With theatres closed, cinemas went dark, and stages were silenced, the Arts sector has been one of the most profoundly disrupted industries since COVID-19 sent the economy into hibernation.

In response Melbourne’s St Kilda Film Festival turned annual event went ahead – in a different, digital format attracting tens of thousands of viewers in mid-June.

This year the Festival featured films starring Brett Climo, Gary Foley, Diana Glenn, Victoria Haralabidou, Damon Herriman, Claudia Karvan, Sean Keenan, Jeremy Lindsay Taylor, Socratis Otto, Aaron Pedersen, and Gary Sweet plus Chinese-Australian dancer Chengwu Guo, Red Symons, Larry Emdur, and live-streamed chat with Hollywood director Phillip Noyce.

The result confirmed the decision to take things online. Just as importantly the experience has opened the door for a rethink about how film festivals can operate in the future – physical, virtual or hybrid.

The event is considered Australia’s biggest short film festival – and is seen as providing vital support for Australian film talent. 2020 marked its 37th year.

It is also an Academy Awards qualifying event, and one that in normal years would attract more than 13,000 people to venues such as the St Kilda Town Hall and the Palais  Theatre – all eager to view the Top 100 Australian short films of the year. instead, this year, 47,000 viewers tuning in across the nine-day Festival, including 8,000 for the live Opening Night.

The filmmaker development program which is also a core part of the Festival was also offered online for the first time and to great acclaim.

According to Lauren Mullings, the Festivals Marketing and Sponsorship Manager; “Considering that we were facing cancellation just two or three months ago, that’s pretty surreal. I guess we didn’t really know what the figures would be. When we were building out the Festival site to go online site, obviously we had hopes and dreams about how many people would tune in from around Australia. But we didn’t realise we’d exceed that capacity. We didn’t expect to exceed the capacity of our physical events.”

Indeed the experience has been so positive, St Kilda is exploring its options for the future to ensure maximum impact – which may even lead to a hybrid format with physical and online access co-existing in the future.

In planning an all-digital event there were some key considerations. The Festival content had to be easy to access, the online system had to be robust and resilient, it had to protect the intellectual property of film-makers and also ensure that content was only accessible from Australia.

And while this year’s Festival was free, St Kilda wanted to design the underpinning digital architecture to be long-lasting, so it created a platform that in the future could also include secure payment gateways.

According to City of Port Phillip Chief Information Officer Manohar Esarapu even before COVID-19 emerged, the Council had been considering how it might be able to use digital technologies to reach new-age audiences who were already used to streaming services and a huge array of choice.

By early 2020 it was clear that this was the year to test a new approach, and develop a platform to host the online Film Festival in June.

Customer experience

Mullings meanwhile, said that having decided to take the Festival online the team wanted the public’s experience to mimic a cinematic experience as much as possible; “Each of the sessions was beautifully curated into an on-demand session, which you watch from start to finish. Many have short introductions on there and the films roll back to back. All the user has to do is choose which session they want to watch.

“Whether it’s a showcase of thrillers or comedy or children’s animations, we made it so easy for them just to get comfy with popcorn and ice cream and click ‘play’. All the special events that were programmed were also made available on-demand after the fact. So people were free to navigate all of the free content in their own time.”

The scale of the digital challenge and the need for extreme scalability meant that an on-premise approach simply would not be feasible says Esarapu. He also wanted to use as much open source as possible in the platform, and worked with Versa, using Microsoft.net based Umbraco to develop the content management framework.

Microsoft’s Azure cloud provides the digital foundations for the online film festival. The public can access content from any device, while content editors access the platform via the Umbraco content management system with secure access to Azure managed by Azure Active Directory.

Furthermore,  Esarapu said; “We had to really think about an architecture which would allow us to scale up on short notice like this, and also scale down,” adding that Festival producers also wanted to be able to access metrics from the platform that showed who was using a website, who was watching from which pages– in order to be able to refine the consumer experience.

Microsoft says its engineers also provided support to the Festival and advice about the right cloud architecture that would ensure the IP was properly secured, and that there was geo-blocking to ensure only Australia-based viewers could access content.

Digital Rights

Mullings explains that is critical because; “Filmmakers, when they debut a film as part of a film festival, need their film to be protected through some form of digital rights management, backed up and stored efficiently, and also they need to be able to take advantage of real-world opportunities.

“That could mean the possibility to premiere your film elsewhere, in another country, so knowing and having that reassurance is necessary. We were able to give them that reassurance that their films were safe, that we respect their property, their intellectual property, and that they could continue to trust us in the future.”

In spite of the stringent requirements, the team was able to stand up the online Film Festival platform in just two weeks – ensuring that there was time for content to be loaded ahead of June’s big opening night.

Access to the online Film Festival was entirely free this year and to support the creative industry during a difficult time City of Port Phillip also refunded entrance fees paid by all 598 entrants and offered a screening fee to the successful Top 100 filmmakers.

With the 37th St Kilda Film Festival – and the first-ever online St Kida Film Festival – having now wrapped for the year, the Council is taking stock of the experience.

As Mullings notes; “Who knows what the future holds right now? I know that the so-called return to normality is in stages, but that doesn’t necessarily explain how people’s behaviour will change, whether they’ll feel comfortable going to larger events or whether there are advantages to be had from being able to connect with others online.

“Because we know that the site has been created in a way that is reliable and has so much scope and is scalable, we can continue to be flexible. We can continue to adapt the Festival as we go along and we can continue to talk to our filmmakers and the industry, and gauge how they feel things could be presented in the future. This is so important,”

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