Working in film exhibition

01 Working in independent film exhibition

Independent cinemas are vital in sustaining access to cultural cinema across the UK. Roles in this sector are varied, challenging, exciting and can be immensely rewarding.

Programmer

Programmers are responsible for choosing the films that screen in cinemas. Knowing who their audience is, what they will like and how to develop new audiences are key skills for a programmer’s success.

Programmers should articulate a clear cultural objective and identity for their venue via their film programme, and will need to achieve these objectives whilst working within a budget for a targeted audience.

Programmers should have an in-depth knowledge of film history as well as of new and forthcoming films, whether gained from a degree course or through previous roles in other areas of the industry.

They get to see previews of films months before their national release, so they can decide which titles will work for their venue, and may also travel to international film festivals for this purpose.

Programmers often have to write film copy for their venue’s marketing, and will also need to liaise with their cinema’s operations manager on the scheduling of film screenings.

The ability to develop good relationships with distributors and to negotiate with them are essential skills. Programmers who book films directly with distributors must take responsibility for the contracts and terms agreed.

The leading industry training course for programmers is the ICO’s Cultural Cinema Exhibition course.

It can be rare to find jobs that concentrate solely on programming, and many roles combine programming with marketing or venue management. In addition, not every venue has its own programmer, and many venues work with organisations such as the ICO, who advise cinemas on their programmes and book their films in with distributors (read about the ICO’s Cinema Programming service).

Further reading: Download our in-depth guide to Programming.

Cinema/Operations/General Manager

Responsibilities in this post vary between venues, but generally a cinema manager will take overall responsibility for all front of house areas in a venue such as its box office, café and bar.

They have to work to budgets, and may have to deliver business plans and reporting for the financial side of the business. More often than not, they also need to ensure the cinema complies with all licensing and health and safety regulations.

Usually the cinema manager is also responsible for managing and recruiting front of house staff and projectionists, stock control and cash handling. If the venue is very small, the cinema manager may also act as its programmer; while in larger venues, they may be supported by a team of assistant or duty managers. Where the cinema is part of a mixed arts venue, they may oversee theatre/music events in addition to film and if so, may need to liaise with incoming organisations and work in conjunction with technical staff.

Many cinema managers have worked in other front of house areas and, although there is no formal training, this experience, plus some experience of financial management can be very useful.

Projectionist

The projectionist is crucial to a cinema. In previous years, when cinemas screened films from 35mm as standard, they were responsible for receiving film canisters and then physically making films up (which often involves ‘splicing’ together the different film reels and doing any minor repair work necessary on the print so it is in optimum playable condition). However, now the industry has shifted to DCP (Digital Cinema Projection) as its standard screening format, the role of the projectionist is now largely or wholly digital.

Tasks include downloading or uploading films onto the cinema’s projector servers; attaching ad reels and trailers to the front of films; ingesting KDMs (Key Delivery Message – a time code sent by a distributor to unlock films for specific screening slots) to ensure that all films are playable on date; and running the films during screenings.

In large projection boxes there is often a chief projectionist who manages a wider team and liaises with the cinema manager and/or programmer on film deliveries and formats. Projectionists are also responsible for cinema sound, ensuring that speakers are set to the correct levels and in optimum working order.

For special events such as speaker introductions, projectionists may need to co-ordinate microphones and lighting. Projectionists tend to be taught in-house, particularly by the big cinema chains, so it’s mainly on-the-job training.

Further reading: Download our in-depth guides to Film Projection and Cinema Audio

Finance

The head of finance or finance manager is responsible for all financial planning, forecasting and reporting; setting audience and sales targets; writing business plans; ensuring a variety of funding streams and assisting the programmer when required to help negotiate terms with distributors.

This post can fall to the CEO or cinema manager, depending on the cinema’s size and structure, and is likely to be supported by an administrative team covering raising invoices, collating figures, paying invoices from distributors and other suppliers, banking, paying salaries and reporting income streams from various different areas of the cinema.

Financial acumen is crucial for this post and previous accountancy experience will be very useful, if not essential.

Marketing

Often responsible for managing a tight budget encompassing a cinema’s website and social media activity, the production of its monthly/seasonal brochure and any advertising spend, the marketing department also manages a cinema’s customer database, normally captured by its box office’s computerised booking system. Depending on the booking system, it may be possible to target specific audience groups according to the ‘product’ or film, enabling the marketing to be more relevant and direct.

Skills required for cinema marketeers include copy writing, proof reading, knowledge of design software (such as Adobe Creative Suite), e-marketing tools and social media platforms. Film posters, trailers and other display materials tend to be ordered centrally from companies that deal with several film distributors’ marketing materials, although smaller distributors may distribute materials directly themselves.

Routes into marketing roles include marketing degrees and journalism experience, but many bigger marketing departments offer junior positions, and you can’t beat on-the-job training.

Further reading: Download our in-depth guide to Marketing.

Press and publicity

Not always a separate department or post to that of marketing, this role ensures that all cinema content is publicised locally or, where relevant, nationally and internationally.

Historically, print formats such as newspapers were the standard avenue to pursue; the two main outlets now are e-marketing and social media, and your key goal may be to increase the amount of traffic coming to your website.

Having sufficient knowledge of key social media platforms is therefore essential, as is an understanding of how to use online advertisements economically and effectively. Social media allows for a more in-depth dialogue with your followers and/or customers, and you must be able to identify opportunities to create good stories about your cinema here, as well as in the local press – despite the broader move to digital, newspapers are more often than not still looking for content and have maintained a sturdy readership to this day.

The ability to write well will come in handy for composing press releases, as will an eye for a good story, and great tact is essential for dealing with any negative publicity. Routes into a press and publicity role are very similar to those for marketing and include a relevant degree and journalism experience. Again, often bigger marketing and publicity departments will offer junior positions, and on-the-job training is often best.

Access & Inclusion

While only larger cinemas may have a dedicated access and inclusion staff member or team, it’s an incredibly important area for all cinema staff to consider. While some cinemas have specific people with job roles like ‘Access Officer’ or ‘Inclusion Producer’, there are other roles that thinking about inclusion are central to. Inclusion work with audiences is often done by audience development workers; inclusion work with staff is often done by HR or operations staff. Venues can also take a committee or working group approach to inclusion instead or in addition to these roles, as this gives a good opportunity to pool how inclusion touches on everyone’s role.

This job role usually has oversight or input into both the physical accessibility of your venue and broader issues of inclusion and diversity to ensure that everyone is both practically able to visit your cinema and watch films there, and – crucially – that they feel welcome and supported whilst doing so.

It may include working in concert with programming and marketing staff to book and appropriately advertise screenings that support people with different needs, with facilities such as subtitles for the Deaf and hard of hearing (SDH) or audio description for visually impaired visitors. It may also involve reaching out to communities that don’t yet regularly visit your venue to try and build a relationship with them. It may also involve asking people about their experience of your venue – perhaps their physical pathways through it, and their emotional responses to it – to find out what works for them and what doesn’t.

In an ideal scenario, these concerns are naturally a part of the thinking of the staff who work in the venue, but structural imbalances exist that mean that staff tend to be drawn from certain dominant groups in society. In this case, inclusion work needs to address these imbalances, both by consulting and collaborating with those who are otherwise excluded (in the short term) and recruiting from a broader section of society (in the long term).

While you may be responsible for access and inclusion, it is essential that you spread awareness of your work and any necessary changes across the organisation to ensure that all your staff are welcoming, friendly and prepared to assist people with all types of needs.

Cinema access and inclusion workers may previously have worked in cinema audience development more broadly, or have come via access and inclusion roles in other types of arts organisations or other sectors. Imagination, empathy, and a passion for ensuring that everyone can access cinema are essential qualities, as is an ability to listen to others – both those who visit venues (audiences) and those who work within it (staff) – and take their viewpoints on board.

Further reading: Download our in-depth guide to Cinema Accessibility.

Education

Usually a dedicated education post is only found in larger venues but an education department, however big or small, can be a great way for a cinema to establish a positive relationship with its local community and – particularly for venues focusing on cultural exhibition – add context to its programme.

For example, a re-release of a Jean-Luc Godard film might be supported by an evening course in New Wave cinema, an animation season by a series of filmmaking workshops for young people, a locally-sourced archive film screening by a talk from a regional historian. Often, handouts at screenings that put films in a wider context are welcomed by audiences.

It’s easy to think of education as aimed solely at children or families, and this is definitely a very important group – they are your future audience, and school screenings or a young programmers’ advisory group are great additions to any venue.

However, adult education is equally important. Older generations particularly are often able to make firm commitments to special screenings or courses and enjoy the social element of such events. Some educators have previous teaching experience and a passion for film has led them to work in the cinema. It will be useful to have knowledge of school curricula, be used to speaking in front of groups of people and of course, have a good knowledge of film history.

Box Office and Front of House – concession sales/bar/café/usher

Roles like these are an ideal starting point for anyone hoping to work in cinema exhibition because you have invaluable direct contact with your audience.

You need to be personable, patient, friendly and ideally, interested in film. You should be well versed in your cinema’s accessibility and ready to help people navigate the venue, its physical spaces, and overall offer.

Box Office and Front of House roles are a great way to get your foot in the door of the cinema industry and with enough hands-on experience, can help you learn the skills necessary to progress up the ladder.

To view current vacancies in UK independent exhibition, see our Jobs Board.

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