Organizing an online screening with available free tools

by Yoram Schaffer

Online screenings as events (not VOD) exist for quite a few years and had their boost when Youtube and Facebook launched their live streaming services. But only since COVID-19 it has become a real phenomenon and a subculture with its own rules.

I’m not speaking about Youtubers, politicians, or singers running a live show, performance, or a speech. I mean real film screenings, scheduled to a specific time, with pre-registration, invitees, and Q&A sessions at the end of the screening.
This is what this post about.

These days I’m offering a commercial solution for online screenings, but this post is meant for indie filmmakers, with some advice on how to do all this for free, based on my experience.

The Experience

I’ve been dealing with video streaming and VOD in all of its forms since 2011. Started with pay per view, then added subscription-based models (SVOD) and in the middle, experimented with an e-wallet (a great idea, but it seems we were ahead of our time-:) — the audience didn’t understand it at all). I’ve been working with individuals (B2C )and with institutions (B2B) and learned to adapt UX and business models to both audiences. It’s challenging and I’m learning new things every day.

When COVID-19 started, I had been approached by clients and colleagues enquiring about possible solutions to online screenings. While the initial questions were about the technical aspects of the live streaming of a recorded video, we all soon realized that the bigger challenge, without any doubt, is in organizing your audience to be there at a set time, just like in a physical event.

We started with the creation such as a virtual cinema for the community screenings in the frameworks of the Israel Academy of Film and Television. From that, a new initiative was created — Movies Everywhere, aimed at film festivals and public organizations.
That, as I wrote above, is the commercial solution. But here I’m writing about the free solution, which is available to any filmmaker.

Tools You’ll Need

You probably know them all… I’m just putting things together since the biggest challenge is in creating a sense of an “event” and that is a UX challenge, not a technical one.
So basically you will need no more than a:
1. Vimeo account
(it can be Youtube or Twitch, but most filmmakers and artists prefer Vimeo, so let’s stick to it).
2. Google form.
3. Gmail (or any other email service you feel comfortable with).
4. Jitsi — Kick that Zoom away. No account is needed for Jitsi. No annoying time limit. Click https://meet.jit.si/ and you’re done.

Things to Bear in Mind

  1. I suggest to give up the idea of live streaming. Live streaming of a recorded file (i.e — not a webcam) is surprisingly expensive or complicated. It’s possible though and there are efficient ways to do it (hint: OBS Studio and a strong internet connection are good starting points), but it’s beyond the scope of this post.
  2. Consider limiting the number of registrants (viewers). I will never stand in line for a restaurant or a club, but admit it adds prestige… Limited space and exclusivity are old marketing tricks, but they still work.
  3. Resist the temptation and start exactly on time. You want to create a real event and respectable events start on time. If #2 above was about “limited space”, that bullet would be about “limited time.”
    Another reason for it is that you want everyone to be there when you start your Q&A.
  4. Emphasize the Q&A: you might be surprised, but the session with the filmmaker/actor/writer is one of the main reasons for people to participate in an online screening in the first place. The Q&A makes it a community event. Otherwise, it’s just a personal, lonely screening.
  5. Think production. Online screening is production. With line-up and everything. Don’t get fooled by the idea you’re working from your balcony (like I do…): create a rigorous checklist, connect to the internet by cable (and make sure no one is watching an HD film on the same network), go the bathroom before the event begins, prepare good lighting if you are part of the Q&A, check your camera, double-check your microphone, have your mobile near you to send and receive messages in parallel, have someone assisting you if you’re not a multi-tasking person. It’s a total production and if people are bored, they will churn. The latter term (churn) is usually used for e-commerce, and yes, you are ‘selling’ your art, even if it’s free.

STEPS

Assuming Vimeo, upload your movie (if it’s not already there) and make sure it’s private (exclusivity, remember?).

Create a Google form (1): Don’t add too many fields and don’t poke into other people’s lives by asking for too many details. I would recommend asking for name and email only.

Google form (2): In the form, add a trailer (Google forms support YouTube videos) and synopsis and don’t forget to emphasise the Q&A.

Publish the link to the form in whatever medium you fill comfortable with, from instant messaging to a social network or both.

Follow the registration records. When they reach the number you set as maximum, CLOSE THE FORM. Keep the link alive, so that people arriving at the form will see a message stating that registration is closed (exclusivity!).

Export the form data (called “responses”) to a Google spreadsheet.

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Google forms. Note the “Accepting responses” and the option to export to a spreadsheet, circled in red

Open Gmail or any email software you like and import those users. Create a group for them, so you can send them an email in one action. It will not be personalized, but it’s very efficient and saves the cost of a dedicated email service.
Alternatively, you can go for an email service and design an email with a template. Most providers (e.g — Mailchimp, SendGrid, Elastic email, etc) have good free plans, which might be enough for a 100 participants screening.

Thank your registrants and remind them about the screening. Send the link to the video page on Vimeo and repeat, again, that the screening begins exactly on time and that there is a Q&A session afterward.

You might want to suggest your registrants join a temporary WhatsApp or Telegram you set up for the screening. Promise them the group would be destroyed after the screening (and keep your promise).

Remind your registrants again an hour before the screening. Actually, you can create that reminding email in advance and schedule it beforehand. Gmail allows it.

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Just before the screening, create a Jitsi room and keep it open. Why keeping it open? — Because in Jitsi, you can‘t have permanent URLs.

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I love Jitsi

Add the Jitsi link to the Vimeo movie page, so anyone can see it.

10 minutes before the screening, make your video public. If you setup a group on WhatsApp and Telegram, send them a final reminder.

Here comes the tricky part (if there aren’t enough tricks so far): 10 minutes after the screening begins, make the video page Private again.
That way, you make sure it’s a screening event and not a VOD. Whoever is late, lost.

Wait for your viewers patiently in Jitsi, for the Q&A session.

That’s a long list, but most of it is intuitive. You would probably do the same things, more or less, when you invite people to a party. In Movies Everywhere we automated all those processes, as we serve organizations, which naturally cannot dedicate that much time to every screening. But I believe the above solution is great for individual filmmakers who have or want to build a solid fanbase. From here, everything is open, for example — referring users to donate to the screening on PayPal, refer to an organization or cause the film is about, etc.

Hope that helps and good luck.