Attention, Film Festival Directors: Online is More Complex Than you Might Think

The decision to conduct an online or a hybrid film festival is never easy, even when done wholeheartedly. Film festivals are born to be live:
Hugs, applause, hand shaking and networking are not less important than films, so an online film festival always involves some sense of pain and grief.

The Illusion

At least we’ll work less hard say the festival directors and producers to themselves. No need to pickup anyone from the airport, no meals, no catering, no taxis, no hotels, no parking arrangements to VIPs, no delays because of traffic jams, no visa issues for guests, no badges, no barcode readers, no catalogue to print, much less wages and manpower. The internet might be down sometimes, but it’s much less of an issue than having the air condition system break down in the middle of the summer, in a 300 seats venue.
In other words, much less logistics, much less hardware, far lower chances for accidents, fire or a guest or employee being injured.

Actually, I might run the festival from my phone

Yes, you can, but prepare for sleepless nights if you take it too easily.
Embracing the concept described above makes festival organizers unaware to the wonders and dangers of the online world.
As online film festival has its own challenges.
There are a few factors which are worth mentioning when going online.

Time

“Online” is perceived as instant, immediate and quick. And it definitely is, in many cases. Except for cases in which it isn’t. This is when disasters begin to emerge.
If there are errors in the video files, it would take time to replace time. Upload and conversion take their time, especially with high quality files.
I have seen film festivals, our clients, waiting for the last moment and although it was none of my business, as we are just the platform providers, I couldn’t stay silent and allowed myself to ask my clients to move on urgently, in an attempt to prevent failures.

Online Presence

A natural continuation of the time section above: Many people don’t know, but age of an internet page is a factor for search engines (except for breaking news, which have their own algorithms). Many of my clients tell me “but we haven’t closed the program yet” or “we have’t received the movie files yet” as a reason to not publish anything until they are totally ready. I reply to them that they can definitely start by publishing single film pages and proceed as the program progresses. We don’t charge them for that.
The magic is, that beyond the film name, screening start time and ticket price, everything can be changed later on.
So you better be there ASAP.

Adaptation to the online world

Should a film be open throughout the festival, like a VOD? Should it be an event, where viewers have to be on time? Can they join late? Is it best to have the Q&A or presentation before the screening? After the screening? Both before and after? Maybe 2 days after the screening ends? Or 3 days before the screening starts? Should we have an opening ceremony? And what at all is an online opening ceremony?! Should we gather a few people in one room, film them ad broadcast it as an event? Should we do it remotely? Oh, maybe we should record everything in advance? No, make it live! Well, have it half live and half recorded. Yes. No. I don’t know. I hate this “online”. I wish we could go back to the theaters. I don’t want to “adapt”. You know what? — let’s skip this year’s festival! And maybe next year too. The heck. I’m confused. Hmmm.

Yep. I have seen it all happening in front of my eyes, or at least my webcam. Did my best to assist in any way I could. But I’m not a therapist nor am I a mentor.
But you can find some useful advice relating to Q&A sessions in this other post.

It’s Broadcasting Out There

Introduction, Q&A session or a panel — are all online events that should be planned carefully in advance. Test network connection, test audio, test video, test background (prevent backlight), test acoustics, verify time zones with your guests (!!!), match expectations of what the event would be like, to what extent is the audience involved, is there a live performance, are there video inserts. Be punctual. In other words — relate to it like a TV or a radio show.

Marketing

Should film festivals copy-paste the same marketing strategy from the physical (in-person) festival? — The is no distinct answer, but I suggest to change mindset and try new things, for one main reason: With an online film festival, you have the chance to reach out to a much wider audience, beyond your traditional audience which goes with you from one year to another.

Support

When there’s an issue with the projection in a venue, someone from the festival staff can go on stage and explain to the audience what’s happening.
But when there is a server issue and suddenly, 300 viewers cannot watch a film, the support center might crash from the amount of angry messages.
In addition, many film festival directors became known figures throughout the yers. Audience members have their phone number or are their friends, followers and contacts on social media. And when there’s a technical issue, everyone allow themselves to interrupt with personal messages, even in the middle of the night. I have witnessed it even in countries and cultures which are known for politeness and for respecting personal privacy.
In those situations, the harsh nature of the online world is exposed: Aggressive, unbelievably rude reactions and messages.

What can we do?
Create unified channels for support: route social media messages to a dedicated support center, add automatic filters to personal emails (of the festival staff), that will route them to the support center. I would also recommend key roles in a festival to buy another SIM card, give that new number only to family and close friends and simply disconnect their phones at the time of the festival.

It’s a Profession

In traditional, physical film festivals, there are known professions and qualifications, which were refined throughout the 90 years they exist (and actually, they haven’t changed much until now): festival producer, program manager, volunteers coordinator, projectionists, ushers etc.
But how do you call a person who organizes an online film festival?
Maybe, before giving them names, we should define what they do?

As I see it, a person qualified for those tasks must have some knowledge of live streaming, whether as a vlogger or a gamer or alternatively be a radio or TV professional. All that, in addition to the traditional requirements from film festival employees, which usually require some experience or background in film.
I would call this professional a Digital Producer. There are no certificates yet and as far as I know, no qualifying courses, but those will eventually appear over time.

Keeping in mind those points are in my opinion key factors and prerequisites for creating a successful online and hybrid film festival.

Digital film distributor and founder of Movie Discovery VOD platform, QuickRights and Movies Everywhere . A former documentary filmmaker.

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