How to grow audiences for films NO ONE has heard of with Matchbox Cineclub
Earlier this year, Matchbox Cineclub debuted Cage-a-rama, Scotland’s first Nicolas Cage film festival. Next week, they’re launching Weird Weekend, a two-day festival of “strange and unseen cinema from around the world.” Since 2010, they’ve regularly screened “outcasts, orphans and outliers” in Glasgow and beyond. Now programmer Sean Welsh explains how.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but Cage-a-rama in January was Matchbox Cineclub’s fiftieth event. After two years of monthly cult film screenings, we wanted to try something different. A two-day festival celebrating the birthday of Nicolas Cage seemed ridiculous enough to fit the bill. It was the most mainstream thing we’ve done and possibly the most successful. Now we’re trying it again, this time with even more films and drastically less commercial potential. Weird Weekend, sans Cage (although the invite remains open), will be the best thing we’ve ever done.
My good friend Tommy McCormick started Matchbox in 2010, inspired by short film nights he’d attended in Iceland. Beginning with busy Future Shorts programmes screened in the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA). After I joined in, we started screening features every so often in non-theatrical venues like Nice N Sleazy, Doune The Rabbit Hole music festival and the Banshee Labyrinth, but we didn’t really have a clue about anything, really. We knew, though, that we didn’t want to go through the menu of cult classics. We knew cinemas and other, free/unlicensed film nights would screen those and we couldn’t compete with either. But Matchbox was something we thought should exist, so we made it happen. From the beginning, we tried to make our events special, with programme notes, music, venue dressing and curated content screening before the film, themed to the film itself. We always introduce the films ourselves, and ask whether anyone’s seen them. It’s still thrilling when no hands go up.
We quickly learned there’s no hard and fast rule for sourcing screening rights, and from then to now we’ve confirmed licences in many different ways. Those range from big distribution libraries when our screenings edged towards mainstream (all six Cage-a-rama screenings were facilitated through Park Circus), to obtaining rights directly from director/producers, to tracking rights holders through a labyrinthine process of research, reference and relentless emailing.
The films that we’ve programmed recently, for Weird Weekend, came from all different directions, but no big distributors. We’ve dealt with rights holders in America, Australia, Britain, Canada and Japan – indie distributors, directors and production houses. For one, we tried its original producer, then its theatrical distributor, then its DVD distributor, who put us in touch with its theatrical distributor, who put us in touch with its original producer, who gave us permission to screen for free. Another, we originally tried to screen two years ago, but a conversation navigated via several Japanese email addresses ended abruptly when the rights holder wouldn’t allow screenings, at any cost, supposedly due to ill health. Almost on a whim, we tried again this year and almost immediately confirmed the screening.
One of the biggest problems facing anyone putting on films like we do is how to sell audiences on films they’ve never heard of. New films in multiplexes, art house or repertory cinemas at least have the benefit of marketing material, press coverage and even just being in a warm cinema when people want to go. We have no budget and no pre-existing/pre-sold audience to tap into. We’re essentially curating rather than programming, which is a distinction I only appreciated a while after we started. It’s kind of a terrible idea on paper – Matchbox would arguably be better placed as a festival strand, or a regular night within a cinema programme. We don’t consistently screen one kind of film, or we could be a sci-fi strand, or a horror night, or a French film club. Our USP is simply great films you won’t see elsewhere and “cult film” is just the easiest way to describe that.
So how do we market films that no-one has ever heard of? We commission (A3, portrait-oriented) posters from local artists, and distribute them like gig posters. If there’s no trailer, we usually cut one ourselves. Throughout our monthly residencies, we’d screen the trailer for the following month’s film after the main feature (beforehand, we’d curate a series of trailers and clips appropriate to the main feature, and we’d offer space to other local exhibitors to show their trailers). We’d generate interest in our screenings by sharing content online, particularly on our Facebook page and the Facebook event pages – the poster, the trailer, articles, interviews, stills and other material. We try to document the events themselves and share photographs, videos, etc afterwards. Above all, we adapt our approach depending on the platform and the film or event. Collaboration is also really important to us, and we’ve teamed up with Glasgow Film Festival and GFT, Document Human Rights Film Festival, Africa In Motion and Scalarama, as well as cross-promoting with other local film nights, like Pity Party, Burnt Church, LightShow/Southern Exposure and VHS Trash Fest.
ICO’s REACH course taught me some things I should already have known (practical stuff about formatting press releases), more esoteric skills (storytelling for press coverage) and reaffirmed some basics, like how important added value (Q&As etc) is to indie exhibition. All of which was useful to Cage-a-rama, with our guests (Nicolas Cage’s official stand-in, Marco Kyris), peripheral activity (Nic Cage birthday brunch and quiz) and #BringCage2Glasgow campaign (we’ll get him next year). Weird Weekend also has a number of Q&As and collaborations (Arrow Video, Indy Cine Group, Williams Bros Brewing Co) as well as kind of a narrative, as Scotland’s first cult film festival. We always wanted to get to the point with Matchbox that people would simply trust our programming. I don’t know if that’s really happened, but our delivery has certainly improved even if our budget hasn’t.
Matchbox is almost entirely self-funded and really a labour of love. We’ve benefited a little from the support of Film Hub Scotland – membership brings access to advice and bursaries that allow us to occasionally travel to training or networking events – and some fruitful collaboration, but we couldn’t do what we do without the venues we’ve worked with. Cinemas typically need a cut of the box office and unless the cinema is equally invested in promoting our event, the margins become punishingly narrow. We don’t do this for profit, necessarily, but you can’t keep doing it if you consistently lose money.
Luckily, the Old Hairdressers waived the venue hire fee for our first monthly residency and we took advantage of CCA’s open source programming initiative for the second. We love the Old Hairdressers (a gallery space above a bar) but we moved to CCA (a multi-arts venue) because it’s fully accessible, offers a genuine cinema space (meaning we can screen 35mm if we need to) and because we felt we could build an audience better there without humping a screen half away across Glasgow every month. Our events are featured in CCA’s print brochure, listed on their website and sold through their box office. CCA is generally fantastic, and there’s a huge amount of film activity in Glasgow that couldn’t take place without them and their open source policy.
So after Weird Weekend, we’re back at CCA in September with KeanuCon, and a bunch of other events in the Scalarama programme, which I coordinate in Glasgow. Of course, Cage-a-rama returns in January 2019 and hopefully Weird Weekend does too, along with any number of standalones and collaborations. Plans for Tildarama and Merylpalooza are still percolating too, so watch this space.
Sean Welsh is the programmer for Matchbox Cineclub, which is an independent cult film exhibitor based in Glasgow, Scotland, established in 2010.