Winnipeg Free Press brings community together with virtual movie night

By Erin Lebar

Winnipeg Free Press

Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada


Along with the obvious challenges that came with COVID-19, some less obvious ones became clear a few months into the pandemic. Largely, how would we, as a news organisation, continue to engage and connect with readers in ways outside of our written journalism while everyone was completely isolated from each other?

It was around this time the Winnipeg Free Press also decided to shut down our online comments section. There are many reasons we made this decision, and largely it has been a positive one, but removing the comments section further reduced our options to engage with readers. We knew we needed to fill that void and so virtual events, in particular our WFP Movie Night series, became a way to do that.

The premise of WFP Movie Night is pretty simple: We screened locally made movies for free on our Web site at a specific date and time. This allowed us to both highlight the films being made in our province and to offer a bit of an escape from a pandemic-heavy life — especially as movie theatres were closed when we launched this series — at no cost to the viewer.

The locally-filmed movies included a live chat feature so audience members could engage with one another.
The locally-filmed movies included a live chat feature so audience members could engage with one another.

Learning hard lessons

Our first movie night was, objectively, a failure. We used a third-party “watch party” site, and the barriers to accessing it and using it properly were just too much of a hurdle for most users — especially those who were not tech-savvy. There were too many steps, too many ways for things to go wrong, and it was a lot of stress and hassle on our end for very little payoff. Ultimately, we only had seven viewers — half of whom were Free Press staff members.

For the next event, our talented digital design team developed our own internal “watch party” page that allowed us to screen the film and host a live chat right on our site, eliminating a lot of the accessibility issues. We were able to set it up to be password-protected and geo-blocked, which appeased concerns from the distributors that were allowing us to screen these films, and set up an -mail mailing list to communicate with interested viewers.

The second event went much better, and the third better than that. Things continued to grow until, at our most popular event in May of 2021, we had just shy of 1,500 households joining us live.

For all movie night events, the live chat function is a popular addition, allowing viewers to speak to not only each other but also to local cast and crew members from the films who we invite to participate. Viewers can ask questions about filming locations, wardrobes, and behind-the-scenes stories. All the cast and crew who have been involved are always obliging in offering great insights that are completely unique to these events.

Continuing post-pandemic

We’ve continued to offer virtual movie nights despite the fact theatres are now open again, and though we were initially concerned interest might taper off, we were quickly proven wrong. We hosted a holiday-themed movie night in December 2021 and more than 800 people registered for tickets — almost as many logged in on the night of the event.

Our most recent movie night was on March 22 and was our first collaborative event with two other local organisations; we screened a documentary (our first non-local film) and hosted a panel discussion that included the mother-and-son duo featured in the film as well as local experts in the topics the documentary covered.

A survey sent out after the event showed 96% of respondents would attend a future WFP Movie Night, and we received Net Promotor Score of 57 for this specific event. Given these responses, we plan to continue the movie night series throughout 2022.

About Erin Lebar

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