Leading online B2B licensing platform RightsTrade has been selected to provide the technological backbone for the upcoming FilMart in Hong Kong. Turning such a large and busy fair into a virtual market has been a long time coming.

The film and TV market, a flagship event for the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, had been expected to operate as a face-to-face event in its usual slot in late March. But the coronavirus outbreak caused the fair organizers to postpone it to the end of August. And, as it became clear that COVID-related travel restrictions were not going away in a hurry, they chose to keep the calendar position, but switch the market over to virtual one, running Aug. 26-29.

“We’ve built a dedicated website, a self-contained ecosystem. Once an executive is registered with FilMart they are offered the choices to attend conferences, screen titles as a group, visit individual companies and schedule particular titles. There is a calendar system, with appointments and messaging. And an integrated video conferencing tool,” Bill Lischak, RightsTrade CEO, told Variety. “All will be available in English, simplified and traditional Chinese.”

The European Film Promotion organization said that it expects at least 40 European film sales companies to attend FilMart under its umbrella stand. They include prominent firms such as Denmark’s LevelK, Germany’s The Match Factory, and the U.K.’s WestEnd Films.

The tech package also includes negotiation tools, with options covering aspects such as minimum guarantee payments, rights exclusivity, territories and rights categories, enabling buyers and sellers to agree a contract template. While payment processing is not part of the RightsTrade package for FilMart, document signing is included, meaning that an agreed deal can be concluded online, if not paid for.

The system’s screenings analytics tool stretches to information on who showed up at a movie, who left early, and how many times an individual watched the content.

RightsTrade will also provide key functionality for the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF), the long-established film project market that is operated by the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and which is nested within the FilMart events. This year HAF runs Aug 26-28.

RightsTrade shares roots and history with FilmTrack, a rights management tool originally developed by Stephen and Jason Kassin in the 1990s, and which is now owned by City National Bank.

The company launched in 2015 as an online venue for executives in licensing, enabling them to generate incremental sales and increase rights efficiency. It now claims clients including Lionsgate, Spain’s Telefonica-owned pay TV/VOD service Movistar+, public broadcaster RTVE, and Gaumont, and a roster of over 6,500 titles.

Lischak, a film veteran with experience at OddLot Entertainment and First Look Studios/Overseas Filmgroup, and who joined RightsTrade in June this year, says the company is now evolving. “Our new focus is creating tailor-made solutions for virtual markets,” he says. The massive FilMart and NATPE events are the first products of the new direction. And he argues that virtual markets are here to stay.

Online film and TV markets were infamously pitched more than two decades ago by a handful of dotcom companies, only to see them meet with considerable resistance from both buyers and sellers, and die when the dotcom bubble burst. At the time, it was too big a leap for the entertainment industry to make, and the technology was not good enough.

Since then, technological revolutions including smartphones, apps, and vastly higher connection speeds have changed people’s readiness and adaptability.

Pressures from within the entertainment industry also have pushed executives to reconsider online rights management. Emerging streaming platforms needed to quickly build content libraries. And at the same time, content sellers faced mounting financial costs of operating booths and attending multiple markets.

The coronavirus outbreak has forced companies to look again at the content business at time when travel and physical meetings are impossible or unwise.

And even when it is safe to fly again, the virtual component will always be with us, predicts Lischak. “In the future, how many people will be able to travel to all the markets? The virtual market has something for all those who would have gone, and also for new participants. It could expand the marketplace,” he says.