Ahead of our Children’s Screening Days in May (for which applications close this Friday), we spoke to two independent cinemas about their experiences running successful programmes for children. Here are some of their key tips for making sure you can get regular audiences for a broad range of children’s films.
Nicola Kettlewood is the Head of Education & Learning at Filmhouse Cinema in Edinburgh.
Be regular and clear in what you’re doing. We run Filmhouse Junior at the same time every Sunday and for the same price. When you first start screening films in an independent venue, the audience can be small at first. We’ve seen at both Edinburgh and Belmont that once families get into the routine, they can be consistent attendees and you can build up a healthy trust with the programme and the venue. It takes time though and parents need to be sure that you’ll be there consistently, even when they’re not!
Look for opportunities to reach the audience. Obviously you need to do all the standard stuff you’d do for any other programme (listings in printed brochure, website with programme long in advance, working with local listings outlets etc). But parents aren’t always in the routine of engaging with the cinema, so you might need to be creative to get the word out about what you’re doing. Cross promotion really helps: when we host our For Crying Out Loud screenings for parents with babies, we always push the Filmhouse Junior shows; when there are school trips to the cinema, we always flag the whole programme to the kids.
Take chances. We show a lot of mainstream kids titles, but we’ve also championed some films that step off the Disney-Pixar-Dreamworks treadmill. One of the films we’ve shown to strong audiences is Belle & Sebastian, which had performed well in the Edinburgh Film Festival. A Cat in Paris has also played well. If you show children something that’s off the beaten track but that they love among a programme of more familiar titles, adults will trust you more with the programme.
A host can make the unfamiliar more approachable. We brought on Sam Groves at the beginning of the project in October 2012. Hes a Birmingham-based film programmer who specialises in children’s films at Flatpack Film Festival. Working closely with Flatpack has helped shape the programme as their approach to family programming has changed a good deal over the past few years, and has been partly shaped by seeing the tactics and strategies employed by young people’s festivals in continental Europe, particularly Germany. It’s a revelation to see a large cinema packed with children on a Saturday morning, all there to see an Iranian movie and key to this is creating a sense of occasion. A warm inclusive host can really set the tone and give younger audiences something to look out for. In shorts programmes for example, we reduced the number of shorts and increased the opportunity for interaction with the host, and we noticed that audiences became more engaged.
Look for opportunities to capitalize on marketing. macs small communication team are working to promote the full artistic programme, so its often not feasible to do targeted campaigns for each film. We have to be strategic and we try to use the more populist films that we know will generate an audience to promote the more obscure titles.We also allow flexibility in the Screen Juniors programme to allow for guest curators. To tie in with Afrovibes, Screen Juniors was curated by film festival Africa in Motion, showing Khumba. This created an opportunity to piggy back onto another event, increasing both the marketing budget and the reach.We invited animation artists Drew Roper and Tim Allen who worked on Fantastic Mr Fox to run a stop-motion animation workshop alongside a screening of the film. Attendance figures for the workshop and screening surpassed 150 and produced some wonderful feedback and high quality animated shorts. It was also a great photo opportunity. The more appealing we make the offer, the more likely it is to be covered by regional press.
Know your strengths and compete by offering something different. mac Birmingham is a one screen venue within a multi-art form centre, and we often cannot commit to screening new releases and big budget films on first run to compete with large chain cinemas. Therefore we decided to come up with a different offer to attract audiences. To add value to each event, and to link cinema with mac’s wider learning and participation programme and encourage audience crossover, we decided to offer a free animation workshop alongside the film. The free participatory element helps create a sense of occasion to compete with large chain cinemas low ticket prices, but it also gives children and families the opportunity to learn new skills and create their own animated shorts. These shorts are then premiered on the big screen before the following Screen Juniors film, encouraging audiences to return each month to see their own cartoons.
Know why you’re doing it and think about the long term. To ensure a balance of diversity in programme as well as in audiences mac Birmingham also offers relaxed film screenings as part of the season, to target audiences with an Autistic Spectrum Condition, a learning disability or sensory and communication condition. This is now a regular feature since participating in World Autism Day in April 2013. Attendance figures are low but were seeing a gradual increase as we’ve learned it does take time to build audiences and reach the right influencers.The variety of films and surrounding events we offer make Screen Juniors a truly unique experience, allowing children and families a chance to see a range of new and old, far and away films at a low cost. To date over 4,800 visitors have enjoyed the Screen Juniors film programme, workshops and linked special events.Its taken over 2 years to build a sustainable children and family season which is less about generating income (we grossed less than 7,500 in over 2 years) and more about developing audiences.Children of today are digital natives and can access film and media at the swipe of a finger so its important to create a unique and tempting offer that will encourage families to buy into the shared experience of cinema.