Where to Begin with Relaxed Screenings

Posted on July 6, 2023 by Rosemary Richings

Categories: Inclusivity

Everyone deserves access to life-changing cinema, but for those with learning disabilities or neurological conditions, cinema environments can often be inaccessible.

In this blog, Rosemary Richings draws on personal experience to discuss the value of relaxed screenings, and speaks to Jonathan Gleneadie (Barbican, London) and Robert Barham (Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds) about the sorts of practical considerations exhibitors should keep in mind when starting out with these screenings.

I have a coordination-focused condition called Dyspraxia. I also have sensory processing issues, and have shared what this feels like in an article I recently wrote:

First, my energy rapidly drains. Then the anxiety kicks in and impairs my ability to judge and react to my environment. Physical symptoms happen, too, directly reacting to everything being too much to take in. The physical symptoms usually include a combination of head and stomach aches. What I am describing is what’s often referred to as sensory overload. This happens when the brain processes more sensory input than it can handle.

Due to my sensory processing issues, some cinema environments are inaccessible, but relaxed screenings are good news for cinemagoers like me. Relaxed screenings are often labelled autism-friendly, but they are also appropriate for people with various learning disabilities and neurological conditions, including dementia. Inclusive Cinema notes that relaxed screenings are “… identifiable by some adjustments such as altered lighting, volume of sound, arrangement of the venue, and usually don’t have trailers, and customers are encouraged to get up and move around, or speak or make noise if they want to/feel the need to. Screenings are usually introduced so that everyone attending realises talking and movement is allowed.”

Knowing where to start as an exhibitor is often the most challenging part of introducing relaxed programming, but it doesn’t have to be such an uncertain process. By providing a behind-the-scenes view of how relaxed screenings are organised, I aim to make relaxed screening facilitation seem less intimidating.

Make sure your screenings are serving their intended audiences, and at a time that suits them

Jonathan Gleneadie is a senior manager at the Barbican. The Barbican has been doing relaxed programming since 2016, two years before he joined, but he’s since helped them hone their approach: “The relaxed screenings [used to focus] on what was new that week, and they had been going okay for those couple of years. Then I joined. My work is about seeing… what improvements we need, and what industry knowledge is out there. It’s also about getting focus group research and audience feedback.” In particular, it’s hard to overstate how key audience feedback is to ensure that the way you approach relaxed screenings is truly serving your audience.

Relaxed screenings are designed for such a broad demographic that some reasonable adjustments are overlooked if staff aren’t properly trained in how best to work with people with a variety of chronic conditions. For instance, organising screenings that only factor in common reasonable adjustments for autistic people may lead to cinemas overlooking what people with certain mental health conditions may find overwhelming. When people don’t feel comfortable enough visiting your cinema, changes must be made to keep bringing them back. “If you have an audience that feels comfortable enough to attend your screenings you must keep listening to them,” Jonathan told me. Another main priority of that feedback process is to ensure you give comfort to your target audience from the moment they attend their first screening.

Robert Barham, Operations & Programme Manager at Hyde Park Picture House, agrees that the most important part of the planning process has been listening to and addressing audience feedback, and making the ongoing feedback and support process required for relaxed screenings as effective as possible. Everyone involved must take an open-minded and well-informed approach to every screening. If you provide relaxed screening training, that will happen. “It’s important not to rush into these screenings,” Robert notes. “All staff, volunteers, and audiences must understand what we’re doing and why. That way, we can support these screenings together.” A notable example of a training programme making a difference is Dimensions UK’s autism-friendly screening programme.

The exterior to BFI Southbank
Cinemas can help audiences feel comfortable visiting them for the first time by including guides which show the sensory journey experienced when travelling to the venue.

A lot of the audience feedback that Robert and Jonathan have received also emphasised the importance of being able to plan ahead of time. The UK Cinema Association’s Autism Guide for Cinemas encourages films to be programmed at least four weeks in advance to allow advanced planning. And elsewhere, organisations such as the British Film Institute have recognised the importance of showing audiences what they can expect from their first visit, by publishing their relaxed screening guide on their website. The guide covers every sensory detail, from the journey towards the cinema to everything that will happen once you walk through the theatre entrance doors towards your seat.

Providing multiple and frequent relaxed performance timeslots in any given week, day, or month also matters. “Shoving relaxed screenings into a slot with low attendance doesn’t cut it,” Robert Barham told me.

What is your space like, and why does that matter?

The age of many cinemas throughout the country can pose new challenges when it comes to accessibility, as Robert Barham has noted with Hyde Park Picture House. “We’re a Grade II listed heritage cinema, which doesn’t easily lend itself to accessibility.” Robert says that they’ve addressed these accessibility issues as part of their recent redevelopment project.

The exterior box office for Hyde Park Picture House.
Hyde Park Picture House. Image by Thomas Morris

Jonathan told me that the Barbican faced similar issues, and their refurb made a difference. During their own refurb process, he spoke to an architect about creating a space where anyone could find peace and quiet. Jonathan said, “We wanted it to be something you use if you’re experiencing sensory overload and need to get away from the visual and audio stimuli of this space.”

Now, the Barbican has a well-utilised quiet space that fulfils these requirements. But what does a quiet area need in order to accommodate everyone who visits your cinema? According to Career Trend, a career advice blog, “It should be in a central location, but it should be either soundproofed to eliminate distractions or far enough away from the noise of the main work area. The room should be dimly lighted, without bright, fluorescent lights, devoid of bold art and bright colours, and it should feel soft, relaxing, and neutral.”

According to Jonathan, “The basic format should only cost venues if the building needs drastic improvements.” However, if relaxed programming sounds like a significant investment, there are ways to work around this. If you’re unsure how best to cover all applicable costs, check out the Independent Cinema Office’s Funding Sources page or Guide to Fundraising. Jonathan also told me that prioritising cost-effective programming and seeking relevant industry partnerships can make all applicable costs, time, and resources less of a burden.

What can relaxed screenings do for you?

Robert Barham says relaxed screenings have enabled audience growth for Hyde Park Picture House: “Relaxed screenings improve our offer. We start thinking more about barriers such as disability or even income.” Jonathan Gleneadie explained to me, “Thinking about different ways of tackling barriers benefits the whole industry. Sometimes it can be difficult for people to be part of it and come to events.”

There are so many people out there who would love to go to their local cinema but have yet got the chance to do so due to barriers in their lives. By factoring in what they need, you are sending a message that your entire community is welcome to attend film screenings that interest them. Everyone deserves barrier-free access to their local cinema, and I think that’s something we can all agree on.

Make sure to reach out to others in this space

Cinemas with relaxed programming are very open about sharing their experiences with other cinemas, and speaking with venues offering relaxed programming is worth the effort. Robert Barham recommends communicating with other venues to learn from their experience: “Have a chat to understand them better. Avoid some of the pitfalls and ask them about their best practices. Then find a charity that will be more than happy to speak to you about how best to meet the needs of these audiences.”

If you’re looking for more information on relaxed screenings, Inclusive Cinema have some ‘quick tips’ and data available to you on their website.

Rosemary Richings is a freelance writer, editor, and public speaker. Rosemary typically writes about topics such as accessibility, practical how-to-guides on navigating chronic health issues that affect people with neurological conditions, and disability in pop culture.

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