Agile in the face of COVID-19: What it takes to launch a virtual film festival in 14 days

By Samantha Falotico · May 7 · 5 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered significant shifts in how organizations operate. The financial insecurity and elimination of public gatherings have forced businesses to adapt to new ways of thinking. For some businesses, the increased emphasis on digital channels is quite natural. But for others, it’s a fundamental disruption to their core value proposition.

Restaurants, of course, fall squarely into this bucket. Another industry that may be even more heavily impacted by COVID-19 is the events business. Cancellation and postponement abound and may seem like the only option. But some events are stepping into newfound digital territory. SXSW on Amazon Prime, Met Gala on Twitter, and Travis Scott on Fortnite are all examples of in-person moments now being held digitally.

This inevitably comes with challenges for events companies. Not only is it difficult to re-invent a sense of community digitally, a UX challenge my colleague Joey Unnold wrote about recently, but it’s also a huge operational shift — compounded by short timelines and major unknowns, two factors that give any organizer pause.

Through our experience taking Ambulante’s fifteenth film festival digital in just 14 days, we discovered what it takes to overcome key operational challenges and pave the way for a successful launch when the clock is working against you. Here are our key takeaways from the experience.

Establish the ‘make or break’ milestones

With Ambulante — a non-profit that hosts a prestigious annual film festival in Mexico — there were major decisions that could have a substantial impact on the user experience and design execution, such as the schedule structure or which video platforms to leverage. In the face of a very quick turnaround, we were forced to think critically about these “make or break” decisions and prioritize what was truly essential.

Rather than stress about time-related pressures beyond our control, we established each big decision that needed to be made. Then, we asked ourselves ‘When do we need to know the answer to this before the project is in jeopardy?’ Once we had deadlines in our minds, we intentionally pushed our dates forward one extra day. This buffer gave the team breathing room to account for the unknowns that exist right now.

Attaching your decisions to a deadline will allow you and the team to focus energy on what is most important: (1) the immediate choice that needs to be made and (2) what work can be done that isn’t impacted directly by these decisions. With this mindset, you’ll be able to stay focused and hit your deadline.

Separate the ‘must-haves’ from the ‘nice-to-haves’

Prioritization is important no matter the project timeline, but it becomes especially critical when you have to ship a product in a very short time window.

Like many product management teams, we use a framework that evaluates features across three different factors: user value, business value, and feasibility. We learned during our project with Ambulante that on a compressed timeline, operational feasibility can be as much or more of a constraint than technical feasibility. One of the most important questions we had to ask ourselves was if Ambulante had the resourcing to support a certain feature, a likely question for many events companies whose resourcing was previously focused on venue booking & overhead expenses.

With these factors, you can establish an organized grid approach to ranking features by priority and know what you absolutely must have in order to launch a successful MVP. But don’t throw away your nice-to-haves. Keep these in the backlog. This is what the team can strive for if time allows.

Pick platforms that help, not hinder

Typically, you want to avoid third-party integration when on a tight timeline, in order to remove dependencies. But remember, these platforms and tools are out there to help, to provide functionality you may not have been able to build otherwise. We knew we wanted to build a chat system for Ambulante, but the time it would take to build custom would put the feature out of scope. So, we leveraged Vimeo’s integrated chat system within their live stream service.

It’s also important to think of platforms as your partners as you make selections. We required DRM technology support for the documentaries, something that would take months to support on our own. So we partnered with Shift72, a platform for films with its own built-in DRM. We picked them not only for their technology, but because they shared a similar goal of launching quickly and efficiently.

Lastly, think about who will be engaging with these platforms. For example, a CMS was critical for programming Ambulante’s schedule content. This is something we could have built ourselves, but our client was familiar with using WordPress. We wanted to restrict the need for training and leverage something familiar and reliable. In the end, despite working across three different tools, these platforms pushed us forward in achieving our goals.

Always have a Plan B

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all that life is unpredictable, and there is only so much you can do to prepare for the unknown. In the case of launching a product, one thing you can do is strategize Plan B.

What can we do if this takes longer to develop than we thought? With each additional complex feature in our MVP, we answered this question. In doing so, the team felt confident that we’d be prepared for a curveball thrown our way.

While we can say we successfully launched a digital film festival in 14 days, there are certain things we wish we did differently or wish we had more time for. But this brings me to my last and final point — jot down these points so you can be better equipped for next time. The more you begin to adapt to this new way of thinking, the easier it will become.

There will always be crazy timelines, and unknowns to discover. We hope that as we become accustomed to a new normal, the unknowns aren’t quite as jarring. In the meantime, we’ll continue showing what’s possible when we stay calm, focused, and agile.