US industry explores virtual solutions to coronavirus outbreak

“It’s not difficult to arrange virtual film festivals or film markets.”

By Jeremy Kay 10 Mar 2020

US industry explores virtual solutions to coronavirus outbreak

Online solutions to the impact of coronavirus are being drawn up in the US as it emerged that top sales agents and the Hollywood agencies are quietly exploring virtual contingency plans should Cannes not go ahead or be disrupted in May.

At time of writing organisers at Cannes Film Festival and the Marché were bullish that both events will proceed, while the virus has already taken a costly toll on the entertainment industry with the cancellation or postponement of multiple events.

On Monday Stage 32, an LA-based social network platform that connects film, TV and digital creatives and professionals, said that starting next month it would showcase select films from the recently cancelled SXSW on its platform. The company’s community includes distributors, buyers and sales agents, as well as managers, agents, financiers, development executives and producers

New York-based Women Make Movies (WMM) has set up WMM’s Women’s History Month Virtual Film Festival 2020 whereby viewers can access screenings via a portal. Last week Deutsche Bank shifted its annual media investor conference in Florida to audio-only participation at the eleventh hour.

Fear of coronavirus has led to the cancellation of major international industry events that regularly draw US professionals like MIPTV and the postponement of Filmart. On Monday evening (9) Quibi said it was cancelling its April 5 launch party in Los Angeles, although the platform will still launch the following day, while TV upfronts have been put on hold.

The industry is reacting accordingly. Sources tell Screen that talks between leading sales agents and the Hollywood agencies are looking into how to enable the launch of sales titles and screen footage to buyers in the eventuality that Cannes would not go ahead, or would proceed with significantly lower attendance.

The tools that enable video conferencing and online viewing of content have existed for years, and industry professionals are exploring ways to scale up to mitigate the disruption to major events that regularly draw thousands of attendees.

“It’s not difficult to arrange virtual film festivals or film markets,” said strategic film publicist and festival curator Kathleen McInnis. “For example, you can create the immediacy of a brick/mortar festival by opening screening windows that mirror a festival schedule. Audiences buy a virtual ticket to the screening they want to see. These virtual film festivals systems already exist and have become popular with smaller festivals.”

McInnis continued: “Festivals like SXSW who presell passes already have all their audience information intact, so I would imagine it’s possible they could offer those pass-holders the same chance to see the films as if everyone was together in Austin – assuming, of course, the filmmakers were also up for it. To create a virtual market is even easier, I believe, as the industry already uses systems that are in place like FestivalScope or Cinando, which can serve as default market screenings.”

The aforementioned platforms and services like Vimeo OTT, as well as communications software like Zoom and Google Hangouts and online ticketing platform Eventbrite, have been building bridges for some time between festivals, filmmakers and audiences.

Sources are tracking how adoption of these services might increase in the weeks and months ahead and how suitable they would be to a market environment, connecting sales agents, producers and agents to buyers. If there were a situation where key buyers did not attend an event, observers have speculated that once filmmakers and content owners have granted permission to the digital screening of their content, access to material like promos could be timed and limited to select viewers to create an online bidding war.

However such a move would mark a huge step-up from anything seen before in Hollywood, and would require considerable logistical planning and a broad industry-wide buy-in.

“It’s certainly do-able and there have been online trade shows for a long time,” said Marty Puranik, president and CEO of Atlantic.Net, a proprietary cloud-based hosting service that has seen a rise in interest from potential customers willing to work remotely since the coronavirus outbreak.

However Puranik was clear that while the market for online screening and video conferencing services is growing, the face-to-face experience remained unique. “Live is better because you will have a higher engagement and it’s more selective, because the people who choose to come to an event are likely to be more engaged. But given what’s going on, it’s better than nothing.”

As the industry scrambles to stay ahead of coronavirus, it remains to be seen exactly how expansive virtual solutions will become. Sources cited different time zones for remote participants as a potential but not insurmountable stumbling block in virtual meetings, while buffering and resolution issues remain a common complaint among users of online screening platforms. Some suggested it would be hard to replicate the benefits of face-to-face contact in development meetings.

There is also the question of how quickly and effectively older, less technologically savvy professionals will grasp the new tools of doing business. Industry observers have noted that while adoption of these technologies is a no-brainer for streaming platforms and studios, it could pose challenges for independent operators.

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