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Piracy, lost deals, and apps: The risks film festivals face while going digital

Film festivals that go digital as a result of coronavirus lockdowns are facing a whole new set of challenges to stay afloat, from having movies ripped off online to losing out on valuable advertising dollars.

South by Southwest (SXSW), the popular Austin, Texas-based music and film festival, was one of the earliest shows hit by the coronvirus pandemic as major companies pulled out. The in-person festival was ultimately canceled, but organizers later announced they would stream the film portion of the massive multi-day event on Amazon Prime.

The venerable Cannes Film Festival decided to go digital as well, and is set to stream a Palme d’Or winner via platform Cinando.

Amazon will make SXSW films available to stream from April 27 to May 6, with no paywall restrictions, and festival organizers have promised filmmakers a screening fee should they choose to be part of the deal. But independent filmmakers reportedly bristled at the idea of possibly ruining any potential deals with distributors once the film was streamed online.

Festivals double as trade shows

Annette Porter, a director and producer at Nylon Films and the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media at Johns Hopkins University, told Digital Trends that film festivals aren’t just for cinephiles to enjoy– they are also “trade shows” where people need to sell films, make important industry contacts, and gauge audience reactions.

Cannes is trying to get around that by offering virtual booths for sales companies and an app that will connect companies who wish to speak to each other via virtual conferences. Whether that will result in the same experience or amount of sales is yet to be seen.

Distributors are also losing out when festivals decide to stream content, Porter said. Attendees also help a “ripple” economy around these festivals, which includes everything from theaters, and the local tourism industry to designers, restaurants, and bars.

She said festival organizers are “working in the dark” to figure out if digital versions of film festivals are actually viable.

“As a profession, I think we’re lucky technology is allowing that kind of digital presence” at the festivals that do decide to employ streaming technology, Porter said.  But she also noted that the challenges to get to that point may not be worth it, particularly for smaller festivals.

Porter said going digital involves a “complicated set of negotiations with filmmakers and distributors.” Digital security is also a major sticking point. Porter noted one of Nylon’s films was recently pirated within 48 hours of being streamed online.

“We just don’t know a lot of things yet,” she said, adding that it’s not clear whether streaming revenue could possibly make up for box office sales for some smaller films.

How to go digital?

How to go digital is an important question for Caitlin McFarland, a co-organizer of the ATX Television Festival.

She told Digital Trends her team is “wading in the virtual waters for the first time, so we have a steep on-ramp to decide what platforms, third-party apps, and tech production partners are the right fit for us.”

A major issue for festivals like SXSW and McFarland’s is how to best mimic their heavily community-oriented and interactive formats online.

“We’re working hard to find a technological equivalent in terms of engaging the audience in an experiential way,” McFarland said.

Todd Looby, the executive director of the BendFilm Festival in Oregon, said the festival’s organizers wanted “a spot for livestream video conversations or hosting prerecorded messages from filmmakers” to be part of the experience for virtual attendees, as well as a system that could make ticketing easier on the back end.

The result was a system built by Eventive, a company focused on integrating streaming, ticketing, audience data, and scheduling for film festivals.

As a small organization, Looby said cost was a major concern even when going digital as well. What organizers don’t dedicate toward logistics, catering, and theater space, they are likely to spend on time negotiating with filmmakers and panelists, as well as building the right type of streaming service for their audience.

The piracy issue

Even streaming companies are experiencing challenges when festivals go online. Paul Jun, CEO of Filmocracy, a streaming platform for independent films launching next month, told Digital Trends that piracy of new movies will “always be an issue.”

“Having to go digital for first viewing is already something [filmmakers are] not happy about. You can reassure them as many times as you want, but ultimately, just google any huge movie and you’ll find it.” Jun said.

While his team does its part to maintain security, he believes “in most circumstances, no one is searching for these rare unknown indie movies anyway.”

Compounding the security issue is the lack of tech-savvy among theater owners, according to Jun. The owners have already lost regular business because of the lockdown and losing out on a festival crowd is another blow.  While they try to save their businesses, owners “often too quickly decide to work with an unknown streaming platform or distributor. I’ve been seeing lots of complaints that the technology isn’t working properly, [isn’t] formatted to enough devices, and don’t have enough customer service to handle the influx of viewers who are also not technologically savvy,” Jun said.

Still, he and Porter remain optimistic.

Jun said there is an opportunity in streaming for independent filmmakers should they decide to go that route. And Porter is hopeful to one day be able to sit in a theater again, but is also excited to help filmmakers navigate the challenges of making movies right now without sacrificing their art.

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Mythili Sampathkumar
Mythili is a freelance journalist based in New York. When not reporting about politics, foreign policy, entertainment, and…
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