How do we get more people to watch documentaries on the big screen, especially given that regular theatrical releases of docs mostly fail to reach the right audiences? Moving Docs proves that 'event cinema' is the answer – but how can I participate when I'm stuck at home?
This blog post was first published on movingdocs.org
Event cinema appears to be the one thing that works: never just offer a simple film screening; always combine it with discussions, music, food and drink; better yet, hold these events in unusual places. Moving Docs partners have been good at that: In Cyprus, Lemesos International Documentary Festival held an outdoor screening on a beach, while Doc Lounge in Sweden has gone as far as screening a film in a swimming pool, their audience floating in the water. Slowly, as Fritz Kohle recently reported for Moving Docs from the IBC, the world of traditional cinema is waking up to the concept of event cinema, too.
But what about those of us who are stuck at home: as parents, due to illness, or in remote places? Do we have to miss out on the rise of event cinema? And what could Moving Docs do in order to make us feel part of it, easily, remotely, virtually?
It was in early 2016 – when we had to decide on the Moving Docs strategy for 2017 – that we all agreed we should look into virtual screening rooms that would enable us to bring event cinema to everyone – with a special focus on enabling online audiences to participate rather than just watch a one-directional live stream. And with a bigger question lurking in the long term: if such online events could be monetised through ticket sales for online participation.
Of course, live streaming for anyone to ‘broadcast’ had already been around for a while. Long before this could be done via YouTube, there was Bambuser, a Swedish company founded in 2007 and brought into the documentary world by filmmaker Fredrik Gertten who transmitted the Sundance Q&A session following his impact documentary Big Boys Gone Bananas!* in 2012. Of course, for those who were watching remotely, this didn’t include access to the film itself, and it didn’t offer instant feedback channels.
Then there was the launch of Periscope (2015), conquering the mobile market through visibility to each broadcaster’s entire bunch of Twitter followers and offering the audience instant feedback options, from sending love hearts to typing live questions to the ‘reporter’. As for documentary-related usage, I remember Italian filmmaker Elena Rossi and mobile storyteller Christian Payne (aka Documentally) popping up on my Periscope app a lot. Yet Periscope’s focus on the mobile world made it feel very random and momentary – not exactly suitable for gathering a group of people with an interest in a certain subject matter in order to make them participate in an immersive cinematic experience of choice at a set time.
Back in 2016 during Berlinale, Sonja Henrici of the Scottish Documentary Institute and myself found ourselves meeting up with the German founder of Watch2gether, a web app that enables anyone to host a synchronised viewing – essentially a chat room around a video player that is fed with any YouTube or Vimeo content of choice. A limiting factor was that it enabled only a handful of users to watch simultaneously, hence raising the issue of scalability for serving larger audiences.
Around the same time, distribution strategist Jon Reiss introduced me to Smarthouse Creative, a Seattle-based company developing something with the working title ‘Front Row Live’ – event transmissions plus live feed of reactions. It was early days for them, but what they were up to looked promising:
Also stateside, ITVS-founded and CPB-funded platform OVEE (“watch together and chat”) seemed to have figured all of this out already, combining HD live streams with social media feeds to offer a “shared media viewing experience” to a well-targeted audience. However, it appears unable to restrict access to a limited group users, and it doesn’t allow for a paywall.
A study by the Center for Media & Social Impact, co-authored by recent Moving Docs guest expert Caty Borum Chattoo and her university’s graduate student Casey Freeman Howe, looked looked at how the ITVS team screened The Homestretch on OVEE to a US-wide audience of experts who grapple with the causes and effects of teen homelessness.
54% of OVEE viewers assessed the screening tool as “very useful”, 43% as “somewhat useful” to “share solutions to social problems”. 70% appreciated the “ability to bring people together from different places”. Half of the viewers also said they were very likely to use the film in their own professional missions related to homelessness and education.
The iconic Kartemquin Films in Chicago, makers of The Homestretch, appreciated the OVEE experience but also have some reservations. In a recent online session for Moving Docs partners, I spoke to Kartemquin’s Director of Communications and Distribution, Tim Horsburgh. He said:
“I would hate for that to be the first screening for any film. I am still a purist where I don’t want social media in my cinema very much – yet. [...] We used OVEE to get a lot of people [who work with homeless youth] around the country in the same room, so they could actually watch the film and have a discussion that was motivated by the film. Once the film ended, the online discussion continued for around half an hour or 45 minutes in the way a Q&A would. But it was all text-based.
“I think it is a really interesting way to get a disparate group of people – obviously, you guys [at Moving Docs] are across Europe – but I would just think that it works best when you have a really specific goal for why people would be invested in that.”
Good advice. With another Kartemquin title, The Trials of Muhamed Ali, an OVEE session focused on aspects of the filmmaking process itself. According to Tim Horsburgh, it was “a bit like having the director sat next to you on the couch while you’re watching the film. People seemed to enjoy it, but I wouldn’t expect great numbers from it.”
Horsburgh also pointed us to Rabbit which, working exclusively as a mobile app, appears to take the idea of Watch2Gether to a whole new level – offering somewhat private, user-hosted chat rooms that, at a scheduled time, allow their hosts to transmit popular YouTube content and a selection of films and TV shows. Our test revealed a technically impressive but somewhat unstable app. In a somewhat intimidating fashion – at least in our eyes as curious newbies – some rooms even require you to turn on your own webcam before you enter. Unfortunately, the synchronised discussions we got to witness rarely centered around the actual film. Instead, the teenagers in the audience seemed keener to find out who else was in the same room and what they were up to – a bit like the early random chats in the late 1990s.
The New York Times, in an article called Love in the Time of Binge-Watching, described remote synchronised viewing like this: “In modern-day romance, resisting the impulse to binge so that you may watch with a lover is the new equivalent of meeting the parents or sharing a sober kiss.”
But I digress… What apps like Rabbit offer doesn’t really reflect the expectations of documentary audiences, and the Moving Docs team decided to focus on having a ‘real-life’ (in-person) lead event that ensures a quality debate and enables remote participation via live streaming.
In that respect, reality overtook us over the course of 2016, before we even started the experimental stage we had envisaged for 2017: the game changer was the arrival of Facebook Live – or to be precise, Facebook switching on live broadcasting options for all users, not just approved celebrities.
Moving Docs was quick to jump on the Facebook Live bandwagon and, following coordinated screenings of At Home in the World in four European countries, streamed a panel discussion from the lead event in Athens which focused on the importance of education for child refugees. With a little help from Al Jazeera English and Unicef, the Moving Docs live stream suddenly popped up in the Facebook timelines of up to half a million people and led to some 33,000 views – great numbers given the genre and subject matter.
But two questions remain: how can we best live-stream not only a Q&A session but, prior to it, the actual whole film on which the discussion is based? And would audiences pay for that online? Both seem unlikely scenarios for Facebook, so we’ve found ourselves looking at other solutions again.
Higher-end platforms that offer secure live streaming include Brightcove Live or Ooyala, both offering the playback of existing VOD assets as part of a live-streamed event. These services can also be combined with sophisticated paywalls like Cleeng that allow for geo-restrictions, lead capture (i.e. gathering audience contact data), and payment in many currencies.
Well-known platform Livestream offers an Enterprise plan with similar options, but as with the other high-end solutions, pricing is in the range of 500 to 1000 euros a month, making it prohibitively expensive for small-scale operations and experimental setups like those of our Moving Docs partners – and that’s not even counting the cost of video production and encoding. UStream, recently swallowed by IBM, now falls into a similar category of service.
Following last September’s acquisition of Livestream by Vimeo, Vimeo has launched its own-branded Vimeo Live offering with similar pricing – but any pay-per-view solution would need to custom-added, again based on a relatively expensive Enterprise plan.
DaCast looks like a comprehensive yet reasonably priced toolkit that unites live streaming with pay-per-view, so this may well merit further testing. That said, this one lacks a native feedback loop through integrated chat, even though a chat room can be bolted on using a third-party provider – which in turn probably means separate logins for access and conversation, not exactly a great user experience.
In project management, people say you can only ever pick two out of the three qualities ‘good’, ‘fast’ and ‘cheap’. And indeed, so far it seems impossible to find an easy-to-understand, easy-to-use and affordable solution that would unite three core elements: secure live streaming, seamless chat functionality enabling feedback to the lead event, and an integrated paywall – all of which would really be needed in order to expand low-budget event cinema into the online space.
We also came across a service called StreamingVideoProvider which appears to combine all the required features while being the cheapest of the bunch, from £49 / €59 a month. There are a number of questions though. Some reviewers have complained about reliability issues and unresponsive customer service, even leading to event cancellations. The service’s Bulgarian-Ukrainian team describes itself as headquartered in London, though records show their limited company seems to have stopped trading in 2013. The framework they’re using for their business now is called Global Stream Holding Ltd and based in the Seychelles, with a postal address in San Francisco. Where exactly one can go to if something goes haywire isn’t entirely clear.
And what ever happened to ‘Front Row Live’ from Seattle? It was actually launched under the name Wonderstream last summer and offers a pay-as-you-go service with a flat fee of $89 per two-hour event – no subscription to the service needed, paywall integrated (albeit in US dollars only), and live chat implemented via a hashtag-based Twitter feed, increasing visibility.
Co-founder Brad Wilke of Smarthouse Creative describes Wonderstream as “a bridge between a brand’s online and offline audiences”, avoiding the “walled gardens” of Facebook Live or Periscope by allowing hosts of events to get to know their audience through capturing viewers’ names and email addresses for follow-ups. Login will be made easy using Oauth (signing in with a Google or social media account, not requiring a password-based setup). Wonderstream isn’t exactly a ‘white-label’ platform like some of the others we looked at, but it allows hosts to have a branded page featuring their own calls to action and partnering organisations.
Their launch seems to have been a very soft one though, with the ‘Watch Now’ examples on the site currently leading to error messages. “Wonderstream is operational and healthy,” Wilke tells me. “But we are in the middle of a new phase of developments, so have been keeping a low profile.”
I do believe Brad Wilke understands what we all need, simply because of his knowledge of the independent film world: his background is in filmmaking, screenwriting and programming (the latter for Portland Film Festival and Seattle International Film Festival). Smarthouse Creative’s co-founder Ryan Davis is a film publicist; she also worked on the brilliant Oscar-nominated doc Iraq in Fragments.
So let’s keep a close eye on Wonderstream and keep our fingers crossed this one delivers.