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Diversity on screen: what does that really mean?

Posted Thursday 29 June 2017 by Ellen Reay in Cinema Careers, FEDS scheme

mikaela

We asked Mikaela Smith, one of this year's FEDS trainees, about how her host organisation Showroom Cinema is thinking about diversity in their programme and how they are trying to improve representation on their screens.

As many independent and community cinemas will know, funding deadlines for 2017 have been looming: in my first few months at the lovely Showroom Cinema, our little programming and development team were squirrelled away with funding bids aplenty: creating plans that will shape our cinema’s output for the next three years. Hefty stuff. Having worked for a non-profit in the past, I know a little of what a monumental task getting funding can be, and how important it is to not only have your goals and objectives set out, but to understand what your current output is. Who are you helping? Why? With the BFI’s focus on diversity, it is an important subject across the UK film industry, and it’s also not something that can be taken lightly. If any change is going to happen, people need to get serious.

It’s a topic I am willing to say I am pretty enthusiastic about. There are many personal reasons I won’t get into, but in short, I grew up mixed race in a very white area. Growing up is harder to do when there is no one that looks like you to help you understand yourself. It’s even harder when this is stretched across all the media that is available to you, and when all the media that is available to your peers portrays people that look like you in an unfavourable way. But enough with my life story: let’s get back to business.

Showroom Sheffield

Image: Showroom Cinema, Sheffield 

Joan, the Showroom's Senior Programmer, tasked me with analysing the last year of programming at the Showroom: every film that played on one of our screens over a twelve month period. She asked that I complete this small, simple task, so that we could really understand what our output was, and how we could use that understanding to set goals for diversity in our future programme. I was looking at writers, directors and protagonists: are they male or female? Are they BAMER? Are they LGBT+? (The latter was specifically looking at narratives/characters, rather than directors/writers, as I am not a wizard that can predict anyone’s sexuality).

Note: We chose to categorise ethnicity using the BAMER (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnicity and Refugee) tag, rather than BAME, which is a slight divergence from industry standard. For us, BAMER represents a progression, and we think it is important to recognize refugees as an important minority audience. BAMER is also the standard of our local audience: we work with the Sheffield equality hubs and try to connect with the needs and voices of the people that fill our city – we have a BAMER equality hub for Sheffield, and it made sense to align ourselves with them.

It was a mammoth task, but I was ready for it. I could see the importance in knowing this information, because if you don’t know where you are, how can you really make a conscious effort to move forward? Unfortunately, as soon as I got into the swing of things, I faltered. There were many films popping up that were representative of what I would call ‘diverse’ cultures, but that I struggled to categorise. Important films that teach us about traditions, religions and parts of the world we don’t always understand. Mustang, for example is a beautiful film about young women coming-of-age in a restrictive environment that is different from the one lots of you (and certainly I) grew up in, I would call it diverse, but are those young girls BAMER? Or are they white? How can you shoe-horn the melting pot of culture that is independent and foreign language film into a yes/no checkbox?

Mustang

Image: Mustang

I checked in with Joan. ‘Meaningful representation of diverse subject matter’: an extra column on my now far-too-wide Excel spreadsheet, but it did make all the difference. Now I could still recognise the importance of ‘diverse subject matter’, but not be forced to mix it in with non-white narratives. This may seem ridiculous but it’s important to recognise both: there are many meaningful stories including white-majority casts, but they do not serve a BAMER audience in the same way that a film featuring BAMER characters does. The only issue with that column is that in order to do it right, you need a pretty great understanding of the programme (it was around 500 films, and though I watch a lot of films, I do also enjoy going outdoors from time to time: Nosferatu I am not.). Thankfully, the Showroom programming team is made up of a selection of truly bad-ass ladies that have a collectively fantastic knowledge of film, they have also worked at the Showroom far longer than I have. Together, the task was tackled.

How Did We Fare?

Our statistics came out better than I had expected, which isn’t to say I don’t think the Showroom’s programme is fabulous and diverse; I do. But I don’t think I am the first to suggest the film industry is not the most diverse, and a film programme can only be as good as the films available to it, really.

When I crunched all the numbers into some sort of a sensible report, I did so comparatively against Creative Skillset statistics, BFI statistics and a number of other sizeable reports from development/production areas of the film industry. I will mention that I would have loved to have had data from more independent cinemas to see where we really sit: are we behind the times, or daring and progressive? We can only find out if we share our information, but that might be a debate for another day.

Doc Fest 2017

Image: Sheffield Doc|Fest

We fared better than the UK industry output - which is in part thanks to the Showroom’s commitment to foreign language film, and specialised festivals and seasons: our ever popular selection of East Asian cinema and annual Japan Season (thank you, Japan Foundation) helped with our BAMER representation statistics, which were significantly higher than the UK employment rates for BAMER directors and writers. Doc/Fest also provided an enthusiastic boost to the number of female directors employed on films we showed: our statistics for this jumped from 13% to 17% with the inclusion of festivals and seasons. Doc/Fest’s programme for films on our screens (I can’t speak for their entire programme) was around 39% female directed (high fives all round for Doc/Fest).

Overall, our on-screen statistics were considerably better than off-screen, with 36% of films with a notable protagonist having a female lead. Interestingly, when looking at the programme in terms of the F-Rating, 40% of our programme was F-rated - the closeness of these numbers suggests a correlation between films written/directed by women also being the strong players in terms of leading ladies. This is why it is so important to have more diversity off-screen: it’s really the only way to get these stories told, and have them told right. Similarly, 18% of the Showroom’s programme features a director of BAMER background and 17% of programmed films were from BAMER writers. This is in spite of the UK film production workforce only employing 3% of workers from BAMER backgrounds. In supporting a vast programme of foreign film, the Showroom actively encourages much broader representation both on and off screen, and more accurately reflects the multicultural nature of the UK.

What Does it All Mean?

As much as I would like to shout about these statistics - and I would like to: across the board, percentages for female and BAMER writers, directors and protagonists, and LGBT+ narratives were strong. But were they strong enough? Do the films on our screens serve the communities in our city and across the UK? I think as much as they can, yes. But there is certainly room for improvement.

I’ve started analysing this year’s programme more in-real-time (I figure month-by-month chunks are much easier than analysing 500 films at once). I’ve added two new columns to the ever-growing spreadsheet: admissions for each film, and how many shows they get. As soon as I started writing the report, this became information I wish I had. Moving forward, we’ll be able to see how heavily our programme supports on and off-screen diversity, both in terms of what is programmed, but also how much time we give those films to find their audience. Both factors are important for monitoring how well we serve diverse audiences. We’ll also be able to see what audiences get behind, and if audiences for more diverse content are growing.

Daughters of the Dust

Image: Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust

It’s going to be an exciting year for the Showroom: the newly-implemented F-Rating is a call to arms, not just for our programming team, but our audiences. F-rated and Triple-F-Rated films now proudly wear a stamp across our website, print and box office marketing: if people are really keen to support women in film, we’re making it as easy as possible for them to see where and how they can vote with their seats. We’ve also just implemented Cine26, a fabulous initiative offering cinema-goers 26 and under £4.50 cinema tickets, all day, every day. It is a perk of the job that I get free cinema tickets anyway (all my childhood dreams have come true), but believe me: it takes me half the time to convince my friends that they want to spend two of their precious hours watching a bizarre French cannibal-horror (Raw, I’m looking at you), or better yet, a dreamlike re-release title musing on Gullah culture (thank you, Daughters of the Dust), when they know it will only cost them £4.50. It opens up a wider range of films to a wider range of people, and though the scheme is aimed at young people across the board (us millennials have it tough), I think it is important to recognise that this is also a great offering for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds (who are, statistically, more likely to also be young BAMER people). Combining a more accessible cinema pricing (we also offer benefit claimant tickets at concessionary prices), with more active and more open analysis of what our programme offering is and who it really serves, are solid first steps in chipping away at the daunting industry issue of diversity on and off-screen.

Have any of your organisations carried out a diversity audit on your programme? What did you discover? We'd love to hear about your strategies for ensuring a diverse programme.

Want to learn about what our other trainees have been up to? Rico Johnson-Sinclair recently let us in on the secrets to surviving a film festival.

Club des Femmes' decade of queer feminist film programming

Posted Friday 12 May 2017 by Duncan Carson in Cinema Careers, General

Club des Femmes blog montage
Films screened by Club des Femmes (L-R): Sepideh; De Cierta Manera; Carry Greenham Home 

Club des Femmes is a queer feminist collective that has now been showing films, running events and changing the shape of programming and culture for ten years. Founded in 2007 by programmer Selina Robertson and filmmaker Sarah Wood, then joined in 2009 by writer, curator and academic Sophie Mayer, it has proved an enduring and essential presence in the UK’s independent curation scene. With Sarah and Selina’s bond having been forged when they were both working at the Independent Cinema Office, we’re very happy to pay tribute to this programming force at this milestone.

This decade anniversary is marked by one of their most ambitious projects to date: a tribute and celebration of queer cinema royalty B. Ruby Rich at the Barbican in London. For those yet to be initiated into Club des Femmes’ modus operandi, the season is a strong indication: committed to showing work that has been underexposed, with a close eye both to the past and to the future, and with concerns that stretch way beyond the confines of film and cinema. Club des Femmes’ events have encompassed a powerful excavation of the Greenham Common Wimmin's Peace Camp, a highly oversubscribed night of feminist porn, a collective action on Wikipedia and much more. I spoke with Club des Femmes three core members and got their take on what is at the heart of the way they programme.

Programming is about sharing

CdF dykesploitation

The core of Club des Femmes work is to offer access to queer feminist film work and thought, bring a rich tapestry of new and neglected voices into the light, so they can be enjoyed, discussed and contextualised. 

Selina Robertson (SR): We are always generating new programming ideas between us. Sometimes we are invited to curate a season (as in the Barbican's Being Ruch Rich) or we decide to revisit a filmmaker whose body of work has been overlooked like Annette Kennerley's 16mm films - as with everything we do it's about showing films that have a critically and a feminist consciousness and rebel aesthetics (as B. Ruby Rich calls it).

Sarah Wood (SW): It's been central to what we do – to revive work, place it in a new context and see what resonances work for a contemporary audience. Women's work has often been marginalised. It takes a bit of extra work to find that work and put it back on screen but it’s always valuable when we do.

Sophie Mayer (SM): That's part of the impulse behind Being Ruby Rich: I certainly connected to feminist film through reading her accounts of films I thought I would never ever be able to see… Like The Gold Diggers not being on DVD or video until 2009! So there's something about translating the cultural and critical histories back ONTO the screen, with an audience – and panellists. It's never just a screening.

Sometimes it's even a bit like a seance: you need people present to create a presence. Of course zines and magazines do that too (and we make print artefacts), but screening a film that hasn't been screened for a decade or more – there's a frisson of presence to that.

Make sure everyone is included

One of the hallmarks of a Club des Femmes event is the collapsing of hierarchies between audiences and curators, experts and neophytes. Avoiding the typical relation between spectator and curator, a wide range of voices feel empowered to offer their perspective. If a great deal of the history of women’s movements has yet to be written, a Club des Femmes creates a space of active participation where that can happen. This helps avoid a digested, determined view of the work and open dialogues that have a lasting impact.

SW: There are many ways to think of cinema. For us it’s always been a space for ideas. It has to be. Our programming is a move away from questions of defining a single canon or authorship and towards a growing understanding of what women have brought to the screen in terms of politics, thought and aesthetics.

SM: Something that I've really noticed is that the CdF community/audience is very horizontal: someone who is an audience member at one screening might be a filmmaker we present later on; a panellist might give us a lead to our next project; a shy and nerdy viewer like me might become part of the team – so it is very much community-building around shared interests. A continuous flow of actions and conversations that don't assume anyone in the room has a fixed role.

Make the cinema a space for discussion

Carry Greenham Home

The cinema itself is often a harsh environment for honest and productive discussion amongst equals, especially given the ‘master and pupil’ dynamic of the traditional Q&A session. Showing radical work is inherently about opening up a space for new ideas, and so creating a space in which these ideas can circulate is something that Club des Femmes have taken care over (to the extent that their Carry Greenham Home event at the Rio in East London exploded into spontaneous song!).

SR: Our practice of collaboration is all that we have, and the queer feminist space that we actively create every time we come together...

SW: I agree. Because so much of culture is now mediated through screens, and viewing is so isolated there's nothing more exciting than humanising a screening event and enabling it to become properly about dialogue.

SM: I've learnt so much from audiences over the years. We've had great conversations because as a group we're not that interested in our own authority but what is possible through dialogue. We try to programme films that also have a welcoming stance (and to show that experimental and alternative cinema has its own forms of welcome and invitation), and to work with panellists who bring that off the screen.

Think practically and sustainably

Of course, there is a strong practical, as well as theoretical, element to producing an event. I was interested in how Club des Femmes have managed to stay sustainable and active across the ten years.

SW: Our projects have rarely been publicly funded but we have just about always managed to break even through box office splits with the venues we've worked with. The one good thing about this is that when you know you're relying only on the money you'll generate through ticket sales it keeps you on your toes about how you programme, how inclusive you can make it and how well you can communicate what you're doing to the widest possible audience. It's telling that we've taken risks with the films we've shown, risks that commercial cinemas would be wary to take but have proved that it's possible to screen unfamiliar work and still make a financial success of it. In a world where everything boils down to economics this is one of our quiet triumphs!

SM: We also try to keep ticket prices affordable, and (at the same time) to pay our guest speakers and filmmakers fairly, so that's always part of the consideration when we're budgeting an event and talking to a venue.

Club des femmes first event
Poster for Club des Femmes' inaugural season at Curzon Soho

SR: There's a lot of attention to detail, especially working with multiple formats and harder-to-find films!

For our first event at the Curzon, we were partly funded by them and supported the event through box office. We have been working like that ever since: covering our costs sometimes paying ourselves a little bit. Now we are being properly funded through Film Hub London, it's very exciting to be able to pay ourselves properly but it's still a VERY precarious job especially in London and we all work on a millions other projects to make it all work.

Celebrate history...

b ruby rich

Image source: IndieWire

With the Being Ruby Rich season, Club des Femmes are paying tribute to a figure who has proved emblematic of their project, celebrating not just ten years of their history but also twenty five years since Rich coined the term ‘New Queer Cinema’ in the pages of Sight & Sound.

SW: It symbolically honours all the women critics who shape film theory but often go unacknowledged. There's a wonderful legacy of thinking film and feminism. We are so lucky in this country to have Laura Mulvey and Elizabeth Cowie (just to name two of the amazing long list of women) helping us understand what cinema can be. I think this season and the acknowledgement of B. Ruby Rich's contribution to thought is genius. Club des Femmes has honoured women behind the camera, women experimenting with film, women on screen and now we honour the contribution made by women theorising cinema. It's going to be great.

SM: Ruby has been so connected to feminism and film in the UK since the 1970s, through Edinburgh Film Festival, Sight & Sound and New Queer Cinema that our intent is to tie those feminist history circles back together again for new audiences to appreciate and enjoy…

Thinking about ideas and moments often leads us to new films and filmmakers as well – there's often a sense of how much we need to learn to fill in gaps, or how excited we are when a new film like Wanuri Kahiu's Pumzi appears and we can programme it!

I've learned so much about how films actually travel through culture and memory by researching our events and putting things together.

...And look to the future

If one were looking for signs that Club des Femmes’ advocacy has made a difference over the last decade, it doesn’t take much to see.

SR: The margins/mainstream switch up all the time.... I guess the filmmakers that we showed our our launch event June 2007 at the Curzon were people like Lizzie Borden, Sadie Benning, Vivienne Dick. Last year Borden's Born in Flames was digitally restored and had a new 35mm print struck, which was very exciting to see this film finally recognized by mainstream film culture...

Edge

Image source: Sandra Lahire Edge 1986, film still. Courtesy LUX

SM: Feminist film in general has entered the mainstream conversation over the last ten years – as in the main-mainstream (national newspapers, BFI backed, etc), but it's in a way more exciting to see the kinds of experimental work that we've screened move into larger cultural spaces like Tate, like with Maud Jacquin's London Film-makers Co-op programme, which Sarah was part of.

SW: I think cinema itself has changed a lot in ten years and that what was once considered the margins is now a thriving alternative to mainstream commercial cinema, largely thanks to the activity of film clubs and festivals.

I asked Club des Femmes about what developments they were glad to see over the last ten years and which they could do without.

SR: Since we started there is now a really strong social network of queer feminist film curators, activists, programmers, pop ups, festivals in London – that links UK wide through alternative exhibitors  – e.g. Scalarama, SQIFF, Liverpool Small Cinema, Eyes Wide Open - whose rebel interventions within cultural cinema exhibition are significant and growing larger.

The development I am not happy seeing is the continuing exploitation by some cinemas of young feminist curators who are expected to give their skill and labour for free in return for supplying cinemas with ‘diverse’ content and audiences. This is an issue that needs to be addressed and we are talking within CdF about this a lot and how we can help change that. Watch this space!

SM: Online streaming and the emergence of boutique cinemas: these have both created opportunities and problems for making a breadth of films available.

I think the most important development is/was around digital projection enabling community cinema, especially with support from the BFI Neighbourhood Film Fund, which has created a massive growth in programming and curating (obviously supported by ICO training and distribution!), which can be local, responsive, communitarian, contextual, investigative and can offer real challenges to the status quo (like Liverpool Small Cinema’s 58% project); the second is theatrical release strategies for documentaries. As there are more women directing documentaries than fiction features, this has had a signal and dynamic effect, including raising filmmakers like Kim Longinotto to the deserved level of icons – although online streaming may mark the end of this brief golden era…

Have fun!

SR: We try to have as much fun as possible. Doing feminism is so much about that!

SW: Selina and I had both worked programming for different organisations but missed the freedom to follow our instincts and put film events together that could be more light of foot and responsive to what was happening in the world. We have always been creative and playful about the way we programme and that literally began with a conversation.

So, in the true spirit of Club des Femmes (and as a love of Tove Jannson and her creations was one of the original ways Sarah and Selina bonded at the ICO) I’m happy to share the official Moomins/Club des Femmes pairings as shared with me over the course of this interview:

Club Des Femmes Moomins2
(L-R: Little My AKA Selina Robinson; Moomintroll AKA Sarah Wood; Snufkin AKA Sophie Mayer)

Here’s to ten more years!

For Young People, By Young People: Barbican Young Programmers

Posted Thursday 16 March 2017 by Duncan Carson in Cinema Careers

Swagger Barbican YP
Swagger has its UK premiere at Chronic Youth 2017, programmed by the Barbican Young Programmers group

Different young programmers initiatives are popping up in cinemas around the country. They're an opportunity for cinemas to learn from young people, and young people to learn about cinemas, for everyone's benefit. Over the weekend of 18/19 March, the Barbican in London will be presenting Chronic Youth 2017, a season of six screenings produced by the Barbican Young Programmers group. Here, two of its twelve members give us their take on the process of programming and marketing.  

Ross McDonnell

Among the busy culture of film clubs and collectives exists Barbican’s Young Programmers, a group of fifteen who are entrusted to curate an annual film festival. The group has existed since 2012 with different members joining each year. The title “Chronic Youth” carries over from last year's programme. Coming-of-age films can be a difficult genre: so popular and so familiar, but regularly producing films too schematic or sterile.

The Young Programmers’ initiative is a great opportunity for us and the Barbican: the cinema team here gets first-hand insight into how we engage with cinema and receive film. In particular the challenges of dwindling nationwide average occupancy rate, multiple means of viewing, the huge number of films released theatrically per week and the incredible competition there is for young people’s attention.

For us, we get the opportunity to meet experienced curators, distributors and producers and are free to programme what we think people would want to watch — to perhaps project things we’ve only ever seen broadcast on TV or bootlegged on a laptop, or, now, on the other side of that eye-opening loss-of innocence, try and do something small toward changing how much important filmmaking sadly still goes without distribution. Our programme is finalised, we have successfully curated a film festival, and after six months what have we learned?

Our job was not to type “coming-of-age” into Wikipedia, and copy and paste what we found, but to create more inspired choices that renders the programmer not just paper-pusher or rule-follower. Instead, ideally, we hoped to pick films and filmmakers that refuse formula.

Barbican Young Programmers 2017
The Barbican Young Programmers Group 2017

Programming could be pure idealism, an impulse to turn fantasy into reality. But in reality an idea can create challenge upon challenge as it gets closer to materialising, and only eventually might it ever amount to anything. Practical realities and unavoidable logistics threaten you at every corner newly turned, hope is always commensurate with disappointment, the magical with the miserable. Why volunteer for this dangerous idea that encourages delusion and daydream? You are not going to chase your favourite filmmaker to the airport and beg them to stay, and they are not going to give you their jacket as a souvenir to remember them by. Some very worthy films had to be set aside.

In our rookie attempt at putting together a programme, we learned about the machine of International Sales and Distribution; about strange-sounding things like “Scalarama?” and “Pascale Ramonda?”; about the difference between championing a film and feeling dangerously kindred with one, a semi-selfish one-to-one connection that binds you with invisible and inextricable heartstrings.

Through the ego-threatening process of pitching our programming suggestions to the group, with space to deal with rejection and a time window to move on or bounce back, we recognised our true diversity of taste. It toughened up this group of burgeoning young professionals.

In our programming, we were ultimately (soberly) at the mercy of what is available, what is still out there in circulation, within reach, preserved. Following a “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” approach, this is what we decided on:

Something Better to Come
Something Better to Come

The programme

French film Swagger (making its UK premiere) and the Danish-Polish Something Better to Come are two most different documentaries: the former candy-coloured and kinetic, capturing the energy of its subject with a titular swagger; the latter a 14-year chronicle of the children living on Russia’s biggest garbage dump, a community struggling to survive in such adverse conditions.

Our shorts programme New Voices of Girlhood showcases five emerging female filmmakers, national and international, while 1916 silent film Shoes — the social issues it depicts still relevant today — is from one of the first women filmmakers: the pioneer Lois Weber.

Romy + Michele’s High School Reunion is a comedy both beloved and underrated, something even ahead-of-its-time when we consider how female friendships and platonic relationships are still too-rarely represented on-screen. Millennium Mambo then, is both a film by Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien and a film that can be — excitingly — contextualised and programmed outside of a Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective. With an ambivalent chronology and minimal plot, Millennium Mambo could be film at its most existential, transferring instead a feeling of loneliness and alienation, its hedonism and melancholy just code for drug use and depression. In its twin existence - both material and immaterial - it neatly reflects the work and weight of programming and projection — the shipping of prints, the assembling of reels — all done for the sake of 105 minutes of flickering light. Millennium Mambo will be preceded by two short films (never shown before in the UK) by one of the most acclaimed working filmmakers: Mia Hansen-Løve. As well as the apparent similarities between Hou and Hansen-Løve’s work, and Hansen-Løve’s own radical approach to the coming-of-age genre, these debut shorts — made in the filmmaker’s early twenties — highlight a brilliant filmmaker’s more modest, experimental beginning.

With some films moved to larger screens and some nearly sold out, we’re very happy with what the group has achieved.

Millennium Mambo
Millennium Mambo

Will Webb

Throughout the weeks, we’ve been lucky to have heard from a selection of guest speakers who have various skills and knowledge in the many points in the film programming process - distributors, exhibitors, cinema and festival programmers, marketers and even several filmmakers. With members of our group itself having our own diverse set of interests, and different routes into programming, having different experts providing their advice and input reflected our own different interests nicely.

One insight that stands out for me has been into the marketing of festivals. Although some of us have run screenings before, this festival is a massive logistical step-up, and we’ve had great support from the Barbican marketing team. The diversity of our programme brings its own challenges, as we’re showing six very different programmes that each appeal to different slices of the Barbican audience, so we’ve been working hard to make sure we reach each respective audience through standard channels like print flyers and social media. Of course, as the final deadlines for marketing have been approaching, we’ve also been having the standard last minute shuffles and near-misses with confirming our screenings, so it’s been very hectic. This has been one part of the process where being in such a large and diverse group of programmers has really helped — with many different people involved, we’ve been able to spread the work and move at a fast pace in the final weeks before the festival.

See the full line up of the Chronic Youth Film Festival programme here. If you would like to find out how to become a Barbican Young Programmer visit: http://www.barbican.org.uk/education/young-people applications will open in June.  For other opportunities for young people at the Barbican see http://www.barbican.org.uk/education/young-people.If you are interested in setting up your own young programmers initiative, the BFI Film Audience Network is running a scheme to develop them. Sign up to hear more by emailing ypn@broadway.org.uk.

Party at the Pictures on the Isle of Lewis: Programming in focus

Posted Tuesday 26 April 2016 by Duncan Carson in Cinema Careers, General, Pop-up and Event Cinema, Training & Conferences

Party at the Pictures Pretty in Pink
The dancefloor for Party at the Pictures' Pretty in Pink event

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 Oriana Franceshi of An Lanntair in the Outer Hebrides talks about her new strand Party at the Pictures and how it successfully brought a new audience and experience to the island's mixed arts venue.  

At An Lanntair we’re lucky enough to have a large reliable audience for our (mainstream) cinema programme, made up for the most part by young people aged 18–35. What we weren’t seeing, though, was this crowd showing an interest in our wider programme.

It was with the intention of altering young people’s perception of An Lanntair – to encourage people to see us as a venue rather than just as the island’s only cinema – that I came up with the idea for Party at the Pictures (PATP).  I’d had a few ideas of how I might accomplish this before attending the Practical Programming course at ICO, but it wasn’t until I had met the other programmers attending and been inspired by their creativity and ambition that I had the confidence to suggest trying something completely new to my colleagues at An Lanntair.

Pretty in Pink decor
Party at the Pictures is an all out immersive experience for audiences

The Concept

We have just one main events space at An Lanntair: our auditorium, which plays host to live music, theatre, dance, cinema and a broad range of events in between. PATP was to turn the challenge of this single space into an opportunity rather than a disadvantage. We planned to push back the auditorium chairs to turn the space into a dancefloor with comfy chairs and sofas around the sides.

The bar would make specially-themed cocktails, not only on the night of the event but for the entire week running up to it. The staff would also continue to serve drinks throughout the film (normally cinema patrons at An Lanntair can’t buy drinks during a film, similar to the policy most theatres adopt).

Decks would be set up at the side of the stage just by the screen, and as soon as the film ended a DJ would come on stage and start playing. The film on the screen would be replaced by a montage of dancing scenes from films, and the lighting would become… disco appropriate.

Basically, we were trying to turn the experience of the cinema into a special event, and encourage the audience back for gigs and other parts of our performing arts programme. It took me a while to arrive at the name Party at the Pictures. It was far from my first idea, but Let’s Go To The Groovies was roundly rejected.

Party at the Pictures posters
Distinct visuals that stand out from the venue's standard marketing helped bring new audiences 

The First PATP: The Reflektor Tapes, November 2015

'Don’t worry, Oriana: if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Scottish people in my time living there, it’s that they ALL LOVE indie discos.' Alison Wood, best friend and personal motivational speaker

Our first PATP was a screening of The Reflektor Tapes, a documentary about Arcade Fire, followed by an indie disco. When I read about the film’s release, I saw an opportunity to attract a cross-over audience of music and art film lovers, with the hope of attracting both back to An Lanntair as a music venue.

We created a Facebook event for the night, which the DJ updated regularly with videos for the type of music our audiences could expect to hear at the event. Gradually people began to contribute their own suggestions, which was nice.

We also plastered the town with posters and publicised the event a lot on the An Lanntair Facebook page, including a 'ten favourite Arcade Fire songs' countdown in the run up to PATP. Also we had a mention in the Stornoway Gazette and on Isles FM, as well as on the Twitter feeds of various local musicians who we thought would get people through the door.

With all of the above in place, and one week to go until the first ever Party at the Pictures, I believe we had sold four tickets. I was having sleepless nights and was basically incapable of talking about anything other than Arcade Fire.

The night of the event was probably the most stressed I’ve ever been, final exams and nearly-missed flights included. I was so sensitive to the audience’s reactions to the film that I couldn’t watch it with them and ended up in the projection booth where our head technician Mike handed me a stress ball in the shape of a pumpkin.

In the end, with a capacity of 80 (due to our comfy seating arrangement) we sold 60 tickets. On an island with a small population, where nobody had ever attempted an event of this kind before, 60 tickets wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t fantastic either. The night was a lot of fun (even I enjoyed myself eventually) and the feedback we received was really positive, encouraging us to hold another PATP.

I had learned some lessons, though, to consider going forward. These were as follows:

1. Friday night is not a good party night in Stornoway.

Maybe because everything is closed on a Sunday here and so people like to do their partying on a Saturday night? I don’t know, but it was explained to me – after the event had been arranged – that it’s really difficult to get people on a night out in Stornoway on a Friday. In future, if we had to organise an event on the Friday rather than the Saturday, we would need to be aware that this might require an extra push.

2. I should start dividing the tickets

The price for a ticket at the first PATP was £10. This was pretty reasonable considering a film at An Lanntair costs £7 normally, and the only club here costs a fiver to get in to. But feedback I received from bar staff dealing with customers in the run up to the event was that a lot of people couldn’t come to both the film and the club night, and so I might have been better off offering a ticket for the film at £7, say, and for the disco at £5.

3. Even when I think that my marketing material has outlined the event as clearly as possible, people will still get confused.

I had to deal with two customers who actually thought Arcade Fire were going to be playing that night. I felt like The Grinch.

Pretty in Pink invitations
Bespoke invitations brought a personal and nostalgic touch to the marketing to Party at the Pictures

The Second PATP: Pretty in Pink, February 2016

“The best sounds a kid will get is in a movie theatre, with huge speakers, turned up loud.” John Hughes, writer of Pretty in Pink

Elly, our CEO, was keen to organise another four PATP events for 2016. Just by chance the date for the first of these was Saturday, February 13th: yes, essentially Valentine's.

I was particularly interested in attracting more women to this event than were present at the last one, which I had noticed was a little heavy on the men. I also wanted to screen something fun and a bit kitsch rather than anything too 'romantic'. In the end I settled on Pretty in Pink, which was to have its 30th anniversary that month. I thought a John Hughes film would be a good call: they’re nostalgic for a lot of people but have never really gone out of style, and their soundtracks are distinctive enough to make the Party at the Pictures link a natural one.

The plan was to deck the auditorium out like a prom from the final scene of a teen movie and to follow the screening with an '80s disco. The process of making decorations for the event (it got to the point where every time I closed my eyes I saw pom-poms) meant that we had a lot of pretty images to share on An Lanntair’s Instagram, as well as repeating the same marketing steps as we had with the last PATP. I also made up little invitations that looked like LPs and took them round local businesses (hair dressers, tea shops etc) and again we had themed cocktails and a special montage video playing in the background, this time of romantic scenes from films; it was Valentine's, after all.

Pretty in Pink Oriana
Oriana hard at work creating a mountain of pom poms!

The response to our marketing online was fantastic, and we sold out the tickets for the film (90 this time, thanks to some extra comfy chairs). We had a special Valentine's offer on tickets – the ‘third wheel deal’, whereby two people could bring a third friend for free. Seeing the potential to make some sales on the bar, our Café Bar Manager covered the cost of decorations and the DJ: this meant that we could offer the 'prom' part of the evening for free, and charge the usual £7 for a cinema ticket.

The night was really fun and included a balloon-drop to Madonna’s 'Like a Prayer', the orchestration of which may be the highlight of my career so far. I’d like to say that I was less stressed this time around, since we had sold out the event in advance and I knew that the format worked after the last PATP’s success. I was not less stressed. When people didn’t jump up and start dancing the moment the music came on, I declared the whole thing ‘a fudging disaster’ (or words to that effect) and began to seriously consider a career change. A few songs later, though, the dance floor was full and I was on it, glad that only two of my friends had been present mere minutes ago when I decided I was going to pack in programming completely and become a carpenter. We received a lot of feedback saying how much people had enjoyed themselves and asking us to organise another PATP, so we are.

The Next PATP: Chasing Zero, May 2016

“On far shores, weary mariners hear voices

Songs so beautiful they cast a spell

There is no choice but to hear.”

Dan Crockett, in Chris McClean’s short film Edges of Sanity

We have a really enthusiastic surfing community here in the Outer Hebrides, and our next PATP aims to cater to this crowd as well as fans of electronic music. The headline act will be the performance of a live score by electronic musician CJ Mirra to a collection of cold water surf films by Chris McClean. Chris was winner of Best UK Film at Approaching Lines Festival 2014 and Best Short Film at London Surf Festival 2011 and CJ Mirra, also lead singer and guitarist of the band Swimming, has worked as a composer with Film4, Mammejong, EpicTV and Vertigo Films, amongst many others. 

As well as CJ Mirra’s performance, we will be showing work by local filmmakers Mark Lumsden, Colin Macleod and Jim Hope and displaying paintings by Laura Maynard, a local artist who is a member of the surfing community and whose pieces are inspired by her experiences while surfing. CJ Mirra will end the night with a DJ set. For the first time, PAPT will bring a live music element to the event and so tickets this time will be £10 for the whole evening, or £5 for the late night DJ set only.  It’s early days but we are optimistic for ticket sales; we even bought 20 bean bag chairs to accommodate extra bums.

If you have an ambitious audience development idea, you can apply for REACH to bring it to life. Deadline fast approaching!

To read Dreamland Cinema's experience of setting up their first programming strand after attending Practical Programming, click here.

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