How to love your digital screening room more and more

There was no doubt about it. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we cried out confidently that “hybrid was here to stay”. It is safe to say that working remotely has indeed proven to stick around. But at film festivals and in cinemas we see that in 2023 the focus was on one thing: getting the theaters filled with physical visitors again. You can’t blame them: the digital auditorium has not proven yet to be a pot of money and it turned out to require specific attention and manpower in terms of programming, communication and technology. But if you ask European cinemas and distributors about the role of online film in the future, everyone seems to be unanimous: the belief in the potential of virtual cinema is still there and they expect it to only grow. So how to deal with virtual cinema then, post-pandemic? In this article series by Janneke van Laar from Medialoc, one of the initiators of the REACH’M project, a selection of tips and concrete practical examples for film exhibitors who (want to) screen films online and would like to experiment further. A selection from our experience of recent times, to make you love your digital screening room more and more.

#4: A get-together of the offline and the online

The online world and the offline world used to feel like two separate spaces, right? But when the pandemic waltzed into our lives, those two seem to merge at a rapid pace. Suddenly, our dear colleagues barged into our living rooms and virtually sat on our couches, we digitally visited film festivals and we attended funerals via livestream. But since we are back to (somewhat) normal, this natural hybrid approach feels like something from the past. At least, for some film exhibitors it surely does. However, according to a recent report by the CICAE, UNIC and Europa Cinemas, the cinemagoer is a modern, enthusiastic consumer of all types of content, media and leisure such as gaming and VOD, and cinema attendees don’t exist in a silo away from the general population. The young people sitting at home playing video games and ordering films from VOD platforms are also proportionally more active cinemagoers. Considering all this, we can best start embracing a cozy get-together of the online and offline world, looking at the cinema side of life. You with us? Let’s see how we can merge.

Linking spaces: The whole is greater than the sum of the parts
Instead of treating your online space as a separate space, consider your virtual cinema as an additional room that offers possibilities to enrich your physical screening rooms. A digital room where you can screen films, offering them as VODs. An example of a cinema that successfully does so, is German Yorck Kinogruppe. Next to their fifteen cinemas in the capital of Berlin,  Yorck has its own extensive VOD-platform. But the digital room is also a space where you can offer additional digital content to physical screenings. For example Dutch cinemas such as Kino lately started offering behind the scenes, interviews and other online bonus material online to the films they screen in their concrete screening room, some made available only after the film viewing. Another example is the program HF Digital, in which international performing arts festival Holland Festival shares a curated selection of online videos on its website, consisting of recordings of performances, interviews with creators from previous festival editions and artist portraits. As these examples show, the virtual offering can actually form a rich duo with your physical program.

Hybridity as tool to bring a niche world together
Next to blending online and offline to indulge at a consumer’s own pace, there are also some nice examples of successful hybrid events that are still relevant post-pandemic. Amsterdam-based film institute Eye for example yearly organizes a conference for and about a very niche subject: film archiving. This is an annual gathering for scholars, archivists, curators, filmmakers, students, artists, and film enthusiasts from across the world to explore contemporary professional and academic issues affecting audiovisual heritage today. Film archiving, being a world-wide but obviously quite specific and rare profession, Eye makes use of the MediaContainer to livestream this physical event to all these specific individuals worldwide, using interactivity tools to engage the virtually present audience and to actively merge them with the audience in the screening room. Another example is Playgrounds, a Netherlands-based platform that showcases and celebrates the creative image for a quite specific but worldwide professional audience of artists, animators, filmmakers, game-, sound- and graphic designers. Playgrounds successfully often mixes massive physical events in Eindhoven, Berlin and London with hybrid sessions. Next to that, they offer online talks, panels, demos and studio visits via their tv channel Playgrounds TV and their streaming platform REPLAY.

Taking the online, well, offline
Online and offline can even come together on a whole other level. In 2023, Medialoc developed the Offline Stream Player. This tool makes use of the player and (secured) film streaming technology Medialoc designed for VOD screenings during the pandemic and is a good example of exploring the ways innovative technological solutions can enable future hybrid forms of virtual cinema. The player allows secure and encrypted offline viewing and projection of non-DCP files, offering possibilities for screenings in locations without a (stable) internet connection, such as schools, community centers or temporary screening locations. Belgium film festival and film distributor MOOOV uses this, originally VOD-, technology at several locations that would normally screen making use of carriers such as a DVD or BluRay disc, such as school screenings. Dutch cinema Fraterhuis in Zwolle uses the Offline Stream Player for the second time this summer for its outdoor film screenings. Upcoming August 2 and 3 2024, you can see Jeanne du Barry & Songs of Earth under the stars at the city square.

Mix the worlds a little more often
With a box office of an impressive 104.6% in the Netherlands in 2023 compared with the average for 2017 to 2019 (according to the recent study Box Office and Beyond), we can totally understand online viewing possibilities have somewhat faded out of sight. However, it seems to us that there are many ways film exhibitors can still even today enforce their physical program by deploying a virtual program. One can add value by offering additional content digitally, by organizing hybrid and interactive events when addressing a specific audience and by making use of the technical innovation of the online world in the offline environment. The same study underlines that cinemagoers actively engage with the world around them and see great value in cinema as part of their media mix. The ability to have a varied media and culture mix is important to people, and each medium does not threaten the others’ existence. It actually complements them. Ample reasons to mix the worlds a little more often, we’d say.

We would love to hear what your online and hybrid plans, questions and ambitions are. In any case, we are ready for you with lots of online ideas and experience! We would love to think with you. Please reach out to us via janneke@medialoc.eu.