Film exhibition and events company We Are Parable was formed in 2013 by Anthony and Teanne Andrews. Dedicated to creating experiential events with film screenings bringing audiences stories from the African diaspora, they have enjoyed notable successes including the first public preview of Black Panther, the year-long Spike is 60 Film Festival, and many more. We spoke to Anthony about the key questions to ask when planning a truly diverse and inclusive film programme.
One of the most exciting parts about creating memorable event experiences for our audiences, for me at least, is the ability to curate and develop a programme of films that truly engage with people. Whether it’s coming up with a set of experiences to enhance the films of Spike Lee over a nine month season, or creating an Afrofuturistic kingdom complete with cosplayers and African arts and crafts makers for the release of Black Panther, the importance of authenticity, creativity and storytelling has always been integral to our work.
Even more significant has been our commitment to putting our audience at the heart of everything we do. Having run We Are Parable for the last six and a half years, we have focused solely on Black Cinema and as a result, our audience is a direct representation and reflection of the actors and filmmakers they have seen on screen. Therefore, when we create our events, it’s always with the focus of putting our supporters first.
But how have we done this? It’s something that, initially, we didn’t really take much time to think about; instead, we put ourselves in the place of our audience – what would we want to see? What would make us spend our time (and money) on this event? Would we tell our friends about this? What’s been really useful about following this method is that it allows us to answer these questions very definitively.
However, as we’ve scaled up, we’ve had the chance to really step back and see what it takes to design programmes to engage our audience. We think it comes down to asking six important questions. Let’s go through them:
Who do I want to attract?
It should go without saying, but having an idea of which audience you want to target is the first question to ask. Whether your desired audience is older, younger or more specific – perhaps you want to develop screenings for people with neurodiverse conditions, for example – it’s important to understand the challenges and potential barriers your chosen audience may face when it comes to visiting the cinema. It’s also worth looking around at other cinemas and spaces who currently serve your group, and seeing how they work to bring them in. But until you know precisely which audience you want to attract, it’s pretty much impossible to get the programming right.
Why do I want to do this?
A quick disclaimer – the answer to this question is never ‘To get funding’. Instead, it’s a question that is, although seemingly straightforward, a very hard one to answer correctly. If you’re trying to create a diverse programme that will attract a new audience, you’ll need a ‘why’ to your project – as it’s the only reason for this new audience to buy in to what you’re trying to achieve.
When we produced our Black Panther event in association with the BFI, we knew how important it would be to our audience and that, for many of them, it would be the first time that Black people would be celebrated so fully on screen in a truly mainstream movie. To that end, we created the ‘Kingdom’, to further showcase and celebrate the richness of the diaspora, from fashion and books to interior design. When people came, they got it – they understood the story we were trying to tell. They understood the ‘why’. So whether you have a Q+A or panel discussion to complement your screening, make sure you’re able to communicate why it’s important.
What’s the perception of my cinema/organisation/space?
Answering this question definitely encourages some self-reflection and the ability to take on feedback which at first might be a hard pill to swallow. Take a look at, say, the last five curated programmes and/or seasons that you’ve run. What kinds of films have you shown? What experiences have you put alongside them? Now honestly ask yourself, would the new audience you’ve defined have attended any of those programmes? If there are one or two, then great; perhaps it’s about how and where you communicate. But if none of your recent programmes would likely have resonated with your target audience, then perhaps collaboration might be necessary…
Who might I collaborate with?
We believe one of the things that has been integral to our growth has the been the ability to collaborate with other organisations. Let’s face it, as much as we try, we can’t be experts at everything, and that’s why finding groups or collectives who have access to the audience you’re trying to attract with your programme is critical. Collaborators are everywhere – you could team up with other exhibitors (which we did when we worked with The New Black Film Collective) or individual artists, performers or curators who can elevate and enhance your programme. What’s also great about collaboration is that it potentially opens up new marketing channels – as your event partners will also want to communicate to their base about what they’re doing, which will ultimately benefit your programme. For example, when we created a pop up barbershop to celebrate the sitcom ‘Desmond’s’ and took it it on a nationwide tour, we knew we didn’t have the reach to promote it in the regions; so we spoke to local groups and individuals who helped us get the word out and bought into what we were trying to do.
In this case, we were being funded so we were able to pay partners, but this hasn’t always been the case; when we started out, it was very much on a quid pro quo basis – so we had to look at what we could do for the group, as much as what they could do for us. A word of warning though, if money is going to change hands, ensure that both you and your collaborator know exactly what is expected from each other before any actual activity takes place.
What could the experience be?
Another factor that has been massively significant for our business is providing an experience for our audience. Over the last six years, quite what that experience is has varied. From creating an African marketplace to celebrate Coming To America is 25, to installing a 10 foot sound system within a cinema to showcase 80s culture in Yardie, to holding Q+As discussing the mentality of Black sports professionals, we believe that experiences enhance screenings, and offer another answer to the question of why your event or programme of events needs to exist.
Experiences can be the difference. For example, take a film like He Got Game, which we recently screened. You can currently watch this on Sky Movies, so the question that invariably comes up is ‘Why should I come to your event when I can watch it at home?’. The answer is the experience we brought to it – we had a professional Basketball player recalling her experiences of playing in college and in another country, challenging the audience to think in a more conceptual way about the film. Take the time to think about how your programme could benefit from an experience, no matter how big or small.
What does success look like?
So, you’ve defined your audience and you’ve worked out why you’re creating your programme, as well as the work you may need to do to change perceptions and line up partners. But before you press ‘publish’ and unleash your new programme on the world, you’re going to need to define how you will measure success.
Yes, it’s very easy (and completely valid) to say ‘ticket sales’, but if you want to create a long term strategy to keep attracting your audience with brilliant programming, you’ll need a different set of key performance indicators (KPIs). A useful tool that we’ve made work for us is a questionnaire for our BFI FAN (Film Audience Network)-related projects. It asks questions around the likelihood of the audience coming back to another of your screenings, whether they had heard of you before and how they responded to the event overall.
So what’s next?
What we’ve suggested above is purely a guide on how to create your own diverse programme to engage audiences, but one of the biggest things you’ll need to consider is just how to make your new approach to programming sustainable. If your projects resonate with audiences, you’ll be asked what’s coming next. What we’d recommend is that you think at least three to six months ahead of where you are so you can start to create a fully realised programme. This way, you’ll have more time to act upon feedback, identify future partners and accurately measure your KPIs. As you might imagine, this is a lot of work. It’s something that we’ve had to do to ensure that our events have a clear ‘why’ and that they make sense for our audience. You won’t always get it right. But by following the above steps, you’ll be on the right path.
Anthony Andrews is the co-founder of We Are Parable, who are co-hosting the S.O.U.L Film Festival on August 30th and 31st at BFI Southbank. Visit the S.O.U.L film festival website for more details and follow We Are Parable on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for updates on this and future events.