Solving Timing Dilemmas in Online Film Screening Events

by Yoram Schaffer

It’s all about balancing and coordinating time frames

After close to 100 online film screenings in a record time of 4 months, which included developing and pushing new features in parallel, I can testify that the pandemic has served us as a large playing field.
We summarised every single screening, trying to extract insights, refine, and improve. I decided to attend every screening and personally provide support to end-users. It was (and still is…) a tedious task which consumed whole evenings, but no UX meeting can be compared to listening to the audience and taking care of actual support requests. I heard questions I never imagined people might pose (What is a password? What do you mean by ‘refresh the page’? Is the screening really online? I registered through my phone, can I watch from my laptop, or do I have to register again?) and those questions taught me and the team so much about how to handle an online screening (and some understanding about how wide is the spectrum of the word intelligence).

I can assert one thing in confidence: It just LOOKS simple, because technologically, registration, and streaming have become almost trivial in today’s world.
But creating an online screening that gives the feeling of a joyful, naturally flowing and exciting event is extremely challenging.

online film screenings are like skydiving; limited time, maximum accuracy
It’s all about balance, timing and coordination

Sharing Experience and Insights

  • Having a film available on the internet for the whole period of a festival or a conference is boring. If that is the whole case, then it’s simply boring. When people are registering, especially if it’s for a package of films, they usually tell themselves I will watch it when I have time. Then that time reaches an end and they find that they missed most of the program.
    Human nature.
    If there’s no meeting with the filmmaker or a lecture or any other activity at a set time, there is much less motivation to watch, because when the user watches a film, it’s a lonely experience.
    And that is an opportunity missed.
    I have written about it in length here and in a dozen other places, so I will not elaborate.
  • Culture: Most users are not accustomed to a screening at a set time. They believe that when a film is on the internet, it’s there forever. The market is not “educated” and every organizer of an online event must take it into account.
  • Registration has to be short and simple. We insist on registration, in order to protect the films’ rights, but found that if you require too many steps or details (e.g — confirmation link, phone number, etc.), users would be either enraged or churn or both.
  • User Experience is important in every online platform, but in online screenings, being a relatively new concept, it is even more important.
    We get tons of support requests every day in which users ask us to register them, which made us improve the UX of the form to make it clearer. We are asked all the time when is the Zoom screening, although the screening is of course not on Zoom (using Zoom or any other meeting platform yields terrible results when sharing a screen!). Users ask us all the time where and when is the Q&A.
    It’s true that it IS confusing and we worked hard to embed those meetings inside the screening page, which decreases users’ churn significantly, which is likely to occur when users have to navigate away to Hangouts, Teams, Zoom, and other platforms.
  • It’s all about time frames, as the subtitle of this post claims: registration has to be enough time in advance (and with good publicity), the time window to join to screening has to be convenient but not too long, the time of meeting with the filmmaker has to be clear and accessible and must be at the right timing, not letting those who attended the screening on time to wait for too much and still giving the opportunity for those who were late, to join the Q&A.
Concepts in hybrid online screenings
Click the link to see the diagram in full resolution

Components and Concepts of an Online Screening Event

Registration — since an online film screening is a one-time event, it has a distinct start and end time for registration. Registration to a film screening is not a registration to a website. I emphasize that, because most internet users are used to regard registration as registration to a website, i.e — something which is there permanently.

Tolerance — the time in which a user can join the screening after it has begun or became available. By the way, if you have a better term than “tolerance”, please suggest it in the comments.

Screening — the time span in which the film is available for the users who registered to it.

Q&A session time — the time in which the Q&A or webinar / lecture (one-to-many video) begins.

Sounds trivial, right?

But setting the right balance between the different elements is the secret. Just like with cooking.

How we began

In Movies Everywhere, we set a screening for 8 pm. Let viewers be late no more than 10–15 minutes.
Why? — Because we wanted everyone to be present in the Q&A, which started 10 minutes after the film ended (9:30 pm, for an 80 minutes film).

What happened?
As I mentioned before, users are not accustomed to the concept of online screening. The general assumption is that the film is just there, available at any time. Users were shocked to find out they cannot join the screening because they are late. There was a lot of anger and frustration. The chat support was full of complaints.

The dilemma:
When should we schedule the Q&A? — If we allow users to be late more than 20 minutes, then those who attended on time will be punished by having to wait for the Q&A which will be delayed too. And since people don’t like punishments, we might lose them. What to do?

Step Two

The next step was to extend the tolerance time (the timeframe in which users can be late) to 30–40 minutes, taking into account that those who join late will be also late for the Q&A or miss it altogether.
The Pause Issue
Another sub-dilemma of the same topic relates to a situation in which viewers click on ‘pause’ in the player. — Either because they had a phone call, went to the restroom, or made themselves a cup of coffee. If the break is too long, they will miss the Q&A.

The dilemma:
Should we go back to the basics and limit the tolerance time? Because if we don’t, then why stop at 30 minutes? Why not 12 hours? 24 hours? — But wait, it’s becoming a VOD… And when will the meeting with the director take place and who will participate in it?… We risk a situation in which the filmmaker is alone in the Q&A.
Regarding the users who pause, we now allow event organizers to disable the pause and skip (seek) option in the player. Each event organizer and his or her own approach to online screening:

Image for post
Event organizers in Movies Everywhere can control the player behaviour and commands, to enhance the feeling of a true broadcast

Step Three (resolution)

After many trials (we practically tried many more variations than the two described here), I believe we reached an optimal solution.
It’s based on a simple assumption: Not everyone can or want to attend the Q&A. For those, we will allow a limited VOD window, available after the Q&A, which in itself, is held after the initial screening time.

How it’s done
We fix a screening at a set time and a Q&A shortly after the film’s length (film length + around 10 minutes).
Please note that I haven’t written “after the screening” but “after the film length” because the screening is still open: The film continues to be available to other users, who might not be interested in the Q&A or just cannot free themselves to participate in it. That time is determined by the event organizers and can be any time in hours and days.

That way, the screening can be both an online event and a VOD at the same time.

Visualising the Result

See the full illustration in the Miro link below

If you’d like to see that flow in full resolution, please see the original here