Digital R&D in the Arts Scotland - Case Study 6 - Glasgow Film Theatre
Each day in the run up to Nesta Scotland’s Spotlight on Digital R&D in the Arts event we are going to share a case study showcasing what the ten projects from both calls of the fund have achieved.
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Ever felt like your big idea wasn’t taking off because everyone else wasn’t quite ready for it?
Glasgow Film Theatre developed The Player with an award from the Digital R&D Fund. With technology partners Distrify, GFT and Filmhouse Edinburgh released a curated selection of films through an online viewing platform which allows you to download arthouse films directly to your own home or device.
One of the barriers to the projects was resistance from film distributors. But two years on from the successful launch of The Player, there is international interest in the project and how it has changed the way customers can access art house cinema over the internet.
The projects and its outcomes have attracted attention from across the cinematic world, prompting a re-examination of business principles.
Glasgow Film Theatre and Filmhouse, Edinburgh – The Player
Case Study by Rhona Taylor
“It’s part of the excitement of doing something like this — you know it’s going to rock the boat” Andy Green
Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) and Filmhouse, Edinburgh, developed the Player, an online viewing platform that provides a curated selection of films, with their technology partner Distrify. The partners wanted to widen audience access to the two cinemas, and through the Digital R&D project were two of the first cinemas in the UK to make some of their current programme available online. Although the project initially met with considerable resistance from film distributors, since the launch some of those attitudes have changed across the industry.
“I’m passionate about access,” says Jaki McDougall, chief executive of GFT and the Glasgow Film Festival. “Not everyone has a GFT on their doorstep and, even if you do, you can’t always get to it for whatever reason — childcare, disability, older people who are getting out less — so that was a big driver for me.”
One of the main research aims of the project was to try to understand the reasons why people go to the cinema and what they take from the whole experience, and then to develop a way of incorporating some of those things into a video on demand (VOD) facility. A broad aim of the project was connecting the digital with the physical — using the Player to create a strong connection between the VOD audience and the cinema.
“I’m very passionate about going to the cinema, and view the cinema is the best place to watch a movie,” says Andy Green, chief operating officer at Distrify. “So we were looking at how to extend our VOD audience in relation to a cinema audience. What are the connections — how do people consume, what is the relationship with cinema and curation — and how does that extend to online.”
The Player — the platform Distrify developed for each cinema’s website — allows users to stream a film online for a fee after registering, and the film is then available to watch for 30 days. The two cinemas offer their own selection of films backed by their own individual brand and identity, which was one of the most important factors in the development of the project.
“It was important to work with the Filmhouse as well to see the differences — who the GFT Player was attracting and who the Filmhouse Player was attracting,” says McDougall. “The curation was so important, and so was the loyalty and trust that people have in the brand. There’s so much out there — we show over 600 movies a year, and people find it difficult to navigate what to watch. Something like the Player was giving them that sort of stamp of approval.”
One of the main lessons of the research process was the importance for audiences of the GFT and Filmhouse brands. “When we included the logo of either the GFT or Filmhouse, the conversion rate was considerably higher than if it wasn’t included,” says Green. “That tells us that the value of a cinema is highly important — even when the audience isn’t actually in the cinema.”
Distrify analysed the audience data after the Player’s launch. The data produced some surprising results — for example the audience demographic was much older than the partners had expected. Through the R&D process, the partners took the approach that it was important only to understand who their main audience was and to try to communicate with them effectively, rather than seeking to understand why that was their demographic.
“Through market research, metric groups are drawn, we make assumptions and we seek to qualify them,” says Green. “But the assumptions that we had didn’t really ring true. What we discovered was that we weren’t making assumptions — we were finding out. For the research, that was one of the most surprising things — in a way it wasn’t important what the metric group was, it was just simply important that it was the audience.”
One of the key barriers for the project was gaining access to films to use on the Player, because of resistance from film distributors. However, those attitudes started to change after the Player was launched, and this has become one of the project’s key successes for the partners. “That was the barrier — actually getting the product,” says McDougall. But things are starting to move in the sector, and there’s now interest in the UK and across Europe.”
“I’ve had distributors in the US phoning up and saying can you tell us how this is working,” says Green. “Although the resources of the project were relatively small, it got attention around the world. I’d go to film markets in Australia and the US, and they all knew about the Player and wanted to know more. The distributors who had been reticent were interested to see what had resulted from those first steps.
“The European organisations that wanted to burn us at the stake about a year and a half ago — who were really dogmatically resistant — have recently said OK, it’s time to look at this. And that is truly a mark of the success of the project. One of the single biggest outcomes, as small as it may seem, is to have this dogmatic part of the industry question themselves about it. The creativity and innovation through the research has permeated beyond the project.”
The relationship between the creative partners and the technology partner worked well during the project, and part of that was down to sharing the same goals, particularly the desire to innovate. The Filmhouse and GFT had different approaches to the project, but this was seen as a positive by the partners. “GFT has always wanted to do things first,” says McDougall. “We’ve always pushed in that way but we’d always blundered through things on our own, and this was a brilliant opportunity to have someone who knew what they were doing. It meant there was someone who could answer my questions, and bringing the Filmhouse in as well to compare, contrast and benchmark against — that was essential.
“We’d never have been able to look at where the audiences were without Distrify. We wouldn’t have had the ability to look at what was enticing them to buy the product, and where they were and when they were using it.”
“It’s why our organisations fit,” says Green. “It’s a highly radical approach both for the VOD side and the cinema as well, given the resistance [from distributors]. It’s part of the excitement of doing something like this — you know it’s going to rock the boat, and the partners have to be willing to take that risk. It’s a risky area, and that’s where the real innovations are going to come from.”
Other factors that made the relationship work well were strong levels of communication and trust, and a good personal relationship between the key people working on the project. “The interpersonal part is considerable when you have something that is risky and innovative,” says Green. “You need to have a good social relationship with your partner. When it gets complicated and difficult, to be able to go for a drink and see how you’re going to work it out is really valuable. It’s part of the success of our project that we were able to discuss the difficult parts.”
Research and development is something that is key to the partners on the project, and allowed a slightly different approach to the end product. “For Distrify the imperative is always commercial, so to enter into this R&D project was highly valuable because it took a little bit of that pressure off,” says Green. “Often some of the things you want to work on and invest in get pushed to the side.
Time influences commercial outcomes. The true value is to have that space to think and discuss. There were little parts of experimentation on the project that were not always radical, but the ability to trial and test and change really enabled a greater development.”
There are now further developments that the partners want to work on, including increasing the amount of content available on the Player, sharing the research and outcomes of the project with other organisations, and using the data to create a successful business model that could be used and developed further by other cinemas. The GFT is also developing other digital projects, including trying to make Scottish films accessible online to an international audience, and opening up the GFT archive. They are also looking at bringing together audiences of the Player to create more of a community.
“In Scotland there are still massive local authority areas where they don’t have a cinema, let alone an art house cinema, and there’s no space for communities to come together,” says McDougall. “We’d always talked about what else we could do with this project. It could be about that curated programme being available to communities, not just to single users — but that’s another project.
“It might not be GFT or the Filmhouse that takes it forward, but we want to be part of it. And if we’ve kick-started it a bit then that’s good enough for me.”
MARJOLEIN DEN BAKKER
Programme Co-ordinator, Filmhouse, Edinburgh
“The whole project was an interesting experience — it had its ups and downs and was challenging in parts because the different venues had their own ideas. People also had their own work to do, but once it was up and running it was really good, and people have been enthusiastic about it.
“In the beginning Distrify had a really big idea, so we had to get everyone thinking the same way — perhaps lowering their expectations and raising the cinemas’ expectations.
“The Player gives us an extra screen, extra capacity, and the opportunity to show more films. A film might only be on for a few days in the cinema and this gives people more opportunity to see them.
“Some cinemas have been sceptical about it — so we’re trying to show that people will still go and see a film when if it’s available online because the cinema is still better. It’s extra to the cinema.
“At the Filmhouse we embrace digital technology — we always make sure we have the best quality on the screen and we’re high up the scale digitally on the cinema side of things. When it comes to other areas of the business, some digital things are done really well and other things could be done better.
“This project has made us aware that we can do more, and that there are more opportunities.
At the moment there isn’t the funding to make the Player better, but it’s there and it works and it can be developed.”