To the casual observer it may seem a bit daunting to sort through the Ann Arbor Film Festival's (AAFF) robust annual program of about 125 films. But that program is the end result of a far more daunting challenge for festival staff: individually screening and scoring every one of the 3,000 submissions the festival receives each year.
But for this year's festival, which runs March 20-25, AAFF partnered with Ann Arbor software company InfoReady to significantly streamline that process with a new software platform that they hope will become an industry standard. The new platform, Festivant, presents each of AAFF's 50 volunteer screeners with an all-in-one interface from which they can manage their "to-do list" of films to screen, watch and rate films, and view film information.
AAFF executive director Leslie Raymond says that's a major improvement over the cumbersome process the festival used to use. The festival would collect submissions through the Withoutabox video distribution platform, export them into a Filemaker Pro database, divide submissions into batches of 40, and send them to screeners as an Excel spreadsheet.
"That was a very hands-on process before," Raymond says. "There was a lot of handling of data. Our operations manager's fall would be pretty much consumed by handling that importing-exporting process."
As InfoReady chief operating officer Maurice Collins worked with AAFF to develop Festivant, he screened movies using the old process himself to better understand the festival's needs.
"I would say a third of the time in the screening process wasn't even screening," he says. "It was just simply managing the films coming in, the Excel spreadsheets coming in, trying to figure out how to get in and what the password was for a film, and all these other things a screener really shouldn't be bothered with."
Seeking a solution, Raymond consulted industry colleagues at the 2016 Art House Convergence, an annual conference for independent film exhibitors.
"It sounded like everybody had the same problem and that there wasn't anything out there," she says. "I was like, 'What's the go-to tool? How do we manage this?'"
Raymond consulted with Ann Arbor SPARK to find a local partner who could develop that go-to tool, and InfoReady presented a somewhat unlikely but natural fit for AAFF. InfoReady is primarily focused on software for the academic world, but its existing platform for managing grant applications proved highly adaptable to AAFF's needs.
InfoReady began work on the project last year. Collins says InfoReady built some modifications into its software to create Festivant, but the existing platform was essentially usable "out of the box" for AAFF. He says one of the reasons that another company hadn't already developed something like Festivant is that "film festivals aren't the most cash-rich market to go into ... so it would cost too much money to build a platform to support their needs. We had the benefit of actually having a platform that's versatile enough to go across multiple markets."
Since introducing Festivant into the screening process for this year's festival, Raymond says the platform has received "very positive" feedback from screeners and made administrative work at AAFF considerably easier. She says AAFF will continue to work with InfoReady to improve the platform, including adding tools to collect film stills and other materials from filmmakers.
"It's still in development, but it's been incredibly helpful on a lot of fronts so far," Raymond says.
Meanwhile, both AAFF and InfoReady are hoping that Festivant will catch on across the industry. Collins says InfoReady is marketing the product at film festivals and through mail, phone, and email campaigns. And he says his company is "absolutely" considering ways to adapt its products into other new industries.
"We're looking to see if there are other options that are as easy to accommodate as film festivals," Collins says.
Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.
All photos by Doug Coombe.