Online Mode as a Quarantine Era Marker.

The pandemic broke the normal pace of the festival cycle and established new relations between filmmakers, distributors, festivals and audience. It also forced organisers to make decisions as soon as possible. World festivals found themselves at the  crossroads: they had to decide whether to postpone events until further notice, whether to cancel them or choose online. The last option divided the whole film community into two groups: those who are for and those who are strongly against.

We have analysed experience of online international festivals during the last 4 months and talked to foreign colleagues. It helped us to make our own decision, so in July we’re going to share analytics that can navigate you through the changing environment. The first section covers the framework of high-quality festivals. The second one — recommendations on working in these conditions. In the thirds section you’ll find our thoughts on the new festival paradigm and prospects for the future.

What’s so scary about online

In general, all market concerns could be reduced to global issues of security and comfortable format to maintain the work of experts and to attract the audience. All professional communities have already outlined their for and against and asked questions to the festivals. For the majority of filmmakers it’s important to grasp the schedule and to arrange the film premiere in the current 2020 season.  If it comes to an online session, it’s vital to get clear feedback from the audience and viewing statistic from platforms. 

Sales managers, buyers and distributors are worried about security and licence issues. They want to keep all the content exclusive for further purchases. They want to know whether festivals use territory restrictions like geo-blocking (or worldwide scheme) and how much time is given to watch a picture (single broadcast, delayed access for 48 hours and so on). Everybody is concerned how many changes there will be in programs, what possibilities await them (growing competition for a place) and what benefits committees can offer in these circumstances. What is the framework of online festivals and whether it will meet with the offline format in its program profile and guiding approach. Whether there will be competitive sections, jury and prize funds. Whether festivals are ready to pay screening fees or share their income from the ticket sales. 

The key-question to the festivals is their own premiere policy. It’s not that sites change their prevailing rules. It’s all about the attitude of the cinema industry to online screenings. 

While the regulations that have already been adopted by most of the festivals were worked out unprecedentedly on the move, the decision to participate or not was taken (and still is) by each of the producers individually, basing on potential of the film and contracts with distributors. 

To cancel or to go online — that's the question

No doubt that many festivals and markets of the second half of 2020 will go online partly or on a full basis. Even if there is a possibility to hold screenings in the cinema, new sanitary standards will lead to the decrease of seat occupancy by 30-50%. That is why partial online format  is a good backup for the festivals. It will compensate for ticket sales, audience coverage and accredited guests who can’t attend the events. Hybrid forms of festivals are to be at IDFA, Toronto IFF, Winterthur IFF, IndieLisboa and many others. 

Among other reasons mentioned by colleagues are budgetary obligations and complicated financing schemes that imply no chance to cancel or postpone events without global losses as well as responsibility before members of the crew and intention to save working places. Many European festivals are supported by grants of Creative Europa MEDIA. According to Anna Gashuz, the deputy director of Filmfest Dresden, contract terms with CEM presuppose that a festival cancellation will lead to the deprival of the grant and €100000 loss. The emergency shift will cost at €30000 maximum (even with minimal ticket sales and organisational spendings).

Moreover, the failure of the festival cycle will negatively affect the reputation of cinemas as centres of city culture. In Germany local authorities and festivals support cinema houses together. Filmfest Hamburg’s director is sure that the city will cover festival expenses included in the budget for all occasions.  

Cancelled festivals will be an obstacle to find new talents and encourage the best films nominated to get a prize. Speaking about the last, BAFTA, EFA and AMPAS have reconsidered their regulations for 2020 and will nominate films after high-quality online festivals that comply with all recommendations. Of course, it’s on an exceptional basis, just for the time of the pandemic. 

Making a qualitative online translation means a lot of effort and money. To realize it you need to have a well-coordinated crew, extra budget, long-term experience, strong partners and a transparent concept in this field.

Visions du Reel, CPH:DOX, Krakow IFF, Hot Docs, SXSW, Go Short, VIS, Oberhausen IFF, Aspen IFF, GoEast, ZagrebDox which have already been held, provide experience and a unique field for innovations and experiments. All of these festivals showed great responsibility to the market and film authors, exceptional mobility and resistance to superloads. They managed to gather film programs that are just as good as offline and brought even more audience to the screens than usual. Their experience is being analyzed, adopted by summer and autumn festivals and deserves a precise review.

Some security features of online festivals

In spring we had some big premieres from our catalogue on the online shows of Visions du Réel, Vilnius FF Kino Pavasaris, ZagrebDox, Tribeca, Krakow FF, Hot Docs where authors got good prizes and benefits. Accreditation and work at these and other sites, participation in 8 online conferences where representatives from the biggest festival shared their experience (Cannes, Venice, Hamburg, Toronto, Turin, Stuttgart, Aspen, Lisbon) gave us an opportunity to summarize observations and make a list of features. This list  has been already adopted by the film community as qualitative and secure for online festival translations.

Technical zone

  • Geoblocking use (usually for a host-country) and no VPN connection 

  • Limited time of online sessions or one-time stream for each show 

  • Access to films in a personal profile after the registration

  • A limited number of tickets for the shows that corresponds to the number of viewers in the cinema hall, where the section  is usually held

  • VOD reports to the festivals and owners

Format zone

  • The same festival structure with its programs and number of films as in the offline mode

  • The same guiding approach (thematic and guiding programs and shows, moderation of selectors, statements of directors, Q&A)

  • The same competitive basis and jury

  • Specific benefits for owners (prize fund, screening fees, partial income from ticket sales)

  • The same premiere policy

  • New regulations that temporarily enable to include in the competitive program films which have been already shown online in good quality at other festivals

  • The same ways to interact with participants and the audience: master classes, discussions, multimedia libraries, channels of feedback, one-to-one meetings. 

  • Personal access of members with accreditation to the screening zone. No geo-blocking restrictions (for all shows and multimedia libraries)

It’s interesting to know that not only festivals initiated new regulations on organisation and working ethics but also VOD platforms and film awards. For example, festivals in the USA joined around the memorandum of a big crowdfunding SVOD platform Seed&Spark, that has the slogan  Fund and Watch and collects money only for cinema and TV projects. It is based on the general market agreement that a single online screening at the festival with all restrictions is now equal to VOD distribution. Starting from 30 signatures, the petition has united over 250 sites during 2 months. It has been signed not only by niche and local festivals but also by about 30 significant festivals in the USA and even Europe: Raindance, Slamdance, Shnit, top documentary fests like Camden, True/False and Doxa, the festival cluster in San-Francisco, some oldest sites Cleveland IFF, Palm Springs IFF, St. Louis IFF and others. At the same time Seed&Spark brought a new platform to the market (solution for online events) and organised several online sessions of Сalifornian film festivals in June. 

In the documentary the same initiative came from Orestis Andreadakis — an artistic director of The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. According to Variety, he offered the industrial agreement for 25 festival partners. Among his priorities were screening security, geo-blocking and the right to sell around the world. Key short film festivals refreshed their rules holding at one time 4 online conferences within their own international association Short Film Conference.

Technical platforms: review on some good cases

Online initiatives of last and upcoming festivals are different in its goals, volumes and forms. The same comes to the tools they use. On the one hand, there are software companies providing festivals worldwide with CRM-platforms that are developing nowadays. Some of them designed their own software for online broadcasting (Filmchief), others form new collaborations and bring new partners to the festival arena (Festival Scope).

The most popular is B2B-platform Festival Scope, which was launched in 2010 by Alessandro Raja with support from Creative Europe MEDIA Programme for film promotion among professionals. From 2012 it supports Venice Festival’s online program Sala Web and helps to broadcast extra screenings of Orizzonti competition for the first 500 virtual ticket holders alongside with the global premiere at the big screen. The security system in the personal account aimed at copyright has been proving its effectiveness for 9 years. It was Festival Scope that made partnership with top documentary festivals in Europe like CPH:DOX, Visions du Reel and American Aspen’s festival, boosting Oscar. 

For current online broadcasts Festival Scope suggests collaboration with Shift72 — a platform constructor of the streaming service that you can build in any project. The idea is simple: festivals upload films to the administrative panel of Festival Scope, then Festival Scope and Shift72 create a site with all necessary restrictions and terms, where the audience can watch the program. This set of tools is promoted by the french software company Festcine, grounded in the Les Arcs IFF cluster. It provides more than 50 top film festivals with manager soft (Karlovy Vary IFF Festival Series Mania).

Another collaboration is offered by the Czeck monster of festival software Eventival, maintaining more than 130 top film festivals around the globe (Tallinn Black Nights IFF, Mar del Plata IFF, Sofia IFF). Together with canadian VOD-provider CineSend and a huge ticket-provider Eventive, working for a long time at the festival american market, Eventival also provides the full cycle of online festival services, including geo-blocking, ticket sale, live broadcasts, group chats and so on.

The Netherlands is a pioneer in adoption of online tools for screening.  It is the Dutch platform Filmchief that ensures work of top short film festivals in Europe including VIS, Go Short, Oberhausen, Short Waves. It has grown from the Go Short Nijmegen IFF cluster. According to Daniel Ebner, the director of the largest short film festival in Europe VIS in Vienne, festival partners of Filmchief decided to create their personal independent platform of the full cycle, which minimizes external collaborations and which offers not only internal CRM to the festivals but streaming platforms for online programs. The cost is estimated at 2-10 thousand EU, depending on the difficulty of the project and could be divided between several festival partners. 

The benefit from a personal design is undeniable: you could use the tool to any needs and organise everything according to individual preferences. What is more important, it gives access to analytics and figures. Third party companies don’t provide this information.

The Dutch platform for ticket soft Picl maintaining 90% of independent cinemas in the country is also an interesting example of friendship between festivals, cinemas and VOD. From 2017 this platform entered the VOD zone on the basis of day-to-day releases. Audience who bought tickets to commercial or festival shows could watch them at home. However, the platform is not a private initiative but receives support of governmental funds and Creative Europa MEDIA.

The famous festival of independent films Oldenburg Film Festival announced that it is going to hold the event in September in a hybrid form. It immediately got the proposal from PornHub, which in spring 2020 started to purchase and broadcast documentary films separate from their main content. Having one of the best viewing figures in the world comparable to Youtube, PornHub offered exclusive assistance for online broadcasts to the festival. There is no official response though. This tendency to mate low and high content under the roof of a successful business model is even more interesting than tensed relations between cinemas and streamings. 

One of the most illustrative cases of online short-film festivals was presented by the american giant — SXSW festival, which was cancelled in March, a week before its start. It was probably one of the first to take the heat from the pandemic. Urgent negotiations of the organisational committee set good examples of collaboration. From 27th of April to 6th of May 39 films of different formats and sections of SXSW were shown to the users with personal accounts at the VOD giant service — Amazon Prime Video

The platform committed to pay the fee to the owners. From 22 - 31 of May 7 projects from the VR-competition appeared at Oculus TV. The biggest blow was to young directors of short film sections because having a premiere of this level is a professional lift for them. Some weeks after the award ceremony of short films SXSW announced their joint project with boutique distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories and Mailchimp company that in a short time built a platform for demonstration of participants on the free & worldwide principle.  About 75 short films (all participants practically) accepted their terms, understanding that public access to the films means the end to the festival promotion of their pictures. Majority found this decision reasonable. In addition to the resounding promo of top brands and the wide audience, SXSW and Oscilloscope Laboratories took care of monetization of the process. All owners received guaranteed fees up to $ 3000 as well as a possibility to extend VOD-licence for 2 years after the campaign. 

Why now it’s time for action

Despite the fact that online broadcasts are not fully equal to real-life festivals (no doubt about that) from March to June we witnessed a series of secure and regulated online screenings broadcasted on verified b2b-platforms with excellent promotion and viewing statistics. There were no scandals concerning films that leaked to the net. Moreover, committees believe that active use of online-tools awaits us and it has impressive advantages: a rapid reaction to emergency situations, plasticity, orientation of online services towards different tasks and available access to participants and the audience.

During spring of 2020 the international festival industry in Europe and the USA showed profound and consolidated work on creating general rules of market behaviour including regulations, concerning organization of events and its new schedule.   

The volume of  discussions and clear logic of the majority foreign organisational committees give a chance for specialists to feel free in what’s happening. Unfortunately in Russia there was no such an initiative or integration of the festival movement. No one from our festival experts wasn’t noticed at spring international discussions or the world's media, which means that our festival market is not integrated into the world’s one.  

Let's be honest and say that online broadcasts are disregarded by key productional studios that make releases of projects even at the stage of design and that have contracts with big distributors. It’s around these films of the international character with serious commercial potential that the global controversy on online shows is built. That’s why majors of the purchasing market are especially careful in the discussional field and stick to the wait-and-see approach. They definitely can afford that. However, there is a huge number of films (mainly short ones and documentaries), which will not hurt from the strategy of alternative promotion and which will provide benefits similar to the traditional form of participation. 

Festival directors affirm that for filmmakers and producers the current scope of work at online shows could be as useful as at traditional festivals. For Russian directors it was always a difficult thing to get to international festivals even in usual time, that’s why it’s good to seize the opportunity of online platforms and work on holding negotiations, small talks, quick projects and self-presentations. Don’t waste your time on denying progress, there is no point to fear. It’s time for action and integration. In the next block we will highlight how to work effectively at online festivals and filmmarkets.

Olga Bazhenova