Borderlines 2021:
Finding success in the online space

Posted on May 6, 2021 by Isabel Moir, Jonny Courtney, Naomi Vera-Sanso

Categories: COVID-19, Festival Reports

Over the last year, many film festivals around the world have had to make the difficult decision to deliver their programmes online. While the benefits of increased accessibility for audiences are clear to see, delivering a virtual festival which sees strong box office results is another matter. In this blog we speak to representatives from Borderlines Film Festival, to hear how they managed to find success when they moved their festival online back in March.

First, Borderlines Festival Director Naomi Vera-Sanso discusses the decision to take the festival online this year, the new technical obstacles that brought and the impact on their audience development work.

Naomi Vera-Sanso (Festival Director), Borderlines Film Festival

Borderlines Film Festival has been running for 19 years now, and in 2020 we managed to limp through as the last film festival completed prior to closure of cinemas on 17 March. I say ‘limp through’, but we finished with our highest audience turnout ever – with over 23,000 people attending screenings in art centre and village hall venues throughout Herefordshire, Shropshire, the Welsh borders and Malvern. The final days were marked by rapidly decreasing audience numbers, relentless handwashing and desperate late-night searches at shops for the paracetamol, toilet paper and cleaning products that were being whooshed off shelves by an increasingly anxious population. Remember that?

I thought we had been very lucky. Last festival out, and maybe first festival in and back to normal screenings in physical venues. But as we constantly altered our plans (Physical? Online? Hybrid?), by December it became increasingly obvious that it would have to be online. New territory, new skills and new demands for both staff and audiences. While the exhibition world and film buffs have been going from one virtual festival to another during this period – London, Amplify, Abertoir and Glasgow to name a few – our more rural audiences tend to rely on, and look forward to, Borderlines’ annual offerings in early spring each year, which is programmed across a wide range of venues. Annually the festival line up offers remarkable depth and breadth, and we’ve been exceptionally lucky to work with the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) for eight of these years to expand and enrich our programme.

Borderlines in pre-pandemic times. Image courtesy of Borderlines Film Festival.

The video on demand model that most audience members are familiar with (e.g. Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime) offer film viewings at any time, and there were some difficulties for audiences not familiar with the online film festival format regarding our timed-slots and viewing restrictions. We imagined that most people would watch titles according to the scheduled times (6pm & 8:30pm), but this really did not turn out to be the case, with audience members selecting times that suited them and often ended up playing catch-up to watch a range of films within the available window.

The other stumbling block was that the platform we used is not available as a TV app, but instead needs to be launched on a separate device, that is the case for both of the platforms most favoured by distributors (Shift72 and Eventive) – which offer the level of anti-piracy protection they require. So we found ourselves in a unique position where the delivery of the festival depended on the equipment that viewers had in their own home, as well as their ability to use it and the speed of their broadband. Do they want to use Airplay, Chromecast, Fire or Roku stick, HDMI cable, video projector? And what version of their web browser are they using? It’s not for the faint-hearted, but this technological push has probably made most of us more familiar with the equipment we have (or could have!).

“We had a remarkable 800 different postcodes from across the UK registered on our customer database. 17% had not heard of Borderlines prior to this edition and 28% were attending for the first time.”

Going online does have massive advantages and allowed us to do things that we wouldn’t be able to achieve with a physical festival. We had director/writer Q&As with talent based in India, Dublin and Northern Ireland, as well as two British-based filmmakers. There were introductions from directors in Brazil, Nigeria, Sudan, Slovakia, Bangladesh, India, Switzerland, Germany and the UK. We very actively sought to broaden our audiences nationwide, through extensive social media marketing and asking our regular audiences to get their family and friends to join in from across the UK. We had a remarkable 800 different postcodes from across the UK registered on our customer database. 17% had not heard of Borderlines prior to this edition and 28% were attending for the first time.

A google map of the UK & Ireland showing lots of blue pin points marking various locations in the UK.
The audience geographic spread from this year’s festival. Image courtesy of Borderlines Film Festival.

ICO programmers Jonny and Isabel had frontloaded the schedule, putting the biggest films on the opening weekend, and by the first day of the festival we had already achieved all of our attendance and box office targets. These continued to build throughout the 17 days of the festival, through word of mouth and our accessible approach to ticket pricing.

“By the first day of the festival we had already achieved all of our attendance and box office targets.”

10% of our audience considered themselves to have a disability and from the comments we realised very quickly that online is a fantastic way to extend reach and accessibility across a wide range of barriers, from physical, rural isolation, caring responsibilities and economic indicators. It brings a breadth and depth that we cannot ignore in terms of our mission, and online is very likely to continue to be an element of the festival in the future. How this will play out with the requirements of venues and distributors remains to be seen, but we know there is a hunger from our regular audiences to get back in the cinema, to meet up in person and to have joyous and lengthy conversations about films that they have just seen together in the dark.

Next, we hear from ICO programmers Jonny Courtney and Isabel Moir about the challenges of securing titles for a virtual festival and their strategy for this year’s programme. 

Jonny Courtney (Senior Film Programmer) and Isabel Moir (Film Programmer), Independent Cinema Office

Over the last year, we have seen film festivals around the world having to make the difficult decision to deliver their programmes online. Festivals have had to adapt to alternative ways of working and, more importantly, connecting differently with audiences to replicate the communal viewing experience which they are traditionally known for.

And so it was that this year saw the first virtual edition of Borderlines Film Festival, recognised as the largest rural film festival in the UK. The Borderlines programme would normally consist of around one third previews, one third new release films, and a final third made up of retrospectives, special screenings, thematic strands and live events. In the past the festival has had as many as 75 different films and events taking place within a huge range of venues; an impressive feat which is impossible to replicate in an online space. Naomi took the decision to tighten the programme and reduce the number of films to 34 in total – with 2 films ‘debuting’ each night across the 17 days.

“We decided that the programme should be almost entirely made up of previews, to give the festival a certain amount of exclusivity and to avoid any danger of shifting release dates.”

Due to the closure of cinemas and therefore prevalence of new release films available on various digital platforms, we decided that the programme should be almost entirely made up of previews, to give the festival a certain amount of exclusivity and to avoid any danger of shifting release dates. This resulted in this year’s programme including 32 previews, 2 brand new releases, as well as post-screening Q&As with directors and talent.

A woman leans forward, her chin resting on her clasped hands, looking towards an elderyly man sitting in a brown leather arm chair.
The Father, this year’s best attended film. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

Following years of success and growth, Borderlines has a strong reputation in the film industry and is recognised by the BFI as a festival of national significance, yet securing previews from the studios is often challenging. This is even more the case with a virtual festival due to piracy concerns and meant there were a few high-profile films we were unable to book for the online platform. However, we still managed to secure an exclusive premiere of Florian Zeller’s The Father from Lionsgate, which has since gone on to win several BAFTAs and Academy Awards, and proved to be the best attended film of the festival.

The move away from programming current releases allowed us the opportunity to showcase titles without UK distribution alongside higher profile previews that would help to draw in a broader range of audiences. Films such as first-time filmmaker Yoon Dan-Bi’s Moving On and Byambasuren Davaa’s Veins of the World sat alongside Lee Isaac Chung’s award-winning Minari and festival favourite Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow.

A woman leads a horse and a young child through a wide open field, some goats graze behind them, and a large truck carrying a crane can be seen on the horizon.
Veins of the World. Image courtesy of Global Screen.
“The programme was perhaps more diverse than ever before, with even the most challenging films attracting strong audience figures.”

Operating as a virtual festival gave this year’s edition a much wider reach than usual and a unique challenge to us as programmers was to curate a festival that represented the traditional Borderlines audience, whilst also appealing to a wider demographic across the UK able to ‘attend’ the festival for the first time. As a result, the programme was perhaps more diverse than ever before, with even the most challenging films attracting strong audience figures.

The results of the festival have been incredibly heartening to us as programmers, with a clear indication that audiences around the UK still have an incredible appetite for independent films and shared experiences. We’re excited about the opportunities the online space brings us as curators and how we can integrate that together with theatrical screenings in the not-too-distant future.

Borderlines Film Festival 2021 ran online from 26 March – 11 April. To view this year’s programme or catch up with the recorded Q&As, visit their website.

Borderlines is programmed by the Independent Cinema Office. The ICO works in partnership with cinemas, film festivals and mixed arts venues across the UK to help them create unique, commercially viable film programmes that appeal to the widest possible range of local audiences. To learn more about our programming services, click here.

Header image: First Cow, dir. Kelly Reichardt. Image courtesy of MUBI.

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