Black and white at the Winter Gardens: Programming in focus

Posted on May 6, 2016 by Catherine Mugonyi

Categories: General

Winter Gardens Film Festival
Images from the first Winter Gardens Film Festival, a project developed on our Practical Programming course

Our inaugural Practical Programming course, supported by Creative Skillset and the BFI’s Film Audience Network and run from September 2015 to early 2016, was designed to help independent exhibitors create innovative, well-structured and (crucially!) well-attended film programmes; and saw participants from across the UK kick-start a range of fantastic projects nationwide. In this blog post Catherine Mugonyi of Aunty Social gives an outline of how they carefully planned (and achieved admirable success with) a new film festival based in an historic Blackpool venue.

In January 2016, Aunty Social CIC partnered with the Winter Gardens Trust in Blackpool to organise the first Winter Gardens Film Festival: a weekend of classic and contemporary black and white film in a multi-screen heritage venue.

Aunty Social is a community-focused organisation which provides inclusive arts activities in an area that historically has low rates of arts engagement. Since our formation film has played an important part in our activities; were huge fans of discussion and its a great way to get people out of the house and into social spaces. We set up Pop-up Picturehouse in 2011, a volunteer-led group which screens films in a variety of locations including libraries, schools and an old theatre; and we’ve operated monthly film clubs as well as young peoples summer holiday screenings. Its all about bringing affordable film screenings to the Fylde Coast.

The Winter Gardens Trust is the charitable body which raises funds for preservation and restoration work at the Winter Gardens as well as raising general awareness of the venue. Always keen to support new audiences through cultural events, they were the ideal partner,offering free access to the venue and all its spaces.

Motivation

We started the festival in order to expand and diversify Blackpool’s film offer;showcasing black and white film in particular, and also wanted to set up an annual event that we could build and develop over time. Previously, we organised a preview day showing three black and white films, the success of which proved there was sufficient local interest for a weekend festival. We also wanted people to actively engage with the wonderful Grade II* listed heritage venue.

Winter Gardens
Blackpool’s beautiful Winter Gardens, the venue for the festival

Venue

The main screenings took place in the magnificent Winter Gardens Opera House, opened in 1939 and one of the most luxurious and sophisticated combination theatres and super cinemas of the pre-war period. There are many other event rooms within the complex; we made use of the Grand Foyer and Derham Lounge for ancillary screenings and activities. With a venue like this on our doorstep, it was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed!

Winter Gardens Film Festival
One aspect of the festival’s marketing plan: reaching out to local publications and networks

Partners

The Film Festival attracted a number of partners, both for sponsorship and in kind support. Blackpool Council funded two films in the programme, one as part of the annual Winter Gardens Open Day (the BFI’s How to Survive the 1940′s) and the second, Sing as We Go, which was wholly filmed in Blackpool between the wars. The operators of the venue, Blackpool Entertainment Co., were also critical to success through the loaning of their equipment and help setting up spaces within the venue. Another key partner was Blackpool Civic Trust who were particularly interested in sharing newly discovered archive footage of the town, which they had part-funded the restoration of, and who also helped us promote the event by sharing it through their networks. We were also very fortunate to receive valuable partnership and sponsorship advice from Practical Programming mentor Grinne Humphreys (of Dublin International Film Festival).

Marketing

We had a very limited marketing budget so had to come up with cost effective ways to reach our target markets. These fell roughly into three areas:

  1. A non-engaged / disengaged local audience
  2. New weekend visitors
  3. Existing participants: people who have previously attended our events or activities

Our branding was kept deliberately simple; the logo consisting only of the festival name and a simplified image of the Winter Gardens rotunda. A simple black, white and grey colour and pattern palette was created, highlighting the main focuses of the Festival:the programme of black and white films and the venue. It was also key to keep branding simple because the event was completely run by a group of volunteers with varying levels of graphics experience, and so needed to be easy to apply.

  • Local networks and publicationswe utilised a number of existing networks including the Winter Gardens mailing list, Visit Blackpool mailing list and the mailing lists of our partner organisations. In addition, we secured advertising on Visit Blackpool’s website, which sees heavy traffic; and got a half page article in the local newspaper, a page in Lancashire magazine and a spot on BBC Radio Lancashire to promote the festival. The portability of our graphics came in handy, as we created a versatile media pack which was easily adapted by partners to work with their own in-house presentation styles.
  • Print and distribution – we printed 10,000 programme leaflets and paid a small sum for regional distribution. This helped us reach valuable audiences across the Fylde Coast, particularly in Lytham and St Annes.
  • Web presence – creating a new website, separate from the identity of Aunty Social and The Winter Gardens Trust was useful in helping us promote the festival as something new rather than one event amongst many organised by both groups. It was also exceptionally useful in creating a house style, and made us think carefully about future proofing the design and layouts. It also made the event feel more sustainable and permanent.
  • National partners and interest organisations – we used national and local interest groups to promote and generate interest in the festival. Our focus on black and white film combined with the historic venue captured the interest of the Cinema Theatre Association who promoted the event to their members (who have both a love of old cinemas and classic film). As a result, we had members at almost all of our screenings and the feedback was excellent.

Ticket pricing

Given that a significant proportion of Blackpool residents are in low-income households, it was especially important to ensure festival events remained affordable where possible. We also recognised that we would be taking some considered programming risks, especially with foreign language and silent films. Feedback from earlier screenings showed that people were willing to try new events as long as they were not too expensive. Ticket prices were set at 3.50, 5 and 7.50. We also offered a wristband for 30 which allowed entry to all events and a free open heritage screening which was part of the Winter Gardens Open Day.

Winter Gardens Film Festival
The Wurlitzer organ introducing a special screening 42nd Street at the festival

Programme

Our programme was carefully chosen to highlight the wealth and diversity of black and white film. Some examples of our activities:

  • A traditional gala opening night: Screening of 42nd Street in the 1930’s Opera House. This included the Wurlitzer organ playing the audience in, a drinks reception in the Grand Foyer, opening night party with live jazz. This event was aimed at fans of musicals and older cinema goers.
  • More unusual event cinema experiences such as Cinema in the Dark. We took up Film Hub NWC’s offer of Cinema in the Dark: Carnival of Souls, and teamed it with a screening of the original film as a double bill. This attracted a younger audience interested in cult and horror films.
  • Polish language screening: we hosted a sell-out screening of Ida at the Grundy Art Gallery. We aimed to attract members of the significant local Polish community as well as potentially introducing new audiences to the gallery space. Ida was chosen to complement the current exhibition Ban Cains Companions.
  • Approximately 50% of the audience was Polish speaking. Feedback indicates that there is an appetite for further Polish language screenings and that the majority of Polish attendees had not seen a Polish language film screened in the UK before.
  • Archive footage: Blackpool Civic Trust’s footage of the Mayor of Blackpool greeting Gracie Fields. This short screening was free for members of the Civic Trust. We decided to screen Sing As We Go straight after this and most of the Trust members stayed for the feature too, which was a sell-out screening.

Evaluation & future plans

We received hundreds of evaluation forms and are still sifting through the feedback, but even now it’s clear that attendees were generally satisfied with the event and that the majority of people would happily pay more to attend.

Winter Gardens Film Festival
The festival gathered feedback from evaluation forms but also enjoyed great responses and engagement via social media

We’re now looking for a grant to help us build on our success and develop the festival further, especially around:

  • Learning / education: training young programmers
  • Learning / education: introducing filmmaking workshops and speakers
  • Submissions: creating a competition where filmmakers can submit their work to be considered for screening at the festival

Volunteers

Before signing off, we have to mention the amazing volunteers who helped make everything run so smoothly! They assisted with writing press releases, posting on social media, distributing leaflets, ushering, projection, photography, filming and editing video footage as well as collecting hundreds of evaluation forms. Visitors often remarked on how friendly and attentive everyone was, and I don’t want to underestimate how important this is to their experience of the event as a whole. So a big thank you to them!

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