During the height of the COVID pandemic, Brooklyn-based studio Little Cinema helped Hollywood clients pivot from in-person movie premiers to virtual and hybrid events. Now, two years after the first lockdowns, they continue to push the limits of interactive engagement.
Nearly all Hollywood releases had to adjust their 2020 schedules, but now they’ve added virtual and hybrid events to their marketing strategy, embracing the same transformation as many organizations that have helped virtual events establish themselves as a channel.
At the time of the first lockdowns in March 2020, Jonathan Blair and his team were in London. They were a hands-on group that constructed and helped organize in-person events and experiential pop-ups.
Because on-site location shooting and most other aspects of movie productions were suspended, Blair wasn’t sure what this meant for his Hollywood clients. Enter the Zoom era, and increased demand for remote experiences and virtual events.
Virtual premieres begin to snowball
“We called a bunch of people and brought in some hired guns to help us,” said Blair, who serves as CTO for Little Cinema.
One of their first projects in this new pandemic environment was the HBO virtual launch for the Snowpiercer TV series. The event earned coverage in Variety, and from there Little Cinema took on virtual event duties for Hollywood studios and streaming series.
Little Cinema is up past 80 staff members, and they’ve built an 11,000 square-foot studio in New York in addition to a studio in Los Angeles. To date, they’ve surpassed 350,000 unique on-platform attendees and 1.3 million viewers on simulcasts.
Creating new virtual experiences
“We are very intentional about virtual and hybrid events,” said Blair. “We didn’t want to recreate the in-person experience. We wanted to take advantage of the medium we were playing in and lean in on live streaming and interactive broadcasting.”
Before Little Cinema’s innovations, the typical Hollywood premiere was an exclusive in-person event for a few hundred insiders at the most. With virtual and hybrid events, these premieres can be opened up to thousands of fans online, across the globe.
A multi-part narrative can be built around the event, with characters who narrate a story based on the movie or series. Attendees can interact through messaging or text with characters on-site. Little Cinema builds sets from scratch that are based on what’s seen in the production. Or, they can incorporate elements from the actual set, or plant movie props in the design as “Easter eggs” for fans to discover and point out to each other.
Other parts of these virtual events have been gamified using trivia contests and virtual puzzle room formats. Blair stated that in designing these experiences, he veered from 3D-digital or VR experiences because his clients are committed to a 2D medium, namely films and TV series.
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“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we can make an experience for all types of viewers,” said Blair. “Every one of our events is a little different. We don’t have an out-of-the-box solution. Some might have chats, call-in options, video, and allow participants to engage with people on the screen.”
A major goal for Little Cinema is to be able to support more engaged or “active” participants while also allowing for more “passive” attendees to watch the video live stream without having to solve puzzles, for instance.
“We tailor the creative and the technology to the specific viewers we’re targeting,” Blair said.
Expanding virtual and hybrid reach
“These were mostly industry events when we started, but now there are a lot more events toward fans,” said Blair. “Fans are super-engaged and content interactivity is an amazing way to reach them. Fan events are where we push the boundaries of virtual events.”
Little Cinema uses in-house technology to support the virtual events, and they’re getting prepared to release it as a product for other event marketers.
“You need to have options as marketers,” said Blair. In the world we live in now, there could be a new COVID-19 variant that would cancel an in-person event. What we’ve really seen is that hybrid and virtual events activate at a higher scale. From an ROI standpoint, you spend X dollars and now you can do both [in-person and virtual events].”
He added that a recent premiere for the Netflix series Bridgerton was both a physical event and a digital premiere, happening at the same time.
“There were thousands of people who attended online that wouldn’t have been reached otherwise,” said Blair.