Meeting Point – Vilnius explores the challenges of realising a digital festival during the coronavirus pandemic
- The recent experiences of the Vilnius IFF and CPH:DOX were analysed during a webinar organised with the support of Creative Europe Desk Lithuania
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the celebratory 25th edition of the Vilnius International Film Festival Kino Pavasaris – scheduled to take place from 19 March-2 April – to go online (see the news) and to cancel its industry event, Meeting Point – Vilnius (MPV), which would have unspooled its 11th edition from 30 March-1 April (see the news). Almost one week after its official dates, MPV, in partnership with Creative Europe Desk Lithuania, organised a virtual online conference and discussion on the topic “The Challenge of Realising a Digital Festival During the Coronavirus Pandemic: Experiences and an Exchange of Best Practices”. The event was held in cooperation with CPH:DOX, which also had to move its activities online (see the news), the Independent Cinema Office and the European Film Forum.
The conference was opened by Alessandra Pastore, head of MPV, who introduced the panellists and offered up her experience regarding the cancellation of the physical event. She also mentioned that over 500 people were watching the webinar live. In the welcoming speech, Lucía Recalde, Head of Unit for the Audiovisual Industry and Media Support Programmes at the European Commission, acknowledged the hard times that the industry is going through during this period, underlining the support and the measures that are being launched for all of the professionals in the sector. She also added that in these unprecedented, dramatic times, some of the sector’s key players, such as festivals and cinemas, have literally zero revenue coming in, and she emphasised how MEDIA has become very flexible by expanding deadlines and reshuffling its budgets. She stressed that the extent of the crisis could be limited only through a coordinated response from the community, and that its members could also count on the help provided by MEDIA, which can go beyond the financial aspect, as new tools and realistic ideas could be part of a forthcoming solution.
Algirdas Ramaska, CEO of the Vilnius International Film Festival Kino Pavasaris, then took the floor and shared his experience of transforming his festival into an online event in the space of just one week. He mentioned that many sub-events that were also celebrating their 25th edition had to be cancelled, such as exceptional screenings, but that the festival still needed to reach the audience. Starting on the opening night, which was organised as an online event, five local streaming platforms were used to host 69% of the films that were scheduled to be screened at the gathering, and 90% of the competition programmes were still in place. This was a successful result, especially as 85% of the team retained their positions, even though some departments were not needed. But in fact, a number of new departments were introduced, such as those for customer support and for the prevention of illegal content, while the streaming services and the festival’s live studio departments were expanded.
As for the results at this moment in time, as some films are still being streamed, more than 56,000 paid views have been racked up, with the admission fee of €6.49 standing at around 15% lower than the nominal price, and with an average of two people per stream. This could theoretically translate to an audience of 112,000, compared to the 2019 admissions figure of 129,000, meaning that this result comes pretty close to the festival’s regular numbers. Ticket revenue stood at 41%, while the festival lost 50% of its sponsors, as many of them were related to physical promotion, but it did retain 94% of its public funding. The challenges on the technical side were the 118 films that had to be uploaded in three different formats (around 40 per day), the new subtitles to be synchronised, and the information and guidance that had to be provided to the audience in order to familiarise them with the new format of the festival. The event also had to develop a new marketing strategy and adapt to the digital version of it. Among the surprises were the fact that people at home didn’t have as much time as expected to watch films, and those who did were usually not able to pay the fee. Nevertheless, Ramaska emphasised that the festival would still run in a physical format when possible.
Sofie Bjerregaard, head of communication at CPH:DOX, offered her experience of moving online in just six days, as cancellation was not an option. As a result, 75% of the programme, 150 films and 20 live debates, were shifted onto the internet and made available to everyone in Denmark. Regarding the audience, there were 65,000 streams, or 116,00 viewers (using a multiplication factor of 1.7), with the tickets halving in price from roughly €12 to €6; also, 8,000 viewers participated in the online live debates, including one with Edward Snowden, and as the festival will still be running one month beyond its original window – until 30 April – 66,000 catch-up viewings have been recorded so far.
As was the case with Vilnius, CPH:DOX also had a limited amount of time to negotiate and make decisions with producers and sales agents, and for most of the movies, there was a limit of 1,000 viewings. The first platform that they collaborated with was Festival Scope, which had a capacity of 40 films, so due to high levels of demand, the New Zealand-based platform Shift72 took on the 150 titles, which were uploaded overnight. As for the industry section, CPH:FORUM featured pre-recorded pitches (see the news), as the time difference was another factor that posed an obstacle to the event going live, and almost 900 meetings were held via Zoom; the CPH:CONFERENCE was broadcast for five days live on Facebook; CPH:LAB used Kaleidoscope for its pitches and feedback; and the CPH:MARKET was accessible through Cinando, which hosted around 170 films.
Regarding the organisational aspect, new departments were introduced for customer support and technical issues, all of the campaigns were adapted for the digital edition, with high levels of awareness being generated (although not so high outside of Copenhagen), and the media covered the premieres as if they were physical ones. The support that the festival received from everyone involved was one of the biggest surprises as well. According to Bjerregaard, going digital is an element that could be used to good effect at future editions, especially to track and reach a bigger audience. Finally, she noted that it was fully possible to engage the digital community but, of course, an online festival will never replace the physical encounters and the collective aspect of going to the cinema.
After the presentations, the festival representatives fielded various questions posed by the audience, and this discussion was moderated by David Sin, of the Independent Cinema Office. You can watch the entire webinar on Kino Pavasaris’ YouTube channel.
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