Where we are now calls for a reinvention of the way we approach cinemas as a business and cinema as a community asset. In this new blog series, we ask people to share a vision of what’s not working now and what the future of film exhibition should look like.
In this second article we hear from Megan Mitchell, the Producer of Matchbox Cineclub, about a symbiotic vision of revitalised pricing and programming.
Independent exhibition has proven over the past four months that our whole sector can adapt, change and take on brand new ways of operating when we feel we have no other option. We have taken screenings online, tried and improved upon new platforms and ways of engaging audiences, turned our whole work practices on their heads to accommodate daily changes and challenges and had hard conversations across video calls and social media about behaviour in the sector. Seismic shifts in society, our sector and our own personal lives have led to changes that, if continued and developed on, could mean some now age-old issues around access to cinema, both the venues and the artform, could begin to be answered. And our film programming muscles stretched for the better along the way. We’re going to enter a landscape, once cinemas can safely reopen without putting staff or audiences at risk, where venues, festivals and independent exhibitors are even more cash strapped than before. Some wouldn’t have thought that would be possible, but here we are. And with future funding pots not yet crystallised, we’ll be looking to ensure the economic stability of these key cultural operators, ensuring our livelihoods are preserved. However, this shouldn’t mean price hikes – it should mean taking a battering ram to our established ticketing models and finally accepting pay-what-you-can-afford sliding-scales.
Cinema is too important to price anyone out, and there’s never been a good argument for ticket pricing for venues or festivals being outwith working-class audiences reach, especially now with audiences facing greater economic instability. Independent exhibitors, such as Leeds Queer Film Festival, the Scottish Queer International Film Festival, Matchbox Cineclub, Document Human Rights Film Festival, Take One Action Film Festival and just about every mid-sized and smaller indie exhibitor in Glasgow now, have proven that sustained use of the model of £0-8 ticket prices with a clear and helpful guide based on audiences financial situations increases access and box office revenue. Case studies highlighting this are being collated by Inclusive Cinema, and will hopefully go some way to reassuring venues that if lesser funded, more precarious organisations can truly committee to access for all, so can they. Cinemas over the past four months have leaned on the financial abilities of some of their customers. Donations have ensured some cinema’s survival and helped others along their way, showing that audience members who can afford more are willing to pay to support cultural efforts, especially when they understand what they are directly contributing to. An industry move towards a sliding-scale might seem like a radical suggestion but in reality, it just makes sense financially and access wise.
So-called ‘radical’ reimaginings of what cinema is and can be have been taking place throughout lockdown. Cinemas and festivals who once feared online have been embracing the ability to continue to reach some of their audiences through watch-alongs, streaming site recommendations and their own online platforms. And in doing so have been able to offer films with captions, necessary for D/deaf and hard of hearing audiences and extremely useful for audiences with English as a second language, neurodiverse audiences and audience members who are watching whilst in a busy household environment. In simple terms, independent exhibitors who have offered anything less than 100% captioned programming online are doing worse than Netflix in terms of access, but luckily a high percentage of exhibitors have been matching their commitment. This is particularly true in Scotland, in part thanks to Film Hub Scotland supporting Matchbox to work with exhibitors to produce captions for their online programming and in part due to mid-size and smaller exhibitions, especially in Glasgow, already established committed to having SDH on screen. Taking films online has proven the appetite and need for captions, especially in a landscape of VOD and SVOD platforms that have them as standard. Why shouldn’t exhibitors continue to offer this provision when we return to venues? Captions can be obtained directly from production teams or distributors, and if they haven’t produced them for their film ask why not and set an expectation for going forward, or they can be produced by reliable, skilled subtitling professionals. Rates vary but Matchbox Cinesub are happy to walk anyone interested through the process and costings, and even point to applicable funding which might be able to assist. If exhibitors can reshape their whole operation to ensure they can open their venues again, expecting audiences to adapt to entirely new experiences of cinema-going, then they can also have increased captioned screenings. And at a time when every ticket sale counts, captioning is a relatively simple way to engage as wide a potential audience as possible.
Access isn’t just about audiences’ physical experiences of film events. With a notable lack of Hollywood content likely in the coming months, now is the chance for programming to be more unexpected and in some respects weirder. Otherwise, audiences are going to be faced with wall to wall screenings of The Goonies. Venues needn’t be fearful about what they will fill their screens with once they can reopen. There is a whole wealth of cinema, from the recent all the way to ye olde, which is just waiting to be discovered by audiences. If exhibitors can’t think of any films they’d like to share with audiences that aren’t either overdone classics or Tenet then UK exhibition has a bigger problem, a lack of imagination and passion for cinema. Audiences will engage with screenings if they have an established and trusting relationship. Instead of mourning a lack of new releases, let’s make programming weirder and celebrate the orphans, outcasts and outliers of cinema. Let’s throw open our programming to underscreened, underserved and underseen films that as programmers it’s our duty, and joy, to be able to open up to wider audiences. Let’s challenge ourselves, trust our audiences and employ access measures, like sliding-scale ticket pricing and increased captioning, to allow them to trust us. The last six months have been incalculably difficult for cinemas and independent exhibitors and the coming six months, and beyond, may be just as tough. But if we can all promise ourselves that we’ll strive to make cinema even more accessible, for even more audiences to come together to enjoy and join in the community of communicable film viewing, seek to have more fun with programming and do films that we love and films that we’re yet to discover justice, then the sector will come out fighting.