Tribeca Film Festival: The Virtual Premium (In Pajamas) Experience

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What is there to a film festival beyond being able to watch some previously unseen films? That’s essentially the question asked by Tribeca vis-a-vis its Virtual Premium Fest package, which allows American film fans willing to pay $45 to access online much of the content they’d receive by physically attending the festival.

Having spent some time today testing out the service, the biggest limitation the Virtual Fest had was the number of films available. Neither the opening or closing films of the festival (Shrek Forever After and Freakonomics, respectively) were available for viewing, and while the range of the eight features selected for streaming was a nice representation of the fest’s diversity, it was hard not to feel like I was missing out on something.

All the video is hosted using a platform built by KIT Digital that I had relatively little trouble using. Looking at the comments on individual films, that doesn’t appear to have been universal, as much of the conversation revolved not around the film itself but around people complaining that they couldn’t get the player to work. There were also a number of reports about films timing out halfway through.

But when I clicked to watch Ed Burns’s Nice Guy Johnny, the highest profile of the films selected for the Virtual Fest, I was pleasantly surprised by how fast the film loaded and the quality of the video. I liked the channel navigation, too, though I wished that it wasn’t below the fold on the page — in testing out the service, I spent a lot of time scrolling up and down.

So how does the Virtual Premium Fest compare to the real one? I asked a New York friend who’s attended Tribeca for the last few years what her experience with the festival has been like, and this was her reply:

I don’t know anyone who’s ever seen a whole series of these films… it’s just too much / too chaotic / too expensive. But for non-film schmoes like me who don’t plan ahead and buy tickets, the experience is like everything else that is cool in New York: showing up and waiting in a long a– line in various kinds of inclement weather for something you may or may not get into.

Last year I think [we] wanted to see one movie, but were told quite frankly we were too far back in the line to get in, so we quickly assessed the other films showing in the theater and chose another line. We ended up seeing a short film program which was pretty good, but the bonus was that there was a Q & A with the filmmakers after the fact which is what you’re REALLY paying $16 a ticket for anyway, right?

And on that latter point, that’s where the Virtual Fest both excels and falls a little short. Beyond the films featured, the festival has gone overboard in providing filmmaker Q&As for both films that were and weren’t included with the Virtual Premium pass. An extended Q&A with Joan Rivers regarding the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was especially delightful.

However, while watching the live Q&A videos on demand, moderated by screenwriter and former MTV news correspondent Gideon Yago, was a satisfying experience, it doesn’t look like the live chat feature did particularly well, with very few questions being submitted online. The blame for this likely falls with the lack of a clearly accessible schedule for the live-streaming events — if Virtual Premium subscribers were able to look at the full schedule, maybe even add them to their calendar programs, it’d be a lot more interesting.

Today is the last day for the Virtual Premium Festival, which goes offline tonight at 12 a.m. EDT, but look for it to be a continuing feature for the fest: “Our first effort with Virtual has been a great experience for Tribeca, our audiences and our filmmakers. We are encouraged by how well it went and look forward to building on that success,” Tribeca Film Festival Executive Director Nancy Schafer said via email.

At $45, the Virtual Premium experience is price-wise the equivalent to seeing three Tribeca features in person — without the physical experience of being there, but also without having to wait in line. And thanks to this year’s program, the framework is here for a new way of approaching film festivals in the future, making them at least vaguely inclusive to all film fans, especially those who prefer pajamas to red carpet wear.

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