Local lockdowns push Ottawa entertainment businesses into new global markets

Peter Dillon
Ottawa actor and entrepreneur Peter Dillon is gaining new audiences from around the world for his virtual murder mysteries. Photo courtesy Peter Dillon

When the COVID-19 lockdown abruptly closed the curtain on his thriving mystery dinner theatre productions three months ago, Peter Dillon was suddenly forced to find a new way for the show to go on.

“March 12, I’m managing 50 actors and (crew members), and the 13th we’re told, ‘That’s it,’” the Ottawa-based actor and entrepreneur says. “We went from all of that to zero revenue overnight. I think I was in shock the first few days. It was either adapt or die.”

Dillon’s business, Big Time Murder Productions, was on a run of sold-out performances in Ottawa and Toronto before the province slapped a ban on all public gatherings in a bid to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

The company is among a number of local ventures in the entertainment industry that have been forced to reinvent themselves since the lockdown began – a process that, in some cases, has opened up a world of new opportunities. 

As many other businesses are throwing open their doors to the public for the first time in months as part of phase two of the province’s plan to gradually restart the economy, Big Time Murder and other “immersive entertainment” experiences that rely on people to gather in close quarters are still waiting for the green light. 

But rather than fold up their tents, some of these enterprises have used the forced hiatus to take their offerings online, tapping into global markets they never could have reached otherwise.   

Faced with the biggest challenge of his career, Dillon knew it was time to get creative. He and his team quickly rejigged one of Big Time Murder’s popular “You-dunnit” shows ​– in which the audience members play suspects in a murder investigation ​– into an online format that could be staged via Zoom.

The results have been even better than Dillon expected. His new site, ZoomMystery.com, has drawn traffic from as far away as India and Singapore, and the format is earning rave reviews.

The performances are run by a professional actor from Big Time Murder’s team. The suspects are all members of the virtual audience, who are encouraged to dress the part and even receive a one-page character profile to help them prepare for their roles. 

Up to eight people can play a part in the virtual whodunnit, and as many as 99 people can be on the call. Participants are charged a flat fee for the 75-minute performance.  

“We’ve just been overwhelmed by the success,” says Dillon, whose acting credits include a recurring role on the ABC series Quantico and a turn in 1999’s big-screen crime drama The Bone Collector

The shows have been popular enough that he’s been able to recover almost 20 per cent of the revenues he’d typically earn from live performances, and he’s already in the process of writing two more shows to add to the company’s online offerings.

New revenue stream

While he’s anxious to get back on stage in front of live audiences, Dillon says the virtual mysteries have opened up a whole new market for Big Time Murder and will continue once the lockdown ends. People who can’t travel to Ottawa or Toronto or have mobility issues now have a chance to enjoy the productions, he says, and the new revenue stream will help supplement the company’s income while it rebuilds its traditional audience. 

“This will have a life of its own even after life gets back to normal,” Dillon says.

The entrepreneurs behind popular Ottawa-based entertainment company Escape Manor have also seen healthy demand for their online products during the COVID-19 crisis.

Like Big Time Murder, Escape Manor was forced to close all 10 of its locations in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Australia in mid-March. With their only source of income wiped out, the owners were left scrambling to figure out a way to keep the lights on.

They also found their solution in an online offering. In mid-April, Escape Manor launched a virtual escape experience called Taken: The Swiss Account. The module is designed for one to four players and can be played on both desktop and mobile devices. 

Co-founder Steve Wilson says the virtual experience has captured worldwide attention, with customers from Australia, Bangladesh, India and 17 other countries signing up for the mission of rescuing Gordan Gawans, a “high-level official from the United Nations” who has been abducted.

Wilson concedes that revenues from the online version don’t come anywhere close to recuperating the income the company has lost from its live venues. While each participant pays $24 to enter Escape Manor’s physical locations, the company charges just $19.99 per group to take part in the virtual experience.

Weathering the storm

“That’s allowed us to somewhat weather the storm,” he says. “Without that, we’d be singing a very different tune right now.”

Last weekend, Escape Manor got the green light to reopen its location in Brisbane, Australia, and it expects its two facilities in Regina and Saskatoon to be back up and running in the next week or so. Wilson is hoping the firm’s five locations in eastern Ontario will get the all-clear before the end of the month.

While he knows it could be a while before many of us feel comfortable taking part in “immersive entertainment” like Escape Manor’s offerings, he’s confident there will be plenty of “fun-loving, thrill-seeking people” eager to tackle the escape room challenge.  

“We think that it’ll come back,” Wilson says. “Having seen what we saw in Brisbane this past weekend, it was very promising.”

At the same time, he says, the lockdown opened the company’s eyes to a whole new way of doing business.

“We now have a new revenue stream that is way, way less maintenance than an in-person experience,” Wilson explains. 

Dillon agrees, saying the crisis gave him the impetus he needed to continue evolving the business. 

“This is absolutely here to stay,” he says of Big Time Murder’s foray into the online world. “There’s no question about it.”