A report by Mark Lyndersay for Trinidad and Tobago’s Newsday.
On its surface, the #Watchamovieonus project, which streamed 14 regional films between March 28 to April 10 on the TT Film Festival (ttff) website, was an inventive response to the dull reality of the covid19 lockdown.
Cinemas were closed. The plans for the 2020 film festival might need dramatic revision.
For shut-ins, which is almost everyone, there was Netflix and cable TV, neither of which offers local menus of programming.
Productions were shutting down. Finished films heading for now shuttered cinemas either went direct to streaming or had their releases postponed.
“There was, over the course of two or three days (if that long), a string of high-profile cancellations and postponements,” the interim executive director of Filmco, Mariel Brown, wrote in response to e-mailed questions about the project.
“In the film industry; for example, one of the biggest US film festivals, SXSW, was cancelled. And then, Tribeca Film Festival was postponed, and the list of cancellations went on.”
Filmco, a coalition of filmmakers Danielle Dieffenthaller, Dion Boucaud, Lesley-Anne MacFarlane and Brown, now manages the annual film festival as part of a larger mandate to develop a sustainable local film industry.
In 2019, the group founded a groundbreaking partnership with Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) to develop and license content for designated blocks of time on the relaunched channel.
“We didn’t consider taking the series to television – that would likely have been a much slower process, and would have lacked the flexibility that audiences so enjoyed,” Brown explained in response to a question about why the TTT connection wasn’t explored.
“Viewers could watch films multiple times, at any time, during the 24 hour streaming window.”
The idea was not without precedent. During the 2011 state of emergency, the ttff had streamed previous festival films online, so in an era of dramatically improved and more widely available broadband access, the idea was revived with enthusiasm.
Filmco is all about filmmakers making a living, so licensing 14 films for the streaming series and setting up the service would cost money.
“We worked on a modest budget for the series – that would cover some basic costs and license fees for filmmakers – and immediately reached out to Myles Lewis at the National Gas Company (NGC) with the offer of exclusive sponsorship and brand visibility.
“We were delighted when NGC immediately responded with excitement, and within two days of our initial contact, they were on board as a sponsor of the streaming series. And that’s when we reached out to filmmakers.”
“These films reflect who we are as a people and its wider screening outside the film festivals to the local and Caribbean public fits right in with what we are charged to do,” said Lisa Burkett, NGC’s manager, corporate communications. “It is important to us to find opportunities where our culture can be showcased and supporting this project fits perfectly with one of our CSR pillars, the preservation of our arts and culture, which by extension contributes to the sustainability of the film industry.”
Both NGC and the ttff declined to answer questions about the cost of the project.
The fast implementation was supported by a small team. Technology, including online upgrades, geo-tagging to limit access to the Caribbean and film preparation for streaming was handled by Shaun Rambaran and Soraya Moolchan.
Brown, Dieffenthaller and Kamille-Ann Lynch-Griffith reached out to filmmakers to arrange licensing while artist Richard Rawlins and Neala Bhagwansingh managed the social media campaign.
The only instalment I managed to view was Bazodee, and I saw that in the hours before it expired in the final showing.
I encountered some surprising stalls, which suggest that it might have been quite popular.
The films were streamed on Vimeo’s commercial delivery platform, piracy protected and geo-fenced for streaming in the Caribbean.
But Brown notes that the experience was largely glitch free.
“There was one day when the whole Vimeo platform went down for roughly 90 minutes. That was a stressful day! But it was a platform-wide outage that, no doubt, had to do with the increased number of worldwide users since covid19 restrictions had been put in place.”
“The Caribbean geo-tagging had more to do with the fact that many films already have online distribution outside of the Caribbean,” explained Brown.
“To play the films without geo-tagging would have landed filmmakers in hot water with their distributors, and we wanted to be sure this didn’t happen.”
“Shaun quickly built up a bank of Caribbean IP addresses and kept testing and testing and trouble-shooting.”
One viewer in Guadeloupe complained about being geo-fenced on the ttff Facebook page and Rambaran was able to sort out the problem in real time.
Filmco did not respond to a request for statistics ranking the most popular of the 14 streamed films, but did reveal that the project delivered 47,838 sessions for 27,123 users over the course of the 14 days it was active.
Promotional posts for the project on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter reached 239,645 users of those platforms.
This year is the film festival’s 15th anniversary, and the series of special events and outdoor screenings have been postponed.
In that face of those disappointments, the streaming project has been a resonant note struck in anxious, despondent times, one that echoes the value of artists and creators in difficult times.
It wasn’t the first effort at bringing streamed entertainment to an isolated public. DigicelTT’s Cameo series of Facebook Live streamed mini-concerts with artists launched on March 22 with a performance by San Fernando-based chanteuse Vaughnette Bigford in her living room accompanied by Michael Low Chew Tung on piano.
For NGC, it was an opportunity to dip into the catalogue of work created in TT and the region.
“This project fits perfectly with one of our CSR pillars – that of preservation of our arts and culture – which by extension contributes to the sustainability of the film industry,” said Burkett. “The project displays who we are as a people.”
“We’re thrilled to have been able to bring some joy and entertainment to so many people during what continues to be a stressful and uncertain time,” Brown said.
“We’ve already figured out how we can continue to bring films to audiences via online streaming, and we’re in discussion with a potential sponsor and hope to be able to get that going soon.”
The first 14 films
Calypso Rose: Lioness of the Jungle
Songs of redemption
Green days by the river
Pan: Our musical odyssey
Play the devil
Antes que canto el gallo