The Lexi in Kensal Rise, West London, is a unique cinema with a purpose beyond showing incredible films and selling popcorn: mostly staffed by volunteers, its profits are all driven back to a South African charity that changes lives through sustainable living. The Lexi has now been running for nearly ten years, set up by Kensal Rise local Sally Wilton (whose title now is Lexi Founder/Dreamer). This is the fifth year they'll be travelling around London with their itinerant screen The Nomad, taking top films to unusual spaces across the capital. We sat down with Rosie Greatorex, the cinema's programmer, to talk about putting a cinema at the heart of a community and how their cinema is making a difference to people's lives.
How do the volunteers shape the Lexi and the Nomad?
Our volunteers are key to everything we do. At the Lexi, they come from all walks of life - we have teachers, mental health nurses, students, business people, freelancers, retired people, firefighters – every profession and non-profession you can think of. Volunteering at the Lexi has also been a way for quite a few out of work people to improve their CV. We train you up and then you commit to a 3 hour shift every 2 weeks. It does take a lot of management time though. Zoe our Ops Manager does a great job, as does Dave our front of house manager. I think the important thing is to realise people volunteer for loads of different reasons. To make friends, to see more films, to support their local community and of course to support our charity in South Africa.
We made the transition to a
volunteer-staffed front of house about five years ago. We took about a year to
make the change, and I spoke to loads of community arts organisations and
social enterprises about how they manage their volunteer teams and the different
models and ways of thinking about it. We won an award for best practice in
the first year of being volunteer run.
Bittu, one of The Lexi's 50 volunteers, working in the bar
I am very aware that there are
strikes going on with cinema staff in London, and a very important debate about
the Living Wage in cinemas too. We don’t want our volunteering scheme held up
as a reason to not pay your cinema staff! This is a model which works for us as
a tiny 75 seat single screen with a small bar, in our local area. It allows us
to operate with our staff costs as a fixed rather than direct cost which makes
a huge difference.
At the Nomad, our volunteers are
often just starting out in their career in exhibition or wanting to get into
some area of the film industry. On both projects, we do try to understand why
that person is volunteering and make sure we can help them get the most out of
it. Loads of our Nomad volunteers have gone on to jobs in the industry, but
come back every summer anyway. The Nomad needs 300 volunteers every year to make it work, so we're always on the lookout for new people to help out!
One of The Nomad's most popular screening sites, the spooky environs of Brompton Cemetery
How do you make the cinema something people want
to contribute to?
have a waiting list for volunteering at the Lexi! I
guess it’s a really unique project and local people are proud to have us in
their area and want to get involved. Mostly they get involved by buying cinema
tickets and popcorn and wine, or by getting married here or having their mum’s
party here, but we have 50 volunteers at any one time as well.
me, at the end of a really long day, to see people come to volunteer on our box
office or at a Nomad event after they have already done their own full day’s
work, is just incredible. We all feel like that at the Lexi, and so even though
it can be pretty hectic sometimes – especially in the summer, when Nomad is
also in full swing – I think everyone here feels like they are valued and part
of something. So I don’t think we do use any particular strategy to make people
feel they want to contribute – it sounds corny but we are a community.
How do you communicate the charity aspect of
what you do while keeping it fun?
question. We do think a lot about this. The Sustainability Institute is a charity
project with a very hopeful, pragmatic and progressive approach. But clearly
they are dealing with the realities of the huge inequality in South Africa and
the legacy of apartheid and some pretty grim realities on the ground. We don’t
want to manipulate our customers or over lay that side of things though. It’s
also very important to respect the kids at the project and not use their image
to try and get the sympathy ££s. So we try to strike a balance.
have some great short films which screen sometimes before our main features to
remind people where their hard-earned cash is going. We do also send out
updates and snippets of news to our database if something great happens like
one of the kids from the village matriculates or gets a job. Both
the Lexi and Nomad make good use of the screen before the programme starts,
with a slide show about the Sustainability Institute and at the Lexi we have a slide show
projected onto the wall of the bar, so if customers are interested they can
stay and watch the whole thing and get some more in depth info!
Coram Secret Garden is just one of usually secluded spaces opened up for al fresco cinema watching
How do you programme, playing off profit (for a
good cause!) and culture?
all thriving little cinemas we work very hard to understand what our audience
want, and then to give it to them. One of the things that really influenced my approach was the ICO's Cultural Cinema Exhibition course and we obey the first commandment of
programming from that: programme for thy audience, not thyself! We’re a first run
cinema and we programme on date or week two, depending on the title. Basically
we want to cram as much as possible into our programme. Hardly a day goes by
when we don’t wish for a Screen 2.
Lexi audience are pretty discerning. They love documentaries. They will take a
chance. We do as many Q&As as we can – one thing about the Lexi
auditorium is that the acoustics are brilliant, so you don’t need a mic. The
best Q&As I’ve been to have all been at the Lexi as you get a real
conversation between the panel and the audience.
Nomad is totally different, of course. We have 70+ screenings this year, all
over London. From parks to palaces to cemeteries and churches and lidos. And
being rep programming, it’s sort of a blank slate, which can be scary! But
Nomad is in its fifth year now and I am
hopefully getting a sense of that audience. I work on that programme with Kate,
our Creative Director for Nomad. We made this amazing shared document which is
like our programming hive mind and we’re adding to it all the time. What works
well where, for how many people, what titles are best sellers, which are
smaller but add something to our programme… I love that spreadsheet.
Small but perfectly formed: the 75 seat interior of The Lexi
How do you build such a strong partnerships?
We are ethical, and
professional. We may only be a small team but we will deliver on everything we
promise. If you let us screen in your beautiful park, we will pop up the screen
in one night, run a magical event and leave no trace. At the Lexi the same
goes. We work really hard and we hope that shows, and it means people want to
work with us again – it’s how we grew the Nomad so quickly and how the Lexi is
thriving with only 75 seats. A lot of people giving their skills and time for
And sometimes you just meet
other organisations you click with. We are screening Chocolate Films’ 1000 Londoners shorts in front of every Nomad screening
this summer as part of a project we got some funding for (I am so happy about
this) and now are also doing a couple of projects with them at the Lexi over
the coming year too. I feel like every meeting we have with them, we think of
other things we want to do. It’s a good synergy and exciting for our audiences
too, I hope.
The Nomad shows films in some amazing places. How do you go about working with these venues?
A lot of the venues where we
screen are sensitive sites. Brompton Cemetery, one of our favourite
venues (and fastest selling!) is a good example of this. Firstly, we absolutely don’t
let people wander among the graves! Obviously you have the creepy atmosphere
from the fact that it’s a graveyard, and the graves are there in the backdrop -
also the incredible Victorian architecture, but we also have to respect the
fact that it’s still a working cemetery. Also the site is Grade 1 listed and
one of the most beautiful working cemeteries in the country. We provide The
Royal Parks who are our partner there, with really detailed installation, and
health and safety plans. Paperwork! Our Tech Lead, Neil, will go for a site visit (usually several site
visits, if it’s a new or complicated set-up) and discuss any concerns and
specifications with the venue –and also of course figure out how to get the
best sound and image possible in that space.
For the programming, obviously
the venue lends itself to horror. Whilst we do programme darker titles there –
this year, The Birds / Night of the Hunter / Psycho – the Royal Parks ask us to
steer clear of pure horror, and to avoid anything with a supernatural
theme. So it’s a bit of a challenge they've set us there but, to be honest, I think
perfectly fair enough. Peoples’ relatives are there and it's important to be respectful.
This year I’m really looking
forward Mulholland Drive at the Royal Academy, tying in with their Hockney
exhibition. We had a lot of discussion with the team at the Royal Academy about
our programme there, which was really exciting, and they’re staying open
especially for the Nomad audience. Also, we’re showing A Street Car Named Desire
at Brown Hart Gardens, which is this secluded raised terrace right in the middle
of town. This will be an absolute gem of a screening but it’s a really small
capacity. We work with the Grosvenor Estate for a lot of our Central London
screenings (as The Grosvenor Film Festival) and they’ve opened up some really
amazing spaces for us which are usually closed to the public.
A large part of the work of
programming a pop-up cinema that roams to as many venues as Nomad is the back
and forth with our partners at the venues over film choice. The absolute
pleasure is when you screen a film that really suits the place. We showed Koyaanisqatsi
a couple of years ago at Hyde Park lido, next to the water, with the city as a
back drop, it was stunning. This year we’re screening Orlando at the Royal
Maritime museum – so a really nice link to the Thames, and we’re next to The
Queen's House – which has been a sort of pleasure house for queens and their
consorts over the centuries. Really hoping people come out for that one!
Sally Potter's Orlando will be making its way to Greenwich's The Queen's House thanks to The Nomad
What are the highlights of working at The Lexi?
The highlights of the Lexi
programming are always the Q & As. Enabling our local community to have a
dialogue with the filmmakers behind the films everyone is talking about feels
like a really special thing. We do loads of panel discussions but one that
really stands out for me is Asif Kapadia’s Q & A for Amy, last year. Of
course we had a totally packed cinema, it was a great panel (hosted by Carin
who does all our Q & As!) and being a local-ish doc, everyone had an
opinion. The last time Asif had come for Senna. so it was really great to have
him back again at the Lexi.
Then we had a space come up at
the last minute at the Royal Academy courtyard (one of our headline venues),
and Altitude granted us the non-theatrical rights early, so Asif came and did a
Q & A there, too. In a totally different setting of course but under the
stars in Central London, with a live jazz band - it felt like a real
celebration. And a nice crossover between the Lexi and Nomad.
At the Lexi we’ve also had a
long relationship with Film Club and Into Film. Personally I’m almost never
happier than when we have a cinema full of young people. Next week we have our
first Into Film screening as part of the Nomad programme - 220 children
watching Song of the Sea at St Marks, Mayfair. I’m hoping that’s a relationship
that will grow and we can open up more of our pop-up cinema spaces to children. Kate Pelen, Creative Director of the Nomad says 'Forging creative partnerships with like-minded
people, from venues, to musicians, to filmmakers, is a real highlight of
the project. There are so many potentially fruitful collaborative
opportunities in the air: we just need to find the time to explore them all!'
One more highlight…. Ian and
Hilary from Sacred Spirits supply all our gin and vodka – and it’s distilled in
their garden, in Highbury! They come now and then and do tastings and ply us
with too much gin and that feels like a really good relationship. Our customers
love it. Their gin is bloody lovely. Zoe stocks our bar with as many local
suppliers as possible so although the bar is tiny, the menu is really eclectic
and carefully chosen.
Read more about The Lexi and its charity work here. To find out more about The Nomad's peregrinations this summer, click here.