What cinemas can do right now

Posted on March 19, 2020 by Duncan Carson

Categories: General, News Round-Up

The Independent Cinema Office’s office is closed, but the Independent Cinema Office is not. Our staff is working from home and we’ll be here to help cinemas navigate their way through the impact of COVID-19. 

Be assured: these are strange times we are living in. We’re doing what we can to limit the negative impact of the rapidly developing situation.

It’s unprecedented in the history of film for so many cinemas to be closed. You could argue that the essential elements of a cinema boil down to three things: projection, an audience and mutual attention to what is on screen. At the moment, cinemas can’t do the first two, but there are opportunities to do something with shared attention. We recommend this collection of guidance from different sources via The Bigger Picture to address broader issues. 

What we want to talk about here is the fact that a huge sector of people used to the daily business of dealing with the public is now working from home or not working. What can we do in the meantime? 

Disruption comes with opportunity

If this had happened twenty years ago, the ability to speak to our audiences and work with our teams would have been incredibly limited. Thinking even more broadly, this is a chance for us to step back, to understand what is really important and how we can best serve our communities, taking radical steps if necessary. The coming weeks will be difficult and confusing, so we should find new ways to do the work that independent cinemas should always be about: to comfort and nourish, to expand minds, to bring people closer (just not in the same physical space). What we have below are just some starter ideas. Independent cinemas are leaders, so share what you’re doing to make it through these days, either via Twitter, Facebook or info@independentcinemaoffice.org.uk

Support your staff

Cinemas’ first responsibility during this time is to support their staff. While the advice we can offer changes literally daily, here’s a few clear things to do right now:

  • These are trying times that will affect a lot of people’s mental health. Make use of the Film and TV Charity hotline and make sure your staff know about this (they also offer financial relief).
  • Create a WhatsApp group or email thread to check in on people in self-isolation: front of house staff might not have access to institutional emails, so make sure if you don’t have this set up already, they are receiving all key updates (and have someone to chat to if they’re social distancing!). 
  • Some advice from Mind about looking after your mental health during this period that you can share with staff.
  • There’s this recently launched UK film worker solidarity fund if you’re able to contribute.
  • It can’t hurt to sign this petition for the government to support the events industry in these times.
  • Celluloid Junkie are hosting a global cinema conversation at 4PM today (Thursday 19 March) to share information. It’ll be available as a video if you’re reading this after then.
  • Technical staff in particular have a tough time (besides rapidly setting workers up to work from home). Here’s some guidance on technology upkeep from Cinema Technology magazine during the lock down.

Remind people of the work you do and how they can help you survive

Without clear government advice on compensation or deferment of payments (here’s some current details), cinemas are looking at a major gap in finances over the next few months. We’re lobbying for this to change for the good of cinemas (which we don’t need to tell you are a key community resource), but in the meantime, this is a good moment to ask your audience to repay the good times if they can. 

  • Ask your audience to contribute what they can. Many cinemas have put out the call for regular patrons to buy memberships and gift cards to help them out. Others have asked anyone who would be happy to do so to let the cinema keep the value of their booked ticket as a donation rather than have a refund. If your cinema is a charity, then flag the opportunity for people to donate directly! You’ll be surprised how many people want to show you love via their wallets.
  • How about creating some new merchandise so people get something in exchange for their support? While you might not be able to create and send some new T shirts or tote bags until after quarantine ends, people can pre-order them now (and it’s also a nice way to support freelance graphic designers and illustrators who are also facing a downturn!).
  • Any fundraiser or development expert will tell you it’s not just about passing the hat round: spend this time highlighting the broader work you do. Lots of people will only ever come to a screening and not know what other work you do (community screenings, school events, incredible festivals and seasons, accessible events and workshops, just for starters). Remind people you’re much more than big screens and popcorn and they’ll be much more willing to donate. 

Become digital advocates for film and your community

The last few years have confirmed what a lot of us already knew: streaming and cinemas (especially independent cinemas) can cheerfully co-exist. In fact, people who watch the most online are often the people who are at the cinema most too. Cinemas are curated experiences. Even though the ‘infinite choice’ of the digital age is anything but (as those who were keen to watch Contagion recently found out), it can feel like that. Make use of the expertise and passion you have within your teams to guide people through the expanded time people have for home viewing. And now’s the time to share some of those picks that are frustratingly out of reach for theatrical screenings (while shaking your fist at the gods of film rights)!

  • Your cinema might not be open but other vital services will be running. Use your platforms to guide people to other community resources that you can help. Send emails to food banks, local refugee charities and any other organisations helping vulnerable people saying you are open to help. We also like this approach from Storyhouse in Chester by having a no contact soup kitchen.
  • WhatsApp Broadcast list/group chat with daily suggestions and discussions: It’s very easy to set up a broadcast list with just a link that you can share on social or via newsletters. How about hosting a weekly ‘book club’-style film discussion with viewing and some questions circulated? Or how about a daily film suggestion from a different team member to a WhatsApp group? 
  • Tweet ‘Streaming now’ suggestions on a current theme: An easy one, but maybe a good way to remember simpler times. How about link to some titles that were either big hits or memorable events in your cinema with links to watch them online? A cinema specific hashtag for sharing these is a good idea too.
  • Email newsletter or blog with ‘best films to watch right now’: the best cinemas know that your communication strategy should never be about shouting ‘BUY TICKETS’ and hoping for the best. Now is the time to go even deeper: how about making your weekly newsletters a chance to highlight your team’s hidden gems? Bonus points for highlighting streaming services outside the big players, like Curzon Home Cinema (which is showing a lot of new releases right now and lots of their great back catalogue) and MUBI. We like this blog series from QFT in Belfast.
  • Twitter ‘tournament’ of best films on a given theme with voting: critic Guy Lodge held a Nicole Kidman performance World Cup. Why not hold a similar one on musicals, best Japanese yakuza films or Hugh Jackman performances?
  • Run a ‘Netflix Party’ using this free Google Chrome extension: Pick a film available on Netflix (perhaps something one of your programmers is an expert in?), ask your audience to install the plug into their browser and you can lead a chat along with a film, all with simultaneous viewing. Chapter in Cardiff are hosting a watch-a-long with Lucky Jim tonight!
  • And… there are ways to run screenings during social distancing. Live Cinema UK are investigating the opportunities for Drive In Cinema (which is proving a hit in the US). Head to this form if you want to express interest.

Look at deeper strategy and write policies

While our training courses have tonnes of practical information and great teachers, one of their biggest advantages is that they offer cinema professionals with hectic lives a lot of time to get some perspective. Similarly, this moment – without a venue that needs to be constantly cared for and screens to be filled – is a chance to look at future planning and your current policies. Having these policies and messaging them to your audience helps them understand your values and draws like-minded folks who can help you live up to them. Set up digital working groups to research, set conference call meetings and deadlines and get to them. 

Some areas to address (and some good resources to help you plan them):

Plan a major season

Producing amazing seasons and festivals takes time and planning, which are now in higher supply. Now’s the time to start those conversations and plan for the time when you’ll reopen. 

  • How about planning a crowd-sourced ‘Grand Reopening’ season? You want to keep the conversation going, so how about holding a bracket of dream programming? Ask for suggestions of all time favourite films seen in your cinema, then run a ‘winner stays on’ vote (check you can get screening rights first!).
  • The Film Audience Network is still running remotely. Contact your local film hub to discuss funding to do something above and beyond. Whether it’s a passion project of showing all of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, a retrospective of the LA Rebellion, a new kids club of films beyond Hollywood, you’ve now got the time and resources to make it happen.
  • Don’t forget: ICO is a repository of film booking knowledge. We have a huge database (both digitally and in our programmers’ minds!) of information on who holds rights and prints, so drop us a line if something outside the mainstream is evading you.

Stop, analyse, listen

Now is a great moment to do a data audit, to look at who comes to your venue, how often they come, what they come to see and to work out ways to leverage that information so they can do it more. It’s also to work out who isn’t coming and what their barriers are. You don’t need expensive tools to do this, just access to your aggregated user data. 

  • Here are two beginners’ blogs that’ll show you you’re probably already using data all the time, you just need a framework to make it work harder for your cinema.
  • Create a data dashboard and set up analytics: One of the big challenges cinemas face is collating all the data sources that help us understand how we’re performing. Creating a data dashboard is a big help to pool information and quickly benchmark. And if you don’t have analytics set up on your website, now’s the time to clear that hurdle!

Further industry wide resources

We’ve continued to add to this list and have created a dedicated support and resources page.

  • The Film and TV Charity and BFI have announced a major support fund for film workers, with a £1 million contribution from Netflix.
  • The BFI has repurposed £1.3m of National Lottery funding to offer critical relief and business continuity to exhibitors across the UK, via their Resilience Fund.
  • HM government has published a factsheet on how to access government financial support if you or your business has been affected by COVID-19.
  • The BFI has set up a dedicated email address and are urging practitioners across the industry and cultural sector to contact them with their key concerns.
  • The Bigger Picture has collated lots of resources and helpful links together here (as mentioned above).
  • The Creative Industries Federation has collated advice across the industry in this handy document and are also offering freelancers free membership for six months.
  • The government’s guidance for employees, employers and businesses can be found here.
  • A new Facebook group has been set up for the community to discuss thoughts and ideas with their industry peers.
  • The Arts Marketing Association has put together additional support and resources here.
  • The CICAE has posted recommendations for cinemas across Europe here.
  • BECTU has published up-to-date advice for workers in the screen industries, especially freelancers here.

We’ll continue to share more thoughts and ideas over the coming weeks. Please do contact us with any questions and suggestions! 

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