When COVID-19 brought live auctions to a halt, Sotheby’s came to Chrome Productions to get them started again. By bringing together the technology that underpins live sports & real-time bidding with creative filmmaking, Chrome Productions devised a ground-breaking live experience that re-imagined the ‘auction’ for a post-COVID world.
Not only did this project up the ante in the art world, it has now been recognized with the 2021 Webby Award for Best Live Experience (Branded). With over 13,500 entries across 70 countries, The Webby Awards is the leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet – the New York Times called it “the Internet’s highest honor”.
After his first night at the helm of what has become known as ‘The Auction of the Future’, long-time auctioneer & Sotheby’s Chairman Oliver Barker commented that “being on the rostrum…was like being at the epicenter of a cinematic production…tonight we redefined the boundaries of what is possible.” That redefinition of an almost 300-year-old tradition garnered acclaim from the art press, with Artnet News calling it “the slickest looking live art event in history”, as well as mainstream media like New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and British GQ – with one article exclaiming “[it’s] better than Netflix!”. The most recent acclaim comes from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS) in the form of the 2021 Webby Award for Best Branded Live Experience – a second for Chrome and Sotheby’s who won the the 2018 Webby Award for Best Branded Series with Treasures from Chatsworth.
In March 2020, Sotheby’s realized that overcoming the obstacles presented by COVID-19 would require throwing out the rule book and ushering in the auction of the future. To do this, the centuries-old juggernaut challenged Chrome Productions to create an entirely virtual experience that had the entertainment and opulence of the live event, but that also allowed for the real-time competition and transactions of an auction.The gap between the traditional approach and what was needed was immense and the first auction was only 2 months away. International specialists with diverse client bases usually would unite in a single salesroom to compete for priceless works. Now, they were trapped in their home countries. The auctioneer – equal parts psychologist, lightning-fast mathematician, and showman – was separated from his salesroom. Clients found themselves unable to enter the auction room and often in a time zones that challenged the viability of the “Evening” format. And hundreds of millions of dollars were on the line.
From pitch to event, we had only 8 weeks. Chrome Productions’ CEO and Executive Producer Joel Mishcon noted “The breakthrough moment was the realization that auctions, though global events given their clientele, didn’t need to be tied to any one geographical location. This opened up the opportunity for us to use cutting-edge technology and our production expertise to completely reimagine how Sotheby’s conducted business, and ultimately allowed them to operate during the incredible challenging times COVID-19 presented”. Using a first-of-its-kind marriage of cutting-edge streaming technology, remote production, creative cinematography and motion graphics, we were able to design a system from the ground up that fed multi-cam streams from each of the global sale rooms through local control rooms and then to a master control in London. To pull it off was a different story. We quickly assembled a team of 50 external contractors – in addition to scores of Sotheby’s employees – in London, New York and Hong Kong to design sets, develop a technology solution, make camera selections, and build the networking infrastructure across three continents. Bespoke ‘studios’ were built in each location and – for the first time ever – the New York sale would be conducted by legendary auctioneer Oliver Barker fielding bids remotely from a ‘command room’ studio at Sotheby’s London. This groundbreaking feed was streamed in real time across Sotheby’s website, its proprietary bidding platform, as well as broadcast TV via Cheddar.
“In a week where many auction houses vie for the attention of the same clients, this strategy immediately differentiated Sotheby’s from its competition” said Robert Chew, VP, North America at Chrome Productions “and, in doing so, also set a new standard for the entire industry”. By treating the production of the event more like a concert with its programmed robotic moves, or a television show with teleprompters and rehearsed cues we broke past the traditionally niche audience of fine art auctions to instead attracted much wider interest. And it worked. Given the ability to invite the masses to view the stream without changing the experience for the participants, viewership grew from around 2,000 per auction to over 1 million – virtually overnight. Forbes noted that the format was a “far cry from the usual dry video streams of sales rooms” and perhaps most poetically a tweet flashed across the screen during the broadcast asking “Who needs Glastonbury when you’ve got Sotheby’s online.”