“Watchalongs” and Digital Collective Film Audience Experiences
Measures to control the spread of Covid-19 have had a far-reaching impact on established models of film distribution and exhibition, significantly contributing to an acceleration of existing trends around the online delivery and consumption of film. This acceleration has made visible further nuances in existing patterns of film audience experience as identified by Hanchard, Merrington and Wessels (2020). Combining elements of what they term “group film audience experiences” and “digital film audience experiences”, the “watchalong” – in which viewers watch films at home simultaneously with other physically remote co-viewers – grew in popularity alongside nationwide stay-at-home orders in the UK throughout 2020 and 2021. Replicating some of the scheduled, event-like quality and shared, collective experience of the in-person film screening, this paper argues that the watchalong serves as a noteworthy example of a contemporary film audience experience that highlights the flexibility of the patterns identified by Hanchard et al., as well as providing a suggestive case study with which to expand Hanich’s (2018) work on “the audience effect” beyond the physical space of the cinema auditorium.
Andy Moore is a Lecturer in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh, where he teaches on the MSc in Film, Exhibition and Curation. Previously he was the Senior Programmer at Showroom Workstation, a four-screen independent cinema in the heart of Sheffield. Having worked across academia and industry throughout his career Andy is particularly interested in research that sits at the intersection of these two fields, and he has always believed that bringing the two into closer dialogue enriches both.
Since the first national lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19 began in the UK in March 2020, film exhibition and distribution has undergone a process of radical and potentially long-lasting change. Although many of the shifts that have taken place were evident before the pandemic, there has undoubtedly been a steep acceleration of existing trends around the online delivery and consumption of film as a result of cinemas being closed for long periods throughout 2020 and 2021. The UK independent sector responded to this moment with a range of strategies, expanding the possibilities for collaborations between exhibitors and distributors, and creating opportunities for new and different forms of engagement with, and amongst, online audiences for specialised film. These strategies included new revenue-sharing procedures between independent cinemas and film distributors for streamed content (Dalton, 2020); bespoke online streaming platforms for venues that provide cinemas with a “virtual screen”1 (BFI FAN, 2021); and an embrace of the practice of the “watchalong” (O’Sullivan, 2020).
This increase in the prevalence of online and digitally mediated film audience experiences has made visible further nuances in existing patterns of audience experience, as identified by Hanchard, Merrington and Wessels (2020). Following Livingstone and Das (2013) in recognising that, whilst audiences today are often defined as “multiple, diffuse, and fragmented”, Hanchard et al. identify five discernible patterns of contemporary film audience experience within this multiplicity: “individualised, group, venue-specific, global and digital” (2020: 116). They also contend that audiences move across and between these different patterns of experience, depending on “what, when, where and with whom they watch” (ibid).
Drawing on this work, this paper positions the watchalong as a contemporary film audience experience that combines elements of what Hanchard et al. term “group film audience experiences” and “digital film audience experiences” (2020). It begins by outlining the characteristics of the watchalong, and some of the ways in which it has been used by independent exhibitors in the UK as a means of replicating elements of the collective experience of in-person film screenings and maintaining a sense of connection with their audiences whilst their venues were temporarily closed throughout periods of national lockdown. The paper then explores the ways in which the watchalong presents a mode of audience engagement that moves between the patterns of experience identified by Hanchard et al., before suggesting that the phenomenon of the watchalong might also serve as a particularly productive case study through which to expand Hanich’s (2018) work on “the audience effect” beyond his principal focus on physically co-present audiences. Finally, the paper concludes by highlighting how the watchalong, and the possibilities it presents for “group-digital film audience experiences”, might function as one element of a toolkit for inclusive and accessible audience development and engagement initiatives in a future that is likely to continue to include online events alongside in-person screenings in a “hybrid” model of film exhibition.
2. The Watchalong and the Collective Experience
“Watchalong” names a phenomenon that has a range of different manifestations, but at its core it refers to the practice of viewers engaging with the same audio-visual content simultaneously, usually in their own homes, and typically whilst communicating with other (physically remote) co-viewers. This communication and conversation between co-viewers may take place before, during, after, or at agreed interval(s) throughout the screening, and it is generally facilitated by social media platforms like Twitter, video conferencing applications like Zoom, or instant messaging services like WhatsApp.
As is evident from the ways in which the watchalong – or “watch party” – is frequently framed, central to the nature of this phenomenon, and at the core of its appeal, is the desire for a shared and simultaneous collective social experience, and one that replicates something of the communal nature of the theatrical experience of film viewing. “Reframed Film” for instance, a watchalong project initiated by Chapter Cinema’s Programme Manager Claire Vaughan just days into the UK’s first lockdown, describes cinema as a “communal experience best enjoyed together” and asks: “how can we enjoy films together whilst we have to be apart?” (Reframed Film, 2021). Vaughan has described the project as, in part, a response to the anxiety of the first lockdown, as well as a way to stay connected to, and keep conversations going with, Chapter’s audience (BFI FAN, 2021).
In the summer of 2020, supported by the BFI Film Audience Network’s “Film Feels Connected” season, Reframed Film teamed up with the Women Over 50 Film Festival to host weekly watchalongs. These were supported by a range of additional wraparound activities, including introductions, short films, “film talks” from the filmmakers, and post-screening discussions on Twitter using a hashtag to follow the conversation (O’Sullivan, 2020). As festival director Nuala O’Sullivan noted in a “how-to” guide to hosting your own watchalong, the events not only provided a communal experience, but they also served an important audience development function. For O’Sullivan,
the watch-alongs and the associated activities and resources gave audiences more context for the screenings and increased their knowledge of many British independent shorts and feature films. They [kept] audiences interested in the idea of cinema and film discussion which we hope will encourage them back to the cinema when the time is right.O’Sullivan (2020)
The idea of a communal viewing experience in which people engage with the same “content” simultaneously in their own homes is of course not new. Even leaving aside the question of live TV and the phenomenon of “water-cooler television”, the practice will likely be familiar to anyone who has been in a long-distance relationship. Couples who live in different cities or countries have long engaged in the practice of simultaneously watching a film or TV show as a means of engaging in a shared experience and fostering a sense of emotional proximity across a physical distance (Rosman, 2015). But the watchalong’s wider adoption was undoubtedly accelerated by the need for individuals to remain in their own homes, and by the temporary closure of in-person venues. Since March 2020 “watch parties” have been organised for cultural events ranging from collective re-watches of episodes of Doctor Who (Bullimore, 2021) to Premier League football games (BT Sport, 2021).
The wider adoption and increased visibility of the practice of the watchalong is also apparent in the rise of third-party apps and new functionality on streaming services to facilitate it. There are of course low-tech methods of synchronising your viewing with others (e.g. simply hitting the play button at the same time as your co-viewers), but new services like Teleparty and Watch2Gether have made this process even easier by allowing users to synchronise streamed content from platforms including YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and HBO. Disney also recently added a “GroupWatch” function to their streaming platform (Furn, 2021). Several of these, including Watch2Gether, allow viewers to simultaneously participate in text-chats inside the same viewing window. This echoes practices that have been developing in international sites of exhibition for several years – such as the “bullet-screen” comments available on the prominent Chinese video sharing platform Billibilli (Dwyer, 2017). The 2021 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, which was delivered in a “hybrid” form, also notably provided space for developing a sense of liveness and community online through a text-based chat box that was accessible both before the festival’s premiere screenings and during the live Q&A sessions following them.
It is notable that, alongside the examples of Doctor Who and Premier League football cited above (both of which have extensive and passionate fan communities), it is the independent sector of UK film exhibition that has embraced the watchalong so enthusiastically. The emotional and social connection provided by the shared experience of watching a film together is a central facet of the “mission” or remit of community-oriented independent cinemas, and it is, at least in part, this quality that the watchalong “transplants” into the digital sphere. As noted above, as venues searched for effective ways of keeping in touch with and maintaining the relationship with their audiences during their closure, the practice of the watchalong quickly coalesced into one possible strategy for independent venues to continue providing a collective experience through which to engage their audiences. Beyond the obvious need for social connection given the restrictions that were placed on individuals’ capacity to physically see one another, it is not surprising that the restorative potential of connecting with others also felt so necessary at a moment of acute crisis, uncertainty and anxiety. Reframed Film’s Claire Vaughan has described the watchalong events she organised as playing a major role in contributing towards the emotional resilience she needed to “get through” lockdown (BFI FAN, 2021).
3. The Watchalong and Patterns of Contemporary Film Audience Experience
As an activity that involves the use of online digital technologies to access, watch and discuss films, as well as one that is centred around the cultivation of a collective, social experience (the experience of watching a film together as a group), the watchalong serves as a particularly noteworthy contemporary example of a film audience experience that combines or moves between the five patterns of audience experience identified by Hanchard et al. (2020). Based on their analysis of 200 semi-structured qualitative interviews that they conducted with audience members, as well as a much larger survey of audience behaviour, Hanchard et al. identified five discernible patterns of film audience experience which they name “individualised, group, venue-specific, global and digital”. Whilst there are aspects of the watchalong that intersect with each of these patterns, the phenomenon most clearly combines elements of “group film audience experiences” and “digital film audience experiences” in a way that further underlines the fluidity and flexibility of these patterns and the ways in which audiences move across and between them, depending on what specific experience they are seeking at a particular moment. The watchalong sits at the intersection of these two patterns of experience in what could be named a “group-digital film audience experience”.
Hanchard et al. describe the “group film audience experience” as one that involves people
forming a ‘group audience’ through their shared experience of watching a film together. Here, a group refers to an identifiable unit composed of two or more people being brought together through a shared sense of togetherness in engaging in the same activity. This includes activities prior to and after watching a film together.Hanchard et al. (2020: 121)
This group might include “partners, family members, and/or friends coming together as a bounded group” (Hanchard et al. 2020: 122). At the centre of this audience experience is “the relationships between people in the group and their shared interactions with a film”, engaging in social activities either before or after the film and discussing the film together with the rest of the group are some of the ways in which group audiences develop and maintain their social relationships (Hanchard et al. 2020: 122). The watchalong is an activity designed to cater to audiences seeking out this pattern of experience, as it is premised on the anticipated desire of viewers for a shared sense of togetherness through their participation in a group film watching experience. Depending on the size and comparatively public or private nature of a watchalong, the group involved may be more or less “bounded”. Partners, family members and friends might participate in a small-scale and private watchalong, whilst more public events involve audience members who may not be so intimately linked but are nonetheless consciously participating in a group activity and actively seeking out this sense of togetherness through group discussion and other forms of digitally mediated interactions.
It is of course the digitally mediated aspect of the watchalong that marks it as distinct from an in-person, physically co-present group film audience experience, and it is here that it echoes the pattern of “digital film audience experiences” that involve “people using various web-based technologies to access, select, watch, and discuss films” (Hanchard et al. 2020: 125). These experiences “coalesce around people being brought together through these technologies, and often involve a digitally-mediated awareness of other people’s film watching activities” (Hanchard et al. 2020: 125). Where the phenomenon of the watchalong differs from the pattern identified by Hanchard et al. is in the immediacy of the digitally mediated communication and interaction that takes place between audience members. Whilst the digital film audience experiences described by Hanchard et al. often involves a “paratextual awareness of other people’s film-watching activities” and interaction through “film review websites, social media platforms, or discussion forums” (Hanchard et al. 2020: 125-126), it is the scheduled, event-like and simultaneous nature of the watchalong, with discussion and audience interaction taking place either during the film itself, at interval(s) throughout or at the end of the screening, that is a defining feature of the phenomenon.
4. “The Audience Effect” in Digital Spaces
In The Audience Effect (2018) Julian Hanich contends that the “collective cinema experience” is a vital part of how audiences understand film. His work explores the influence that audience members have on one another as they watch a film together, and the ways in which audiences “individually and collectively constitute and create an experience [that] comes alive through us and continuously changes with us” (Hanich, 2018: 3). In turning his attention to the subjectively-lived experiences of audiences in this way, and specifically to the affective and emotional relationships between viewers, Hanich’s work complements existing investigations into patterns of audience experience such as those undertaken by Hanchard et al. explored above, and provides a suggestive area of future research for further enriching our understanding of the ways in which audiences engage with film and with each other in digital spaces.
Hanich argues that the collective experience of film audiences has been understudied in film scholarship, which he suggests has so far neglected the affective and political implications of the shared experience of film viewing. He claims that, “when film scholars discuss the experience of the movies, they predominantly concentrate on the relationship between viewer and film. The subjective relationships between viewer and viewer in the dark space rarely come into view” (Hanich, 2018: 7). But, as he goes on to suggest, “presupposing a dyadic relationship between individual viewer and film is an artificial reduction – the collective constellation is always a triadic one between viewer, film and the rest of the audience” (Hanich, 2018: 7).
Crucially, Hanich’s work on the audience effect presupposes an audience that is “physically co-present” (Hanich, 2018: 4), though he ends his book with the provocation that further study is needed into the implications that the move to online spaces of delivery has for our understanding of the audience effect. As the epigraph that Hanich opens his final chapter with notes,
Without the movie house – without its architecture, its symbols, its behavioural codes, its rituals – the history of the seventh art would not be the one we know. But this means that above all that, following the auditorium’s decline, the style of films will change as well, and with it possibly the type of pleasure and aesthetic experience sought from moving images. Divested of the big screen, the cinema of the future will inevitably be different from what we have had until now. As will its spectators.Pedullà quoted in Hanich (2018: 275)
Though I would contest Pedullà’s claim about the “auditorium’s decline” it is true that, even before the shifts brought on, or accelerated by, the pandemic, we were living through a period in which the experience we call “cinema” was increasingly fragmenting into a variety of new forms. The contemporary media landscape is one in which the traditional dispositive of the cinema (with its darkened room with viewers staring straight ahead in rapt, silent attention), although always something of an a-historical imaginary, is no longer wholly paradigmatic of the “cinematic experience”. This is a shift that has accelerated rapidly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and today audiences can experience film in a range of spaces both online and offline, in which “parallel” viewing, second-screen experiences, and the virtual and physical co-presence of others participating – with varying degrees of attention – are all possible (Hanich, 2018: 279 – 282). Audiences today can engage with film and with their co- or parallel-viewers in a variety of different ways, each eliciting different experiences.
Building on Hanich’s work into audiences who are physically co-present, further research in this area could think through the kinds of film viewing experiences that are facilitated and mediated by digital technologies by turning our attention to the relationship between audiences who are not physically co-present, but continue to interact with and have an impact on their co-viewers through these technologies. Here it is perhaps our intellectual response to films viewed in a “group-digital” experience that provides one of the most fertile areas of investigation for thinking about the “audience effect” within the online space. Whilst Hanich’s focus is primarily on the affective and emotional impact that our co-viewers can have on us, he notes that it could be “equally rewarding to penetrate in more depth […] the evaluative, interpretative, and ethical audience effects” and the ways in which “the co-presence of other viewers can have an impact on how we judge and interpret a film” (Hanich, 2018: 276). This is especially pertinent when thinking about the watchalong, where discussion with co-viewers might involve the sharing of knowledge and expertise in ways that provide further context and information, or certain ways of interpreting the film.
5. Watchalongs and Group-Digital Film Experiences: An Inclusive Strategy for Audience Development and Engagement?
The need to think about and explore digitally mediated patterns of audience experience feels particularly acute at a time when the UK has begun to move beyond national lockdowns, extended periods of social distancing, and restrictions on our capacity to gather together and towards what, as noted above, is likely to be a “blended” or “hybrid” model of exhibition which increasingly involves both online and in-person events. Although Reframed Film paused their activities whilst Vaughan concentrated on preparing for the re-opening of Chapter in May 2021, as Vaughan and several other participants in a recent online discussion hosted by BFI FAN made clear, such strategies will likely continue to form an important part of the audience development and engagement toolkit for independent venues going forward, even “post-pandemic” (BFI FAN, 2021).
Following Dawson (2020), it is critical that the exhibition industry actively works towards ensuring that this new hybrid model is one that increases access to culture for everybody, both online and offline. And it is equally essential that a new hierarchy is not established in which online events function as a “box ticking” activity undertaken by exhibitors as a means of meeting notional commitments to provide access to those who might otherwise be excluded from an in-person screening due to financial barriers, physical access requirements or caring responsibilities.
Dawson’s work is particularly valuable in terms of her assessment of both the benefits and the potential drawbacks of delivering arts and culture events through digital platforms. In particular, it helps us to avoid assuming that digital modes of delivery straightforwardly contribute to “solving” questions of access and inclusion. As Dawson notes, “culture that comes directly into our homes is not at all accessible for those without the devices, time, or safety to consume or engage with it” (Dawson, 2020: 21). But whilst remaining conscious of this, there are nonetheless encouraging signs that the online space can help to tackle some restrictive economic, geographic, and socio-political barriers and intimidating thresholds of space and access in physical venues. One way for exhibitors to use watchalongs as part of their wider engagement strategies might be to see it as functioning in a similar manner to the practice of organising events in partnership with underrepresented and marginalised groups in community spaces that they themselves have ownership over, and where they feel comfortable. Dawson argues that this practice can function as “a hook” to get people to feel comfortable in other, less welcoming spaces such as the arthouse cinema; spaces in which not everyone possesses the kind of cultural capital that allows them to immediately feel at ease (2020).
Combining elements of “group film audience experiences” and “digital film audience experiences”, the “watchalong” serves as a noteworthy example of a contemporary film audience experience that highlights the flexibility of the patterns identified by Hanchard et al. and could be termed a “group-digital film audience experience”. It also provides a suggestive case study with which to expand Hanich’s (2018) work on “the audience effect” beyond the physical space of the cinema auditorium and towards thinking about audiences who are not physically co-present but continue to interact with and have an impact on their co-viewers through other means. As exhibitors continue to reflect carefully on questions of access and inclusion within a “hybrid” future, what scholarship and further research in this area can offer is a fuller understanding of patterns of audience experiences that could provide insight and inspiration for designing, promoting and delivering even more engaging, accessible and inclusive events in the online space; events that foster a strong sense of community and build wider engagement with specialised film that could translate to, and exist alongside, brick-and-mortar screenings.
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- These venue-specific streaming platforms or “virtual screens” have the potential to expand access to audiences beyond the venue’s immediate geographic vicinity, as well as facilitate an increased diversity of film content, and prolong the life of films that have screened in venues (i.e. extend the period of audience interest in, and engagement with, certain films beyond their initial theatrical run).