Main image: Belfast’s QFT’s (Queen’s Film Theatre) online player system is an FAN example of theatrical VOD.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to force independent cinemas to innovate, James Rice of INDY Cinema Group looks at the appeal of Cinema Video On-Demand (VOD) for exhibitors.
COVID-19 has jumpstarted the field of Cinema VOD among independent venues and film festivals, and changes in the wider industry and the evolution of audience viewing habits, brought on by the pandemic, give every indication that selecting and presenting films via online streaming will remain an important complementary activity for cinemas and festivals for the foreseeable future.
If you are a cinema programmer, what follows are some practicalities to consider if you are planning your first VOD programming project. Cinema VOD is evolving a mile a minute, so some of what follows may soon become obsolete, but we hope it serves as a way to get your bearings.
What is Cinema VOD?
Video on Demand (VOD) is a broad area encompassing any activity whereby films are made available directly to customers to stream on their home device. This includes giant global players like Netflix or Amazon, as well as a proliferation of smaller and more specialist platforms.
Cinema (or Festival) VOD is a small subset of VOD as a whole. It comprises any activity by a ‘real world’ theatrical film exhibitor to select a programme of films and make them available to their audiences for online streaming. We’ll use the term ‘Cinema VOD’ for convenience, but the considerations are in many respects similar for both.
Cinema VOD initiatives are generally transactional, which means that customers pay a fee to view each film they watch, rather than a subscription to watch anything from a large menu.
Like theatrical programming, Cinema VOD generally involves a relatively small selection of films, sometimes limited to a specific time period, and in this respect is a very different world from the giant subscription services….
Why do Cinema VOD?
Cinemas and other film exhibitors have various compelling reasons to present VOD programming. These may include:
- Audience engagement and outreach: a way to continue engaging with their audiences about film when physical screenings are prohibited, and a new engagement tool alongside physical screenings when regular operations become possible again.
- Expanded programming: unlike bricks and mortar cinemas, VOD platforms do not have spatial or temporal constraints. Cinemas may wish to broaden their cultural programming by presenting additional films in VOD that they can’t fit in their main schedule, or by keeping films going on VOD after a successful theatrical run has had to make away for newer releases. They may wish to contextualise their theatrical screenings with online seasons and retrospectives, or offer educational context for their wider programming.
- Inclusion: showing films through VOD can make them easily accessible to people who may find it difficult or impossible to attend the cinema in person, for any number of reasons.
- In-house productions: Venues who create their own content may find value in sharing their work with a wider audience. This might include: recorded Q&As or interviews; panel events; record performing arts; lectures or classes; films from production schemes or educational projects; and more.
- Revenue: there is the potential to generate extra revenue.
This whole area is very new, so there is not yet consistent terminology. What we’re calling “Cinema VOD” is also called “Cinema TVOD”, “Theatrical TVOD”, “Theatrical VOD”, “Virtual Cinema”, “Virtual Screening Rooms”, and probably other names as well.
When approaching a distributor or supplier for the first time, it’s best to be very clear about what sort of usage you’re actually asking for. They may be accustomed to a different turn of phrase….
That said, there are some commonly used terms that everyone should know:
- VOD: Video on Demand: Any form of streaming video content.
- AVOD: Advertising Video on Demand: Content is free to stream and paid for by advertising (e.g. YouTube).
- SVOD: Subscription Video on Demand: The customer pays a subscription for access to a library of films (e.g. Netflix).
- TVOD: Transactional Video on Demand: The customer pays for each film individually (e.g. Apple iTunes).
- DTR: Download to Rent: A form of TVOD in which the user accesses the film for a limited time only.
- EST: Electronic Sell-through: A form of TVOD in which the user retains permanent access to the film by downloading a local copy.
- PVOD: Premium Video on Demand: A form of TVOD in which the newest films are released for a limited time at a higher price, during an early period that would historically have been the pure theatrical window.
Cinema VOD is normally TVOD (i.e. transactional), and often includes a PVOD window for new releases. It is normally DTR, not EST (i.e. the users rent the film for a limited period, not for all time).
A couple other terms are likely to come up:
- Geo-blocking: the process of limiting online access for one film to a specific country, or other geographical area.
- Upload fees: Any of a variety of costs that labs or distributors will apply to a booking, to cover the process of actually uploading the film file to the right location.
There are several technological approaches to structuring a VOD programme for your cinema or festival. If you are doing a VOD project for the first time, a key early step is to consider which approach is the best fit for your project. Each one has a different set of benefits and limitations in terms of cost, ease of use, flexibility, and so forth. The benefits and limitations we note here are just examples. You’ll likely need to look into options in more depth before deciding.
Here are a few of the main approaches:
This approach involves promoting films on one’s own website and other channels, but not actually booking them or hosting them yourself. Instead, you include links to films hosted elsewhere. The films might be on generic platforms like Amazon, or might be on a distributor’s own streaming site or another location.
In the UK, Modern Films are a prominent platform host who work with cinemas on a referral basis; Dogwoof have started doing the same. Your Screen and Filmbank also make a range of content from various distributors available on a referral basis.
- Relatively easy and low cost to set up.
- Low admin burden to ‘book’ and present films.
- Opportunities to take advantage of collaborative offers from distributors.
- Customers may not like being diverted to a variety of other sites (and you may wish to retain them on your site…).
- Limited control over the look and feel of the user’s experience.
- Not always possible to generate revenue per view.
- No way to host your own additional content.
This approach involves using a generic VOD platform to host your online screenings. By ‘generic platform’, we mean one that is designed to cover a wide variety of VOD uses, including many well outside what cinemas or festivals normally want to do. A popular example is Vimeo. You book films from the suppliers and then set the screenings up on the generic platform, integrating it with your own web environment as best you can.
- Relatively low cost to use this sort of platform.
- Customers all watch the films in the same place, which is an area you control.
- Generic platforms are not generally optimised for Cinema VOD.
- Security concerns may prevent you booking with some distribution companies.
- Can be a lot of work to set your site up the way you want especially if you’re trying to integrate it with your own website or make it look like you own fully customised environment.
This involves using a VOD technology that is optimised for Cinemas and Festivals. You can either set up your own fully branded platform that you control, or partner with another platform owner to host your project. Shift72 and Eventive are two examples of the sorts of technology commonly used in this area.
- Customers all watch the films in the same place, which is an area you control.
- Your own fully branded, customised Cinema VOD site.
- Technology is optimised for this sort of activity, including options around watermarking, distributor reporting and so forth.
- The leading players (especially Shift72) are widely trusted in the industry in terms of security.
- More control of parameters like ticket price, accessibility features (e.g. HoH, AD), and so on.
- Maintaining your own site may not make sense if you are running a one-off or annually recurring event. But you might find a home on another Cinema VOD platform, just as you could theatrically at a cinema in the real world.
- Costs can be higher.
- May require more attention to marketing and outreach.
There’s a huge diversity of film programming out there. The range of approaches to VOD technology means that you’ll need to think through the pros and cons of the options available to you, and decide which is the best fit for your project.
The ‘Custom Platform’ approach is the ideal option for any exhibitor looking to make Cinema VOD a serious ongoing element in their wider programming and audience engagement strategy. It uses optimised technology and is more customisable.
However, the ‘Platform Referral’ approach is worth considering for exhibitors who are not so focussed on the long term importance of online programming, and want a more free-form approach.
The Generic Platform approach seems like a lot of work to build a system that’s a bit limited technically, though to be fair we’ve seen some smaller festivals achieve really good results this way.
Once you’ve selected your programme and settled on a technical approach, you need to book the films (unless you’re working on a platform referral basis, where formal bookings may not be required).
The basic principles of booking for Cinema VOD are in many ways the same as for theatrical booking. You have to identify the rights holder, request permission, discuss and agree booking parameters and terms, confirm the booking, and then deal with technical delivery and marketing. The devil is in the detail, though…
At the time of writing, Cinema VOD is so new that many UK distributors are not (yet) sure how best to engage with it. Even if they want to do it, they may not be fully resourced to handle a large number of booking requests, or they may not yet have worked through fundamental issues around the fine print of licenses, the shape of related admin processes, and so forth. These factors make it more likely, compared against theatrical, that you will be unable to book certain films. That said, the landscape is steadily improving as the outlines of this new mode of exhibition begin to crystallise. As more and more distributors work through preliminary questions about how best to engage with Cinema VOD, and as it becomes clearer that the exhibition sector is committed to maintaining customised VOD offerings for the long term, we’ll move closer to a streamlined operating environment.
Films that are not in regular distribution – ones you might book from the filmmaker or a sales agent or whatnot – may well be available. Of course there are all the normal challenges about booking undistributed films, but often an independent producer or small sales agent will be only too happy to sell their product. It’s always worth asking.
Broadly speaking, whoever you’re booking with, you’ll need to ask about the following topics:
- Is the film available, and when?
- Is there a PVOD window or any other window or restriction on availability?
- Is there a minimum ticket price?
- What geo-blocking (if any) do they require?
The revenue share for distributors is often higher than you might be accustomed to in theatrical bookings, but then the costs incurred by the exhibitor are generally lower.
If the film is available when and where you want it, and you can agree the terms and answer any questions the distributor may have around security, and meet any other requirements they apply, then hopefully you can book the film. Beyond that, the implementation process will depend on what technological approach you’ve chosen.
Aggregation and Collaboration
As with many other areas of film exhibition, there can be real benefits to partnering with like-minded people. This is especially true in the current context of Cinema VOD, since simplifying the market can help make Cinema VOD engagement more attractive to those distributors who might still otherwise be reluctant.
Shift72 and certain other platform providers do aggregation deals with film studios, such that programmers can book films in a streamlined fashion direct from the platform rather than having to go to each studio. The ‘tech platform’ thus becomes much more than just a technological toolkit – through rights aggregation, it’s also a mechanism to unlock access to films that the studios simply would not make available to lots of cinemas on an individual booking basis.
INDY has been working in partnership with Shift72 to take this thinking a step further. We’re building a consortium of cultural and community-focussed cinemas across the US and UK, with a view to giving each one their own unique VOD platform while bringing everyone the benefits of negotiating at scale, spreading fixed costs, centralising bookings where that’s beneficial, and promoting discourse and cross-fertilisation between our many virtual venue partners. We also have our own platform where we host one-off events and smaller festivals at easy terms, providing substantial technical and administrative support. Collaborating to pool expertise and build economies of scale is a powerful way to make Cinema VOD easier and more cost effective for exhibitors who might not be able to achieve the same result on their own.
Cinema VOD is very new, it’s evolving quickly, and it’s here to stay. Several approaches are common, so think carefully about which one is the best fit for your project. With every successful Cinema or Festival VOD initiative, we move one step closer to a stable operating environment across the industry, where VOD will be a de rigeur complement to theatrical exhibition, especially for cultural or community-focussed cinemas, and film festivals. Cinema VOD will help us all strengthen and extend our engagement with audiences, while developing even more exciting programming, broadening inclusion, and (eventually!) yielding a useful extra source of revenue.
Working together will help make this vision real.
Other articles of interest
- Film Hub SW: Streaming for the Community – We ask YourScreen how they’ve taken South West Cinemas Virtual