Screening films for your local community can be a great way to bring audiences together to share an experience unlike anything on offer from more traditional exhibitors. But how can you ensure that people turn up? And that those who do can’t wait to share the night with their friends?
In this blog, Jim Morton draws upon his experience of putting on memorable film events under the banner of Leamington Underground Cinema to share five ways to make your screenings unmissable.
Roughly ten years ago, I started putting on film events and the occasional film festival in the town of Leamington Spa under the banner of Leamington Underground Cinema.
Armed with no venue, not much in the way of a budget and very little idea of what I was doing, the success and attendance of each event varied greatly until a rough pattern began to appear: the events that tended to do well were, in one way or another, more unique and unusual — people didn’t want to miss them and word spread about them more widely and rapidly. These events had triggered the fear of missing out.
The fear of missing out (FOMO) is a phenomenon, first identified in the evil world of corporate marketing, that could be summarised as: “I don’t want to miss out on X, because X looks like it will be really good and will make my life more fun.”
In the commercial and entertainment fields, FOMO is usually exploited in quite a cynical way, to hype up demand and create the opportunity to vastly inflate prices. But, by considering FOMO when coming up with ideas for events, or curating content for screening or festivals, you can help improve the chances of success by:
a. Breaking even — which is always nice and often necessary.
b. Aligning your creative vision with what your local audience actually wants — finding a balance without selling out.
1. The Venn diagram of cult vs mainstream
Leamington Spa is probably like a lot of towns in the UK in terms of cinema provision: One mainstream cinema screening major releases plus a council-funded smaller venue showing prestige oscar stuff, prestige theatre streams and prestige world cinema. So there is a gap to be exploited for those interested in other things. The diagram below is an attempt to explain this:
The trick is to programme films that strike the balance without tending too far in either direction. This doesn’t mean you have to play it completely safe, just be aware that there is more risk of losing money if you go too obscure.
One category that fits nicely in this segment is the wildly entertaining bad film. We ran a series of ‘Masochist Film Club’ screenings in a really dingy bar, with titles such as Birdemic, Miami Connection and Troll 2. When we screened infamous disaster The Room, the queue stretched halfway round the block.
2. Unique, one-off, never to be repeated
The likes of Secret Cinema often spend lots of time and money setting up big spectacular limited events that people don’t want to miss. But you can make something special and unique without rebuilding the entire set of Star Wars at your nearest abandoned warehouse.
Changing the nature of the screening experience with the addition of live music is always a winner. We screened What We Do in the Shadows followed by a band playing cover versions of Flight of The Conchords songs to a very happy (and well-refreshed) crowd. If you can get a suitable venue and have a tame sound engineer then live soundtracks are also a good draw.
Adding extra content like Q&As or discussions really works for some films. For example, during our first festival we were lucky enough to have director Jon Spira come along for a screening of Anyone Can Play Guitar. He was then followed by an angry punk band which in hindsight might have been a bit much.
3. Location, Location, Location
This is all about turning the disadvantage of not having a regular screening venue into an advantage by using any local spaces you can get your hands on and turning them into a cinema for the evening.
We screened Deliverance at the nearby canoe centre on the river and then most infamously (at least round here) we screened Life of Brian at the local big gothic church – which was absolutely packed out, but got an unfavourable reception in the Daily Mail.
If you’re going to do these sort of screenings there are three things you need:
- A bright and rugged projector
- Someone who really knows about setting up sound
- Comprehensive event insurance
4. What can’t you experience on a sofa?
Apart from the biggest releases, most films are conveniently available to stream soon after their cinema release. To get people out of the house it helps to offer them a unique event that can’t be replicated at home, as described above.
Additionally your screening can include content that is not available at home. Programming a really cool film that is hard to find or just isn’t available to stream can be a draw for some audiences. In these cases a really good trailer is a must — we had success with a screening of Sound of Noise based on the buzz that sharing the trailer created.
We’ve also found that screening short films sourced directly from filmmakers is surprisingly popular. When we put on a free night of art school shorts, the venue was so busy that we had to turn away someone who turned up at the door in a taxi wearing a tux. I still worry about who that might have been.
A final consideration is the idea of the ‘big screen experience’. Some films are particularly suited to be experienced in the dark, on a big screen with an audience. We screened hallucinogenic revenge film Mandy at a local cinema screen, and despite it being available on streaming platforms, there was a strong turnout because word had got around that it was quite an experience on the big screen.
5. Marketing – Pub Toilets or Facebook?
You will know that you have succeeded in harnessing FOMO when news about your event spreads quickly without you really trying.
Social media and Facebook event pages can be a useful way of measuring this and helping people to share your screening with their friends, but be wary of Facebook advertising: this can eat into your budget very quickly and with highly variable results. The only worthwhile metric for judging how well your marketing has worked is advance ticket sales — don’t be fooled by likes and shares.
The most effective marketing I’ve done has been at a local level — getting in the local press, trying to get media attention and putting posters up all over the place. The most effective poster placement is at eye level in pub toilets. I can’t prove this with science, but it is how I met my wife.
After years of threatening to do something involving films, Jim Morton started Leamington Underground Cinema as a way of screening a terrible short film he had made alongside a bunch of far better films. This was partly to provide a new & exciting cultural flashpoint for Leamington Spa, but mostly so that everyone wouldn’t walk out and demand their money back. LUC developed into a regular series of online and real world screenings, events, filmmaking contests and even a few film festivals. After a pandemic-induced hiatus, Jim is hoping to get things running again in early 2023.