Between a Virtual Cinema and VOD

by Yoram Schaffer

Thoughts and concepts

When more and more film festivals turn to online screenings — either as a replacement or as an addition to in-person (physical) screenings, it’s important to distinguish, or rather define, what do the notions virtual cinema and VOD mean in relation to film festivals.

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The most crucial word, before delving into details and nuances, is TIME.
Virtual cinema, at least as we interpret it, takes place at an exact time and date. VOD, on the other hand, is available over a period of time, usually a few days.
Trivial, you might say? — Not at all. A virtual cinema wishes to create an EVENT — i.e something with a specific beginning and end. Usually, we would tie it with an online meeting, either a discussion between viewers or questions and answers (Q&A) session with the filmmakers. While with VOD, it’s an individual (or family and friends) experience.

WHY IS THE DISTINCTION IMPORTANT

I operate a VOD platform called Movie Discovery. It’s active in 3 languages and has many different websites, each one addressing another type of audience. I think I know VOD very well.
All that is just to explain why I think the distinction between virtual cinema and VOD is not fine print, but conceptual.

In an event (i.e — virtual cinema), the engagement and commitment of users (viewers) is high. On the one hand, there is a risk that this commitment will not be fulfilled, for example, when viewers don’t show up to the screening or drop before the Q&A. On the other hand, giving users the option to watch a film online whenever they want over a period of a few days, means that there is no meeting and discussion. That might be fine with a theatrical screening, but misses the point when it comes to a film festival, whose one of its main goals (at least declared) is to bring together the audience and the creators.

That’s why I’m surprised to see so many film festivals cooperating with VOD platforms. What’s the point in putting a film online, open for a week? — Where is the event?

Festival directors and programmers I’ve spoken to recently said VOD ensures accessibility to remote communities or people who cannot attend the screening because of transportation or health issue.
I respect that approach and agree with it. But I don’t understand why it has to be contradictory to setting a screening in a set time… — On the contrary: if people watch from home because they can’t arrive at the venue, they should be able to watch almost at any fixed time.

The advantages of an event (virtual cinema)

I’ve attended many virtual cinema events organized by my clients recently, because I wanted to make sure everything goes smooth. I also wanted to feel the atmosphere. The concept is new to us all. We learn as we go and it’s amazing.

I noticed one thing which impressed me very much:
While the screening itself is a relatively lonely experience, the meeting with the filmmaker in an online room (Jitsi, Zoom, or Google Meet) creates real social interaction. People who don’t know each other beforehand become closer together, even for a short time, because they have just watched a powerful film and they want to share the experience with others, pose questions, know more about behind the scenes, express opinions, hear what others think, etc.
In a way, the Q&A session is more important than screening.
I’m trying to convey that feeling to film festival directors I speak to. I admit they don’t always get the idea. Probably because they have not experienced it.

online film screening

Enhancing the social aspect

Our creative team conducts intensive inner discussions on how to improve our product in order to enhance the social aspect of virtual screenings in Movies Everywhere.
Live streaming, pre-registration, and exact starting times are only the very beginning of the process. That’s the easy part…
But how do you make people really feel they are in an event?

We are already working on some social enhancements, some of them may sound a bit crazy to the devout cinephile, like a voice announcement and a ticker title before the end of the screening, inviting the viewers to join the Q&A, option for emoji chats between viewers to exchange feelings (can be turned off), the soundtrack from the film or interviews before the screening starts (today we simply show a countdown), live streaming from the venue, if there’s a screening taking place in parallel and more ideas, which are meant to make more of a true event. Not all of them will be implemented and all of them can be turned off by the event organizer or the viewers. The idea is to think outside the box: It’s not just a play button. It’s an event.