Cheltenham International Film Festival, faced with the challenging adaptation of operating as a film festival exclusively on the internet; worked and thought innovatively, collaboratively, and long-term. Following the festival in May 2020, online streaming platform YourScreen launched in October: open to all film-fans, offering an eclectic selection perfect for those missing their local independent cinema or film club.
Patrick Bliss rightfully defines that YourScreen is a “virtual cinema rather than a streaming service”, this is sustained in part because they “put together a carefully curated programme of films every two months as would a live cinema, offering new films and/or films unavailable on any other digital platform in the UK to audiences around the country.” The collaborative and personal nature is evident on YourScreen, more so than other streaming services, and they have enjoyed working collaboratively whilst physically apart.
Our partnerships with independent film exhibitors and film societies around the country is integral to the success of YourScreen. We consider ourselves as exhibitors rather than distributors and are motivated by the desire to share films with love with a wider audience.
Once explained – the premise is simple and inspiring. YourScreen shares its revenue with partnered commercial exhibitors, splitting ticket costs with each partner, which they work on a case-by-case basis. Their shifting curated programme offers a manageable selection for audiences, who would otherwise be in your seats In Real Life.
Patrick breaks down that as “the online cinema does not carry any overheads, it is a second income stream without the cost, as we share the box office revenue with exhibitors.” This approach ensures longevity:
“YourScreen is not only a short-term solution to Covid-19, but also a long-term opportunity for independent cinemas to add a second or even third screen to their offering, which they can use to connect with new audiences who find it too difficult to see films in venues, or audiences who just choose not to. In effect, they are becoming mini-multiplexes without the overheads.”
Cheltenham Film Festival, Patrick tells me, “was the first audience-facing international film festival in the UK to go online back in June of last year, and we were the first to use a “Virtual Cinema” model. Forged by Patrick with colleagues Chris Baker and Leslie Montgomery Sheldon, the online platform works collectively offering an all-encompassing solution for exhibitors, distributors, and audiences.
There has been plenty of positive feedback we had from audience members too. “They told us that they would love to visit a cinema to watch a film but weren’t always able to which made us realise that there was a need for a year-round virtual cinema and inspired us to launch YourScreen at the end of October.”
Graphic decorative image around screen shot of YourScreen player
Without redesigning – or rather, reprogramming – the wheel, the team saw strengths in partnering with existing streaming provider Shift72. “Back in May, online festivals and virtual cinemas were new concepts, so there were not many service providers, and the fact that Shift72 had worked with festivals such as Cannes, SXSW, and AFM gave us and the rights holders the assurance that their films would be in safe hands.”
Considering that the digital net is cast quite wide, working with a diverse selection of clubs and cinemas, YourScreen understands that quality is the best way to balance different tastes. “We have found that film societies cater to an older audience whereas cinemas are more inclined to attract a younger audience, but what both audiences have in common is their desire to watch the best of independent cinema from around the world. It matters little if the films are drama, thriller, comedy, documentary… as long as they are good.”
“As distributors often have other routes to get their films online, we have been focusing on finding films that have slipped through the distribution net in the UK, so most films on YourScreen are exclusive to us.”
Screen shot of YourScreen player
Screen shot of the film ‘Impossible Project’ on YourScreen player
The considered and audience facing approach YourScreen takes means collaboration into their model, introducing Preview Screenings to allow partners to watch films and to advise on which ones they would like to book for their programme. As an abundance of options online compete for our attention, YourScreen’s allows for going with the flow at times: “For example, in season one, we had System Crasher. That was a rare exception for us because it was available on other digital platforms, but several film societies asked us if we could include it, so we did.”
Remembering past pains of big movies doing the rounds of festivals and even awards seasons before a UK release date was announced, Patrick sees that “The theatrical window that the industry had been working to for all of these years has largely been broken. I am always amazed at the number of fantastic films which never have UK distribution, and also the number of quite poor ones that do!
Cheltenham Film Festivals shared concerns about distributors attitudes to the increasingly online cinema landscape, the appetite in the UK for films not in the English language (both already present before lockdown), and sustaining business through lockdown are what have had the unlikely yet successful outcome of YourScreen as an entertaining and personable innovation.
Thank you to Patrick Bliss for speaking to us for this feature and the YourScreen team Chris Baker and Leslie Montgomery Sheldon.