The business of programming is at the heart of the cinema experience, but what does programming actually consist of? We’re highlighting participants from our six-month Practical Programming course, supported by Creative Skillset and the BFI’s Film Audience Network, to show some different approaches to successful programming. Here, Catherine O’Sullivan and Kate Wood talk about their process with their programming strand Dreamland Cinema at 88 London Road in Brighton.
Don’t programme for yourself.
That was one of the key points at the first session of the ICO’s Practical Programming Course back in September. Kate and I had gone at the suggestion of our local Film Hub, after we’d made some murmurings about wanting to regularly screen films at 88 London Road (formerly Emporium Theatre), the small independent theatre where Kate worked.
Was this even possible? We had no idea. Between us, we had nearly a decade of front-of-house cinema experience, and a mixed-bag of administrative and marketing skills, but neither of us had ever programmed films before. We had enthusiasm, we had a love of cinema, but we didn’t have a clue of how to begin a film strand.
The course proved invaluable in giving us a crash-course in everything from obtaining licenses I was such a rookie I didn’t even know there were such a thing as film licenses, let alone how to go about getting one to reaching and retaining audiences.
Kate and I thought about the kind of films wed like to see ourselves, balancing that list with the needs of the film-going community in Brighton and constantly reminding ourselves of the ‘don’t programme for yourself’ dictum. Strange as it seems, there isn’t an independent cinema in the city, so while cinephiles are well-served by Scalarama in September and Cinecity in November, there isn’t a year-round place in Brighton to see repertory film. We wanted to fill that niche.
When we decided on a name, it all began to fall into place. We chose the name Dreamland for a number of reasons. Its a reference to the production company owned by John Waters, a director we both love, but also a nod to the 1920’s-origin amusement park on the Margate seafront. For us, it was a name that evoked a certain magical, kitsch charm. Significantly, it was broad enough to allow us to screen an array of different titles under that name. The dream in Dreamland can easily slide down the spectrum to the nightmarish, allowing us to screen anything from 1980’s body-horror to 1940’s ballet classics.
We were extremely lucky with our base. 88 London Road is a former Methodist Church, with a large, airy caf-bar in front and a 90-seat theatre space in the back. The theatre itself, where we pop up our screen every month, was once the location for the weekly Sunday School. (Showing Dario Argento’s Inferno in there: blasphemous, delicious).
The Dreamland aesthetic is very lo-fi, out of choice as much as out of necessity. For our first handful of screenings, we printed A3 posters on sugar paper block coloured in orange, lime green, purple and put them up in pubs, charity shops, and other venues. We handed out flyers after other local screenings and visited both of Brighton’s universities.
The broader marketing strategy is a little different for each film. ‘Don’t programme for yourself’ leads naturally into don’t market to people just like you, so as well as the usual venues and social media outlets, we appeared on a number of local radio stations to promote our upcoming screenings and reached out to various community groups in the area. Heavenly Creatures was our first co-promotion, with local queer film strand Eyes Wide Open, and so for that screening we appealed directly to Brighton’s LGBT+ community. For the Argento screening, I got in touch with horror film societies around the UK and got them to RT and promote us to their followers. With The Red Shoes, I got in touch with local ballet and dance societies and offered discounts.
We like to provide small additional extras for each screening. Every ticket-holder gets a badge (five months later, we’re still getting requests for our Kate Winslet Heavenly Creatures design) and programme notes. When they enter the screening space, we have a themed playlist playing through the speakers (giallo-tunes for Argento, Tchaikovsky for The Red Shoes). In the days following each screening we send out our monthly Dreamletter – our newsletter containing further watching suggestions, recommendations of what we’re reading and listening to, and other film events around the region our audience might be interested in.
These are the usual extras for each screening, but some of them have had more elaborate extras. For our Videodrome event, we had slices of pizza from the local pizzeria, plus bottles of beer, for audience members. (A mark of how far we’ve come for this screening, we bought the beer ourselves; we’ve now received a sponsorship deal with a large beer company to hand out free bottles for our next couple of screenings).
To celebrate this, we held a little party. When the audience entered the screening room, they were greeted by shrines of the two Edies, plus a large model of the Grey Gardens house itself. The floor was strewn with marbled balloons, and the first 40 people to enter were handed a glass of pink cava. The film was preceded by the trailer for our next film The Red Shoes and a Kenneth Anger short, creating an atmosphere of suitably camp anticipation for the main feature.
Watching the film amongst a buzzing, excitable audience many of them dressed up in leotards, headscarves and garish costume jewellery laughing riotously and quoting the lines along with the Beales, was a gratifying and electric feeling.
Kate and I were picking films we loved, yes, but we weren’t programming for ourselves. We were programming for the city’s broad base of film fans.