Interviews

‘Not your everyday films, every day’

In the middle of its 47th edition, the festival launched its own streaming service IFFR Unleashed. Janneke Staarink and Melissa van der Schoor discuss their ambitions for this uniquely director-centered platform.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was IFFR Unleashed. The recently launched streaming platform was in beta trial during the 2017 festival and builds on years of experience in the world of distribution, dating back to the VHS era.

Janneke Staarink, managing director of IFFR: “As pioneering as it is, it’s important to realise that IFFR Unleashed is not a distribution service that was cooked up overnight. Nor is it a totally new activity. On the contrary, we have a long history of distributing festival titles in various forms. In the 1990s , we distributed Hubert Bals Fund films on 35mm copies through national theatres and in 1998 we founded our own home entertainment label – first releasing on video tape, later on DVD. In 2005 IFFR started a service in collaboration with major European internet and telecommunications services called Tiger Online, where viewers could watch selected films digitally. In many ways you could say this was premature, but it shows our pioneering spirit – in those days, Netflix was still distributing rental DVDs by mail. It also demonstrates our continuous mission to look forward, to find new ways to connect filmmakers with their audience and to present and promote ‘our’ films.”

Melissa van der Schoor, digital content manager: “In recent years we’ve put a lot of work into our YouTube channel, where we programmed a new short film every week, and we started releasing festival films on iTunes and Google Play. All these efforts were one big learning experience. YouTube was terrific for acquiring millions of views and subscribers and raising visibility for participating filmmakers; however, without advertisements there was no financial gain. iTunes and Google Play allowed filmmakers to earn more money, but we stumbled upon technical issues and other limitations regarding content, policy and presentation.”

Janneke: “There was only one conclusion: if we didn’t want to be restricted by others, if we wanted to enjoy our freedom and occupy an online presence that was closely tied to our physical festival, we had to build our own service. That was the only way to stay in control. It was also a necessity if we wanted to let filmmakers share the anticipated revenues as much as possible. Last year, we ran a trial platform; based on the extensive user feedback, we were confident enough to take the next step in this journey: the launch of IFFR Unleashed. The service features a subscription-based model in the Benelux, and you can rent an individual film from anywhere in the world, knowing that 50 per cent of the income goes directly to the filmmaker. The remaining half is reinvested in developing and supporting the platform.”

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The world is changing, and the world of cinema is changing with it. As the recent conflict between Netflix and Cannes demonstrates, traditional and new media are not always on the same page, leading sometimes to fierce debates. What role can IFFR play to blend these worlds into a perfect marriage? Janneke: “IFFR Unleashed makes IFFR stronger, because the films that are available will always screen at the first festival. For us, the cinema experience is the most important. Consequently, the streaming service doesn’t cannibalise our festival, but works as an expansion. You have to see IFFR Unleashed as a service – to our filmmakers, who want to reach a wider audience and control where and how their films are made available, but also to our audience. After all, many of the films touring the festival scene are never distributed in the Benelux, or in the world for that matter. Also, it’s not humanly possible to see all 500 films featured during the 12 days of the festival. Thanks to IFFR Unleashed we can finally give a positive answer to everyone who contact us after each edition asking for the opportunity to see specific films they may have missed. They’ll be able to experience the festival adventure again from their own homes.”

Melissa: “Besides showing festival films, we really hope that IFFR Unleashed will offer the typical festival atmosphere as well, which we try to establish by adding bonus content like Q&As and Masterclasses and encouraging a sense of community among our subscribers and users.” The future is bright for this new initiative with an everexpanding library and a viewing base of 69 different countries after just a few months. For now, the focus lies on making the service sustainable and possibly expanding the subscription model to countries outside the Benelux. Does IFFR have any specific regions or ambitions to announce right now? Janneke Staarink, laughing: “All I can say is: stay tuned!”

IFFR Unleashed offers year-round online access to International Film Festival Rotterdam. The streaming service provides a hand-picked and curated selection of IFFR films, highlighting art-house wonders, audience favorites and masterclasses by filmmakers. For more information (or to watch a film): IFFRUnleashed.com

Photo in header: Digital content manager Melissa van der Schoor and managing director Janneke Staarink.