Alessandro Raja • CEO and co-founder, Festival Scope
“I think that the majority of festivals will develop their own online strategy and be somehow hybrid”
- A privileged observer of the film festival landscape, the CEO and co-founder of Festival Scope offers his insights on the future of online and hybrid film festivals
We had the opportunity to interview Alessandro Raja, CEO and co-founder of Festival Scope, about the future of online and hybrid festivals.
Cineuropa: You’re a privileged observer as you provide platform services for organising online festivals. What has this past year been like for you?
Alessandro Raja: The last year has been very intense… Back in March 2020, we had to face a sudden and huge demand from film festivals. We had to find new ways to meet their needs, so we decided to partner with Shift72, a tech company based in New Zealand.
The idea was to offer many film festivals an out-of-the-box solution which would meet their needs. Basically, a streaming platform that could be customised for the festival and provide a great streaming experience while offering the best level of security. Since then, we have provided a solution for more than 150 international events, either through an independent platform or hosting them on our platform Festival Scope.
What can you offer festivals?
Last year, festivals had to suddenly rethink their approach and, in many cases, find last-minute solutions to go online. One of our key tasks was being able to react quickly and reassuring festivals that we could help them. Our service is not only about delivering an out-of-the-box platform. There is also some training involved and, most of all, we offer important strategic advice.
This year, we are working with many festivals for the second time. They have learned a lot from the first experience and they are willing to fine tune the online festival experience. For an online event, it’s not always a good idea trying to mimic the physical festival experience as much as possible. It requires a total rethinking of the festival’s concept, programming, scope, communication campaigns, organisational aspects and business model.
How do you think festivals will evolve in the medium and long term?
Many festivals are already planning their post-pandemic developments. Luckily, most cinemas will gradually reopen across the world and this is, of course, crucial. That being said, festivals have learned how to use online platforms and how to offer a wider audience the opportunity to discover their programme. It’s not just a matter of expanding the target area — in most cases from a regional level to a national one — but also to offer people unable to attend the event a new level of accessibility. We should not forget that, even before the pandemic, many of the films screening at festivals didn’t receive a commercial release after their festival screening, or even through VOD or TV. Therefore, festivals are a unique opportunity for these films to meet their audience. Festivals are able to inspire audiences to discover films through a curated approach and by involving the press, so their role is essential. I believe many more festivals will develop their activities along the year, either through specific events or year-long programming on their own online platforms. This is a real opportunity for them, and in many countries this could be vital to fill a gap in the traditional distribution and exhibition landscape of arthouse titles.
A recent study on the evolution of Italian festivals reveals that 30% of them are thinking about going hybrid in the future. What are the advantages and disadvantages of said evolution?
Personally, I think that the majority of festivals will develop their own online strategy and be somehow hybrid as there are definitely more advantages than disadvantages. It seems clear that the opportunity to expand the audience is an obvious advantage, both in terms of range and accessibility. In those countries where festivals face an ageing of their audience, the hybrid approach could certainly help reach a younger audience. Another advantage could be the flexibility festivals will have in terms of programming and screening windows, with the potential to expand both. Moreover, it is easier for hybrid events to think of ways to involve schools and associations by screening selected festivals titles. Expanding the audience for festival films should, of course, be beneficial for the rights holders of the films. In this respect, it will be important to set up efficient ways of sharing revenues and guaranteeing transparency. However, switching to a hybrid form will require festivals to learn how to handle two new elements: the additional workload and a dedicated staff. I think that the most important thing for festivals is to define a coherent strategy and to look for long-term synergies between the physical component and the online one.
What does this evolution entail in terms of costs?
Depending on the strategy and ambitions of the festivals, costs may grow, but revenues too. The technical costs and the additional workforce required by the online initiatives could be balanced by additional profits coming from an expanded audience. It is essential that festivals learn how to invest in targeted promotion for online screenings, as those require a very different approach.
According to the study, almost 80% of the festivals reveal that they have lost private sponsors, which are often linked to the unfolding of the event on the territory. Do you think these losses can be offset with online or hybrid festivals? How?
This is unfortunately not surprising as, in the last year, most physical events had to be cancelled. There was also a climate of uncertainty and many private sponsors adopted a very cautious attitude or were struggling with profit loss themselves. Hopefully, things will gradually improve and go back to normality. That being said, it would be of paramount importance to festivals to find new targets for sponsoring the online component, switching from local businesses to larger brands, or online brands, which could be obviously challenging for smaller gatherings. We must keep in mind that costs of online screenings are quite reasonable, though.
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