Creating Hybrid Cinematic Events With Available Tools

A year ago, I wrote an article about the ways to create online screenings with available tools, by combining different platforms such as Google Forms, PayPal, Vimeo and Zoom. Many friends and colleagues adopted those solutions (or chose to work with Movies Everywhere and have everything in one platform…).
A year passed and those practices became trivial, sometimes with other combinations (for example, I have a friend who conducts screenings in a branded Wix website and unlisted Youtube videos, to keep it to invitees only).
There are also ongoing discussions and dilemmas in the filmmakers’ community on whether to ask for a donation (pay-what-you-want) or sell tickets . In my opinion, it’s all about timing: Just like with getting people to donate to a crowdfunding campaign, pay-what-you-want works well only with a fresh audience and not as a sustainable model.

Time to Evolve

Now, when online virtual screenings have become so commonplace, it’s time to move the more sophisticated solution: hybrid cinematic events. The hybrid part means that not only the film screening is taking place simultaneously in a venue and online, but that the Q&A or meeting is online and physical (in-person) at the same time and there is an interaction between audience members or the the audience and the host.
I’ve covered in the past the topic from a more the corporate point of view, outlining the fundamentals of a hybrid event for an organization, whereby a production crew is available. In this post, I’ll describe a case study of a hybrid event created by one operator.
The purpose of the following sections is to demonstrate how can one person with relatively basic tools create and control a hybrid cinematic event.

A One Man (Hybrid) Show

The event I’ll describe below was a conference held in a venue, whereby registrants could choose whether to arrive to the venue or participate online. First of all, the numbers, which are also interesting:
80 people registered to the in-person (physical) event. 250 to the online event. Out of those who registered to the physical event, about 20 switched at the last moment to the online event. The context is an event which has all the licenses to be held in a venue (no lockdown or restrictions, all audience is vaccinated) and still — something changed in the way people perceive the term “event”.

The conference consisted of:

  • Speakers on stage (with Power Point presentations).
  • Video inserts.
  • A Zoom lecture (remote speaker).
  • Questions from the audience in the venue.
  • Questions from the online audience (in chat).

We were asked to open an event page 2 weeks in advance and allow open registration. Eventually, the organizers decided on a Facebook + Google Forms registration, which was a bit awkward (as the audience registered elsewhere), but we overcame that by importing the users to the event page (a new feature on Movies Everywhere).

The conferences touched a sensitive issue — child detention, from the perspective of therapists, social workers and human right activists. The bigger challenge though was to create a true sensation of an event also for the online viewers and allow those viewers to participate in the heated debates as much as we could.
We were also asked to record everything.

Whoever follows my posts, knows how much I dedicate to sound and its planning. Not only for the technical reasons (e.g — preventing feedback), but also because good sound contributes to the event so much. So allow me to start with it:
Our first thought was to simply connect to the console in the venue. One connection to the “phones” output and we’re done, right? — But things became more complicated when we found that there’s no sound person for the conference, but just a console and two microphones, plus a direct audio and video projector connection from the laptop at the speaker stand. The maintenance person swore that everything works perfectly, but I didn’t want to take the risk and brought my own gear as a backup, so I could bypass the console. Luckily, that saved us later.

Camera work was supposed to be much simpler: Most speakers were supposed to be static on the podium, accompanied by their presentations. After some hesitation, we decided together with the organizer not to show their presentations to the online viewers directly from the PPT (i.e as a file) but include that in the frame (shoot the presentation from the screen in the venue). The main reason was that we didn’t have enough time to rehearse the changing of the slides with the lecturers.
It was agreed that the video inserts would run from Movies Everywhere’s server in parallel to being screened to the audience in the venue, from the local computer. The same was agreed for the remote speaker on Zoom.

The event didn’t start on time, as many events do, but since we have a preset countdown for online viewers and since Movies Everywhere sends an automated reminder before the scheduled time of the event, we had to broadcast something.
Luckily, that scenario was anticipated and we broadcast a slide that says that the event will start soon, accompanied with some royalty free background music.
Why royalty free? — first, because it’s important to do things legally all the way through. Secondly, because we want to provide our client (the conference organizers) the ability to edit the recorded video freely and publish it anywhere.
Issues with the output from the console were spotted from the very beginning. It was Ok for the speakers in the venue but the signal that we received for broadcast was horrible. Very soon the online viewers began complaining in the chat and I decided to switch to my own wireless microphone for each speaker and bypass the console. That worked well but forced us to transfer the microphone from one speaker to another. A tolerable step, given the stability it provided.
The dysfunction of the console did create issues when it came to audience questions in the venue, which the online viewers couldn’t hear. We improvised by asking the speakers to repeat the questions. It was not easy and not always smooth. After all the speakers don’t work for us-:) — But the organization team helped me and wrote the questions in the chat, to keep the online viewers in the loop. The team also followed closely the chat and read the questions or opinions expressed in it to the audience in the venue.
Videos were inserted as needed and when the Zoom lecture took place, the online viewers actually saw it in better quality than those in the venue. That is because Zoom is broadcast on Movies Everywhere as it is, with no interruption and no latency.
In between video shooting, monitoring sound and taking care of the stream health, I also provided assistance to online viewers. A bit stressful, but fun to whoever likes pressure (me..).

Gear Used

I used the gear I still have from the days I was an active filmmaker: Panasonic GH-4 DSLR, Sigma zoom lens, E-100 Sennheiser wireless microphone, Tascam DR60 audio mixer for DSLRs, ATEM Mini Pro to convert the video to MP4 and to control the sound inputs when they came from the console.

Had the distance between the camera and the audience been shorter, I would have used my Sennheiser 421 dynamic microphone for questions from the audience. I did it in some other hybrid events, held in living rooms.

Monitoring did not require a field monitor, as I simply used another browser to listen to the output and seeing the final outcome in terms of image quality, simulating an online viewer. So while Opera was used to operate the event on Movies Everywhere, Chrome was used to watch and listen to it, in 20+/- seconds delay.

On the one hand, not the gear anyone would have at home. On the other hand, most indie filmmakers and many video enthusiasts have it. It’s far from the TV mobile unit used for live shows.

You don’t need that: TV production unit in Universal Studios

Bigger Events

The guerrilla approach is not always necessary and not always right. And while there’s a lot of satisfaction from being able to achieve impressive results with minimum gear and manpower, there are definitely compromises and risks in it. Relying on one single internet connection, one camera, no sound person and no director can easily bring the event to the edge of failure.

TLV LGBT film festival opening ceremony / courtesy Video Captain

Another approach is think television. And again — it does not necessitate the use of very expensive gear, but first of all, a professional person in directing such events. Take for example Video Captain, an initiative operated and managed by Itay Filiba, an experienced TV director. Itay’s main expertise is in making virtual and hybrid events look like real events and bring them to a TV level. To make things easier for his participants and guests, they can speak on Zoom, but he would “package” the video signal into a predesigned frame, add titles, switch between different sources with wipe effects, split the screen and run video inserts according to the lineup. In addition, as a remote director, he retains an independent communication channel with the guests, so as to be able to guide and instruct them without the audience hearing.

TLV LGBT film festival opening ceremony / courtesy Video Captain

Those productions require meticulous planning and an accurate lineup down to the smallest detail, but after watching and participating in a few opening and closing virtual and hybrid film festival ceremonies myself, I can definitely assert that Itay can bring it to a new level, which is worth the effort.

Summary

From the virtual to the hybrid, the simple to the elaborate, online events allow film festivals to reach a much wider audience. The decision which path to take is dependent on budget and time and with enough attention, can yield impressive results.

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