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The Rise of Digital Arts & Culture in South Africa

In the last few months the entire entertainment industry has changed drastically. While things seem to be slowly opening up again with new restrictions around seating, cleanliness and capacity percentages, most festivals are reinventing themselves by going digital. Able to simply pick whichever show and not having to book at physical venues in order to reach an audience, it's going to bring about a new set of challenges.

Normally live events have a completely different make up to readily available digital entertainment. Subverting the opportunity to get a night out and allowing people to have a night in with traditionally live events means it all funnels into consuming digital entertainment wherever you are in the world from your couch. Perhaps this new digital space requires more precise thinking and service offerings from a facilitation service, which can provide a more accurate and safer way for entertainment to be shared and accounted for when it comes to ticketing and box office takings.

The National Arts Festival

One of the first South African festival organisations to announce a digital or virtual reinvention was the National Arts Festival, which has been held in Grahamstown (now Makhanda) for decades. A cultural hub and a calendar event in the town's schedule, it brings in business opportunities for locals. Bringing arts, craft, entertainment, theatre, film and bustling trade into the town, it's been a highlight and recommended festival, which attracts many festivalgoers travelling into Makhanda to enjoy the festivities. Regarded as one of the most preeminent art and culture festivals in the country, they've had to change things up by going virtual.

The virtual National Arts Festival is currently underway. The NAF portal offers day and festival passes in order to facilitate viewing, allowing you to get access to the show's you've booked for. If you're interested in seeing what's happening... it's running until 5 July 2020. Yet, it still remains to be seen whether the move to digital is going to be a step forward or back for the festival. While it's feasible for theatre productions and films to find an audience online, which is much more widespread, it still requires some clever marketing and re-engineering in order to attach to these new online platforms. While people are much more digitally-aware now, there are certain hoops and checkpoints that are still not quite mainstream. The idea of paying for one uninterrupted screening of a film or theatre piece can present some problems both technically based on screening hardware and ticket management.

It's easy enough to go through a ticketing company like Webtickets in order to purchase an online ticket, which essentially emails you a specialised link or QR code ticket. However, this doesn't manage the online streaming situation accurately with those who can't play a production or those sharing the link or getting 10 people in on 1 ticket.

The Labia Theatre's Home Screen

The Labia Theatre have now released their Home Screen. Essentially a streaming site where you can watch specific art house film releases by paying an admission fee in order to stream them. They've definitely embraced the change brought about by the pandemic. Having to adapt and evolve to continue presenting movies, they've effectively attached a fifth screen to their four screen cineplex by enabling patrons to watch some of their film selection from the comfort of their home. As an intermediary solution this makes a lot of sense, yet still has to deal with some of the overriding issues relating to a digital tickets for an online service.

Labia Home Screen

When someone buys access to a screening or streaming event, the provider needs to ensure that it's limited to one screen. If the link is the only thing you need in order to access the event, you could see how people sharing that same link with their friends could present a problem. Moreover, when pricing tickets event organisers have to also take into account that they don't need to provide a venue, seating, parking and a safe space for the audience. These bricks and mortar additional costs form part of the equation, which means that technically a digital experience ticket price should be reduced. Having said that, they also need to factor in that a single ticket equates to a single screen, which can be viewed by an entire household or as many people that can fit into a lounge.

The Labia's pay-per-view service gives registered user's 6 hours in order to watch a film title for R60. This gives them some level of control over which account is being used and some limits in terms of access. It's a great idea, which can continue to run parallel with the cineplex once everything returns to a new normal. What's also good is that it could eventually transition into a mainline offering. Their loyal audience will be keen to support the new Home Screen so let's hope it's able to grow.

Encounters Documentary Film Festival

The Encounters Documentary Film Festival is also going digital, yet they're taking on more of a hybrid approach by enabling those who want to go into cinemas to watch films to be able to do continue doing so. Perhaps this double whammy approach is the best way to handle the gradual changes and shift to digital. With so many performers, productions and projects taking a digital route, this will inevitably put all the power with the ticket-buying audience. Hopefully lower ticket prices will eventually equate to more purchases.

Encounters 2020

Taking place between 20 and 30 August 2020, they're responding to the changes over the last few months by making the festival available to "everyone, everywhere in South Africa". Encounters will be offering most of their documentary films free-of-charge with select paid events in Cape Town and Johannesburg over this time. The idea is to make films available online or on the big screen and the festival organisers will be outlining their plan for going digital shortly.

The film festival has been running for over two decades and will be opening with the timely documentary, Influence, a profile of ‘morally slippery British reputation manager’ Lord Timothy Bell of PR firm Bell Pottinger. Those interested in getting more information on the upcoming schedule and line-up of documentary films on offer can visit the Encounters website.

This arts and culture digital revolution will enable people to catch shows that they ordinarily wouldn't have access to from around the world, which was the case with Marc Lottering's My Fellow South Africans. His first live-streaming comedy show must have made an absolute fortune if you consider the number of tickets sold. Enabling even more people than he would be able to fit into a theatre to see and perform, many of which would have been accessing the show from outside the country (at a fraction of the cost when you consider the exchange rate), he was able to leverage his fan base to great effect. So while new territory is being explored with a sharp learning curve, the time brings to mind Albert Einstein's comment that "in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity".