In this blog, Amy Cresswell, co-founder of OPEN HOUSE film club and a duty manager at a large London cinema, reports on her experience of attending Young Audiences Screening Days and reflects on the event and the audience development ideas that she could take forward in her work.
Imposter syndrome is one of my brain’s favourite party tricks to whip out at any instance, and going to the ICO’s Young Audiences Screening Days 2023 (YASD) last month was no exception—in fact, it had the chance to flex more than usual after I agreed to write this blog post—good one, Amy!
To clarify, I was looking forward to my first in-person Screening Days event. I have been working in cinemas for eight years, from cleaning screens in my hometown to duty managing a large independent venue in London. With the support of the South East Young Film Programmer’s Network (now the Young Film Network South East), I have also been successful in setting up my own group: OPEN HOUSE film club (OHFC), allowing me to learn first-hand the ins and outs of programming and marketing films.
YASD is an amazing opportunity to watch new releases—I delight in having seen upcoming films before they hit the streets—and meet fellow young programmers and cinema professionals. But I was most looking forward to the sessions. From talks on ✨vibes-focused programming✨, engaging LGBTQ+ young people, top approaches for curating for young audiences, and marketing subtitled/foreign cinema, plus the session I was most interested in, What’s Next for Young People’s Cinema Careers? (See full details of the sessions here)
I wanted to learn how to re-imagine OHFC as I bring it out of hiatus and explore ideas I could bring to my job at the cinema. I also wanted to find out if other people were struggling across the sector to maintain new audiences and become not just a traditional cinema but a hub, a place that builds a community for young people.
Thankfully my small shoulder-sitting devil whispering sweet negativity into my ear was swiftly shrugged away by the time I sat down to watch my first film at Depot in Lewes. The ICO have a talent for providing a sincere welcome—the delegate pack was helpful with easy break-downs, the location choice was bright, easy to navigate and the right size to encourage chatter without stepping on each other, and the clearly labelled gluten-free biscuits were not cardboard flavour! Whilst I came with a colleague, the ICO team were around and approachable, and we met other people quickly before we went to our first session.
The range of films (see the full film programme here) captured the essence of what the day was exploring: trusting that young audiences can be, and like to be, challenged. The First Slam Dunk particularly stuck out to me. Despite having had no previous knowledge of the manga or TV series it’s based on, I have never found myself more engrossed in a sport. The film is an amazing sell for sports and animation fans alike, but I can see it also appealing to anyone seeking an exhilarating big-screen experience.
I’d use the approaches to marketing foreign language films that were discussed in the session titled ‘A Sucker for Subtitles’ for The First Slam Dunk. The buzz around the film and the increasing mainstreaming of Japanese culture will do much to engage audiences. However, getting those audiences to choose our venue over a multiplex is difficult, as was pointed out in the Q&A.
Any venue near a university will have a local anime society and likely a strong East Asian community who will have grown up with the manga. Reaching out to them to host a post-film discussion or event could divert people to choose an independent venue. Based on Charlotte Micklewright’s (Into Film) presentation, I am confident schools would also love this film despite it not being a regularly taught foreign language (BBFC-rating dependent). The message of teamwork and using your differences to unite is an easy sell to teachers.
This session was great in showcasing ways to engage people with foreign cinema, and Delphine Lievens presented some inspiring data that suggested there is a consistent audience for it. Listening to Harriet Taylor (Watershed Pervasive Media Studio) and Imane Lamime (SAFAR Film Festival) talk about their own successes and challenges highlighted that putting effort into audience outreach definitely pays off. I particularly appreciated Imane bringing up her experience of facing imposter syndrome when putting on her film festival Fhamtini? and how she had to figure out her own boundaries and dealbreakers whilst staying true to her vision. The often exclusive and intimidating club of film work feels a lot more welcoming and accessible on panels like this, and it’s refreshing to hear about the struggles as well as the winning results.
I’d love to see The First Slam Dunk paired with a basketball tournament over a weekend with, for example, a unique screening specifically for players and spectators at that event with complimentary tickets for the winners. A built-in community is taken from one location (the courts) to another (their local cinema). As mentioned in the session on ‘Curating for Youth Audiences’ with Mbali Mashaba, Liz Chege and Jabu Nadia Newman—partnerships save money and expand your audience reach exponentially, even if they take time to build. With this film not out until September, there’s time to plant seeds and curate a great opening night that shows young people that their local indie is accessible and fun. The suggestions in this session—research, multi-disciplinary curation and developing partnerships—were all very useful for my work with OHFC, where I’m able to spend more time delving into that work. From the perspective of a full-time cinema curating seasons on tight timescales, they felt too demanding of time and resources. However, Liz noted that diversifying your team automatically brings in wider curation opportunities with less effort—I would look to cinemas to break up their usually white-hetero-male dominated management team and then actually listen to the other voices to access wider communities—but that’s another blog in itself!
The blurred fiction/reality and seduction of Kamikaze Hearts stands out to me as a great example in which venues can explore exciting themes. I’d be interested in curating a programme around it with OHFC, using the techniques discussed in the ‘Vibes Only’ session of beautiful stills captioned with some of the brilliant phrases Mitch says in the film. I’m listening to a series about the film industry and the output of sex and sensuality in the 80s and 90s and would want to investigate queer sex on film in a way that led into discussions about the effect of the political atmosphere on our viewing habits. I think this would create a very visually and intellectually attractive programme which could tempt audiences.
Additionally, following Michael Lee Richardson’s talk about engaging LGBTQ+ audiences, I’d like to try meeting potential audiences in already developed safe spaces to introduce, explore and listen to their ideas. It’s easy to assume what people want, but audiences will come when you listen. I love what the Rio Cinema in Dalston did, partnering with Trans Girls on Film for their ‘Dolls Go Free’ screening of Barbie. They’re loudly making their space an ally and supporter of trans+ people while listening to what their trans+ employees and patrons want—it works!
So many sessions identified that young people are interested in watching films that bring up social, political and philosophical issues. I think cinemas programming films that examine these subjects should complement them with a space afterwards where big emotions and discussions can be expressed and relieved. We all echoed the importance of community in this hyper-digital, post-COVID world, and cinemas could be a hub for that, being a (usually) large space of expression and storytelling.
As mentioned, the final session of the day (‘Young People’s Cinema Careers – What Comes Next?’) was the one I was most looking forward to. I loved listening to the breadth of my peers’ work, but the break-out chats were the most rewarding part. I would have liked more time to properly get into meaty discussions, especially as our group was so cross-generational and featured people at different career stages. It was moving how passionate everyone in the room was, and clear how much they were struggling to get their voices heard and their work paid for. I’d like to see the ICO push the work and help they offer, especially now that the Young Film Network South East is becoming more expansive in its remit. A pointer to online funding sessions and an organised online forum would have been great. The session also had all the key questions that were suggested throughout the day but remained seemingly unsolvable. How do we:
- Compete with multiplexes with no budget?
- Maintain new audiences and communities once they’ve come through the door?
- Spend time on marketing when management teams barely cover the basic groundwork?
- Convince board directors and trustees to trust in something that is the opposite of their tried and tested (and tired) methods, despite the evidence given today?
For many risk-averse exhibitors, curated events featuring multiple disciplines would be amazing and are often successful, yet are difficult to put together. Building partnerships when teams are being whittled down due to lack of income and rising costs is difficult. Investing time and money into marketing smaller films that won’t bring a high and consistent turnover compared to Barbie isn’t appealing when bills come through. Staff are already overstretched. These questions might be pessimistic, but they’re the topics that shadowed every session.
I’d like to have seen a look to the nearer future too – what cinemas can do to respect but not suffer from the writer and actor strikes. How can we use the skills discussed to support the strike but also as an opportunity to showcase other work? How can young people be involved in that? I’d love to see someone curate a programme on unionisation which can be attended by all ages, including families, based around films, talks and workshops.
Despite all these ways I think the day could have been optimised or expanded, I thoroughly enjoyed Young Audiences Screening Days and look forward to the next one. Being around people who were worrying the same worries and looking for positive solutions rather than closing down conversations was exciting. It was a buzzing and lively atmosphere where ideas were met and discussed, and great films were watched. We have a lot to learn from each other and without the discussions we had I’d feel more stagnant as I get back into my day-to-day work. Thank you to the ICO for organising it and for giving me this opportunity to explore the day further in this article, and for being so open that the volume on imposter syndrome can be turned right down for next time.
Our next Screening Days event, Inclusion & Diversity Screening Days, takes place online on Tuesday 26 September and at Storyhouse, Chester on Thursday 28 September. It’s a key event to help film exhibitors make a lasting difference to who is included in their audiences and workforce, combat barriers to entry and build meaningful support systems for cinema audiences and staff alike. Register by Friday 15 September.
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