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The festival transcending lockdown: creating a shared experience for spectators in isolation

By Joey Unnold · May 5 · 10 min read

A virtual film festival in 14 days

Human interaction as we know it has been put on hold by COVID-19. Zoom is suddenly the medium of togetherness. In addition to the toll on our collective health, financial security, and social lives, we are beginning to understand the breadth of the pandemic’s impact on our cultural touchstones. As sports leagues cancel seasons, Broadway remains dark, and festivals are postponed, it’s easy to wonder which “non-essential” institutions risk becoming nonexistent.

But our beloved organizations are determined to persist. For some events, social distancing has triggered a rapid transition to the digital world. When we heard that our friends at the Ambulante Film Festival planned to continue their 15th annual program online, the team at Fuzz was excited to help. Streaming a cultural festival is a unique challenge, when the content may lend itself to digital transmission, but being present and seeing are fundamental to the experience. The Fuzz team created a virtual film festival in just 14 days, and learned that transitioning experiences online means uncovering the fundamental value of its offline roots.

Introducing: Ambulante en Casa

Image of Ambulante En Casa splash page

Ambulante is a touring festival — stopping at over 150 venues across Mexico to screen more than 100 documentaries. Ambulante is an egalitarian festival. No films are given greater priority than others. It’s an event shaped by inclusivity, not red carpets and glitterati. Their mission is to transform the world through storytelling. Without the possibility of hosting large screenings, parties, or seminars for its 2020 edition, Ambulante would have to change its format, without sacrificing its mission.

Our teams came together to develop Ambulante en Casa (“Ambulante at home”). First we sat down and workshopped a vision, using a virtual whiteboarding tool called Miro. We weighed out the value of each piece of experience we thought we’d need for Ambulante and its participants. At the core of every film festival experience are the films themselves, and En casa should be no different. En casa allows festival guests to watch the entire roster of films on computers or mobile devices from anywhere in Mexico. That’s an important start, but engaging with a film festival is more than watching movies.

We had to develop an experience that encouraged engagement, fostered community, and was available to a wide audience. Here are the areas we focused on:

Driving the conversation

Film festivals are about creating a conversation around a topic or film. Interesting films cause the kind of buzz and excitement that could mean a wide cinematic release. For any documentary film festival, the vision is to create exposure and potentially spark movements.

Livestream of “Question & Answer” session, with live video & chat
A live Q&A in progress

To create a forum for Ambulante, we considered the types of conversation that take place at film festivals. We found that they’re either structured (like a Q&A) or unstructured (like a chat at a party). We decided to focus on owning the structured (Q&As and panels) conversation within the En casa experience. This format is already commonly used online, and we chose an out of the box live-streaming video and chat room combination.

For unstructured conversation we could rely on participants’ existing networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We wouldn’t have the opportunity to closely shape it, but we could encourage viewers to “continue the conversation on Twitter”. And because we were short on time, it made sense to exploit existing models for how media is discussed online.

Being together, apart

There’s a reason that some movies are better seen at the cinema. It’s true that “the big screen” offers superior picture and sound quality, but that’s becoming less true as home video technology improves. Film scholars might attribute the secret sauce of the cinematic experience to “collective spectatorship.” The theory simply suggests: it’s better to watch movies together in a theater.

Firstly, it keeps spectators engaged in the cultural conversation. When there’s a blockbuster with tons of buzz, people line up so they can have the same experience that friends and coworkers have. Secondly, experiencing film in an auditorium with other spectators actually triggers a more dramatic emotional response from viewers. We take cues from each other. We find moments of sadness more sad than we might otherwise; a joke that elicits a chuckle when watching at home, brings on a belly laugh if we hear others doing the same (think: the reason for laugh tracks).

Screen grab of upscale 1940s audience gasping

We knew that we’d have to bring some of the essence of collective spectatorship to Ambulante en Casa. To get online festival guests excited about the topics in the documentaries, we wanted them to feel that they were a part of something. But how could spectators watch the films at home, and feel engaged with a community simultaneously? — Especially when home viewing has been designed as an increasingly solitary experience.

1. Appointment watching

Abulante’s daily program

In order to build the anticipation of a film premiere, we wanted to create an appointment viewing experience. Every viewer would have to “arrive” in time for the film to begin streaming. When we spoke to festival guests, we heard that during typical festivals, most of them meticulously plan their schedules to ensure that they see the films on their list. Doing the same for en Casa would encourage festival guests to plan in advance. We hypothesized that given the fluidity of lockdown schedules, forcing a concrete watch time would prevent an “I’ll watch it later” mentality, which could lead to participation attrition. We also transposed the scarcity inherent to real life premieres to en Casa — by opening up only a limited number of “seats”.

2. “Live” programming cues

Constraining the viewing to a single start time would contribute to each premiere feeling like an event — not a typical streaming experience. Television is an inherently at-home experience, so we looked for mental models in that experience. Live event programming like the Super Bowl and The Academy Awards are a useful analog. For these television events, friends and family sometimes gather together, separately. It’s true that there are watch parties for both events, but the conversation can also take place virtually — on the phone, on Twitter, or by text message. We expected that as long as there was a single start time, since everyone would be watching at once they could react to each other in real time.

Both examples occupy large chunks of the day for viewers, and often include multiple distinct moments: pre-show, main event, halftime show, and after show. The daily calendar of events for Ambulante en Casa reflects a similar programming model. Each day is devoted to a single film and the Q&As, panels, and parties that surround it.

Ambulante’s live programming with blinking “Live” bug

To enforce the live one-time-only feeling, we wanted the visual experience to provide feedback to the user, and reflect the live nature of the programming. We included subtle interface cues — such as a blinking “Live” bug evocative of television news, and calls to action that change when programs start (“Starts at 6:45pm” to “Join live.”)

3. Emotional feedback

Sitting through a film screening demands a pause of interpersonal interaction — it’s frowned upon to discuss a film in progress. When it’s over — whether at an after party, or walking to the car — it’s common practice to discuss and recount memorable moments.

Spectators want to compare notes. In the absence of a real life venue for this, we designed a super simple emotion reporter. After the film screening ends, we would ask users to share the predominant emotions that they associate with the film they’ve just screened. The responses would be tallied, and the most popular would be displayed to users, and attached to the film’s description going forward.

The emotion reporting contributes to feeling a sense of participation in a collective activity with other attendees. When it came to prioritizing what we’d build within our tight 14-day timeline, we decided to forgo the emotion reporter in hopes that participants could instead engage during post-film live-streamed events and through personal social channels.

Wireframe of “emotion reporting” rool
We designed a simple emotion reporter, but were unable to include it in the final experience

Making independent film more accessible

When film emerged as a medium, it was largely considered a low art form. As its practice matured, cinema became a medium for the masses. Unlike live theater, cinema was affordable and accessible. By mid-century cinema had gained prestige, and demonstrated its appeal to audiences across classes. This year, the Ambulante Film Festival goes completely online in a transition that echoes the maturation of film and the Internet’s equalizing power.

Ambulante en Casa landing page scrolling
Ambulante en Casa was designed mobile first to ensure the festival could be available to the widest audiance

Ambulante has historically been accessible to many. Now, they will have an opportunity to bring their grassroots effort to more people than ever — those who might not otherwise be able to travel, take off work, or get childcare in order to attend.

Nearly 70% of Mexico’s population uses the Internet, but reliability and device usage varies. In order to ensure that the content would be available to the widest audience, we’d have to create an experience that could be streamed on mobile and desktop devices alike, and at varying connection speeds.

The show goes on, but there’s still more to do

In 2 weeks, our team launched an experience that made it possible for Ambulante to continue its 15th year uninterrupted. Today, Ambulante is proceeding with a virtual experience that feels like a natural evolution for its mission. We created a single home for the rotating daily program, which drives to the film streaming partner and hosts the live-streaming and chat platforms.

Despite bringing the conversation, film streaming, and elements of collective spectatorship to en Casa, there’s still so much more that we can do. It’s often our first instinct to create a digital analog for an experience that we’re comfortable with in the physical world. As a first step, this route might help users adopt a new platform, but as a solution it doesn’t address fundamental differences between on and off-line experiences. Given the opportunity, we could create an entirely new third thing that’s native to digital — something with no reference to the original experience.

Ambulante will continue to push boundaries digitally on its mission to shape the world through stories. For now, we’ll pop a bag of microwave popcorn, turn down the lights, and be together apart.