Independent Cinema Office Blog

News and views on the world of independent film

Posts from March 2016

Dreamland Cinema: Programming in focus

Posted Thursday 31 March 2016 by Duncan Carson in Cinema Careers, Training & Conferences

Dreamland Cinema 1
An invitation to dream from Dreamland Cinema (photo credit: Bob Prosser)

The business of programming is at the heart of the cinema experience, but what does programming actually consist of? We're highlighting participants from our six-month Practical Programming course, supported by Creative Skillset and the BFI's Film Audience Network, to show some different approaches to successful programming. Here, Catherine O'Sullivan and Kate Wood talk about their process with their programming strand Dreamland Cinema at 88 London Road in Brighton.

‘Don’t programme for yourself’.

That was one of the key points at the first session of the ICO’s Practical Programming Course back in September. Kate and I had gone at the suggestion of our local Film Hub, after we’d made some murmurings about wanting to regularly screen films at 88 London Road (formerly Emporium Theatre), the small independent theatre where Kate worked.

Was this even possible? We had no idea. Between us, we had nearly a decade of front-of-house cinema experience, and a mixed-bag of administrative and marketing skills, but neither of us had ever programmed films before. We had enthusiasm, we had a love of cinema, but we didn’t have a clue of how to begin a film strand.

Grey Gardens Dreamland
The crowd at Dreamland Cinema at 88 London Road for Grey Gardens (photo credit: Bob Prosser)

As with most things in life, the trick is to just begin. And we couldn’t have had a better beginning than the ICO’s Practical Programming Course.

The course proved invaluable in giving us a crash-course in everything from obtaining licenses – I was such a rookie I didn’t even know there were such a thing as film licenses, let alone how to go about getting one – to reaching and retaining audiences.

Selection process

Kate and I thought about the kind of films we’d like to see ourselves, balancing that list with the needs of the film-going community in Brighton and constantly reminding ourselves of the ‘don’t programme for yourself’ dictum. Strange as it seems, there isn’t an independent cinema in the city, so while cinephiles are well-served by Scalarama in September and Cinecity in November, there isn’t a year-round place in Brighton to see repertory film. We wanted to fill that niche.

Branding

When we decided on a name, it all began to fall into place. We chose the name Dreamland for a number of reasons. It’s a reference to the production company owned by John Waters, a director we both love, but also a nod to the 1920s-origin amusement park on the Margate seafront. For us, it was a name that evoked a certain magical, kitsch charm. Significantly, it was broad enough to allow us to screen an array of different titles under that name. The dream in Dreamland can easily slide down the spectrum to the nightmarish, allowing us to screen anything from 1980s body-horror to 1940s ballet classics.

Venue

We were extremely lucky with our base. 88 London Road is a former Methodist Church, with a large, airy café-bar in front and a 90-seat theatre space in the back. The theatre itself, where we pop up our screen every month, was once the location for the weekly Sunday School. (Showing Dario Argento’s Inferno in there: blasphemous, delicious).

Dreamland Marketing
The joy of the physical: Dreamland stand out with beautiful marketing and souvenirs

Marketing

The Dreamland aesthetic is very lo-fi, out of choice as much as out of necessity. For our first handful of screenings, we printed A3 posters on sugar paper – block coloured in orange, lime green, purple – and put them up in pubs, charity shops, and other venues. We handed out flyers after other local screenings and visited both of Brighton’s universities.

The broader marketing strategy is a little different for each film. ‘Don’t programme for yourself’ leads naturally into ‘don’t market to people just like you’, so as well as the usual venues and social media outlets, we appeared on a number of local radio stations to promote our upcoming screenings and reached out to various community groups in the area. Heavenly Creatures was our first co-promotion, with local queer film strand Eyes Wide Open, and so for that screening we appealed directly to Brighton’s LGBT+ community. For the Argento screening, I got in touch with horror film societies around the UK and got them to RT and promote us to their followers. With The Red Shoes, I got in touch with local ballet and dance societies and offered discounts.

Dreamland balloons
Making each screening an event has been at the heart of Dreamland's success (photo credit: Bob Prosser)

Activities

We like to provide small additional extras for each screening. Every ticket-holder gets a badge (five months later, we’re still getting requests for our Kate Winslet Heavenly Creatures design) and programme notes. When they enter the screening space, we have a themed playlist playing through the speakers (giallo-tunes for Argento, Tchaikovsky for The Red Shoes). In the days following each screening we send out our monthly Dreamletter – our newsletter containing further watching suggestions, recommendations of what we’re reading and listening to, and other film events around the region our audience might be interested in.

These are the usual extras for each screening, but some of them have had more elaborate extras. For our Videodrome event, we had slices of pizza from the local pizzeria, plus bottles of beer, for audience members. (A mark of how far we’ve come – for this screening, we bought the beer ourselves; we’ve now received a sponsorship deal with a large beer company to hand out free bottles for our next couple of screenings).

Dreamland Grey Gardens Props
Props from Dreamland's Grey Gardens event with a miniature of the mansion in decline and the Edies themselves  (photo credit: Bob Prosser)

Then there was Grey Gardens day. This was our most successful programming choice so far, selling out so far in advance that we had time to schedule – and sell out – a second showing on the same day. Not only did we have two sold-out screenings, however, but it was also the first film we screened from our new cinema equipment, which we were awarded by the BFI’s Neighbourhood Cinema Fund.

To celebrate this, we held a little party. When the audience entered the screening room, they were greeted by shrines of the two Edies, plus a large model of the Grey Gardens house itself. The floor was strewn with marbled balloons, and the first 40 people to enter were handed a glass of pink cava. The film was preceded by the trailer for our next film – The Red Shoes – and a Kenneth Anger short, creating an atmosphere of suitably camp anticipation for the main feature.

Watching the film amongst a buzzing, excitable audience – many of them dressed up in leotards,  headscarves and garish costume jewellery  – laughing riotously and quoting the lines along with the Beales, was a gratifying and electric feeling.

Kate and I were picking films we loved, yes, but we weren’t programming for ourselves. We were programming for the city’s broad base of film fans.

Dreamland Cinema’s next screening is The Beaches of Agnes on 10 April. You can find them on Twitter or Facebook, or on their website.

'You are not viewing, you are experiencing': VR Fest UK and the future of cinema

Posted Tuesday 1 March 2016 by Duncan Carson

VR Fest UK1

Jenni Graham is one of our team of Tech Ambassadors, leaders in cinema technical skills that visit venues across the country to help them improve cinemas. She is also Technical Manager at Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast. We sent her to VRUK at Ravensbourne, 'an exploration into the creative and technological potential of virtual reality.'  Is virtual reality the future for film and cinema? Let's find out...

The ICO sent the Technical Ambassadors to the VRUK Festival at Ravensbourne to investigate how Virtual Reality will impact on cinemas. It was with an inquisitive mind, a touch of excitement, and admittedly, a little trepidation that I went along, as VR was not something that I knew much about, except in a gaming sense or Star Trek holodecks. But indeed there were a good number of attendees at the festival who were, as they termed us, Virtual Reality virgins, so the trepidation quickly evaporated during the opening address and the curiosity took over. The two days were packed full of talks, workshops and demonstrations that gave a crash course in VR, and allowed us to experience various different elements of it, from storytelling, 360° events, being on Strictly to playing PACMAN.

There is certainly a great deal of excitement around this ‘new’ technology, but of course it is not new. VR has been around for decades, but the technology is just beginning to catch up with the possibilities. There has been a real burst of creativity around VR in the last few years, with the VR market expected to be a £15.9 billion industry by 2019, and it is projected that 70% of Generation X (whatever that is!) will own a headset. Surely then not something that can be ignored, rather something that must be embraced! However, how will this affect the cinema environment?

There were a number of talks and workshops based on the entertainment side of VR, and the cinematic and storytelling issues that filmmakers have with transferring a traditional linear storytelling method to a fully immersive experience. And issues there are aplenty. For example, how does one direct a VR story? Almost impossibly it turns out. How do you ensure your viewer does not miss a vital piece of the story whilst they are off exploring the virtual world? How do you make sure they are looking in the right direction when they can look anywhere, and potentially explore the environment, even down to opening the drawers in a room to have a wee riffle through? There are means, such as sound or lighting effects that can draw their attention that are proving to be useful, as well as monitored storytelling that relies on the participant looking in the right direction before the next piece of the story happens, but these are still not a guarantee your viewer will see what you want them to see. Essentially, each person can experience the story in a different way. Whilst fascinating, this is not conducive to a cinema experience: how do you programme when one person could take two hours to ‘watch’ the feature and another person could take eight hours because they explored every aspect of the world they were immersed in?

VR Fest UK 2

From a filmmaker’s perspective, VR can be an invaluable tool. A director can build and explore their set, correcting any mistakes or making tweaks, or visit possible filming locations all from the comfort of an office. They can visualise the elements beforehand, saving both time and money, making a much more realistic experience for them than a picture on an art board. Also, filmmakers are increasing making VR content to go alongside their films as marketing tools. There is definitely a place for VR in the filmmaking world, but distribution of VR movies is still a solo home experience.

VR is not just a new way of storytelling, it has many applications whether it be in entertainment, education, medicine and professional development; all applications that are making a difference now. The most surprising of which for me is perhaps the use of VR for burn victims as a painkiller. There are studies and programmes in place working with victims of third-degree burns who need their bandages changed every day – an incredibly painful experience to put it mildly – but who cannot be given opiates to dull the pain due to the addictive qualities. Putting them in a VR headset and headphones and allowing them to be in that world, rather than experiencing their actual environment, has actually proven to reduce pain levels better than opiates in some circumstances. This brings the immersive nature of the VR experience to a whole new level. Helping people to relax in stressful situations, or overcome their fears, and other therapeutic applications is a fascinating subject in itself, with so many real world applications that can make a difference in people’s lives. Training and development again has endless possibilities with VR – for example, flight simulators or training medical professionals in new techniques. These are in use now, saving both time and money and providing a safe learning environment. Bringing VR into schools – to do anything from taking children on a tour of Buckingham Palace to immersing them into a Viking world – brings new ways of teaching and learning and opens up possibilities of experiences which otherwise they would not have. Much in the same way as bringing LIVE events to cinema has allowed more people to experience theatre, bringing these experience to the masses, bringing VR into classrooms and training environments opens up endless possibilities and is achievable with the technology as it stands now. Anything from architects to car manufacturers to rocket inventors can use VR to save time and money, and it will become an essential development tool. These practical applications are where this technology will fly under the radar, but will shine and make a real impact on people’s lives whether they know it or not.  

Entertainment, however, is where the flash and magic live. As a gaming device or a social world, VR is and will be amazing. Allowing people to be immersed in their environment opens up whole new worlds and possibilities. 'Immersive' and 'environment' are words I have used many time here, but they are to me the key words when it comes to the entertainment aspect of VR. It will be a completely immersive experience. Blocking out visual and audible inputs from the real world allow you to be immersed, and in gaming you have the controller to move you around the world. Not being able to look down and see your hands and feet – being a disembodied head essentially - is a tad disconcerting to begin with, but eventually you will have a full body in the VR environment. You are not viewing, you are experiencing: you are in the world. You are fully engaged with the content, be that a first person shooter game, a virtual world where people can interact and work together, or cinematic content. For storytelling, this means one does need to consider the psychological effect you are having on your viewer with an immersive story. They are experiencing it first person, rather than abstractly viewing it, and are therefore more emotionally engaged with the content. And there is also an issue with personal space, which, depending on the content, could be a huge divide in taste.  

VR Fest 3

It is a new behaviour to learn, and there is certainly a generational gap to deal with. Babies practically seem to just innately know how to use these things nowadays, things that seem fandangled to people of an older generation. And not to paint everyone with the same brush, but there is certainly more willingness to have this ‘thing’ on your head for hours at a time with younger people, which can also be seen in same generation with the difference between gamers and non-gamers. Creating content that will satisfy all groups presents quite the challenge. But that is a challenge that is being met with enthusiasm by the VR developers.

VR is certainly a new and exciting method of storytelling, but not one that will replace the cinema – until we are at the level of Star Trek-esque holodecks that is! Customers are not going to want to sit in a cinema environment for two hours wearing a headset and being cut off from those around us.

One of the talks over the two days was on the evolution of storytelling, and the need for community and companionship which it provides. VR being a singular experience - you being fully immersed in the world you are experiencing but fully cut off from the world around you - is not a social experience, it does not meet the ‘fireplace’ need that we all innately have. This will be bedroom technology as opposed to a social experience. There is nothing wrong with that, it provides us with another way to experience a story, and for filmmakers the possibilities are perhaps endless.

The role of the independent cinema is to engage with the audience, and VR is engagement, but not necessarily with what the film maker wants you to be. VR is not going to be for everyone, but if it can reach people who are currently disengaged then it is worth it, and could cinemas perhaps have VR booths in their foyers to enhance the experience? Time will tell…

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