Why Virtual Cinema is Actually Saving Filmmakers

by Yoram Schaffer

An accidental revolution

The film industry went into a standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was not only the imposed lockdowns all over the world but the social distancing regulations which killed any chance for normal production (no kissing!). Add to it the fact that theatres and film festivals were shut down and you get desperate filmmakers working as cashiers at your local supermarkets or ready to wipe car windows in traffic lights.

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An imaginary typical romantic scene, from a film never shot

Changing Mindset

The pandemic will be over, sooner or later. A terminal as it may seem to many people, the world had overcome much worse pandemics. We did learn, however, some important lessons from it.
One of them is that people’s perception of remote consumption of goods, social interaction, and work has become broader. The tolerance towards getting to decisions without meetings grew substantially.
I myself was invited (pre-pandemic) to guest-lecture in a university 2 hours drive from my home. We did the meeting on Zoom and everyone was satisfied. Online markets, pitching events — all went online.

So if all that is good for the business of film making (financing, negotiating), why wouldn’t it serve filmmakers in promoting their completed films?

Important note: my point is that what was born from constraint, can become a viable option for non-pandemic times. Not always, not in all cases. I do not intend to suggest we dump the physical world altogether -:). But definitely, what was unheard of a few months ago, has become acceptable. Let’s look at the future and make use of it in post-virus days as well.

Film Launch is a Crucial, Delicate Time

Never was the proverb “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” so accurate for new films.
When a new film is launched, it has a very limited grace period in which it can gather the attention of the media, critics, and the audience. Then, it is either doomed to oblivion or to success.

No wonder filmmakers and distributors are terrified they would make a mistake. A typical mistake, for example, is to submit a film to a less prestigious festival, being accepted, losing the “premiere” badge, and hence being unable to submit the film to a more prestigious festival.
Another example would be to close a deal with a small TV channel and therefore lose a bigger deal (for the same reasons above — here it’s called ‘exclusivity’) to a sought-after, more prestigious platform.

That is why the famous Release Windows concept comes from: doing things in the right order should ensure optimal distribution (see more in Jeff Ulin’s book about the business of film distribution).

That’s the background and the stating point. It describes what most filmmakers believe in and not my opinion, by the way.

Is Online Good for New Films

The short answer is “yes”. A little bit more elaborate answer is “it depends” (you knew that expression was coming-:)).
Yes, putting your film online on Vimeo or a VOD platform can definitely kill your chances to sell it to Netflix or get accepted to Sundance.
That’s the easy, trivial part.
But what about online screening in the framework of a closed event, virtual cinema, or a hybrid film festival? Does that affect, for the good or the bad, the chances to get a distribution deal?
Since this topic is mainly what this blog is about, I will try to relate to it here, with hopefully substantiated arguments and proofs.

The ‘It Depends’ Factor

For any film seeking a distribution deal, it’s good to bear in mind the following principles and best practices when considering an online screening of any kind. Those principles work well both for preserving the premiere status and increasing the impact of a film.

  • An online screening must have a limited, pre-determined maximum number of viewers.
  • An online screening must be geographically limited (geo-blocked) to a specific territory, country, region, or city (the more granulated, the better).
  • An online screening must be documented: take screenshots of the invitation, registration, and actual viewers. When asked by potential buyers “was your film on the internet?” you would be able to say “yes but in a limited way”.
  • Be present for an online Q&A after the screening. Those sessions are many times the main reason for people to attend it in the first place.
  • Before and after the screening, try to include as much information as you can about the film and its background (behind the scenes, poster, soundtrack, interviews).
  • What do I mean by “before and after”? — Make the online screening an event in itself: record a short speech before the film begins or broadcast it online, add links to image galleries from the production, add thumbnails for interviews — all can be inside the film page or the registration form for the screening.
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Live statistics in Movies Everywhere online screening platform. It is advised that filmmakers document all their online activity to prove they had not distributed it globally

The Main Benefit

Having 2–5 online screenings, while keeping the limitations I mentioned above, will still keep the film in its pre-premiere status, which entitles it to be a candidate for distribution deals.
The main benefit of screening, with or without physical parallel screenings, is in the ability to have more exposure and more buzz. People will write about the film in their blog, a report in their statuses, cite from the film and talk about it with their friends.
Buyers are very sensitive to that buzz. It reduces the risk they take when there is such buzz.

To sum up, we see that there are advantages and benefits from online screenings, either in the framework of a festival or individual screenings. They are also simpler to organize and it’s easier to attract an audience to them, compared to physical screenings.
At the same time, it is important to keep in mind the constraints and precautions a filmmaker has to take, in order to secure eligibility for a distribution deal.