For nearly three months now, cinephiles in China haven’t been able to see any new blockbusters as the film industry ground to a halt because of the Covid-19 pandemic. So some cinephiles were excited to learn that this year’s Beijing International Film Festival would let them stream new award-winning films from the comfort of their own homes.

When it came time to watch, though, many viewers found the experience underwhelming. And some big hits like Marriage Story could only be streamed from smartphones, annoying users who were already unable to see the film in theaters.

“It's already depressing that we can’t watch (movies) on a big screen, and you give us the smallest screen. How do you have the nerve to charge?” one Weibo user complained.

The film festival took place on the Baidu-owned streaming site iQiyi during the Labor Day holiday from May 1 to 5. Most of the 32 movies curated by the Beijing International Film Festival were available to iQiyi subscribers at no extra cost, with six or seven films available each day. But three critically acclaimed films required paid virtual tickets to watch live streams on phones.

“Your film is shown online, your body could be on the sofa or in bed or anywhere you feel comfortable,” says iQiyi’s introduction page for the screening event. (Picture: iQiyi )

Subscribers at least got a discount on the tickets. The 3,000 tickets available for Marriage Story each cost 6 yuan (US$0.85) for iQiyi members, but non-members had to pay twice as much. Viewers also had to show up to watch at film’s scheduled time at 7pm last Friday. And just like watching the film at a theater, if you miss any part of the movie, there’s no way to rewind to see it again.

The other two movies requiring tickets were Spring Tide and Wonder in the Temple, which had 10,000 tickets each. It’s not clear how many were sold, but iQiyi’s website shows that all 3,000 tickets for Marriage Story were sold out.

“Bought a ticket for Spring Tide, didn’t have time for dinner,” someone wrote on Weibo. “Looking at my smartphone screen for 40 minutes, I got tired and wanted to keep watching on my bed, and then I fell asleep and woke up to its end credits… I’m never watching another online film festival!”

The reason for smartphone-only viewing, according to iQiyi, was to prevent piracy by keeping people from recording the screens. The app restricted people from mirroring to other screens, which can be used for capturing encrypted video streams. People weren’t even allowed to watch on iQiyi’s iPad or desktop apps.

The viewing experience for the other 29 films wasn’t so restrictive. Other movies included this year’s Oscar winners like Judy (best actress) and Bombshell (best makeup and hairstyling), some older Hollywood hits like La La Land and Bohemian Rhapsody, and Chinese arthouse films that include Kaili Blues. Since those films appear to have already been available on iQiyi, they can still be streamed however people want, at any time and on any screen.

Chinese actress Fan Bingbing and US director Oliver Stone speaking at the opening ceremony of the 4th Beijing International Film Festival in Beijing in April 2014. (Picture: Reuters)

While the viewing restrictions were the biggest headache for audiences, some people also complained on social media that iQiyi was sending out push messages during the films.

According to screenshots posted on Weibo, an iQiyi pop-up message during Spring Tide announced, “Next up is Hao Lei’s most stunning seven-minute monologue.” Hao Lei is the lead actress in Spring Tide.

“What’s up with these ‘messages from the host’ that never shut up and can’t be turned off?” wrote one angry viewer, tagging iQiyi in a Weibo post. “You’re killing movies.”

When asked about the complaints, iQiyi told us that the messages could be turned off. It also said they’re designed to “satisfy users’ multiple demands when watching a film” and were limited to three or four per screening.

Other film festivals are also moving online now that Covid-19 is a pandemic and theaters are closed in many places around the world.

One festival happening in late May is being put online with the help of YouTube and the organization behind the Tribeca Film Festival. We Are One: A Global Film Festival brings together film festivals from around the world for a 10-day online event that will let people stream feature films, documentaries, short films and conversations about the films.