Vancouver startup Hoovie prepares to launch world’s first truly social cinema platform

The company is in the midst of a massive COVID-19 pivot.

The company is in the midst of a massive COVID-19 pivot

Before launching a company, many entrepreneurs have an aha moment when they realize a perfect product fit. In founding Hoovie, Fiona Rayher had three.

The first came while she was distributing a 2015 documentary she wrote and co-directed, called Fractured Land. “It did the traditional festival cycle, but I noticed that there were very few authentic, meaningful ways that people could experience the film with other people,” Rayher recalls.

So she and her team organized a grassroots screening tour of sorts, taking the film all over B.C. and hosting screenings at homes, government offices and community centres.

At the same time, Rayher was working with the City of Vancouver on a social isolation project through an agency she was involved with at the time: “I started to learn about loneliness and how Vancouver is one of the loneliest cities in the world.” Call that aha No. 2.

The third and final moment of clarity occurred when Rayher began to notice organizations like Sofar Sounds bringing music into intimate private spaces. “There wasn’t anyone doing that with film,” she remembers. “And film is such a powerful medium to start conversations, even arguably more so than music.”

So Rayher started raising money for Hoovie, a private screening platform where people can host viewings around the world. Soon, Hilary Henegar, who had help Rayher to market Fractured Land, came on as a co-founder. The duo (along with two other staff members and a host of contractors) spent about two years setting up independent film screenings they personally curated at grocery stores, parks, businesses and homes across Canada.

They were just about to enter the U.S. market when the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to re-evaluate their business model. “Our efforts all sort of careened into bringing everything we were doing online and trying to figure out how to support our users who were telling us they needed it, more than they ever had before,” Henegar says. “And trying to support them in trying to have those amazing experiences they were having offline in a virtual space.”

Rayher and Henegar are now overseeing multiple screenings a week online while raising money to create an all-encompassing app that will launch in 2021. So far, Hoovie’s FrontFundr campaign has garnered about $70,000 toward its $250,000 goal.

Although there are scores of other co-watching platforms, Rayher contends that “none of them that focus on host-led video discussion with like-minded strangers, none that enable charitable giving and fundraising, none that enable on- and offline screenings and none that hold a catalogue of curated, independent films that send industry-leading returns to film rights holders.”

She envisions “Hoovie 2.0” being a “truly social cinema app that will have more interactivity, let the host sink into the experience, and allow guests to interact with each other and really feel each other in the room.”

Geared to achieve thoughtful conversation, Hoovie’s catalogue is stacked with films like 2013 Cannes Film Festival darling A Touch of Sin and 2019 Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee Midnight Family, among many other independent features. “They’re all conversation-sparking films,” Rayher says. “All of a certain quality and calibre. If a film is sort of a meh film, it’s hard to have a conversation after.”

And that, after all, is the end goal of a journey that started five years ago.

At a business level, Hoovie wants to be “the top platform for social cinema—a way in which people are able to connect and find each other through cinema, very much like a book club model, at scale,” Rayher says. But on the community front, the company has another vision: to redefine the movie-watching experience as “social, human and conversational.”