How a stressed out Hamilton moviegoer saved 300 film festivals (and it’s not over)
The world’s biggest festivals want a piece of a Hamilton startup that struggled to survive until the arrival of Covid-19.
Her day began before sunrise. David White would wake up, pour himself a quick coffee, turn on his monitor, and walk straight to his first meeting, usually with someone from America. From his Hamilton home he worked like this all morning and all day. In the evenings, as European customers began to wake up, White would stay awake until the wee hours to support them.
When the first nationwide Covid-19 lockdowns last year began, his schedule was punitive. âYou went to bed at 3 am,â says White, the founder of Shift72, a digital streaming service that has helped more than 300 film festivals rotate online during the pandemic. At 6 a.m. he would get out of bed, pour another coffee, and start over. The stress was brutal. âI lost five kilos, he admits.
But it was a quick turnaround. Until then, White’s business had been in trouble. Founded in 2008, Shift72 has banked on streaming to become the future of television and movies. White’s business was designed to help theaters and film festivals move away from the theatrical experience and engage a digital audience. But the arrival of Shift72 was too early. âWe struggled to get that breakthrough,â says White. âIt was difficult to get traction. “
That changed in 2020. As the Covid-19 blocks began to apply, White’s phone suddenly started ringing. The first call came from the organizers of the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival, CPH-DOX, who wanted to put their event online. They were on the verge of bankruptcy, but White says he helped turn the tide. âThey had huge financial success in those two weeks,â he says. âThe floodgates opened from there. “
The big festivals followed suit. âWe did the Cannes Film Festivalâ¦ Sundance and Toronto and New York and Melbourne,â White recites from the top of his sleep deprived head. His team of 10 was suddenly far too small to keep up with the demand. He started hiring, but White was the only one who could meet clients, and he describes the intensity of that time as “a fire hose to the face.”
Much of 2020 is hazy, but as lockdowns fluctuated White realized demand wasn’t going to stop, so he started to grow. He was in despair, interviewing potential Zoom employees, some of whom didn’t even have their webcams on. He would always give them the job. âWe didn’t even know what they looked like,â White says. âHe was like, ‘Oh yeah, somebody’s vouching for you, you’re hired. “
But the work kept coming. âEverything we built and what we believed in had come true,â he says. “It was a phenomenal timeâ¦ but the burnout was really real.” The day White realized he might be on the brink was when he accidentally left his Google calendar open for reservations. When he woke up, all the slots were filled. âI had consecutive 30-minute meetings,â he says. “It went from fucking 6am to 3amâ¦ I didn’t even plan a break in between.” Festival organizers around the world were desperate for help from Shift72. âI couldn’t leave the roomâ¦ I don’t even know who I was talking to. “
Things have since stabilized and White’s success has been recognized by the industry. Deadline interviewed him, Daily screen profiled it, and Variety gave him a call. The day The Spinoff calls him, Hamilton is locked up and White is working from home again. Its brand new Shift72 office space in Garden Place, designed for a team that now numbers 53, will need to be left empty for now.
White believed demand for Shift72’s services could decline as the Covid-19 lockdowns ease. This does not happen. In fact, it is intensifying. So far, it has helped over 300 festivals pivot online, and many remain there. âIt’s that forced digital moment,â White says. He thinks Covid-19 has moved everything forward three years. To capitalize, he has just hired an employee in Italy, and two in Berlin. âWe are now in 55 countries,â he says. âIt’s really global. “
The Future, White says, is a hybrid festival model, which hosts both cinema screenings and virtual offerings. âWhat we’ve seen is that the festivals that have done it right and embraced it have reached a wider audience than ever before,â he says. âYou have this new audience who want to watch it at home but don’t want to go to the movies. Then you might find out next year that they want to go to the festival.
This is something the New Zealand International Film Festival has learned the hard way. In 2020, Shift72 helped NZIFF move online, and many saw it as a success. White offered to help again this year, but was turned down as the festival opted for a movie-only event. Now the Auckland stage has been canceled, and delta disturbs the festival in other cities as well. As a result, the future is cloudy: Organizers are asking the rest of the country to pack screenings to help it survive.
White says he’s ready to help, and with hundreds of films stored on the company’s servers, it only takes a few hours for his team to put together an online festival. He is a movie buff himself and adores them. “They’re really good at organizing content and bringing you movies that you didn’t know and telling you to watch them.” It should celebrate its success with the perk of being able to preview every movie on its platform. But Blanc just doesn’t have the time. âI can’t remember the last time I watched a movie,â he says. âI’m too busy doing to watch. “