“A sure-fire way of improving one’s life” – thoughts on the power of film and cinema

Wendy Cook, General Manager Hyde Park Picture House, reflects on the development of Leeds’ film scene and recent events which have the power to change audience perspectives on what film and cinema really are and how best to experience them.

Leeds has a very interesting film exhibition scene at the moment. It’s different to its equivalent in other cities in part because we don’t have one large central multiscreen arts centre/cinema, yet at the same time the scene has been shaped over the years by familiar key milestones.

In the last decade the proliferation of digital technology has made it easier than ever before to make, transport, show, share and shout about film. This has resulted in a rapid expansion in the number of films which are out there for audiences to find and engage. That hasn’t, however, been mirrored by a growth in the instinctive appetite for risk-taking when it comes to film watching.

To put some numbers to that statement: it’s pretty normal for us to see between 800 and 900 films released into UK cinemas every year at the moment. That release ranges from a single day booking in a handful of cinemas, through to long runs of weeks or months in every cinema in the land, for titles like ‘Avengers Endgame’. Of that 800 – 900 films, the top 100 generally attract around about 90% of the box office income from ticket sales. Specialised films (which is a broad industry category encompassing documentary, foreign language, experimental, heritage cinema and independent low budget films) make up about 60% of the films released every year but typically draw in only about 3% of the collective box office.

This all fascinates me, not as a result of a natural love of percentages and box office stats, but because of how it helps me to understand what people are or aren’t watching, and consequently the scale of the task ahead. I’ve been running the Hyde Park Picture House for about 13 years and in that time have become pretty focused on the idea that engaging with a breadth of films is a sure-fire way of improving one’s life.  For me personally, many years of watching a fairly healthy mix has helped me better understand myself and the world around me. That’s it. That’s why it matters to me. I know there are films being made that aren’t getting to the audiences who could benefit from them and I’m pretty happy to spend my days trying to fix it.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be a position where it’s my day job and I approach this task as someone who runs a 100-year old bricks and mortar cinema with a history, and a fairly defined role within this community. From my experience, and that of my film programming colleagues working across the city, one of the reasons things are so very exciting right now is that there are a lot of people coming to this from a really varied set of angles. Everyone wants to somehow get involved in film, but the how, the where and the why of it is pretty darn changeable.

Next month I’ll be reaching out to some of the team who are behind Scalarama in Leeds for a more in-depth exploration of the city’s film scene as viewed through the lens of a totally DIY and pure-hearted celebration of cinema. For this month, I’d like to reflect on a couple of film events that I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with.

At the start of the month, Picture House hosted the first ‘Artists’ Moving Image Network Screening Weekend’ as organised by Pavilion and guest curated by Herb Shellenberger. There may be some work to do on the naming, but the idea was a beautiful one and it deserves a bit of reflection here, if only to encourage you to look out for the festival’s return next year.

Born out of a series of network meetings hosted by Pavilion to support local experimental filmmakers, the festival comprised of seven programmes juxtaposing pieces made by local artists alongside older works from around the world. The programmes were varied and exciting and, as with any festival, there is an immeasurable joy in the community that quickly forms when you see the same faces in the audience coming back day after day. In the spaces between programmes, conversations start to form, thoughts are shared and bonds forged.

Yet, it was in the last session of the weekend that I fully appreciated the other connection being made: not between audiences but between makers.

In a Q&A between two artists after the last screening, we were invited into a conversation about process during which both artists were very generous with their thoughts and answers. They were at very different points in their career, but they brought the same openness to each other and to us, the audience. It was a pleasure to be invited into an experience that was entirely intimate, and the result was a wonderful feeling that all who had come had left with something special.

Let’s move on from film programming as a means of forming intimate connections to its use to explore the great vastness of space. Coming up in Leeds (predominantly over the weekend of the 18th – 21st July) there is a small programme of music and film which has been curated to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.

Brought together by Rob of Fourteen Pulsars with support from others like Film Fringe, this short celebration of man’s first steps on the moon is a perfect reminder that honouring an idea can take a variety of forms. With each new and different approach or interpretation of a theme, we’re able to see something new.

A couple of events to particularly pull out are Fourteen Pulsars ‘The Lunar Age (J0826+2637)’ at Hyde Park Book Club on Saturday 20th July and Film Fringe’s screening of ‘The Fabulous Baron Munchausen’ (1962) at Little Reliance Cinema on Thursday 18th July.

If you’re looking for cold, hard facts about the historic mission perhaps these won’t be your first port of call but that’s not why these two events are so inspired and exciting. Like all films, they’re about the magic of it. The spectacle, the hard work, the fear and the energy, the sheer crazy uncertainty of taking a leap into the absolute unknown and imagining what one might find there.



Learn more about Pavilion and to explore the full programme from their Screening Weekend here.

Find out more about the upcoming programme of films to mark the Moon landing here.

And if you haven’t come across the Picture House before you can find out all about this lovely old place here.