At the 2022 Entertainment Evolution Symposium, we sat down with Film Independent to discuss their transition from physical to digital screening and awards with Vision Media. We’ve seen first-hand how focusing on digital-first solutions and being ahead of the game can translate directly into future success for your business. Vision Media has helped clients stay ahead of the curve, whether it has been helping clients transition from DVDs to digital screeners or further informing theatrical delivery with our unique theatrical database. Film Independent is a great example of an organization that saw the opportunity to introduce online elements into a historically physical business. At EES, we explored how the Film Independent Spirit Awards charted the transformation to a digital screening for their awards presence, leading the awards space by becoming digital-only ahead of many of the other awards organizations and guilds.
Finding the right solution
When starting the transition to digital screening for the Film Independent Spirit Awards, Film Independent was focused on finding a solution that allowed them to improve on three fronts:
- Accessibility: Film Independent has an organizational goal of being more accessible long-term. They started recognizing the trend towards digital content, and wanted to be able to respond to that quickly.
- Security: Film Independent knew they wanted secure screening and knew Vision Media could be a trusted partner with flexible and secure screening. They wanted to be able to have digital watermarking available on the screeners to offer additional layers of security. They also liked that Vision Media had buy-in from the studios from the beginning, so it was an easy tool to implement from a compliance and usability perspective as well.
- Flexibility: Film Independent also wanted an easy-to-use home for their awards content and a seamless member-experience. They were looking for a tool that would offer democratization, putting the larger and smaller independent studios on the same playing field. They knew they needed to transform physical-first workflows, and wanted a branded digital screening room that could give the same feel of an in-person event. Other important wish-list features included secure invitations, time-limited screeners, and analytics. Analytics in particular were useful to Film Independent to help them gauge interest levels, value prop of titles, etc.
Benefits from the shift to digital
Film Independent selected Vision Media as a trusted provider for secure screening, and were soon able to experience improved member experience and increased global member growth thanks to the shift. When asked: what are you able to do now that you have secure screening tools and a digital awards presence that you weren’t able to do before? Film Independent noted the following benefits:
- Control: Film Independent was able to create really strict timelines around viewing, all while giving an end user the same experience.
- Access anytime: Switching to digital screening ensured more people have access to a title at a given time. This solved an old pain point where they used to have DVD delivery issues where things weren’t delivered on time.
- Streamlined support: Film Independent’s ability to assist their members vastly improved by moving from physical DVDs to secure online screeners. Vision Media’s customer service was on hand to support viewers so that Film Independent didn’t have to only rely on its own staff.
- Efficiency: The shift from physical to digital improved efficiency for Film Independent’s process, for viewers and for everyone across the board.
- Accessibility: Film Independent can require content owners to provide subtitles and audio descriptions, and now have a platform that can fully support additional accessibility features.
- Scale: The organization is set for scale because secure screening allows Film Independent to reach further with global audiences, real-time analytics, etc. The transition made it easier to move content to the platform and there was never a period where Vision Media wasn’t there to support.
Future-proofing your business
Read more from the conversation at EES between Jason Deadrich (CTO, Vision Media) and Evan Ward-Henninger (Director of Membership, Film Independent):
Film Independent realized that DVD delivery for its voters was unsustainable, from a cost, time and accessibility perspective.
Deadrich: When did you first realize Film Independent had a need to digitize awards efforts and about what made your decision for moving away from the physical space into the digital?
Ward-Henninger: For many reasons. The first being we’re a non-profit organization and we have financial challenges of delivering physical DVDs to so many voters. We also had a strong desire to make it more equitable for our nominees because our nominees come from both studio films distributed by larger studios with big budgets, to your mom-and-pop shops that made a film and distributed it on their own. Going through DVD at some point became unsustainable. We also wanted accessibility. When we started working together back in 2015, it was very clear to me that DVD was going away; it was not going to be a thing that we could really stay with – we wanted something that was more nimble and something we could grow with in the future.
There was also a cost factor at play. The cost to produce DVDs. We have anywhere between 7,000 and 8,000 members, so you can imagine if you’re costing that out as a filmmaker who’s just financed their own project and self-distributed, that’s just almost impossible to consider doing that kind of a mailing (with DVDs) during awards season. So, we wanted to create a scenario where they could pay a flat fee and then just have it be part of a larger environment we created.
The other thing is that we wanted sort of a holistic voter experience and I think that the digital space created that. We can create an environment where everybody can provide their titles in the same space, no one is treated differently than another person and that moves away from what would oftentimes happen with DVDs where everyone’s sending out a fancy DVD set for their film that’s been packaged and produced and ready for sales and best buy, vs. someone who’s sending you out a physical screener with no titles or anything on it. So, it just made the whole experience cleaner across the board.
Viewers of secure screeners enjoyed the flexibility and being able to watch in convenient ways. Film Independent saw increases in voter participation once they made the switch to screening; voters felt more informed and more involved.
Deadrich: You were one of the first guilds to go all digital screening – no longer offering a DVD option. What was the reaction from your voters?
Ward-Henninger: Honestly, there was very little pushback. We put the final end to DVD in 2019, and we were kind of anticipating a little bit of pushback. One thing I will say is that our voter community skews a little younger than some of the other guilds, so I think there’s a little bit more of a desire for newness, but I also noticed that as, I’ve been the Director of Membership at Film Independent for a long time – been with the company for 19 years. And what I’ve seen from voters and members over the years is that if you create an experience that’s holistic and accessible, then they will get on board with that. They want the consistency of the experience more than anything.
That’s something we realized immediately with digital – that we could deliver a consistent experience so that you could trust it as a product. So you could say: “this is not as volatile as DVD distribution, it’s just not.” The other reason that I’ve yet to mention is the security aspect – the digital and forensic watermarking capabilities, which were things that we could not afford to support when people were sending out physical DVDs. We could not help people get those costs taken care of. The digital screening space allowed that with Vision Media.
Secure screening improved Film Independent’s global reach and allowed the organization to reach a broader base of viewers around the world. While the partnership with Vision Media began on the Spirit Awards, it evolved to support year-round programming online as well, which helped Film Independent grow its viewership outside of North America by 30%.
Deadrich: I’m curious about your side – you’re overseeing the membership – can you speak about some of the benefits you were seeing on that side of things?
Ward-Henninger: When members found out that they could have access through one platform, that was above all absolutely, extremely appealing to them. The access is simple, you don’t have to do a lot of extra work to use the platform. We’re a year-round membership organization. We produce screenings, education events, content – but we’ve always had a goal to reach a global audience. Being digital allowed us to really expand that concept because we believe everyone should have the chance to join Film Independent and vote for the Spirit Awards. And we wanted people to be able to do that in Brazil or wherever. And this is something that really made us borderless in an amazing way.
I focus on increasing our membership every year. During my time with Film Independent, I’ve grown membership by over 150% and I think one of the things that I saw immediately was the sticky point of the benefit that we could now provide this holistic screening experience that was online and accessible to everyone. Our membership started to grow exponentially over the years, and a big part of our growth is associated with this benefit – and a big part of our out-of-state and out-of-country growth which has grown 30% just within the last two years. So it’s really exciting to watch the impact of that benefit.
Deadrich: So what are you seeing now on the studio-side? You engage with studios of all sizes when they’re sending you content. Are you hearing any feedback about this push to go digital? Or are they starting to recognize the importance of things like audio descriptions, accessibility, multiple audio tracks, better video quality?
Ward-Henninger: I think in the initial phases, like when we started in 2015, it was a little bit more of a negotiation. I think there was a lot more of a buy-in. In those days, there was more of a concern about security measures at that time. There was a lot of commitment to the physical form, and feeling like that was finite and something you could protect in a better way. But I think, from the beginning, when I started having conversations that involved Jason, and I could bring him into that conversation with studios and reassure them of the security measures – I think that they just needed to see that it was possible.
And then, after you go through a couple of cycles during the awards season, they realize that nobody’s ripping anything, nothing bad is happening during awards season, then this is something that they can now rely on as something that they can trust for putting out their product on. I think the big thing with studios is – a lot of times this is in a prerelease screening space, so their film may still be out theatrically at the time they’re providing a digital screener. So, there’s a lot of concern over that. But ultimately, the proof is in the pudding: we kept doing it, it kept working. And every year the conversation became easier. To the point where I think I only had one question about a physical DVD during the last Spirit Awards cycle. So it’s pretty much an assumption now, from our end anyway.
Film Independent was an early mover in the space. There was some hand-holding of helping people through the transition away from physical, but viewers understood the need for being more accessible and being more comfortable with digital options.
Deadrich: So how do you find yourself responding, because you’re in that pivotal position between the studios and the members? I speak on a lot of those security panels about DRM, forensic watermarking and visible watermarking. And most everyone in this room has received a link and they’ve watched it and it’s got that name kind of all over it, maybe moving around, etc. How do you balance those sticky conversations where the studio and the SecOps teams want the highest level of security but you want to make sure your members are happy too?
Ward-Henninger: For us, we don’t have to do visible watermarking. We’ve always chosen to keep it as part of the package because we still want to remind people. We always keep it discrete: the lower left third is my favorite as you know. I like some kind of self-identification there that this is for you and this is who it belongs to. I just think it gives an initial feeling of trust and feeling of responsibility for you as the voter watching content.
But I think it was always important that we could have those options. Once we could say that we could offer watermarking, period. I think that that was: “okay, well this is serious. I can trust this.” A lot of the teams that join during awards season for the various studios – they come in specifically for the awards season push. So when you’re coming in, and you have a product that’s really clear and you can give great examples of how it’s going to function, and you can have somebody like Jason come in and talk them through their concerns, that really helps the process. But at this point, we have so little pushback. It’s really turnkey, but it comes down to showing the proof in the pudding and the repetition of the product.
Deadrich: And we’ve talked about this before, it’s a little bit less about the transition from physical to digital, as much as it was the transition from watching on a phone to watching at home. And really, since we’ve been on this journey together since 2015, once we started to introduce dedicated apps – people could watch things on Apple TV devices – that really helped push the shift because people don’t want to just watch content on their phone. They want to sit in their home theater, and watch it off of Apple TV or Roku.
Ward-Henninger: That was sort of the last piece that came together – from the initial phases of having content available through a web browser to switching to an app-based system where you could watch it on your phone or your television. And once we crossed over into that space, there was zero pushback from anyone. It just became “okay, great. I can watch this anywhere now.” And that was sort of the missing piece, and now it’s solved – it’s been smooth sailing.
Deadrich: What’s cool about that is it’s an evolution as well. We’re not going to stop on the home theater or the TV. Now we’re going to VR and Metaverse, and all of these different experiences that we’re going to be able to bring to your members. And it’s been a fun journey, so thank you for that. Why did you choose Vision Media?
Ward-Henninger: Originally, it was a relationship I developed with Jason directly. We found them and I had been recommended to Jason from another colleague working in the industry. And we spoke on the phone, I saw his product, it was more impressive than anything we had used because we had tiptoed into digital prior to that. But he really bought into the idea of what I always had in mind which was: one holistic environment, I don’t want to invite our members to multiple environments, and he was able to create that in a demo version. And then Vision has the history; we’d worked with them previously on DVDs in the past, so we trusted them, and the industry trusted them. A combination of the product, and then the trust that Vision’s name had was really helpful in moving this forward.
Watch the conversation on Film Independent’s transition to digital screening here: