Video-on-Demand pioneer: Sundance Film Festival © Screenshot SundanceTV, 17/06/2019
Video-on-demand still makes up only a small share of the audio-visual market compared to other distribution channels such as television, cinema or the physical distribution of films. But the dynamics are clearly tending in the direction of VoD, with annual growth significantly exceeding that in the other sectors.
VoD services will therefore in future be an important additional channel through which cinephiles can access content. If one regards VoD not as a rival but as a complementary distribution channel, then it is certainly also of interest for film festivals, which can use it to extend their reach beyond the boundaries of time and space. VoD offers the participating filmmakers a much broader platform than their mere presence at a festival.
Setting up and operating a streaming service is however more complex than one might think. It therefore makes sense to consider cooperative platforms and look for allies with similar aims. Such collaborations were the focus of a panel discussion that I moderated during the 65th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, the results of which are included in this article. The central questions are: What experience has already been gained? What kind of collaborations are conceivable? What would be the advantages for filmmakers?
The current state of affairs: Short film festivals with their own video-on-demand activities
The number of German short film festivals with streaming offerings is still quite small. Very recently, festivals including interfilm Berlin, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen and the Short Film Festival of Cologne have started offering online streaming of films, making use of several different services in parallel.
Interfilm Berlin temporarily collaborated with the SVoD platform Realeyz (Berlin), showing films from its programme on a partner channel and invoicing for them on a 50/50 basis. In the meantime somewhat older, these short films are still part of the Realeyz catalogue. They can be accessed under the keyword interfilm – whereby some of the titles are also listed under other festivals or collections (sixpack, Berlinale Shorts etc.). In addition, interfilm had an FoD channel on Vimeo in 2014 and the 67 films are still accessible free of charge today.
The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen had a selection of six films on Flimmit (see below) in 2017 and now cooperates once a year with MUBI. Selected prize-winners and films from the programme are accessible to SVoD subscribers after the festival for the standard MUBI period of 30 days. MUBI offers festival guests a one-month trial subscription so that they can watch films they want to see again or have missed at home free of charge for a short time.
The Cologne Short Film Festival launched the library project AVA in 2017 with 50 short films, with interfilm Berlin and the short film festivals in Bristol, Leuven and Tampere, among others, taking part. AVA (“Audio Visual Access”) is a localized VoD project that enables public libraries to non-physically borrow audio-visual content. AVA is based on the B2B platform Picture Pipe operated by reelport GmbH and is not a publicly accessible VoD streaming service.
The Kurzfilmfestival Hamburg has no VoD presence of its own, but individual films can be viewed for free as “film of the week” on the YouTube channel of the Kurzfilm Agentur. The Kurzfilm Agentur also operates a channel on Vimeo on Demand, adding a new film about once a month. Among the 24 films currently available for free viewing are “Watu Wote” and “Das satanische Dickicht Eins” (The Satanic Thicket – ONE).
No short film festival in Germany has to date developed its own continuous VoD practice. This also applies to short film festivals in other countries and on other continents.
The most active festivals in terms of VoD are those in Asia, which use the services of the provider Viddsee.com (Singapore). The festivals there with FoD channels include the Asia Peace Film Festival (Pakistan), Chaktomuk Short Film Festival (Cambodia), Cinemalaya – Philippine Independent Film Festival (Philippines), ifva (Honk Kong), Kaohsiung Film Festival International Short Film Competition Award (Taiwan), Sapporo International Short Film Festival (Japan), Singapore Short Cuts, and the Thai Short Film & Video Festival (Thailand).
Viddsee is being used by a few European festivals as well but hardly any short film festivals. The festival in Clermont-Ferrand did however curate a one-time programme of Chinese short films (“Chinese Delights”) for Viddsee in 2017.
VoD activities by major festivals with short film competitions
Although some VoD providers have festival channels they advertise using the festival logo, they may not actually have any direct contact with the festival. Often, these are simply compilations of films shown at the festival in question but which are listed in the provider’s catalogue independent of the festival’s name.
This makes research more difficult – in particular when the same platform offers its catalogue films in festival collections as well as in curated programmes in cooperation with festivals. One example is Flimmit, the VoD platform of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation. Flimmit has, for example, a Cannes page and a Locarno playlist (with a logo tiger from Shutterstock 😉 as well as programmes actually curated by the festivals themselves, such as Diagonale and Crossing Europe. Short films are however not offered on these festival channels.
Festivals with their own platforms
A pioneer in VoD is the Sundance Festival, which has been streaming festival films online since 1996. After many trials and various strategic partnerships, VoD was finally outsourced to SundanceTV, a company owned by the publicly traded AMC Networks group. Currently, four short films from the 2019 festival competition are online on SundanceTV, along with older festival films, but due to geocoding they are not available in many countries. Sundance recently launched the localized platform Sundance Now in Germany (SVoD from €4.99/month). However, although the platform bears the festival’s name, I find that its profile is scarcely reflected in the available titles. “Sundance originals” play more of a minor role (“Unlimited streaming – endless entertainment”). Unlike in the USA, no short films are offered (yet?) on the German platform.
Unique of its kind: Rotterdam Festival establishes standalone VoD platform
The International Film Festival Rotterdam has been active in the distribution sector for a long time – first with videotapes and until recently with DVDs. In 2005, the festival put 50 feature-length art house films on Tiger Online as TVoD (in cooperation with Tiscali). It then launched its own VoD platform for competition films in 2015 under the old DVD distribution name Tiger Releases, in parallel with its “IFFR Live!” initiative, in which films from the festival programme were shown in 40 cinemas in 9 countries. The host was the Infostrada Group (Utrecht), which then however became unavailable after a takeover in which it merged with a sports channel.
IFFR also gathered experience with YouTube, iTunes and Google Play. On YouTube, the films enjoyed high viewing numbers and visibility, but without advertising there were no financial incentives for filmmakers. iTunes and Google Play in turn provided revenue for filmmakers, but there were technical problems and limitations in terms of content, programming policy and forms of presentation.
“There was only one conclusion: if we didn’t want to be restricted by others, if we wanted to enjoy our freedom and occupy an online presence that was closely tied to our physical festival, we had to build our own service. That was the only way to stay in control. It was also a necessity if we wanted to let filmmakers share the anticipated revenues as much as possible.” (Janneke Staarink, IFFR)
Ultimately, these experiences led to the relaunch of Tiger Releases with a new structure. At the 2018 festival, IFFR Unleashed was presented. The platform is operated by IFFR Unleashed B.V. (comparable to a German GmbH or a British Ltd). The festival announced that the aim of the platform was to support independent filmmakers through year-round access to an international art house audience. The catalogue was compiled from earlier festival films and selected auteur films. Depending on where they are accessed, the films are offered as SVoD between €60 and €90 in BeNeLux and as TVoD between €4 and €5 in Europe or $5 outside of Europe. Short films cost only €1 as pay-per-view. Revenues are split 50:50 with the filmmakers and/or rights holders.
In September 2018, IFFR published figures for the first six months of operation, an unusual move, as VoD platforms hardly ever publish their usage data. According to the report, almost all of the 180 titles in Unleashed’s catalogue were viewed at least once, with 7,500 views counted from 39 different countries.
In the meantime, Unleashed’s catalogue has grown to about 300 films (400 were planned). 80 of them are short films, which can be accessed either singly or as part of a collection. The collections are not really curated but only roughly “sorted” into categories – such as narrative films in the “Voices Short” collection or experimental films in “Bright Future Short”. The only programme devoted to a filmmaker, “Kevin Jerome Everson”, stands out as an erratic block. And the only films from Germany currently available on Unleashed are “Hollywood Movie” by Volker Schreiner (2012) and “Hurdy Gurdy” by Daniel Seideneder & Daniel Pfeiffer (2011).
The Unleashed concept
The concept behind Unleashed and its content are similar to those of art house and independent providers such as MUBI. The marketing strategy, however, is more like that of a large provider such as Netflix – but without the support of a sophisticated, algorithm-based recommendation system like the ones that replace curatorial recommendations on such platforms.
Originally (at the beginning of 2018), Unleashed had planned for additional editorial and communications services such as those offered successfully by MUBI, which enjoy great popularity in the film community. But when some of those responsible for the platform in its founding phase jumped ship when the company was relaunched, these projects evidently fell by the wayside. Now that Unleashed has been online for a year, it’s still hard to detect a clear strategy. It is by turns both an SVoD and a PPV platform. Films are offered year round (most of them) but occasionally also in programmes for a limited time only (30 days as with MUBI). Some films are first launched online on other platforms and later taken on. In addition to the films in the non-curated general catalogue, there are also a few curated programmes. I presume that the operators first want to try out different strategies and then develop their own editorial approach.
The formulation of the original mission, which was closely linked to the festival’s funding philosophy, has in the meantime shrunk down to four sentences (see the About page). The ambitious aim: “IFFR Unleashed offers the opportunity to view IFFR films of previous festival editions in a carefully curated online environment” is likely to fail due to a lack of resources in view of the immense operating costs that a streaming platform can entail. As a purely consumer-oriented streaming alternative that, like Netflix et al., depends on a mass audience, Unleashed is a very courageous project which I wish the best of luck. But it is certainly not a feasible model for short film festivals.
– End of Part One –
In the second part, to follow shortly, I will introduce the Locarno Film Festival’s VoD initiative and describe festival collaborations with providers such as MUBI and Festival Scope as well as other options.
Reinhard W. Wolf
SVoD (Subscription-Video-on-Demand): For a regular fee (monthly or yearly), subscribers have unlimited access to the entire film catalogue.
TVoD/PPV (Transactional-Video-on-Demand/pay-per-view): Registered users receive access to one selected film for a one-time payment.
FoD/FVoD (Free-Video-on-Demand): free viewing, with or without registration required.
 »Representing in 2016 only 3% of the EUR 111,4 billion audiovisual market in the EU, on-demand pay services are still relatively small compared to other markets. BUT the dynamic is on their side as year-to-year growth rates are tremendously superior to the other AV markets, and this still for a foreseeable future with the launches of new on-demand services and increased consumer adoption.« (Overview – The EU VOD market Facts & Figures, Christian Grece, EUROVOD Venice September 2018, European Audiovisual Observatory)
 Podium: Video-on-Demand: Neue Chancen für Filmemacher und Festivals?, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen 4.5.2019
 IFFR Blog ‘Not your everyday films, every day’, 02 March 2018