Interview with Sasha Stanishik (General Manager) and Nikola Tasevski (CTO) at Cinesquare and Cutaway
Cinesquare is a platform created by the Macedonian-based company CutAway. Its goal has been, from the beginning, to provide the many countries of the Balkans with a place to access their native cinema. But its growth plans are not truncated by the limits of geography. Its platform, in the future, wants to reach out to all of its compatriots, no matter how far from homeland they may be, because its content will make them feel closer to home.
Sasha Stanishik is a film director and General Manager at CutAway and Nikola Tasevski is the company’s CTO. Together, they gave us a first-hand look at the services their platform offers, the challenges they have experienced in the past, and the many technological and business processes they are working on today. The many languages and nationalities in their region and the management of exhibition rights in different countries are part of the great challenges faced by a team that has developed its technological infrastructure by itself, without relying on third-party services.
What is the origin of Cinesquare and its main mission?
Sasha Stanishik: Cinesquare is a project of CutAway, a production and distribution company, founded in 2010. At the beginning we were, and we are still, one of the rare distribution companies in Macedonia that is focused on European content.
I’m a film director and for me it is really important to make European content more visible in these territories (such as Macedonia) that have a poor distribution infrastructure. For example, in Macedonia, there are just two cinemas that are screening European films regularly. That is connected with the need to create Cinesquare. We wanted to solve that problem because if you want to watch some films which are not blockbusters, in most of the Balkan countries the only place that you can watch them are film festivals. That is why we decided to develop our own VOD platform. We truly believed that there was a need for this niche art house content, which is not visible but is aligned with some European policies. It has big market potential. We began to develop the platform with support from Eurimages. With that grant, we launched our platform in 2016. Then we also got support from Creative Europe MEDIA for online distribution. That is how we started to develop our network with local partners.
We wanted to become a hub for European films in the Balkan region. Today we cover all of South-eastern Europe, which are 13 countries. And we are members of the board of the EuroVOD Network.
What is your business model?
Sasha: If you want to survive in this competitive sector and even in this more competitive region, we think the main characteristic you have to develop is flexibility. We have worked at this capability in several ways.
We have flexibility because our technology has been developed by our own. We have all kinds of monetization and various business models: TVOD – pay per view (especially for more exclusive content), SVOD with the subscription catalog of careful curated titles and even AVOD with possibilities to advertising. We diversify our revenues as well. We also work as a tech company. For example, when the COVID pandemic started, we developed our Festival platform. The past year and a half, we had more than 40 festivals on our platform. We hosted some of the biggest festivals in the region such as: Panorama of European Cinema from Greece, Beldocs IDFF from Serbia, LIFFE from Slovenia, MakeDox documentary festival in Macedonia. Apart of offering content, we offer technical services, and, if it is needed, streaming services. Through these services we also make good connections with the whole distribution sector.
What makes your platform different from other VOD platforms?
Sasha: When we started, we were the only regional VOD platform in Europe. The region we cover (South-Eastern Europe) is diverse, but it is culturally similar at the same time. The Balkan region has 13 countries and 10 languages. That is a pretty big market, and to cover it all, we have local partners in most of the countries who are responsible for the promotion of the platform and choosing the engaging content for their own territory. We work together on the promotion activities, the catalog, and everything. For example, every user will see the platform’s interface translated into its own language. Usually, we select with our local partners the most appropriate content to be translated based on demand reasons.
What criteria do you use to choose content for your platform?
Sasha: We still tend to handpick some of the titles, because most of our content is arthouse titles. We don`t rely entirely on the algorithm. Also, we do it with consultation with local partners with the people we know from each country. For example, if a famous person or a director curates content, this is a great way for promotion. I do not want to underestimate the algorithm; I think the best way for us is a mixture between the algorithm and handpicked content.
What challenges does your platform face?
Regarding the territory it covers, Cinesquare is a platform with a strong position. There is not a regional platform with that many territories. That strength is also a challenge. It’s not easy to acquire rights for 13 countries. This fragmentation of rights is a real challenge for us.
Another big challenge for us is how to prevent piracy and to protect the content from illegally downloading. Regarding this, we have invested a lot in security technology reinforcement. We have to make our partners believe that we are trustworthy and that we are capable of not allowing our users to download the content we show.
As we said before, translation is another big challenge we have to face. The territory we cover is multilingual, and translation costs are really big. We want to invest in this in a near future. We have started to develop machine learning for translation. This will help us to be more sustainable in the future.
Also, we want to attract other audience targets. We are working in a kid’s catalog based on gamification mixed with other interesting content for them.
What has been your biggest technological challenge?
Nikola Tasevski: From our side, we try to come up with new projects and some new features, the solution that we can offer to users to make the whole experience better. I would say, answering your question, that our biggest challenge is scalability and growth. The platform has to be available for a lot of users and it has to allow reliable streams in all of the 13 countries. For example, when we host a festival, one of which Sasha mentioned before, we have a lot of new viewers. We have changed our server infrastructure recently in order to be more reliable. We have upgraded them and we have deployed new ones in some of the countries we operate in. Nowadays, our system streams content for more than 30,000 concurrent viewers.
Another thing I would like to mention is that every solution and service we offer is completely developed inhouse. For example, we do not use any cloud platform. We have dedicated servers that we use, on the one side, for hosting the platform, and, on the other side, for content delivery. Also, we develop our own security protocols for content security.
Apart from the video on demand, there is the possibility for live streams. There is a small technological difference, but in the end, we have an opportunity to serve thousands of users simultaneously, and, at any moment, we are able to activate more servers that on our network and boost the traffic potential of our system.
Are you focused on growing internationally?
Sasha: It is known that there is a big diaspora from that region in Europe and the world. In the future, we want to offer to them the catalog of the local titles from the local countries they are from. There is a big necessity in bringing that content to each part of the world that has a possible viewer from the Balkan region.
Will it be useful an international network to expand yourselves?
Sasha: Yes, it will. But there will be the rights problem again. In some way, we are now just doing that with festivals. Festivals platforms have their own rights with their own content. But the fragmentation of rights is a real big challenge for the future of the VOD platforms. At this moment, it is really hard, especially in our region because we are so many territories.
We are prepared for this hypothetical future. We have the technological assets, we have the know-how and we have the connections and the network. We are open to some strategic partnership. As I said, technology is not the problem, the problem are rights.
What technology development plans do you have?
Nikola: We are now working on launching a new platform with some new functionalities. We now offer several models, such as pay-per-view and subscriptions. We have decided to completely redesign and redevelop the whole platform from the beginning. There are some newer technologies that will allow us to be more present in the market and to be more reliable.
With the upgrade of the web platform, upgrades of our android and TV apps will follow in order to provide our services in a more modern, reliable and user-friendly way on every device. Every user has different preferences when it comes to consuming VOD content, and they all need to be satisfied.
Apart from the platform itself, we are constantly working on additional projects that are part of this industry and that we can broaden our offer on our platform with. One of the things that Sasha described is the automation of translations for movie content and movies subtitles. We need to develop a custom machine learning model that will work well with “smaller” European languages and with more artistic texts or parliaments present on arthouse films. The initial plan is to work first for our platform, but once solutions are ready, we are open to sharing them with other OTT and VOD platforms.
In this way, we are part of the UXP (Unified eXchange Platform) project, which is an effort that is led by OUTtv from the Netherlands. This project aims to help new entities interested in creating a VOD platform. Platforms like ours usually have technological modules created by themselves for different things. That technology could be reused and it brings benefits such as allowing new entities to focus on the content and not to worry about technology.
What will be, in your thoughts, the technological aspects of future VOD platforms?
Nikola: If we have a look at the current trends, for example, Netflix with its videogames for smartphones, or Facebook with its Metaverse, all of them are connected with VOD, and every online service will be connected in this virtual environment. I think that all of the VOD platforms will need to outgrow a bit and offer different content and different features on their platform.
There are also new technologies such as AI and virtual reality that are becoming more habitual, especially with the pandemic. People watch content at home but this experience has to be much real every day, more physical. And that is where VR comes in.
What do you think about the current business model? Is it going to change somehow? Today this model results unaffordable because a user that would want to watch different content has to subscribe to, at least, three VOD platforms. Will they offer a combined service?
Sasha: Of course, one of the problems in this sector will be the saturation of the market. If you want to watch more diverse content, you will need to have more than just one, or even two, VOD platform subscriptions. And, again, this problem is also connected with rights, which is why it is not an easy-solving problem.
Maybe, in the future, aggregators could offer films to a particular audience based in a country that has nothing to do with the original rights of the territory. The solution is on European Commissions and under the policies from governments and their way to handle these exhibition rights.
In the end, some kind of aggregator package will be offered in the future that includes different platforms.