Summary:

Raindance is Britain’s largest independent film festival, becoming an institution for cinephiles over the past 20 years. This year it’s decided to partner with a little-known film website run out of Poland. So what does Filmaster offer that others don’t?

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The chances are you’ve heard of America’s Sundance film festival, the annual shindig of independent cinema that was started by Robert Redford in the 1980s and is now a huge marketplace for screening and selling edgy, low budget films. Here in the wet and windy U.K., we have a rather more depressing relationship with the weather — so our equivalent to Sundance is, naturally, called Raindance.

The festival, which has just opened for its 19th year, is Britain’s largest celebration of indie films — spinning out in the 1990s alongside the Raindance Film School, which has helped spawn talent including directors Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) and Mathew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick Ass).

With Hollywood connections like that, you can imagine that Raindance had its pick of which film websites and app developers to work with. Rather than link up with one of the big players, however, the festival has chosen to stick with its indie roots and partner with a young European startup called Filmaster. Why?

Well, there’s what the site does: as part of the festival, attendees are being asked to sign up to Filmaster and download the app — which then allows them to check in to screenings, rate films after they’ve seen them and share information with the organizers and other festival-goers.

So far, so good. But there are certainly plenty of video-related websites out there: from content providers such as Netflix and Hulu, to vast databases like IMDB, to media check-in services such as Miso and GetGlue. So what does Filmaster do that others don’t?

For a start, it’s a very European story. The site was started by Pole Borys Musielak when lived in Britain, who coded early versions while on his long train commutes to London. Today, the company’s offices are in Warsaw, Poland, and it recently took funding from German-based incubator program HackFWD. That makes it more authentic for a festival like Raindance than flashy American rivals.

Then there’s the way the site has proven itself to be flexible. It started off as a platform for film bloggers, before moving into movie check-ins and recommendations. To coincide with the launch of Raindance, the site relaunched with an even stronger focus on helping you find what movies you might want to watch, based on your taste and location.

“We gradually started switching to a social movie discovery site, as it turned out this is what people liked to do,” says Musielak. “Now it’s a complete redesign of the website to make it in line with the new vision: focused on getting relevant movie suggestions in all available channels — TV, cinema, Internet — instantly.”

And then there’s the way it works. Though it is still a work in progress, Filmaster is starting to run pretty smoothly. Sign in is simple, rating movies is straightforward, and finding nearby cinemas is a doddle. But what about the ultimate test of any recommendation platform — the recommendations themselves?

The simple answer is… they’re pretty good. I seeded it with 12 reviews of some of my favorite movies, and it’s returning pretty good recommendations so far. My top cinema tips right now are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Drive, both of which I plan on seeing soon. It also tells me that I can tune in to watch a number of films on TV, including fairly easy calls like Heat and 3:10 To Yuma… but also the brilliantly chaotic indie film Breakfast on Pluto, which is hardly mainstream but is definitely to my taste.

To Musielak, the deal makes perfect sense.

“Our power users are the people who go to film festivals around the world, rate and review lots of movies and are local film gurus,” he says. “Raindance is the film buff festival in the U.K., so getting as many new users who love this festival is crucial.”

But he admits that film festivals aren’t the heart of what Filmaster is trying to do.

“There are of course many other users, the majority of them actually, who don’t care about festivals and just want to know what flick they should see this evening,” he adds. “Filmaster does this job pretty well, but people need to know it exists in the first place.”

“Pretty well” may sound a little non-committal, but Musielak seems happy to accept that the site has some distance left to go. And it’s fair to say that when he feels passionately about something, he doesn’t mince his words. While he admits that Filmaster won’t be likely to end run the in-house recommendation engines at Amazon and Netflix, he reserves a special level of dislike for other movie-related social sites.

“One of the reasons we created the shiny new website is because we hate Flixster so much,” he says, referring to the site that was funded by (among others) Reid Hoffman and the Partovi brothers and bought by Warner Bros earlier this year for an estimated $60-$90 million.

“Just take a look at their design and community,” says Musielak. “It seems like the MySpace of movie websites. It’s gonna fall apart, and we want to be the Facebook that takes over.”

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