The Story of The Oscars qualifier — Israel Film Academy
This post is a use case of the online section of the Ophir film competition.
Ophir competition (in memory of the legendary artist Shaike Ophir) is the main film competition of the Israeli film industry. Winning the competition qualifies the film for The Oscars (Academy Awards), so as of today and the foreseeable future, it is the most prestigious film competition in Israel.
We’ve been doing the online section of the competition from 2020. although being in the fourth year in a row, only now I feel confident (and proud) enough to write its case study.
Movies Everywhere (us), as a company, usually develops its own products. The case of the IFA online platform for Ophir competition is unique, being totally tailor-made, due to the competition's special regulations and IFA's requirements.
Traditionally, the Ophir competition was held in theaters, like all film competitions in the world. Israel Film Academy members were invited each year to watch the films in venues and then vote for the films.
Then came COVID and we (Movies Everywhere) were contacted in order to provide an online solution for the upcoming Ophir competition of 2020.
The requirements were do make the online competition as similar as possible to the in-person screenings — that is, on the one hand enable all films participating in the competition to all Academy members and on the other hand, make them secure — i.e, protect them from piracy, since like in The Oscars, those films are new and are at the highest risk of being pirated.
There was another layer to the provision of secured streaming to the Israel Film Academy members: we had to calculate eligibility to vote to all Academy members. For that, we had to implement the competition rules to the dedicated platform we built. That meant also that we had to build an individual tracking system mechanism. This mechanism, by the way, is at the basis of our product Screenable, which allows film professionals track viewership of their screeners on an individual level.
Eligibility to vote is calculated and summarized for the admin. At the time of development, when there were no in-person screenings because of the lockdowns, the calculation was straightforward, as there was only one place to watch films. Today, with the return of the public screenings, voting eligibility calculations are an integration of the presence in both in-person and online screenings.
For example, a member has to watch at least 5 films in each category. "Watch" is at least 25 minutes or 80% of their length in the short films category. An Academy member can watch 3 of those films online and 2 in an in-person screening. The calculation adds them together for the final eligibility verdict.
Another angle for eligibility relies on trust: we added the option for members to declare that any film has been watched by them outside the platform. If a member watched the film in a private screening or on TV, he or she can make a declaration on the website and that adds to the eligibility calculation. I will go back to the trust factor later, as it is an interesting mutual relationship: just like the IFA trusts its members not to make false declarations, the members need to trust the IFA for calculating their viewership correctly (they don't always do…).
Members could also track their viewership, but we didn't let them know how many minutes they watched every film and when do they become eligible to vote — an information that is detailed to the IFA admins (competition management team). The reason behind this (i.e — not exposing the full data to members), was to encourage them to watch all the films in their entirety and not to stop watching once they reached the eligibility threshold.
Since the project came in urgently due to the newly imposed lockdowns, we had to act quickly. At that time, there was no encryption in place for our videos. In our other products at that time — Movie Discovery and QuickRights, we felt that no special protection is needed. But the Israel Film Academy, naturally, needed full protection for all the films, due to the potential risk of piracy to those new and commercial films. It was a prerequisite. We submitted our proposal with classic DRM solutions and justifiably, IFA team was shocked… I could identify with their reaction. In my eyes, the current conventional DRM pricing model is an unfair model (use more — pay more. and if your audience watches a lot, you simply lose).
After much hesitation, internal discussions and a fear of being pretentious, I decided that we would develop our own anti-piracy (DRM) solution.
It was not an easy decision and there were more arguments against it than for it. But I decided to pursue and eventually, it was the best business decision I have taken, as it lead us also to develop our other product Movies Everywhere and to the newly AltDRM (now in development) — a DRM for everyone at a sane price.
Quickly, maybe too quickly -:), we developed and deployed our DRM solution in the Ophir competition website. I will detail more on it in the How Did It Go section (worth waiting! it's the most interesting part).
Anti-piracy is not enough
It is well known from similar competitions all over the world, that piracy is prevalent. Why? Where is the brotherhood between colleagues?!?!? — I don't have an answer to it. Maybe it is jealousy or revenge or fierce competition that leads professional filmmakers to hurt each other. However, we had to protect IFA members from each other… and that lead us to impose a few mechanisms:
- Not allow concurrent logins with the same credentials. Simply put, it means that the member had given his or her credentials to someone else. When that happens, the first one to login is kicked out. The funny thing was, that some IFA members were not aware of that mechanism and when they approached Support complaining they were kicked out of the system, it was like they reported themselves on their own crime-:)
- "Suspicious viewing" report: when a film is watched two times in a row (double its length) it means that it is either admired by the IFA member (hmmm.. not very likely) or simply watched by more than one person -:) whereby at least one of the two is not an IFA member. In that case, we issue a report which is sent to the IFA competition team, to the IFA member and to the producer. Members that received this report were shocked, producers were enraged and the buzz around those reports did its job: IFA members are now MUCH more cautious with passing their credentials.
How Did It Go (and still going)
As I wrote, developing our own DRM in no time had its toll: playback in the first month was buggy. "Buggy" sounds to me like the name of a small cute teddybear (or a cross country vehicle), but it was a real nightmare. It is not exaggerated to assume that some film producers conspired to kill me at that time (joke joke). This post tries to be humouristic and to look back at that period with nostalgia, but these were really hard days (and night, and weekends), in which I felt guilty for not simply buying a DRM license and tell the IFA that there's no other choice.
It's just that there WAS another choice.
And my amazing team proved it. In one month, hardly sleeping and testing all elements one by one from all sides, we made it. Encrypted video runs since then, flawless (touch wood).
I mentioned the trust before, that exists between the IFA, which accepts declarations of "I have the watched the films elsewhere" by its members.
Does it work the other way around, with IFA members believing the platform measures their views correctly? Well…
Your machine is bad
Most of the members who were found to be non-eligible to vote protested and appealed. The most common argument we heard was that our system has bugs and ignored their views.
But that was easy to prove: If it was on the phone, we asked them to login and play a certain movie for a few minutes. Then we sent them a screenshot that shows exactly how many minutes they watched (and if they tried to play smart and not watch anything, well, we did it ourselves).
To others, we sent screen recordings showing how the system tracks viewership correctly. Some members went on to legal proceedings but always lost. Sorry guys, the machine is not wrong. You wanted to vote for films you never watched and got caught.
The system got better during the last 3 years. A few obstacles with encrypting videos for Apple devices were solved, compatibility with different devices was also improved — you know, the usual stuff that needs to be updated all the time.
Is the encryption totally bullet-proof? — of course not. But no system in the world is totally immune to piracy. It's just a matter of risk management. I know this declaration might look hasty and unsubstantiated, so I urge you to read my post How to Steal Any Movie.
With the hope that you won't steal any movie, all that is left is to invite you to register to the Israel Film Academy as members and enjoy the excellent film that compete there. Oh, and it might be a good idea to learn hebrew first.