Young Film Programmers and the Pandemic

Posted on April 9, 2021 by Shelby Cooke

Categories: Cinema Careers, General

Young Film Programmer’s Groups give young people a stake in venues and aim to increase younger audiences made up of their peers. Venues work with young people to help them run screenings and events in their cinemas, empowering them to conceptualise, develop and deliver their own programmes. But how do you continue this work when all venues are closed? We spoke with Shelby Cooke, Film Programmer and Editor-in-Chief at Film East, about how she adapted their activities to the online space and the valuable experiences being part of a YFP Group has given her, even during a pandemic.

In November 2019, I nervously attended my first meeting of Film East – the Norwich branch of the South East Young Film Programmer’s Network. I had just finished my Master’s in Film Studies that September and was struggling to start a career in the industry. I knew I wanted to be a curator or programmer, but trying to achieve that was another story.

At the same time, I was attempting to overcome my battle with social anxiety by getting more involved in the Norwich community and meeting new people. This was perhaps even more of a struggle for me because the idea of walking into a room full of strangers was absolutely terrifying. So much so that I paced outside the building for about 20 minutes, considering just going home instead. Yet, it was that terrifying leap into the unknown that has drastically changed my life.

Starting out

The South East Young Film Programmer’s (YFP) Network is supported by Film Hub South East, part of the BFI Film Audience Network. The Network links up YFP Groups for networking and training and to share tips for best practice, resources, advice and opportunities for progression within the industry. The goal of the YFP Groups themselves is to provide young people between the age of 16-30 the opportunity to programme, publicise and deliver film screenings in their community. This gives members hands-on experience and career development, while also encouraging young audiences to experience cinema through in-person screenings and events.

Upon joining the Norwich group, I knew this was going to be an excellent opportunity for me to learn skills and gain experience in my chosen career path, as film programming opportunities are hard to come by. I was so thrilled to plan our first screening and get heavily involved in the process. But then the pandemic hit.

Our April screening of Franco Rosso’s Babylon was cancelled and all meetings ceased. We tried online Zoom meetings at first (back before everyone knew what they were doing), but slowly interaction with the group stopped and what was already a small group of only four programmers became just me.

Adapting to an online world

This was absolutely devastating for me, as the one chance I had to actually start building skills and a network in an industry that seemed completely inaccessible to outsiders was gone. But being the strong-willed and determined woman I am, I continued to press on with the initiative, creating an online presence on social media and building a website, set on making sure Film East wouldn’t die during these unprecedented times.

And to my surprise and absolute glee, it didn’t. Film East started thriving in its online community, gaining four new members and loads of contributors. Since we couldn’t get to the physical cinema and screen films, we’ve had to adapt to the new online environment and introduce projects to keep the love for cinema alive. Over the past year, Film Hub South East and Reel Connections themselves programmed a range of online screenings and activities that Film East members were able to access and contribute to, including monthly industry sessions that gave YFPs and others the opportunity to talk directly to people working in the film exhibition sector and related professions, find out more about what their work involves and their career paths so far. At Film East, we hosted a family-friendly storyboarding workshop and screening of My Neighbor Totoro and a masterclass with Norfolk film location specialist Crispin Buxton at last year’s Young Norfolk Arts Festival, which were attended and watched by people all across the globe.

Two people speak on a Zoom call: on the left side a man with a beard and dark hair wearing a plaid shirt, on the right a young person wearing glasses and a white top.
Shelby (right) interviewing Bassam Tariq (left), director of Mogul Mowgli. Image courtesy of Shelby Cooke.

In July, I  launched a blog that is aimed at offering up-and-coming film critics and journalists the chance to get their work professionally edited and published on our site. Since its launch, the site has hosted articles from young film enthusiasts all over the world; a consistent contributor includes a young woman in the Philippines who is working on building an English-language portfolio. I have personally edited over 50 unique articles, witnessing first-hand the passion and excitement these writers have for the art of cinema. (If you or someone you know is interested in writing for Film East Online, visit our website for more information)

In August, we were nominated for the Cinema For All Film Society of the Year Award for Best Marketing and Publicity, giving Film East national recognition. In September, we were asked to produce original content for BBC Radio Norfolk. Film East Chats, a monthly film discussion on BBC Radio Norfolk’s Upload, features the core members of the Film East team talking about different themes and philosophies prevalent in some of our favourite films. Each episode is led by one of the members, setting everyone the task of watching a film(s) of their choosing before getting on Zoom to analyse it. To date we have recorded ten episodes, with topics varying from the use of food in Studio Ghibli films to the representation of modern England in the Cornetto Trilogy.

And in October, we were invited to attend multiple international film festivals as official press, providing me with the opportunity to interview filmmakers local to East Anglia, as well as internationally-known members of the industry such as Bassam Tariq, director of the BAFTA-nominated Mogul Mowgli, starring Riz Ahmed. It seems almost impossible what we have achieved over just one year… and without ever actually meeting in person.

A pink square graphic with black text which reads: Nominated for Best Marketing and Publicity, at the 2020 Film Society of the Year Awards. Hosted by Cinema for all. Ceremony broadcast live 19 September 2020.
A social graphic showing Film East’s Film Society of the Year award nomination. Image courtesy of Shelby Cooke.
Something to be proud of

Film East has truly become a passion project for me. A project that has provided me with not only fantastic career experience and networking opportunities but, most importantly, has helped to build up my self-confidence and allowed me to produce something that I’m beyond proud of. I’ve worked with major cultural institutions throughout Britain (some that I’ve dreamed of working with my whole life), and I’ve produced things I never thought I’d be able to. Taking up the leadership role in Film East has allowed me to continue to work on my anxieties and be more willing to put myself out there. It has helped me flourish and grow and become even more committed to this industry, helping me find the career path I was meant for. I’m a naturally introverted person, so I find great solace in the intimate experience of watching films and exploring the world through art. The greatest pleasure I’ve taken from working with Film East has been sharing those experiences with other people and watching them fall in love with films too.

Yet, it’s also been an amazing thing to watch so many other people gain the confidence to bring their love of film to fruition. One member joined Film East last year after reaching out to me for work experience in film. Still a student and aiming for a career in film journalism, she has blossomed into an incredible writer and journalist, having written numerous articles for our site, assisting in film festival coverage and interviewing award-nominated filmmakers on behalf of the group. She has grown not just her skills but her self-esteem, becoming massively proud of the work she has produced. A crucial part of being in this industry as a young person is to have tenacity and encouragement to keep you going because there are constant roadblocks that will prevent you from getting to where you want to go. And it has been such a wonderful experience to watch her gain that over the past year. I’m so proud of her for the improvements she has made. And I’m proud of myself for being able to provide those opportunities for her through Film East. But the strangest thing about our relationship is, because of the pandemic, I’ve never actually met her, but thanks to Film East, I’ve made a lifelong friend.

A collage showing photos of five young people, as well as a dog and Paddington Bear, arranged around a title in the middle which reads: The Film East Bunch.
The current Film East team. Image courtesy of Shelby Cooke.
After the pandemic

The future for groups like Film East, as with the rest of the exhibition sector, is in limbo. The pandemic has hit the art and film industries hard, making funding for small groups like ours scarce. But that doesn’t mean we won’t persevere. Film East was set up with support from the BFI Film Audience Network, but while venues remain closed our online activities over the past year have been delivered without financial support. By optimising our passion, dedication and teamwork to ensure Film East thrives, we have illustrated that grassroots organisations can succeed, and that YFP groups can provide members with a range of opportunities to build skills and gain demonstrable experience in the film exhibition sector.

In post-pandemic life, I hope to see Film East continue to connect with young people across Norwich, Britain and the world. The idea of finally being able to put on our first in-venue screening is exciting and, now that we have a following, we hope more people will start to engage physically with us. Hosting events, lectures, post-screening Q&As are all options for us. We want to make art and film accessible, not gatekeeping them behind scary, pretentious institutions. Because at the end of the day, we’re more interested in building relationships and a film community than just simply watching films.

I would recommend anyone join a YFP group, regardless of whether you know film programming is for you or not. You are guaranteed to gain something from taking part, even if that is just making friends and watching movies you’ve never heard of before.

If you’re interested in joining a group like Film East, get in contact with your local independent cinema or Film Hub, to find out if there any groups already in the area (see below for details of the South East YFP Network). If not, why not grab some of your film-loving friends and make your own group: have weekly film nights, record group discussions, plan your own film festival. And once you start building something substantial, go back to those community centres and see if they want to help make it something for everyone to enjoy.

South East YFP Network membership is free and easy to join! Benefits include:

  • Comprehensive resource pack to help kick-start your YFP group
  • One-to-one support session to help you plan your approach and recruitment (via phone call or in-venue)
  • Introductory training session for up to three members of your team
  • Optional in-house training session for nurturing a whole-staff team approach to take place within your venue
  • Face-to-face networking session and follow-up training for facilitator
  • Face-to-face networking session and follow-up training for young film programmers
  • Online networking via closed Facebook group
  • Sharing best practice with other YFP groups in the network
  • Year-round support and advice
  • Email updates and opportunities via our newsletter

To find out more about the South East YFP Network, please email:

Header image by Denise Jans on Unsplash.

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