How to build a community cinema from scratch in the 21st century

Posted on November 9, 2017 by Laura Davis

Categories: General

Deptford Cinema opened in 2014Since then it has won multiple awards and boast some of London’s finest repertory cinema while remaining an affordable hang-out spot for its local community. How did they do it? Volunteer Laura Davis explains.

Deptford Cinema

Hand-held drills and paintbrushes: begin at the beginning

At Deptford Cinema, the glamorous goings-on of festivals, orchestral concerts and celebrity Q&As are all indebted to the hard graft of volunteers past and present. Many of those involved today played a part in the cinema’s construction and from that a democratic system naturally emerged. Establishing the cinema gave Deptford the creative community space it so desperately needed, so people were more than willing to help out. As a result, the initial group of volunteers broadened out fairly organically with every person happy to contribute in their own way, from website design and keeping an eye on the cashflow to book donations and managing the gallery space. There truly is a something for everyone.

Deptford Cinema
Volunteers building the wooden benches for our bar/café area during one of our building days

An organisation built around consensus decision making isn’t the total nightmare a lot of people might expect it to be! What sounds like a disaster waiting to happen is the absolute opposite; the time and energy many devoted to Deptford Cinema in its humble beginnings has now paid off. Our flourishing community space is open to all, be they electricians, plumbers or arthouse cinephiles.

We hold meetings every Sunday at 11am. We realise time constraints and hangovers don’t always mean this is the best of times for everybody! But in addition, Deptford Cinema uses expertly-managed email lists, project management software and social platforms for its volunteers to collaborate online. The minutes of each meeting are easily available online to ensure everyone is as up to date as they can be and participation is as inclusive as possible, with every member able to get involved as much or as little as they want.

Deptford Cinema
Left: the best decorated bathroom in all of South London!; right: work produced at one of our life drawing events

Know your audience and get them involved

Very often members of the Deptford Cinema audience return as volunteers. It’s very easy (almost too easy!) to find yourself in discussions with film distributors after being inspired by the movie goldmine that is this fairly inconspicuous corner of South London. Deptford Cinema is not just an exhibition space but a learning tool for aspiring young hopefuls to get a flavour of the film industry. It is simply a delight to discover there is a pre-existing framework ready for you to put on the director retrospective you thought you would never see. And with its space used for other activities including life drawing, art exhibitions and open mic nights, Deptford Cinema has been the genesis of creative futures beyond the film industry.

Deptford Cinema began because Lewisham was one of two London boroughs without a dedicated cinema. Finding an affordable local screening of (for example) an Andrzej Zulawski or Agnès Varda classic was next to impossible (outrageous!) and for that reason we wanted to make our tickets as cheap as possible. Without any wider affiliations or obligations Deptford Cinema has the ability to screen a range and variety of films that might not appear at other London institutions, big or small.

To ensure our audience reflects Lewisham’s demographic, we offer concessionary tickets for students, pensioners and the unemployed. Due to recent financial setbacks, we had to resort to a small ticket price hike to keep the books balanced but despite this slight increase, we remain arguably the most consistently cheap cinema ticket in London. With film licenses taking up most of our budget, occasionally the lofty ideal of a full house for some Nordic noir on a wintery Monday night faces a nasty reality check and makes the cinema a loss. Although our reputation is putting Deptford on the map, we are still an awkward tube/DLR journey away from most centrally London-located film buffs, meaning that our high hopes for box office sales sometimes fall short.

Deptford Cinema
Volunteers meet in our gallery space every Sunday at 11am

Expect the unexpected

As it was built to support programming over profit, Deptford Cinema has encountered trouble in the past. The cinema nearly faced closure in June 2016 when it couldn’t pay its bills to Lewisham Council. However, community support via a 3,000 strong petition saved it from the brink.

More recently, this past summer there was an electrical fire after which the cinema was closed for an extended period. With bills to pay and cinema-goers to entertain, breaking point felt pretty close. As a not-for-profit community organisation, our commitment to offering cheap films meant we had no reserves to call upon. Thankfully in its time of need, our volunteer network once again came to the rescue and we live on to defend our title of Cinema for All’s 2016 UK Community Cinema of the Year! However, the uncertainty of rent prices and increasingly expensive overheads means it’s often difficult to stay afloat and we can’t keep relying on bar and box office sales alone, so…

Patron Scheme Deptford
Some Deptford Cinema zines – become a patron and they could be yours!

We invite everyone – whether from nearby or from further afield – to donate a small amount to keep the dream alive. Our patronage scheme is £25 a year, but donors are welcome to spend as much as they like. In return they get two tickets to a free patron-only screening every month as well as a hand-designed patronage card. The patron launch party will take place on Wednesday 15 November from 7.30pm. Local brews, sparkling beverages and tasty snacks will be served along with some sweet tunes and great movies. There will be a small presentation and an opportunity to meet the volunteers behind Deptford Cinema. Save the date!

Deptford Cinema
Our shop front on Deptford High Street

The money will primarily be spent on fire safety equipment, upgrading our electrics and making the venue more accessible for disabled audiences. If we achieve these goals, we hope to then build a dark room and fit a new cinema sound system. For a low cost, low stakes organisation, £25 really does go a long way.

Deptford Cinema’s survival is, and has always been, reliant on the generosity of the public. If you would like to join our patronage scheme, please visit http://deptfordcinema.org/become-a-patron.

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