Flying by the seat of your glance
A 16-foot-long white blimp hovered above the conductor’s podium in an empty Walt Disney Concert Hall. Beneath it hung a video camera, just over the spot where Lorin Maazel’s score of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” had rested hours earlier.
“Action!” shouted Mike Kirsch, standing offstage and staring into a video monitor.
Four plastic propellers began to whir, and the helium-filled airship floated upward. Stationed in the Orchestra West section, Larry Fleming piloted the flight with a remote control.
Backstage, Kirsch had his own remote, for the camera, which he rotated sideways -- it started pointed toward the seats but ended facing the stage as the blimp glided toward its final resting spot above Row G of the Terrace section.
“I missed the target,” Fleming moaned. “It takes me five to 10 flights to get back to flying precision.”
This scene last weekend could easily have been mistaken for a bunch of techies who’d broken into the Frank Gehry-designed landmark to test a homemade contraption. In fact, Kirsch and Fleming were working for the Buddy Group, a digital marketing agency, on a new website feature called Seat Buddy.
When the project is finished in late spring, ticket buyers will be able to visit Disney Hall’s online seating chart, click on a seat and watch a five- to 10-second video of a flight from the stage to that seat, giving them a sense of how it would feel to sit there.
The first venue to use this technology is the Orange County Performing Artscenter, which launched the feature on its website this week.
“ ‘Are these seats any good?’ That’s always the question that’s asked,” Buddy Group founder Pete Deutschman, 32, said the other day. With drawings of seating charts, he said, “You have no idea how big the venue is. You have no idea where your seat is in relation to the others or to a wall or a balcony above you.”
Arvind Manocha, chief operating officer for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which performs in Disney Hall, hopes that Seat Buddy will unlock the mystery of the hall’s interior for potential patrons who have never been there.
“People are familiar with the outside of it, but seeing the inside isn’t very easy,” he said. “For patrons who are not used to being seated on the side of the stage or behind the stage, for example, this will be a very nice way for them to get that sense before they come down.”
The application is part of a larger online strategy by the Phil, which relaunched its website in November and added ring tones, wallpapers and text message updates last month.
Some venues -- such as Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden in New York -- have still images on their websites showing the perspective from each seat. But, Deutschman said, a photo “doesn’t do a good job of showing you depth.”
Video could also attract younger audiences. “The newer generation has access to their iPhones, to YouTube, and they’re used to being able to click a button and watch a video,” Kirsch said.
In addition, Deutschman noted, Seat Buddy increases one of the Buddy Group’s specialties, “time on brand” -- marketing-speak for how long a customer spends interacting with a brand, usually by means of online activities that go beyond just looking at a static advertisement. The company’s other projects include websites for the musical “Wicked” and actress Scarlett Johansson’s Reebok clothing line; an online game for the CW television show “Reaper”; the “Prom Queen” “webisode” series for Michael Eisner’s production company; and a new video and social networking site, MyBroadway.com.
According to Deutschman, the company grossed $6 million last year and employs more than 50 people.
Deutschman earned a master’s in theater management and producing at Columbia University and later worked in the membership and marketing departments for the League of American Theaters and Producers, Broadway’s main trade organization (now the Broadway League, which the Buddy Group has helped rebrand).
In 2005, he started the Buddy Group, named for its collaborative spirit and because his employees tended to be his buddies: He knew Kirsch in high school, for instance, and the chief operating officer is his cousin.
When he got the idea for Seat Buddy a year ago, he and Kirsch, the head of the company’s digital video production studio, considered cranes, cabling systems and small remote-controlled helicopters before settling on blimps. They then contacted their friend Fleming, who flies small advertising blimps during Anaheim Ducks hockey games.
But Seat Buddy will probably use helicopters if it expands to outdoor venues. “The one downfall of a blimp is that it’s very susceptible to slight changes in wind,” Kirsch said. “We’ve turned off the air conditioning tonight, because even ventilation systems will blow the blimp around.”
Because of time constraints, Seat Buddy doesn’t create a separate video for every seat. Disney Hall, for instance, will be divided into 28 sections, with one video for each. And although a blimp flight might take 45 seconds, the final video will be sped up, typically by a factor of five.
Deutschman aims to sign 20 to 25 performing arts, sports and concert venues by next fall and said he’s negotiating a partnership with a major ticketing service. He’s even considering how the technology might be used to capture a museum exhibit.
In Disney Hall, after Fleming had missed his target, he and his crew prepped the blimp for its next launch.
In an ideal take, Fleming’s flight and Kirsch’s camera movements are completely in sync. The pair met as sixth-graders who flew model airplanes and built radio-controlled cars.
“Larry was always MacGyver,” Kirsch said. “We would go into the field and, naturally, crash planes. He was always the guy who could fix it.”
By Take 4 of the first Disney Hall shot, things had clicked. As the blimp came to rest, Fleming said, “I felt real good on that one.”
Kirsch emerged from backstage. “That was 93% of perfect,” he said. “Larry, nice flying!”