My First Virtual Film Festival

by Yoram Schaffer

Insights from the tech guy

In early March 2020, we started our platform for screening films and meeting filmmakers. Note that I wrote started and not launched. Launching is usually done after a long preparation and is well planned, while we had to react swiftly to any unexpected event (COVID-19). In addition, since we started, we don’t stop introducing new features, improving existing ones, and learning from mistakes while we run. I never worked so fast.

It took my amazing team only two weeks to come up with a basic, yet good enough solution: we created branded pages for screenings, added a registration process, followed by confirmation and reminders, a countdown which led to a streaming page, where the video is streamed from our own servers and player. We then referred users to a meeting on Zoom. After one screening we saw the need for a support chat and a person on standby around the screening start time. Screenings were free to users, as they were subsidized by the organizers, which made things easy for that first phase.

Requests began piling up, as well our own imagination: can we add a pre-roll to thank sponsors or to promote the organizer? Can we chain together a few films into one screening? Can we restrict users by their location (geo-blocking)? Can we limit capacity per screening? Can we charge users? Can we share revenue with right-holders without having to do all the calculations outside the platform? Can we show how many people are in the screening now, compared to how many registered? Can we download the viewer’s list? Can we analyze viewers’ behavior over a few screenings? Can we embed a Zoom meeting inside the screening page? Can we embed other stuff, like Facebook or Youtube Live? Can we make the Q&A webinar-like or does it have to be always a meeting? And in case of a webinar, can we have a chat for questions to the speaker/s? And above all — can you make the registration and logging in easier while maintaining the security and protection of my film?

The short answer was “yes, we can”. Hmmm, I have a vague feeling that this expression has been used elsewhere before.

We conducted around 120 screenings in 5 months, which is almost 1 screening every day and actually more than that if you’re excluding weekends. Much experience was gained and then came the moment we have been expecting, preparing and practicing for: a full film festival.

From 0 to 100 is 3 Seconds

A film festival is an event that is pretty dormant all year round, except for some scattered screenings to stay in public awareness. Then arrives this time in which everything happens at once, for a period of 7–10 days.
There are thousands of film festivals around the world and a lot of experience was gained throughout the years in organizing and producing them. However, an online film festival is something that hardly anyone has experience with…

Tension Mounts

Understanding the above, we put much emphasis on training the festival team and creating simulations. Cinema South film festival believed in us and decided to go with Movies Everywhere for all their online sessions, which included not only film screenings but also masterclasses, workshops, and a pitching event. We had a few in-person training meetings, simulations to support requests, and written documentation, prepared especially for the festival.
Almost 70 films were screened in more than 20 events over a period of 7 days, along with Zoom, Vimeo Live, and Facebook Live sessions.
In such an intensive event, there were naturally a few glitches, but all in all, whoever registered for a screening, watched it.

A webinar integrated in a screening, through a switcher

Lessons Learned

I would like to share my insights here, including our own faults. We learned fast, really fast, to prevent them in the future, reducing the elusive human factor to the minimum. During the festival, we also improvised solutions on the spot, in full cooperation with the festival team. It worked.
And here’s my list:

  • Change mindset. A film screening plus a Q&A looks trivial at first sight: Streaming is part of our life and so as Zoom, Google Meet, or whatever platform you use for online meetings. And still — one must change the mindset and understand that it is a live event.
  • The reason for the above is simple and sometimes embarrassing: Since we need to protect the films, many people get stuck in the login process, although we simplified it to ridiculous levels. Then, the pressure begins.
  • Most people are not used to online events starting on time, especially not film screenings. For them, a film online is just there, as we’re used to VOD. So for example, many users will try to register after the event had started. Then, panic begins.
  • The solution for that situation is a ready and available support personnel (or chatbot, which we haven’t tried yet), present from at least 40 minutes before the screening, and in much lower intensity, from the time registration opens, even two weeks in advance.
  • Support people should have their procedures and training, just like medical staff in the ER or firefighters on a shift. Sorry for the drama, but it’s accurate.
  • Prepare a list of possible scenarios and their solutions for the support team. Prepare a list of canned responses. Canned responses are basic in the world of online and phone support, but festival teams are usually unaware of them because as I wrote, it’s a totally new world for them.
  • Prepare B plans: the server is down, the movies don’t play, the video file is corrupt, the login system has errors, someone messed up the screening and put there the wrong file.
  • Create a clear policy for refunds, in case of paid screenings. Which leads me to the next bullet:
  • Be prepared to offer catch-up screenings to people who missed them or had technical issues or network failures. It resolves most disputes.
  • Prepare ways to communicate with your viewers. For example, when we had issues with one video file out of 5 planned in a multi-screening event (following Murphy’s law, it was the first file, so al the screening stopped), we sent an instant message to our viewers through our notification system and in parallel, we sent them emails with an explanation and an invitation for a catch-up screening one hour later.
  • Have one person creating screening and another one reviewing its details. When people check their own work, they tend to skip their mistakes (like I skip my too-many typos -:)).
  • Double-check Zoom meeting IDs, stream keys, and other embedded codes and content.
  • Triple check the film files. In Movies Everywhere, we encode the files and then encrypt them. It’s a complex process and sometimes it fails. We learned to check ourselves and added a few layers of programmed tests, but it’s always important to review it again before the actual screening.
  • Rehearse and practice. We now add tools to mimic the actual screening in a preview mode, but until it’s ready, you can create test screenings.
  • Planning to integrate meetings with multiple guests and sources, using a switcher with titles and background? Want to add video during a lecture (B roll)? — Practice, practice, practice. When the moment comes, you won’t have time to look for the right button.