With cinemas closed and social distancing measures in place due to the Coronavirus crisis, festivals all over the world have been forced to rethink their plans over the last few months. We spoke to Ian Francis, Director of Flatpack Festival, about how they took their festival online and some of the lessons they learnt along the way.
Friday 13th March was our print deadline, which should probably have rung alarm bells in itself. Most of the previous month had been spent nailing down the Flatpack programme, chasing images and finalising all the myriad pesky bits of information that make up a brochure. News of cancellations had begun to trickle in – SXSW, Glasgow Short Film Festival – but when we reached our red letter day we still thought there was a chance this festival might happen. We held off printing until Monday just to see what the news brought, and by then it was clear that no events would be happening any time soon.
Two months later and the Flatpack team have scattered to our homes, and we’re halfway through delivering our first online festival. It has been so good to have something to throw ourselves into – a precipitous and occasionally punishing learning curve. While fighting off the distractions of Twitter and the laundry, I will try and outline some of the thinking behind Flatpack 2020: the Home Entertainment edition. Why did it end up taking this shape? What did we actually learn? And would we do it again?
To begin with, if you do want to take your programming online it’s worth being clear on why you’re doing it. For us, it was partly about salvaging something from our festival lineup, while giving our audience something positive to enjoy during a time of uncertainty and upheaval. Sifting through the hundred or so events which we had planned, it was clear that many of them just wouldn’t work delivered virtually. Flatpack is known for its sense of place, its ingenious use of different venues around Birmingham, and all of this was out the window. There was also a whole range of audiovisual performances and live soundtracks which we felt would not make sense as a watch party or YouTube stream.
Happily though, Flatpack has a brilliant short film competition, one which weaves together many different strands of moving image practice and boasts a decent hit rate of UK and European premieres. This work lends itself well to online screenings, and maybe also to the slightly truncated attention spans that many of us suffer from at the moment. We set about contacting the 100+ featured filmmakers to see if they’d be amenable to this change of approach, and were amazed by the number who responded positively. Of course many would have preferred to have their film unveiled on a big screen, but they also liked what we were trying to do in extraordinary circumstances. In the end we were able to retain over half of the original competition selection.
Some of those who said no were concerned by the lack of any geo-blocking in our online plans. We decided early on that this festival would be accessible to as many people as possible – free of charge, with no barriers. There was also a balance to strike between creating a sense of ‘event’ and making sure that people had the chance to catch everything – particularly with digital content proliferating as the lockdown took hold. In the end the majority of the programme has been shared through a series of pages with Vimeo embeds, available for just over a week with new programmes being released daily. The schedule was then punctuated with a handful of YouTube live events, which created a real sense of communal gathering through social media and the chat function. After the first taster event the Flatpack team met up for Zoom drinks in much the same way as we might have congregated in our Digbeth hub, relieved and happy to discover that a festival buzz was still possible despite our state of isolation.
The challenges and rewards of a virtual festival
At a regular Flatpack, the short film competition draws artists and filmmakers from across Europe and beyond. Instead of cinema Q&As we found ourselves conducting virtual chats, blog interviews and other ‘bonus features’ that would help to enhance the viewing experience. Capucine Muller created a behind-the-scenes ‘interview’ with the animated characters of her film Dutchgaria. SONG YungSung spent four hours hand-painting a frame from his short Creative Evolution, in order to create a strangely hypnotic timelapse film. These contributions might not have been possible if the creators hadn’t found themselves confined at home, but I hope that it’s something we can take forward in the future. Despite not being able to meet up in person, this whole experience has really enriched our relationship with those who are so generous in sharing their work with us.
Our relationship with our audience has changed too. Not surprisingly, a fair bit of gratitude was expressed in the feedback: ‘this is really helping with a bit of normal’, ‘these quirky worlds and images cheered me up in a time of stress and anxiety’, ‘I feel more positive that the creative arts can weather this storm’. We also reached new places. Around half of the audience for our physical festival tends to come from Birmingham, but in this case it has been less than a quarter. The proportion of international web hits went from 5% in 2019 to 20% in 2020, with a particularly strong showing for countries like France, Hungary and Japan that had a presence in the programme. The filmmakers’ own networks became vital in drumming up an audience, and although many arts journalists were on furlough we also had some success with media coverage including a nice Guardian write-up of the screendance programme.
The biggest shock was how much time all of this took. Managing the website and social media was a massive task, while our young people’s coordinator went from delivering schools workshops to devising online craft activities from her flat with her rabbit as an assistant. Our heroic programme team spent long days persuading sluggish technology to encode and upload videos, with short film programmer Lucile Bourliaud based at home in France having flown back in haste in March. It has been tough going at times, but we were surprised how quickly we adjusted to remote working and achieved a virtual version of festival camaraderie.
So would we bother with physical events in the future? Well of course. We’ve made the best of the situation, but a solitary laptop viewing is no substitute for a room full of people enjoying something together, along with all the added value that a festival can bring. The big question in the future will be how we achieve this while ensuring people’s safety. For now though, this has been a salutary reminder that the internet is so much more than just a marketing tool – it’s a means of connecting with new audiences, and a creative space in its own right.
Top tips for taking your festival online
1. It’s not a money spinner
We couldn’t have pulled this off with out the patience and support of our core funders, and even if we had charged a fee to viewers I’m not sure the returns would have been substantial. However, it’s worth noting that we have raised over £1,500 in donations, memberships and merch sales over the past month – a notable increase off the back of the festival activity. Digital activity can also generate revenue indirectly through audience-development and awareness-raising, and the key will be integrating it with physical events once the latter are possible again.
2. Shorts work well online
As mentioned, shorts are ideal for limited attention spans and are a wellspring of innovation. Often overshadowed by features and live events at a regular Flatpack, they have had a chance to shine over the past week.
3. Keep it simple
Don’t overload the user experience with text and extra whistles and bells. People are impatient, and they want to get to the films.
4. Use social media as a channel
Many people don’t want to have to leave Instagram or Facebook to access their content. We found that IGTV worked particularly well as a way of sharing our ‘bonus features’.
5. Your audience is not necessarily who you think they are
We have attracted and discovered so many international fans these last few days, from Brummie ex-pats and proud family abroad to a ‘navy wife’ in Italy who incorporated Colour Box films into her kids’ home-schooling. The analytics provided by Google and Vimeo also give you an opportunity to dive into viewing habits and audience patterns – although be warned that you may never emerge from this rabbit-hole!
6. Don’t be afraid to ask
Third-party marketing and marshalling your networks becomes crucial when your potential audience is everywhere, and perhaps in part because of the situation we’ve found that people are generally very eager to help. Similarly, we’ve hit on a much more proactive and effective approach to encouraging financial donations during this crisis.
7. Everything takes longer than you think
This one should probably be carved in stone. Technical glitches, rights communications and the endless time-hoover of social media all play their part. We may not have left the house in two months, but in some ways organising a virtual festival is just as knackering as putting on a physical event.