M+E Europe

CPS 2021: The Rise of Virtual Film Festivals

In 2020, when the pandemic lockdowns took hold, the film festival circuit seemed to be in jeopardy.

But virtual film festival technology platforms saved the day and came into prominence as an alternative solution to reach audiences for many film festivals, including large ones like the Sundance Film Festival and also niche ones such as those in Atlanta, Rotterdam and Sarasota.

However, the combination of new technology and sensitive pre-theatrical screening is naturally under more scrutiny from rights’ holders, according to industry executives who spoke Dec. 16 at the Content Protection Summit (CPS) event, during the breakout panel session “Journey of the Virtual Film Festival Platforms.”

“Film festivals have been going for 100 years,” moderator Mathew Gilliat-Smith, EVP of Convergent Risks, pointed out. “They started in the [19]20s. They got going with more prominence with Toronto and Sundance” and there are now about 1,000 film festivals around the world, he added.

Then the pandemic lockdowns happened and the options for film festivals were “either to cancel, postpone or to go virtual,” he noted.

The COVID Accelerant

New Zealand video streaming platform Shift72 is one of the companies that have capitalised on the rise of virtual film festivals.

Noting his company has been in the video streaming provider space for more than 10 years, focusing on “subscription, transactional and ad-supported” business models, David White, Shift72 CEO said his “security-first” company “had to build a global solution from day one.”

The company “saw the value” of festivals becoming a year-round business, he said, noting it had been providing secure solutions for the Cannes Film Festival, festivals in the American film market and a few others.

“And then COVID happened and the product market kind of came on like a fire… and we’ve since seen hundreds of festivals across 60 countries in terms of who we’re working with,” including the New York and Sundance Film Festivals, White said.

“COVID’s kind of accelerated” his company’s business to a point it would have taken three years to get to otherwise, he added.

Challenges and Opportunities

At Eventive, meanwhile, “we look at ourselves as an audience growth platform, initially for film festivals, arthouse cinemas, etc. – so a solution for independent film exhibition across the board,” according to Iddo Patt, co-founder of the festival management company and a founding board member of the Indie Memphis Film Festival.

“At the beginning of 2020, we were working with around 130 festivals… around the world and… helping them grow their year-round operations for ticketing, passes, memberships and really the display of all of their in-person events, online as well as on-site, point-of-sale,” he noted.

In March 2020, however, it “became clear that on-site exhibition was going to stop for a while and we started to look for solutions that would work for our partners and, as David pointed out, the number one consideration to make virtual film festivals a viable solution was security because it was critical to protect this pre-release content,” Patt recalled.

Also important was the “ability to ‘eventise’ these screenings, meaning why would someone go to a screening at a particular festival?” he said, explaining: “It’s not only seeing that piece of content. It’s seeing that piece of content in the context of a live presentation in a festival experience.”

Since rolling out Eventive Virtual in April 2020, “we’ve had over 1,100 organisations around the world sign up and join as well as over 3 million attendees at screenings,” he said.

The company, meanwhile, “had all kinds of very interesting security challenges and opportunities,” he noted.

About a year ago, the company rolled out Eventive Advanced Antipiracy, in partnership with NAGRA and its NexGuard watermarking solution, he recalled.

“Now our system actually includes forensic watermarking on every screening on the platform,” he pointed out, adding: “Everything that we’re doing is built around cultivating an ecosystem for special event screenings of content and helping to build a world of curated exhibition.”

Security is “Everything”

MouseTrap Films started in 2011, “long before the pandemic,” said Benjamin Oberman, CEO and president of the technology and film distribution company, which operates the direct-to-consumer Film Festival Flix digital distribution platform.

“The need we saw was the ability to amplify the trusted voice of the festivals and expert curators,” he recalled.

As the market “evolved – and certainly since the pandemic” arrived, his company has operated less like “just a technology solution that we handed off but more [like] a virtual venue where, like a physical venue, there’s a house staff, operations, security, projectionist, customer service, hospitality, and even marketing and promotions,” he noted, adding his company has “become a partner” to festivals.

But, “for us, starting on day one, we knew security was everything because without that, there’s no trust – no one’s going to possibly give you their content,” he said.

His company then turned its focus to “everything that goes beyond that to help these organisations” create a “great curated experience” while making the filmmakers and distributors feel safe and help the organisations grow, he noted.

“Now, as we’re merging into a hybrid landscape,” a key goal is to provide “access to people who can’t get to the physical venues” to help arthouse and independent films be seen by audiences who want to see them, he pointed out.

The Importance of Access Control

Access control is important to make sure that the right people are the ones accessing and seeing content, Patt said. Users must log into his company’s service and there are “geo-blocking and geographic restrictions” and Virtual Private Network (VPN) “blocking are built into the system,” he noted.

“Of course, there’s always the possibility that an individual log-in can be shared so then we also block simultaneous viewing from a log-in,” he said.

It also important that film festival organisers are able to customise access restrictions, he added.

“Everything has to have a base level of security, which comes at the system level,” Oberman said. “Trailers that are freely available don’t need” digital rights management (DRM) “but any film, regardless if it’s a five-minute short, a how-to video – it’s all going to have DRM,” he pointed out.

Digital watermarking, however, is not required for every piece of content “because, at the end of the day, it’s a defence to track down where the leak was – it’s not a prevention of it,” according to Oberman. What’s most important to his company is preventing a breach from happening to begin with.

Additional Benefits

Noting that he typically goes to 20 film festivals a year, Oberman said he can never see all the movies he wants to see at them, in part because of all the networking he does there.

Oberman’s advice? Enjoy yourself at the film festival when attending in-person and then go home and watch all the films you didn’t see.

Based on a poll, when films were made available only theatrically, the average person saw only three films a year but that jumped to 18 movies when there were virtual options, Oberman added.

Another speaker noted that screeners have become a major risk and a dedicated app is a potential solution to making content available securely.

The Future of Virtual Film Festivals

Part of the future of virtual film festivals “hinges on” what the studios will want after the pandemic is over, according to White.

But White said he’s encouraged by the number of festivals looking for year-round solutions.

“Hybrid is the future,” he said, noting it’s something that organisations “always wanted to do and they kind of got forced there by COVID.”

“We’re really excited about the future,” he added, saying the virtual option provides audiences with content they can’t see on other platforms, on a year-round basis instead of just one or two weeks a year during a festival.

To view the full presentation, click here.

The Content Protection Summit was open to remote attendees worldwide using MESA’s recently introduced metaverse environment, the Rendez.Vu-powered MESAverse, an interactive 3D-world that allows for hybrid live and virtual events.

The event was produced by MESA, presented by IBM Security and Synamedia, sponsored by Convergent Risks, Richey May Technology Solutions, PacketFabric, archTIS, Code42, INTRUSION, NAGRA, StoneTurn and Vision Media.