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David White’s Hamilton business allows film festivals to quickly pivot to online or hybrid models. (Image: Getty/Tina Tiller)

BusinessNovember 3, 2021

How a stressed-out Hamilton movie buff saved 300 film festivals (and counting)

David White’s Hamilton business allows film festivals to quickly pivot to online or hybrid models. (Image: Getty/Tina Tiller)

The world’s biggest festivals want a piece of a Hamilton startup that struggled to survive until Covid-19 came along.

His day started before the sun rose. David White would wake up, pour himself a quick coffee, switch on his monitor and head straight into his first meeting, usually with someone from America. From his Hamilton home, he’d work like that all morning, and through the day. In the evening, as European customers began waking up, White would stay up until the wee hours to support them.

When last year’s first nationwide Covid-19 lockdowns began, his schedule was punishing. “You’d go to bed at 3am,” says White, the founder of Shift72, a digital streaming service that has helped more than 300 film festivals pivot online during the pandemic. At 6am, he’d roll out of bed, pour another coffee, and do it all again. The stress was brutal. “I lost five kilograms,” he admits.

But it was a quickfire turnaround. Up until then, White’s business had been struggling. Founded in 2008, Shift72 banked on streaming becoming the future for TV and films. White’s business was designed to help cinemas and film festivals pivot away from the theatre experience and engage a digital audience. But Shift72’s arrival was too early. “We struggled to get that breakthrough,” says White. “It was hard to get traction.”

That changed in 2020. As Covid-19 lockdowns began being enforced, White’s phone suddenly started ringing. The first call came from organisers of the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival, CPH-DOX, wanting to move its event online. They were on the brink of bankruptcy, but White says he helped turn that around. “They had huge financial success during that couple of weeks,” he says. “The floodgates opened from there.”

Major festivals followed suit. “We did the Cannes Film Festival … Sundance and Toronto and New York and Melbourne,” recites White from the top of his sleep-deprived head. His team of 10 was suddenly far too small to cope with demand. He began hiring, but White was the only one able to meet with customers, and he describes the intensity of that period being like “a firehose to the face”.

The Toronto International Film Festival went digital with the help of Shift72. Image: Supplied

Much of 2020 is a blur, but as lockdowns fluctuated, White realised demand wasn’t going to stop, so he started expanding. He was desperate, interviewing potential employees over Zoom, some of whom didn’t even have their webcams turned on. He’d still give them the job. “We didn’t even know what they looked like,” White says. “He’d tell them: “‘Oh yep, someone vouches for you, you’re hired.’”

But the work kept coming. “Everything we’d built and believed in had come true,” he says. “It was phenomenal times … but burnout was really real.” The day White realised he might be on the brink was when he accidentally left his Google calendar open for bookings. When he woke up, every slot was filled. “I had 30-minute back-to-back meetings,” he says. “It went from friggin’ 6am to 3am … I didn’t even schedule a break in-between.” Festival organisers from all over the world were desperate for Shift72’s help. “I couldn’t leave the room … I don’t even know who I was talking to.”

Things have steadied since then, and White’s success has been recognised by the industry. Deadline has interviewed him, Screen Daily has profiled him, and Variety has given him a call. The day The Spinoff phones him, Hamilton is locked down and White is working from home again. His brand new Shift72 office space in Garden Place, designed for a team that now numbers 53, will have to remain empty for now.

White thought demand for Shift72’s services might decrease as Covid-19 lockdowns ease off. That hasn’t happened. In fact, it’s intensifying. So far, he’s helped more than 300 festivals pivot  online, and many are staying there. “It’s this forced digital moment,” says White. He thinks Covid-19 pushed everything forward three years. To capitalise, he’s just hired a staff member in Italy, and two in Berlin. “We’re across 55 countries now,” he says. “It’s truly global.”

Shift72’s David White. Image: Supplied

The future, White says, is a hybrid festival model, one that runs both cinema screenings and virtual offerings as well. “What we’ve seen is the festivals that have done this well and embraced it have reached a wider audience than they’ve ever reached before,” he says. “You’ve got this new audience that wants to watch it at home but don’t want to go to the cinema. Then you might find next year they want to go to the festival.”

It’s something the New Zealand International Film Festival learned the hard way. In 2020, Shift72 helped the NZIFF move online, and many considered it a success. White offered to help again this year, but was turned down as the festival opted for a cinema-only event. Now, the Auckland leg has been cancelled, and delta is disrupting the festival in other cities too. As a result, the future is cloudy: organisers are asking the rest of the country to pack out screenings to help it survive.

White says he’s ready to help, and with hundreds of movies stored on the company’s servers, it only takes a few hours for his team to put an online festival together. He’s a movie buff himself and loves them. “They’re really good at curating content and bringing you films you didn’t know about and telling you to watch them.” He should be celebrating his success with the perks of being able to have a sneak-peek at all the films on his platform. But White just doesn’t have time. “I can’t remember the last time I watched a film,” he says. “I’m just too busy doing the doing to do the watching.”

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