Independent Cinema Office Blog

News and views on the world of independent film

How to put on a film festival for free

Posted Thursday 1 December 2016 by Ellen Reay in General

Herne Hill Free Festival

We spoke to Neil Johns, co-founder and chair of Free Film Festivals, about the challenges of and reasons for putting on a free film festival in a city where the average cinema ticket price last year was £11.78 (Stephen Follows).

Why spend months planning a film festival and then give it away for free?

It’s OK to cry during a film, of course, but how about when you’re talking to the event organisers afterwards?

We’d just finished our free screening of Bugsy Malone on Nunhead Green when a woman and her young daughter came over to where I was packing away the projector. It had been a really good crowd. We’d put up a big screen especially for the event. People had brought picnics and there’d been a massive round of applause at the end.

She told me her family had only been living in the area a few months and tonight was the first time she’d really felt at home. She wanted to say thanks. I didn’t know her story or where she had come from but the tears in her eye showed how much the event had meant to her. It was hard not to feel tearful back.

Peckham rye outdoor cinema

Image credit: Electric Pedals

Cinemas for a day

Bringing people together for a local shared film experience is what Free Film Festivals is all about. We turn local venues into a cinema for the day – from pubs and community centres to parks, cafes and even a cemetery.

It all started when three of us got together in Peckham, south London, in 2010. We loved film. We loved our neighbourhood. We wanted to tie the two things together and make everything free – so everyone could come along.

The first Peckham & Nunhead Free Film Festival included screenings on a multi-storey car park roof, in a wildlife garden and at Soutwark Asian Centre. Over 400 people came to our outdoor screening of A Matter of Life and Death in Nunhead cemetery. People were scrambling over the walls to get in. Since then the festival’s happened every year, with new people coming forward each time to help.

Bike-powered screenings

The idea soon spread to New Cross & Deptford, Herne Hill and Camberwell  – each planned by their own team of volunteers. They came up with ideas like bike-powered screenings and ‘shorts’ evenings for local filmmakers. A screening of Buster Keaton’s The General on a big screen outside Herne Hill train station, with a live piano soundtrack, was one of my favourites. 

Today there are 12 Free Film Festivals. We’ve screened over 200 films this year in parks, shops, schools, a lido, churches, hospitals, libraries, cafes, pubs, a football club and even the Salvation Army training college. There were filmmaking competitions and animation workshops too.

Animation Workshop Peckham

Why people volunteer

Streatham Free Film Festival. “Something that started as just an idea has become a real crowd pleaser and the sense of pride continues on long after the festival is over. We have all made new relationships within the community, including with local businesses. Two of our volunteers have gone on to start a film production company together. And everyone’s had fun with it, including dressing up for PR events on the high street!”

“Accessible to everyone”

Projectionist Fazhan Ahmad started volunteering a couple of years ago. “It’s a good way to make a lot of people very happy,” he says. “I like the techie side of it but really it’s about creating something that everyone can enjoy because you don’t have to pay.”

Things can sometimes go wrong, of course. When our generator failed in the middle of an outdoor screening, a neighbour opened her back door and let us use her power supply. And when the bluray of ET was mislaid minutes before an outdoor screening we just asked the audience if anyone had a copy at home and could pop back to get it. Fortunately someone had (and did). It’s not great for the organiser’s blood pressure but for the audience it’s another way to get involved!

Sharing ideas

So how do we keep it all free? Volunteers apply for small grants from their local council or Film London, for example, and we’ve also been known to shake a bucket to help raise a few quid towards future events. Some Free Film Festivals crowdfund or hold fundraising screenings too.

“I wouldn't have had the confidence to start a festival in my area without meeting the Free Film Festivals family,” says Mike Cooper of the new Guildford Free Film Festival, which starts next year. “Knowing that there is such a wealth of experience and knowledge to fall back on swung it for me. Even though the problems I'll face may be different from those in London because of the nature of operating in a medium sized market town rather than in the metropolis, it gave me great confidence knowing I can ping off an email or pick up the phone and at least be pointed in the right direction.”

The Cambria

“I like staying up late”

People love Free Film Festivals events for all sorts of reasons and get in touch to say so. “Really amazing idea.” “Loved the film choices and venue setting.” “I like staying up late and eating popcorn” (Lois, 6).

The audience at our screenings aren’t consumers or customers. They are as much part of the event as the film they are watching. Perhaps that’s why the woman and her daughter in Nunhead felt so at home.

Neil Johns is co-founder and chair of Free Film Festivals (

5 pieces of data your cinema needs to grow your audience

Posted Thursday 24 November 2016 by Duncan Carson in Training & Conferences


Sarah Boiling, the leader of our Data-Driven Marketing course, gives us some key points about audience data you should be collecting to grow attendance...

In the world of Mosaic consumer insights, Facebook’s 98 personal data points and Rentrak’s weekly box office rankings, it can seem like we’re swimming in data.

But how do you know which data is most useful to you? How can you get hold of it? And how can you use it practically to grow your audiences?

I'm the course leader for the ICO’s Data Driven Marketing course in Leeds, and I've seen a lot of companies go from having no data (or swimming in it with no idea how to use it!) to being able to gather smart insights on their audience that can drive serious growth. But you can't do that if you don't know which bits of data you should be collecting. Here are five pieces of data that any cinema that wants to expand its audience can’t afford to be without.

Data Driven Marketing

1. Your audience profile

If you want to grow your audience you need to know what you’re growing it from. Starting with a good understanding of the people you are already reaching is the first step in building a plan to reach more of them. You might want to know their age or lifestage, where they live, their socio-economic status and their ethnic background. It will also be useful to know what they do: how often do they attend? What else do they do in their leisure time? With this, you can set some realistic targets about the changes you want to make, start to think about where to find more people like them, and crucially, see who is missing from your mix. 

2. Your catchment area

Establishing and understanding your local catchment area – which is home to your potential audience – is crucial. How far do people travel to our cinema? What kind of people live around here?  What’s the ethnic and social mix? Are there any families? What about retired people? Commuters?

Put these two things together and you can establish who is missing from your audience, how representative your audience is of your local community, and where the hot spots are with potential for audience growth.

box office

3. Your box office profile

Another piece of the data jigsaw is knowing how your programme performs. Programming is sometimes an inexact science, relying on gut instinct as much as box office data. But being smart about combining your intuition with insights from data can make a major difference in driving growth. What were your top ten films of last year? Which types of films are most popular and which do you struggle with? Which films are more profitable? What’s your attendance pattern across different days/ times? Knowing this doesn't mean you'll ditch things from your programme that are hard to do, but it does mean that you can see which needs most focus.  

4. Your audience motivations

The next step on from knowing who your audience are, and what they do, is knowing why they do it. What are their motivations for attending your cinema? Do they love the indie atmosphere, or is it convenient for the bus home? Maybe it’s all about the programme, or is it your great coffee and easy parking that brings them back? Once you know this, it helps you think more clearly about how you should be positioning yourself. Is it all about the films? Or should you be talking more about the community atmosphere and great beers on tap? It'll also give you a good idea of what you should be investing in. You might think that your projection could do with an overhaul, but maybe your data shows that more comfortable seats would be a better investment. You simply don't know unless you've asked!

cinema seville

5. The effectiveness of your marketing

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don’t know which half…” John Wanamaker, 1838–1922

You probably don’t have a big (nor indeed any) marketing team, and neither do you have unlimited budgets, so knowing which of your marketing and communication channels is working most effectively is vital. With many cinemas now taking a digital first approach to their marketing, it’s never been easier to measure the return on your marketing investment, whether it’s open rate and click-throughs, daily page engaged users or re-tweets. But you need to take a holistic view of this data. Which platforms do you spend most time on? Which are driving real conversion i.e. bums on seats? Maybe you could cut your social media marketing time and budget in half and get out leafleting on the streets? Data can give you clear answers on what's working and what you're wasting time on.

Discover how to establish and use these (and many other) vital pieces of data at Data-driven Marketing. Combining practical exercises with inspirational case studies and examples from across the film and wider cultural sector, the course will equip you with the skills and confidence to recognise what data you need to achieve your objectives, to know where to find it, and understand how to use it.

News round up...November 2016

Posted Thursday 10 November 2016 by Ellen Reay in News Round-up

Screen Exhibitors' Forum

ICO news

  • It’s been a busy month for the ICO, we’ve been debating the future of independent cinema at our first Screen Forum where we partnered with our friends at Screen International to discuss it all, from the impact of Brexit to how independent exhibitors balance their curatorial and commercial visions. Catch up with what the word was here.
  • We also travelled up to Nottingham to explore the near future of independent cinema by showing some of the best titles coming out in the next few months at one of our biggest Screening Days ever. As you may know we’re also holding information sessions during Screening Days and you can catch up on all the news and advice from our inclusive programming sessions at the Broadway Cinema, here.  
  • Have you booked a film in the BFI Black Star season yet?  This is the biggest ever celebration of black on-screen talent, and we have a fabulous selection of ten films from the 1940s through to the modern day, bookable at unbeatable prices. To book or enquire, email The deadline for bookings is 16 December.
  • We’re pleased to announce Britain on Film on Tour has launched! Last night, the first of our programmes Britain on Film: Railways transported guests at the National Railway Museum in York back to the golden age of British train travel. You can now see where Railways will be stopping off near you on the Britain on Film Screenings website. Disappointed there doesn’t seem to be a screening near you? You can still book the programme for your venue (from as little as £20). Email
  • Do you want to make informed decisions about marketing so you can save time, money and effort? Applications are now open for our tailor-made Data Driven Marketing course, aimed at those working in marketing at cinemas and festivals, to give you the chance to learn from industry experts who have a proven track record of using data to deliver change and growth in venues.
  • We’re also incredibly excited to announce the return of our FEDS scheme. Now in its third year, it offers more than eight months of on the job paid training. We’re looking to help make film more inclusive by recruiting BAME people and people who consider themselves to have a disability. So if that’s you, consider this the start of your career in the film biz! Click here to apply and here to read about past participants’ experiences.
  • Those aren’t the only new opportunities from ICO training: we’ve partnered with Film Hub North West Central and are heading up to Liverpool on the 23 November for a Community and Pop-Up Cinema Workshop, where Symon Culpan will answer all of your equipment queries. The last two events in Perth and Exeter have been extremely popular, so don’t miss out.

  • Opportunities and Calls for Submission

  • Our friends at Borderlines Film Festival are launching a new short film prize to find young film talent from 16-24. They're offering £500 prize money and screening at the festival for your short film produced since August. Click here to apply. 
  • For decades, autism has been misrepresented and stereotyped in TV, film and media - or simply cut out altogether. Autism Uncut invites filmmakers of all abilities to create a short film, aiming to increase public awareness and depict a clearer picture on the difficulties experienced by people with autism. Entries close on 1 December. Find out more here.
  • What does the future hold for transgender and non-binary filmmaking and on screen representation? There’s a great panel discussion in Sheffield on Saturday 19 November offers their expertise and insight on the topic.
  • Just a reminder that our job service is a great resource if you’re thinking about your career. You can look at the roles here and sign up to get alerts as they happen here.
  • Our friends Underwire Festival return this year from 30 Nov - 4 Dec with a bigger and bolder programme than ever! Celebrating female talent across all filmmaking crafts, this year they’re holding five amazing days of features, shorts, special presentations, and industry events intended to change the gender imbalance from the inside out. Don’t miss this amazing and vital BAFTA-accredited festival as it reaches higher heights! Programme live now.

Read more

  • You can go beyond the brilliant films that are showing as part of BFI Black Star with the weekly podcast which accompanies the programme. There are currently three episodes, the first charts the story of one of the first black film directors, Oscar Michaeux, number 2 explores Hattie McDaniel, the first black person to win an Oscar, and the most recent delves into the life of one of the biggest stars of the 1950s, Harry Belafonte.
  • Our pals at This Way Up have launched their 2016 programme, and it is tasty! Two days of fantastic panels, workshops and keynotes, from Mubi’s Bobby Allen to filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, to get to the heart of the issues and opportunities in the future of film exhibition in the UK. Find out about the programme and book your pass for the conference in Glasgow 29 – 30 November 2016.
  • With Netflix and other online services increasingly playing a role in production and distribution, is there a risk that the important films will be online exclusives? Mark Kermode delves into these murky waters with the release of Ava Duvernay’s The 13th.
  • We spoke to Iris Priest, one of the many volunteers that are behind the Star & Shadow about what it takes to build a community cinema.
  • IndieWire have been asking critics about the best movie theatres in the world. Do you agree with their selection, which cinema would you add?
  • Cinema for All’s annual awards took place last weekend in Sheffield. Catch up with all the winners making a difference for community cinemas here.
  • Archiving the Arts drew to a close at the end of March 2016. You can find information on ongoing and previous work and partnerships online here.

Screening Days Autumn 2016: Inclusive Programming

Posted Wednesday 2 November 2016 by Ellen Reay in General


We've all returned to the office after a weekend of great films and stimulating discussion at our latest Screening Days, hosted at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham from the 29-31 October. It was one of our biggest Screening Days ever, with 25 films on offer and four sessions to get our attendees thinking about inclusivity and their venue. In these sessions we discussed diverse programming, programming for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, how to run dementia-friendly screenings and generally questioned what we can be doing to make our venues as welcoming as possible for all.

Click through to catch up on all of this on Storify.


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