How to be resilient when growing your community cinema
We wanted to catch up with some of the graduates of our REACH course to see how the audience development projects they worked on have developed. Here, Katie Brandwood of Screen25 in South Norwood in London tells us about her project to make sure the audience in her screen matched the wider community, undertaken in very challenging circumstances. Do you have a project to grow your audience you’d like to work on in your cinema, film festival or community screen? We’re currently accepting applications to REACH.
When I started REACH in September 2017, I had a formidable challenge on my hands. Having lost our long-term venue just four months earlier, I was still scrambling to pick up the pieces of a project that was shattered just as it was beginning to gain momentum.
Stanley’s Film Club was established in 2015 by a group of passionate volunteers who wanted to bring independent cinema to South Norwood in South East London. We grew from a monthly film club to a weekly community cinema within months, achieving endorsement from BFI Film Audience Network and the Prince’s Trust. Our world came to an abrupt halt in May last year, when we lost a long and fruitless battle of negotiation attempts with our venue over hire charges.
Homeless and without any projection equipment, we had to work quickly to prevent years of hard work and dedication from disappearing overnight, after being suddenly evicted in a way we could never have predicted. In doing so, we came to realise the true power of community, and that physical assets are superficial as long as you secure the trust and support of the people that matter. Driven by determination and an intensely loyal membership, we found a temporary home in the back room of a social club next door, and assembled a high-spec equipment package lent to us by friends at fellow community cinemas.
The months that followed, however, were a struggle. We were lucky if we managed to pull in 20 people each week due to the nature of the venue and its historical political associations. Faced with competition from our former venue after they started up their own film club in the wake of our departure, it soon became a sink or swim situation. We realised that in order to protect our future we needed to hone in on our values and spark a symbiotic relationship with our community that would enable us a better understanding of evolving local needs.
As an area of London that is increasingly earmarked for its (relatively) affordable housing and excellent transport links, South Norwood is in the middle of an identity crisis. An oncoming tide of regeneration is both welcomed by the local community, but also treated with a huge dose of caution by many, for fear of displacement is only too real, having witnessed such a detrimental transition in nearby areas like Brixton.
As the driving force behind a community cinema, I see it as our duty to make sure those existing community groups feel valued and celebrated, by providing a safe, welcoming space where people can go to feel a sense of belonging.
The beginning of REACH marked the start of a new era, as shortly after the first module we relocated to our current home at Harris Academy South Norwood. We were tentative at first, as the venue offered a completely different aesthetic from what we were used to: modern, functional and cavernous, lacking the intimacy and character that our previous venues had lent to our overall ethos.
Moving to Harris Academy was the best thing we ever did and was, without a doubt, the saving grace of our cinema. What followed was a full rebrand: a fresh identity to befit our new space, strengthening our mission and galvanizing our commitment to the South Norwood community. And so, Screen25 was born (with a nod to our postcode, SE25).
On paper, my REACH project focused on developing black audiences in South Norwood. In reality, it was about going back to basics and laying the groundwork for a cinema provision that addresses the needs of the community as a whole. Given that at least one third (33% according to the 2011 census) of local people are of African or Caribbean heritage, this became a natural and logical process that felt key to the cinema’s central ethic.
During the programme I had regular check-ins with my assigned mentor, Hardish Virk, who taught me, amongst many other things, about the value of qualitative research and a more sensitive approach to engaging our target demographic that doesn’t involve faceless invasive surveying.
One of the biggest changes we made to our setup was to replace the onerous two page surveys requested by our funders with a simple tear slip, asking four basic questions: how did they audience member rate the event, how many times had they attended previously, what brought them to the event and how were they travelling home afterwards. A process that had previously burdened the closing moments of every event, with audience members huddled round surveys in silence, was reduced to just a few seconds. Our screenings are now followed by discussions, laughter and a general buzz that creates a sense of community.
We have also strengthened our connections with a number of local businesses, with flyer distribution lists expanding to accommodate a range of Afro-Caribbean businesses including barber shops, hairdressers and eateries. The value of face-to-face engagement cannot be emphasised enough: through speaking with local people at community events, we have come to realise that it is only too easy to get complacent with our online marketing, which is in fact only reaching a limited part of the community.
One of the outcomes of my phone calls with Hardish was the idea for a free carnival-style event to tie in with Jamaican Independence Day; in essence, a celebration of the rich multiculturalism on our doorstep. We settled on an outdoor screening of Perry Henzell’s 1972 cult classic The Harder They Come, which is due to screen on Saturday 11th August in partnership with immersive film exhibitors We Are Parable.
The purpose of the event is to introduce people to our venue who might not otherwise attend for a plethora of reasons but most notably ticket price and the worry of not feeling welcome. By removing these barriers we hope to bring in hundreds of first-timers who will return for our regular programme once they experience our inclusive ethos. The event has taken off with a bang, with our online allocation of 200 tickets selling out with one month still to go. Our priority is now on making sure that local people are aware of the event and have an opportunity to attend, as this is where our efforts will be most valuable in the long-term.
Eight months after our move to Harris Academy and our average weekly admissions are now up to 40. With a growing team to look after our soon-to-expand programme incorporating two screenings a week from September, the bruised and beaten Stanley’s Film Club from a year ago is almost unrecognisable. They say that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Never has that statement resonated more strongly, and I now genuinely believe that what appeared to be a deeply unfair and intensely frustrating situation was in actual fact a gift, a blessing in disguise.
Our volunteers, members and the wider South Norwood community have helped me through so many moments of despair where I was ready to give up on the whole thing. Not only has the experience provided the biggest learning curve of my life but it has also created friendships, inspired innovation and strengthened self-belief.
Resilience is a beautiful thing.