The Lexi in Kensal Rise, West London, is a unique cinema with a purpose beyond showing incredible films and selling popcorn: mostly staffed by volunteers, its profits are all driven back to a South African charity that changes lives through sustainable living. The Lexi has now been running for nearly ten years, set up by Kensal Rise local Sally Wilton (whose title now is Lexi Founder/Dreamer). This is the fifth year they’ll be travelling around London with their itinerant screen The Nomad, taking top films to unusual spaces across the capital. We sat down with Rosie Greatorex, the cinema’s programmer, to talk about putting a cinema at the heart of a community and how their cinema is making a difference to people’s lives.
How do the volunteers shape the Lexi and the Nomad?
Our volunteers are key to everything we do. At the Lexi, they come from all walks of life – we have teachers, mental health nurses, students, business people, freelancers, retired people, firefighters every profession and non-profession you can think of. Volunteering at the Lexi has also been a way for quite a few out of work people to improve their CV. We train you up and then you commit to a 3 hour shift every 2 weeks. It does take a lot of management time though. Zoe our Ops Manager does a great job, as does Dave our front of house manager. I think the important thing is to realise people volunteer for loads of different reasons. To make friends, to see more films, to support their local community and of course to support our charity in South Africa.
We made the transition to a volunteer-staffed front of house about five years ago. We took about a year to make the change, and I spoke to loads of community arts organisations and social enterprises about how they manage their volunteer teams and the different models and ways of thinking about it. We won an award for best practice in the first year of being volunteer run.
At the Nomad, our volunteers are often just starting out in their career in exhibition or wanting to get into some area of the film industry. On both projects, we do try to understand why that person is volunteering and make sure we can help them get the most out of it. Loads of our Nomad volunteers have gone on to jobs in the industry, but come back every summer anyway. The Nomad needs 300 volunteers every year to make it work, so we’re always on the lookout for new people to help out!
We have a waiting list for volunteering at the Lexi! I guess its a really unique project and local people are proud to have us in their area and want to get involved. Mostly they get involved by buying cinema tickets and popcorn and wine, or by getting married here or having their mums party here, but we have 50 volunteers at any one time as well.
For me, at the end of a really long day, to see people come to volunteer on our box office or at a Nomad event after they have already done their own full days work, is just incredible. We all feel like that at the Lexi, and so even though it can be pretty hectic sometimes especially in the summer, when Nomad is also in full swing I think everyone here feels like they are valued and part of something. So I don’t think we do use any particular strategy to make people feel they want to contribute it sounds corny but we are a community.
How do you communicate the charity aspect of what you do while keeping it fun?
Great question. We do think a lot about this. The Sustainability Institute is a charity project with a very hopeful, pragmatic and progressive approach. But clearly they are dealing with the realities of the huge inequality in South Africa and the legacy of apartheid and some pretty grim realities on the ground. We don’t want to manipulate our customers or over lay that side of things though. It’s also very important to respect the kids at the project and not use their image to try and get the sympathy’s. So we try to strike a balance.
We have some great short films which screen sometimes before our main features to remind people where their hard-earned cash is going. We do also send out updates and snippets of news to our database if something great happens like one of the kids from the village matriculates or gets a job. Both the Lexi and Nomad make good use of the screen before the programme starts,with a slide show about the Sustainability Institute and at the Lexi we have a slide show projected onto the wall of the bar, so if customers are interested they can stay and watch the whole thing and get some more in depth info!
Like all thriving little cinemas we work very hard to understand what our audience want, and then to give it to them. One of the things that really influenced my approach was the ICO’s Cultural Cinema Exhibition course and we obey the first commandment of programming from that: programme for thy audience, not thyself! Were a first run cinema and we programme on date or week two, depending on the title. Basically we want to cram as much as possible into our programme. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t wish for a Screen 2.
The Lexi audience are pretty discerning. They love documentaries. They will take a chance. We do as many Q&As as we can one thing about the Lexi auditorium is that the acoustics are brilliant, so you don’t need a mic. The best Q&As I’ve been to have all been at the Lexi as you get a real conversation between the panel and the audience.
Programming Nomad is totally different, of course. We have 70+ screenings this year, all over London. From parks to palaces to cemeteries and churches and lidos. And being rep programming, its sort of a blank slate, which can be scary! But Nomad is in its fifth year now and I am hopefully getting a sense of that audience. I work on that programme with Kate,our Creative Director for Nomad. We made this amazing shared document which is like our programming hive mind and were adding to it all the time. What works well where, for how many people, what titles are best sellers, which are smaller but add something to our programme – I love that spreadsheet.
We are ethical, and professional. We may only be a small team but we will deliver on everything we promise. If you let us screen in your beautiful park, we will pop up the screen in one night, run a magical event and leave no trace. At the Lexi the same goes. We work really hard and we hope that shows, and it means people want to work with us again its how we grew the Nomad so quickly and how the Lexi is thriving with only 75 seats. A lot of people giving their skills and time for free.
And sometimes you just meet other organisations you click with. We are screening Chocolate Films 1000 Londoners shorts in front of every Nomad screening this summer as part of a project we got some funding for (I am so happy about this) and now are also doing a couple of projects with them at the Lexi over the coming year too. I feel like every meeting we have with them, we think of other things we want to do. Its a good synergy and exciting for our audiences too, I hope.
The Nomad shows films in some amazing places. How do you go about working with these venues?
A lot of the venues where we screen are sensitive sites. Brompton Cemetery, one of our favourite venues (and fastest selling!) is a good example of this. Firstly, we absolutely don’t let people wander among the graves! Obviously you have the creepy atmosphere from the fact that its a graveyard, and the graves are there in the backdrop – also the incredible Victorian architecture, but we also have to respect the fact that its still a working cemetery. Also the site is Grade 1 listed and one of the most beautiful working cemeteries in the country. We provide The Royal Parks who are our partner there, with really detailed installation, and health and safety plans. Paperwork! Our Tech Lead, Neil, will go for a site visit (usually several site visits, if its a new or complicated set-up) and discuss any concerns and specifications with the venue and also of course figure out how to get the best sound and image possible in that space.
For the programming, obviously the venue lends itself to horror. Whilst we do programme darker titles there this year, (The Birds / Night of the Hunter / Psycho) the Royal Parks ask us to steer clear of pure horror, and to avoid anything with a supernatural theme. So it’s a bit of a challenge they’ve set us there but, to be honest, I think perfectly fair enough. Peoples relatives are there and it’s important to be respectful.
This year I’m really looking forward Mulholland Drive at the Royal Academy, tying in with their Hockney exhibition. We had a lot of discussion with the team at the Royal Academy about our programme there, which was really exciting, and they’re staying open especially for the Nomad audience. Also, were showing A Street Car Named Desire at Brown Hart Gardens, which is this secluded raised terrace right in the middle of town. This will be an absolute gem of a screening but its a really small capacity. We work with the Grosvenor Estate for a lot of our Central London screenings (as The Grosvenor Film Festival) and they’ve opened up some really amazing spaces for us which are usually closed to the public.
A large part of the work of programming a pop-up cinema that roams to as many venues as Nomad is the back and forth with our partners at the venues over film choice. The absolute pleasure is when you screen a film that really suits the place. We showed Koyaanisqatsi a couple of years ago at Hyde Park lido, next to the water, with the city as a back drop, it was stunning. This year we’re screening Orlando at the Royal Maritime museum so a really nice link to the Thames, and we’re next to The Queen’s House which has been a sort of pleasure house for queens and their consorts over the centuries. Really hoping people come out for that one!
The highlights of the Lexi programming are always the Q & As. Enabling our local community to have a dialogue with the filmmakers behind the films everyone is talking about feels like a really special thing. We do loads of panel discussions but one that really stands out for me is Asif Kapadia’s Q & A for Amy, last year. Of course we had a totally packed cinema, it was a great panel (hosted by Carin who does all our Q & As!) and being a local-ish doc, everyone had an opinion. The last time Asif had come for Senna, so it was really great to have him back again at the Lexi.
Then we had a space come up at the last minute at the Royal Academy courtyard (one of our headline venues), and Altitude granted us the non-theatrical rights early, so Asif came and did a Q & A there, too. In a totally different setting of course but under the stars in Central London, with a live jazz band – it felt like a real celebration. And a nice crossover between the Lexi and Nomad.
At the Lexi we’ve also had a long relationship with Film Club and Into Film. Personally I’m almost never happier than when we have a cinema full of young people. Next week we have our first Into Film screening as part of the Nomad programme – 220 children watching Song of the Sea at St Marks, Mayfair. I’m hoping that’s a relationship that will grow and we can open up more of our pop-up cinema spaces to children. Kate Pelen, Creative Director of the Nomad says ‘Forging creative partnerships with like-minded people, from venues, to musicians, to filmmakers, is a real highlight of the project. There are so many potentially fruitful collaborative opportunities in the air: we just need to find the time to explore them all!’
One more highlight. Ian and Hilary from Sacred Spirits supply all our gin and vodka and it’s distilled in their garden, in Highbury! They come now and then and do tastings and ply us with too much gin and that feels like a really good relationship. Our customers love it. Their gin is bloody lovely. Zoe stocks our bar with as many local suppliers as possible so although the bar is tiny, the menu is really eclectic and carefully chosen.