many of us silent film enthusiasts say that the live music is a key part of seeing a silent movie.

But maybe, for most fans watching a silent film at home – and not in a theater – it isn’t as important. Or doesn’t make that much of a difference. Perhaps home viewing is home viewing, and the “happening” of it being a live experience isn’t as much of a draw or value-add as I’d thought it might be.

There are a few classic film festivals or archives that have continued offering silent films as “special content” streams for members or off-site festival attendees. These scored silents are all pre-recorded presentations, though. Regardless, there is a ”draw” to this, that fans are able to view festival or archival offerings without having to travel. Even outside of the constrictions of a pandemic lock-down.

It’s not like live-streaming a silent film presentation is way way more complicated or complex than uploading a video file to a server. I’ve done more than 120 or so silent film live-streams since March 2020, and have built up a loyal audience for these shows. For the arthouses that I did live-streams for in 2020-2021 all that was required of them was to embed (i.e. with Eventive or Agile Ticketing) or send out the link that I sent them.

Can you feel the difference between watching a silent film when it’s a Blu-ray or a pre-recorded stream and when it’s a and live-scored live-stream?

1973 print ad version of the “Is It Live Or Is It Memorex” campaign that featured Ella Fitzgerald.

I keep thinking of the ad campaign from the 1970s for Memorex cassette tapes whose tag-line was ”Is it live, or is it Memorex?”, defying audiophiles to tell the difference between a live performance and one recorded on tape. I wonder if the same holds true for classic and silent film fans.

I have to assume the few hundred people who live-watch the Silent Comedy Watch Party episodes or my programs for the Cinema Arts Centre can tell the difference, that it feels different to them when they’re watching live as opposed to viewing archived SCWP episodes. And I can’t help wondering why there hasn’t been a greater interest in presenting silents as live-streamed events.

These are questions I ask myself as we all roll into the return to whatever the ”new normal” of in-cinema screenings brings as 2022 winds down and 2023 looms over the horizon.

(The next Silent Comedy Watch Party episode will stream live on Oct 23, then on Nov 27 and Dec 11. The next live-streamed silent that I’ll be doing for the Cinema Arts Centre will be on Nov 2).

Read or listen to a 2019 NPR story about the Memorex ad and the boost it gave to Ella Fitzgerald’s career here.

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