Will TSOTA [intro]:
Welcome to another episode of The State of the Art Podcast. This week we’re featuring a recording of a conversation we recently had as part of our panel event series Culture Matters. This week we looked at the state of independent and grassroots cinema today in the UK. We were delighted to host four fascinating guests representing different areas of the North’s cinema landscape, including Tony Mundin, who runs several cinemas in the region with his family.
We had Hyde Park Picture House’s Head of Cinema, Wendy Cook. We also had Sally Folkard from the organization Film Hub North, and then Michael Pearce and Monica Rodriguez, who are in the team behind Scalarama, an annual festival that brings grassroots cinema to communities across the UK.
It was a pleasure to host the panelists and discuss everything affecting the cinema landscape today. And of course the importance of cinema in our communities, post-pandemic. I hope you enjoy listening to the conversation as much as we enjoyed having it, and thanks for listening back to this special recording of Culture Matters 3: Cinema.
I want to ask the panelists about the challenges that they’ve overcome over the last couple of years, which I’m sure have been many. How has overcoming those challenges and the changes that you’ve implemented improved your organizations and what you do, and what do you think you’ve learned from the last couple of years in a good way?
I think, first of all, I’d like to go to Tony on this one. Tony, obviously your venues and your teams would have spent a fair deal of time closed over the last couple of years. Do you want to give us a bit of insight into not only what that’s been like, but what you’ve learned from it and where you are now?
Yeah, thanks Will. Well, it was all but easy, wasn’t it? You know, having somewhere to host the films and put them on… But, you know, obviously COVID wiped that out and it brought on some significant changes in the industry that we’re still getting to grips with.
But I think overall, you know, when something goes away, maybe when it comes back people appreciate that just a little bit more than perhaps previously. And I think that’s what we’re seeing from a customer point of view now is people feel different things about it in different ways. They’re very grateful to be back you know – obviously, we’re very grateful that we’re back as well. And I think, you know, as an organization, you know, actually what COVID allowed us to do was to close and reflect and actually spend some time thinking about our business, how it is run ourselves, how we interact with our staff. And I think the team has become a lot closer you know, we’ve promoted people to roles that they’ve revealed to us they were capable of managing. Whereas previously when you literally saw everyday trying to get people in bums on seats, you don’t necessarily realize what some of the people who you work with have got.
And so that’s been great. And you know, we’ve brought on some young staff into key roles in the organization and we’re really pleased that that’s been the case, and as I sit here today, I actually feel this past two weeks is a new beginning for cinema. I think everything up until that point has been a battle to overcome the issues of COVID to get people back home.
But I’m feeling the conversation with customers has moved on. They’re not talking about spaces and seats anymore. They’re not so concerned about where they don’t necessarily want the screens. They just want to come in and enjoy themselves. You know, that release and I think what the role that cinema now has more than anything is bringing mental health issues to the front, making people happy.
It’s very good to go and escape for a couple of hours out of the house, away from the distractions, by sitting in a room with other people and enjoying the shared experience. And I think people want it more than others.
That’s great. It’s really good to hear about the importance that it’s going to have on people’s wellbeing and the experience that culture can provide to you. And Wendy do you feel the same thing from your perspective with, with the Picturehouse?
I think that we might be, we might be struggling a little bit more to get back to that and that safe ground. It’s really lovely kind of hearing from other cinemas that do feel that their, you know, their audiences are kind of back and feeling really comfortable and we’re certainly seeing numbers increasing. The Picture House, I should say is closed at the moment.
So we are running like a strange part time program and like three days a week. And I think what we’re seeing is that there’s still anxiety, that it’s very difficult to find like a right level of people; and some of it is in relation to private safety and some of it is also just in relation to I guess like getting out of the house and like finding a new pattern of behavior again that has kind of been lost.
And then I think the other thing that we’re struggling with actually is we’re presenting quite a lot of specialized film that once it’s opened, we are struggling with trying to rebuild an audience confidence and in, you know, say, patterns of behavior and specialized film is still challenging.
And I think it is right that that escapist element is so important. I think where we have had some real fantastic strong audiences and amazing events, we did some test screenings before Christmas around Reclaim the Frame where there was a real communal kind of gathering and few at the beginning as well who were close partners of ours in Leeds.
But I think where we found some of those events have been strong not only because of the escapist element but gathering in that kind of collective spirit and also kind of coming together and grappling with some complex ideas and some really difficult topics. And I think I’m touched by the fact that some of those events that we have aren’t shying away from specialized films we want to play that don’t tend to get enough screen time across the country.
You know, we are sort of having some successes there and with screenings, but at the same time, we’re having ones where we’ve got a handful of people in and it’s the same kind of challenges we had two years ago where there’s some fantastic films that maybe aren’t getting exposure. And it’s difficult sometimes feeling that you fight which matters most and I don’t want to fight them all.
I still want to play the films to connect with bigger audiences and growing numbers and not leave people behind. So it feels like we’re not there yet. And it’s definitely kind of compounded by not being in our home venue where I think we have more control over the space, over communications and over our relationship with financing.
So in some of the spaces we’ve been in slightly different geographic locations. So it feels like we are kind of away from home as much as we try to take people with us into those expenses. And so yeah, we’re working on progress and it still feels like we’re kind of finding our feet again.
I mean, that’s really interesting sort of the contrast as well from, you know, what, what other cinemas, what might be going through. And Sally, you would have been working closely with lots of different types of filmmakers and organizations – do you have a sense of what the general experiences have been like? Is there a lot of variety? And what was it like for Film Hub north as well?
Yeah, thanks. I mean, I guess it was interesting to hear Tony because we’ve seen a really varied kind of picture across the sector. And I mean some really good news around audiences returning. It’s been fantastic over the last couple of weeks. Some of the stats for some of the films have been amazing, but I think it’s depended on the situation of the venue or the organization as to how they’re faring.
And certainly it feels like we’re in recovery and not overcome all of those challenges. Yeah, I think one of the biggest things that seems to be universal across all of the organizations we talk to is sort of that loss of a baseline, that loss of the norm. So kind of looking at the finances, not being able to predict and being confident of what our prediction looks like over the next year, because we’re just aware that things might change again, similar with audience demographics.
And those things sort of shifted for some of our venues and some of that’s really positive – we have a venue in the Northeast, saw a huge rise in young audiences seeing a really diverse range of films, which is fantastic. But it’s not the case everywhere. I think there’s also a section that we support from organizations in the sector that have really struggled and still struggle and not necessarily the cinema venues, but really important community venues and pop ups and producers that really make the kind of ecology of the North so amazing.
But they’re struggling to find their feet and struggling to find that sort of routine and back to work and, and being able to put their programs into cinemas who have been, quite rightfully so, focused on immediate recovery. So then there’s quite a long way to go I mean, in terms of the optimism that you mentioned, because I think that’s a really great way to look at it, I think that’s the rise of community, which I’m sure Monica and Michael are going to kind of bring into this conversation. We’ve seen so much sharing between venues in terms of resources and challenges and best practice and also audiences – really, really valuing what’s down the road and making sure that it doesn’t go away and wanting to go back with that community.
And that, I think has been a fantastic thing to see over the last couple of years.
Excellent I mean, yeah, as you say, the community aspects and the change in community role is obviously great to hear about, but it’s something that the guys at Scalarama will know loads about as well. What do you guys think – what’s your experience been like and anything that you’ve learned?
Yeah, definitely. I think like preparing for this has been really hard actually, because we’ve been thinking of those two years and I think we see so much has changed, so much happening, you can’t really think about it. So it’s almost like this week: was it two years ago it was all happening?
It was like sort of slow motion, kind of bit by bit. I think one of the things I noticed was that cinema and community cinemas probably got wind of things changing quicker because, you know, they were doing one off events.
I think it was a real blow to see actually that cinemas had to close ever since then. Including Scalarama, because we are a nationwide celebration of cinema that incorporates lots of different types of not just cinemas and film clubs, but encouraging people to do it for the first time in bars and restaurants.
Everybody’s been affected by so many different ways that there’s so many industries that haven’t been supported at all. And also it’s the communities and sometimes it just comes down to an individual. And so we have been hurting for the last two years because we took the decision – even though everything was opening up in 2020 and 2021, we were a bit more wise to the different waves of the pandemic.
We just felt we couldn’t really rightfully do it if it wasn’t going to include everyone you wanted to be in it – and even still now like although we think it’s post-pandemic, the fact is you know, and fingers crossed it’s not as serious as it was and two years ago and last year, but for lots of vulnerable communities it’s not over at all and there’s a sensitivity about people being left behind and and potential continued risk.
And so I think for us it’s just going to be hopefully that this year it will be that we can return with renewed sense of actually how communities come together and support each other. And I think everyone’s had to reflect on their communities, you know, these last two years. So it was important to know what the role of cinema was for that. You know, when the buildings were closed, I personally found it extremely tough these last two years.
But like Tony said, there’s some positives as well. You know among all those the seriousness of the pandemic that’s changed. Some changes have been good. And I think what we saw was this sense in 2020 at least that we had a sort of common problem outside of you, and we had to come together and create something together, so hopefully that will continue.
Of course, all of you have got, I guess different audiences and communities you are serving and then different connections to other cinemas. And I guess it’s interesting with the panel getting a sense of what the industry view is because it’s so varied and where you’re coming from and what kind of roles you play?
I’m getting the feeling that it’s still quite early to tell. But, you know, considering the fact that there was no lockdown in cinemas in England, at least over Christmas, does it feel like it’s in a healthier place at least than it seemed like it was going to be? When lockdown was at its worst and nothing was open? And like many creative industries, there were question marks, existential question marks over everything. I mean, what do you guys think it feels like in comparison to those moments?
Well, I think one of the problems we have is that if you’re selling oranges, you can look at how many oranges sold in June 2020, and look at what you sold in June 2022. And you know what the situation is. What we have to do is try and decide whether Belfast is a bigger film than 1917 which was shown in Q1 in 2020.
And it’s a difficult question to answer. But what I can say is that Belfast in all sites is now up on 1917. So we’re really chuffed about that and I think it’s an indication of audience’s willingness to return and rather than those audiences that skewed younger for films like Spider-Man, clearly Belfast is skewing older and with more people seeing Belfast than saw 1917.
And in my opinion that’s the same audience. We’ve just had half term and half term ‘22 was bigger than half term ‘20 and 2019. So clearly in my mind there is a willingness to return, but we’re a mainstream entertainment center, you know we get our films from the main distributors, Disney, Universal, Sony, Paramount, and they account for 90% of what goes on to our screens.
We have a desire to show, you know, the more offbeat films and we do do that, but it’s with limited success and we are often prevented from doing so because we’ve got three single screen sites and one twin. So at the moment on the three single screen size it’s about a month or two weeks, you know, so there’s no opportunity to intersect that with anything other than Batman because them’s the rules.
But our mainstream cinemas, albeit they are independents, market town based or, you know, urban village type areas, they’re showing strong returns. They showed strong returns from Bond and then from Bond to Dune to House of Gucci to West Side Story, it’s just it’s ramping up. It’s not quite where we want it to be across the board, but the signs are good providing nothing else happens.
Well, that’s encouraging. And I guess yeah, there’s probably a broader question as well around…I think we’re all very aware of the challenges of streaming and piracy and if you are a smaller cinema going up against the big chains, the multiplexes, but what is it that’s going to draw people to grassroots or independent cinema, do you think experientially or program wise for any of it?
Netflix means people are watching films. So it’s another medium where people are consuming films and, you know, they’re not necessarily our enemy but more our partners in the delivery of those films. I suppose a very basic level Netflix is a ready meal and we’re a restaurant, you know, and every now and again you want a ready meal and now and again you want a restaurant.
It’s kind of as simple as that. I think in that analogy also there is a quality barrier. There’s not a lot going on Netflix, which is going to stand the test of time or films showing now today that people will still be talking about, will still be aware of, or might even want to watch again in ten years time.
There’s nothing going on Netflix where I think that is going to be the case. So I think there is a demarcation of quality when a film has a theatrical release. I think the distributors know that, which is why I think a lot of films were held back. Of course, some went straight to streaming and you’ve got distributors who have experimented with simultaneous release, but that’s brought significant problems with piracy, which has seen their revenues fall off a cliff.
When we’re playing a film such as Matrix, it was difficult because it was being watched illegally by more people than were watching it on the TV or the cinema so, you know, the only real way to cure that is to have a theatrical window. Now, the halcyon days of 90 days have probably gone, and that’s to do with marketing budgets, when you market to film for theatrical release, you don’t want to spend the same money again three months down the line to market for the DVD or the streaming or whatever it is.
So it’s close, but actually we’re not necessarily seeing a deficit – we can live with 30 days. We can live with 45 days. It’s okay. Belfast is on TV right now. We’ve programmed Belfast at all sites in two weeks’ time. So, you know, we’re confident people are still going to want to come and have the theatrical experience, even though the alternative is on TV at the same time.
It’s not what it used to be. It’s more challenging, but I think it’s okay. You know, I think the new landscape of simultaneous or shorter windows is okay.
And what does everybody else think with drawing in audiences or at least trying to. I think as a Tony pointed out by that physical experience, trying to trying to sell that, do you still feel confident in marketing that and convincing people that it’s worth getting out for and pay money for is still going to be straightforward?
Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I think we need to see streams as an opportunity as well. They’re about partnership. I mean, seeing something like Power of the Dog do so well at the cinema and then open that up to an audience on Netflix, I just think it’s incredible. It’s doing wonders for independent films. But I also don’t think cinemas are going anywhere.
We’ve seen when the doors opened there’s a communal experience that you don’t get with watching films at home and I don’t see that’s going to go away any time soon. But if we look at the whole ecology of the business, then it does no harm that the audiences are seeing a more diverse range on streaming sites.
It’s also been an opportunity over the last couple of years for the kind of venues to broaden their own online program, which has supported access and inclusion, and opened up the work that they do to a much broader audience. I mean, from a filmmaker point of view, our talent team now, they’ve reached so many different new up-and-coming filmmakers by being able to deliver online than they would have been able to do in-person.
So we need to take the bits of it that have been a real positive over the last couple of years and build on them but certainly from what we’re seeing that communal experiences is more valued than it was before.
That’s excellent. I mean, that’s really good to hear. And the guy’s at Picturehouse, do you feel that optimism about the desire to engage with film in person not going anywhere?
No, definitely agree. And I was managing the Picturehouse, I guess a decade ago. And so when Curzon first launched their own on demand platform, I remember at the time just being really anxious about it, my God this is this is going to do us in? And it was fine I think just sometimes I was like those waves of anxiety and then I think over the years I’ve just come to understand and really appreciate what it is that we as a cinema do and do well and, increasingly kind of, you know, play.
I think viewing Netflix as competition is the same as seeing every single book that’s ever been written as competition. Like it’s just another thing that might be a reason someone doesn’t decide to come. And it’s, exhausting if you think in those terms – as Tony said, it’s these opportunities to develop great audiences.
And I think that extends to, you know, titles and we’re playing I don’t know how many kind of films including ‘It’s Wonderful Life’ every single Christmas to a few hundred people who have seen it a thousand times before. Probably have at home on DVD, and it’s also probably on Channe 4. And I think it’s sometimes possible to just worry unnecessarily.
And it’s much nicer to kind of focus on actual reasons people come in, which is, is about luxury, not experience. It’s about who are the voices we amplify and analysis of what do we do for a local community, an opportunity people can meet to socialize in and support for mental health and increasingly see us as kind of like a local resource, so in different ways it just is different to kind of what your watch at home offer is. Since I’ve sat to think about that, I will relax and I’m a big worrier, so that’s good thing.
Yeah, great. And Michael, Monika, what do you guys think?
I was going to actually say something similar to what Sally said, I totally agree. In the sense of like sometimes we need to see things as opportunities as well. And that is, I mean, it would be good always to collaborate when it’s possible.
So the same as movies collaborating with community cinemas. I don’t see why Netflix one day or any other platform could do so. And the way I see it Netflix served purpose at the time as well when the pandemic was kicking in, because a lot of people use that platform, or another platform like Amazon to the watch films and though it’s not what the people here today want to happen you know, because we believe in cinema as a place to watch films together.
But at the same time, this platform serves a purpose at the time and sometimes people find a way to get together on those platforms.Throughout the pandemic through some of these family circles where people were joining in, watching films together, they were using different platforms
But it was still a way of getting together. So I always feel like we should collaborate when it’s possible as well. Without being too pessimistic about what these platforms offer, I also believe that they offer community spirit if we want it and it’s important to think about what community is.
Michael and I always think about community – today we are forming a community so it’s important what we think community. It’s about what we are watching online and why is that we are watching it together, so as much as I would like to say, oh Netflix is horrible because of course if you watch too much of these platforms by yourself, you end up in an isolation.
But at the same time a lot of families, for example, were sitting around a table watching you know, sitting on a sofa around television and watching Netflix together. That is for me, a community even in a family oasis.
So we need to think about what opportunities there are. And I also think, and just to finish, the pandemic brought some ways of thinking about working together in a different way. It kind of shook us. And I think it was needed at some point, and to think about how we can react also to the diversity of mediums and platforms out there. And if we could collaborate as well that would be a bonus.
I mean, it’s really interesting hearing we’re getting a sort of sense that it doesn’t feel like you’re fighting multiple fronts in that you’re having to see off the challenge of Netflix or piracy or the multiplexes. It doesn’t feel like that’s the biggest panic. I mean, that’s, that’s actually quite optimistic. I think it is.
It’s positive to hear that that’s the case. And we’ve been talking about community as well. Do you guys feel like there’s been a shift in the role that your venues, your organizations, play in the geographic communities you’re in? Is there a different relationship now? With other creative sectors, not just cinemas, but maybe other venues that are doing things?
Are you linking up with them more or are you interacting more with the independents or grassroots organizations across the country? Has there been any shifts in the way that your networking and the community around you, if you’ve felt anything like that?
Oh, I mean, I think from our point of view, our position, I think all independents would say this coming out of COVID. We’ve been very trusted. And I think one of the things is you go to a single screen and only the people who are going to see that film are going to be in the foyer.
Only the people who are going to see the film will be in an auditorium. When you go to a larger venue multiplex with ten or 11 screens, there’s a mixture of people and they’re all going to see different films at different times. So I think the impression was to stay local and stay small was a safer thing to do.
And of course things like walking to the cinema, you know, that’s a big deal for people now. They don’t want to take the car. They can have a glass of wine or a glass of beer while they’re watching them, which makes the experience better. So I think I remember when we opened the Savoy in Heaton Moor we didn’t draw in people from Didsbury.
Now if you look at it, it’s, it’s just over the road. What I now realize is that actually Heaton More is supported by the Heaton’s. Didsbury would also support a cinema and so would Chorlton and half a dozen other suburbs within a, you know, a 15 minute ride of where we are.
And that’s something we’ve learned actually. We are very, very local and what we’ve done is try to spread a bit of the love commercially. So we introduced pizza nights. So this has been a raging success of virtually every film we show. We’ll put a pizza night on. We buy pizza from the restaurant down the road.
And in Wilmslow for instance, since October we spent £10,000 on pizzas. So that’s money, you know, commercial vitality we’re sharing. So The Rex has a huge foyer downstairs, which used to serve the old main screen. Well, to us, it’s just an access route through to all of the films. But actually as commercial space it is very, very valuable.
So we’ve been allowing pop up stores to settle in there on a Saturday and Sunday free of charge. So they have an opportunity to make some money and benefit from our footfall and we benefit from the interest that they bring. So we’re trying to give back as much as we possibly can. You know, the community has been very kind to us and the supporters, and we’re trying to do the same. I guess commercially as much as artistically.
Great, has anybody else had similar experiences of feeling like they understand a little bit more, their role in that geographical location or understanding how they interact with people around them, either members of the public or other cultural spaces.
I guess I should jump in and say I’ve chosen to take us out of our home, by myself, out of our community which has been really interesting and I think since cinemas reopened in like 2022, we’ve been programing films in one of our sister venues, which is a music hall from the 1800s.
And we’ve been in churches, we’ve been doing regular stuff in the University of Leeds Students Union – a really wide range of spaces that are also very different to our 1940 single screen cinema. I think it’s been really lovely seeing some of our audience from Hyde Park who are kind of like hyperlocal, come with us to some of these spaces.
And I sort of remember that when we first moved in September 2020 into the music hall in the city center, which is odd, but it had 450 seats so it was fantastic. The socially distancing I remember seeing like regular audiences from Hyde Park, and like having to fight every urge not to hug them and also just to know what they’ve been doing for six months. Because I was just someone who sold them tickets, but actually in my mind’s eye these were people who I’m quite invested in. And so I think seeing some kind of community follow with different screenings in different spaces, and knowing that they spaces are not perfect, you know, none of them are quite right.
It’s Goldilocks, I guess at the moment, though each kind of space does bring with it some people who are previously engaged with the Picturehouse. So it presents a strange mix to see those kind of lovely new faces who came by chance. But also the audience still there and still kind of waiting for us.
So we haven’t we haven’t lost them over what’s going to be like two and a half years, which was meant to be like 12 months. But I think in terms of engaging with other sectors and other kinds of venues in the sector, it’s been really inspiring. Not to sound too cliched, but that has been really inspiring in a pandemic.
Just how like how generous people have been. Quite early on I was added into a WhatsApp group with the cinema programmers across the entire country and it’s still really active, like it’s still kind of buzzing away today. People sharing all of their best practice around COVID experiences and like what’s kind of going on, what’s doing well, like sharing this kind of film is doing okay. This one is doing terribly. Just all the kind of details and it’s been genuinely really beautiful and I think made me feel kind of really connected to a bit of the cinema sector that – not that it hasn’t been generous in the past actually because, you know, the venues have kind of asked, you know, advice and lots of people have, you know, been really open and willing to share – but I guess like pre-COVID, it felt like it was just so busy and so kind of like just like trying to get through that. It was easy to not necessarily make the time to kind of be generous in that way. And I think now coming out of it, people are trying to hold onto that and that’s something I feel really positive about.
I mean, that’s really good to hear. And it also, I think, speaks to something that Monika was getting at about the importance of community, really trying to establish one. And it’s great if you feel like that’s continued beyond that emergency need for a WhatsApp group. Yeah. Almost two years ago. Yeah. I think we can definitely revisit talking about the role that we play in our communities as an industry and as organizations.
I think it would be good for just the next 5 minutes to do a quick pause and visit some of the questions that we’ve had come in from the audience. I’m just going to share a couple of questions that we had: the first one is from Joe, who asks the panelists “After the pandemic hit and cinemas had to close, the summer of 2020 saw a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement and discussions around culture and the cultural sector about access. With issues also highlighted by historical cultural failings at the Tyneside cinema, how important do you think it is that cinemas don’t seek to just return to normal and follow through with becoming inclusive spaces for both staff and audiences?”
So there’s a lot to unpack there and it’s a really, really important question that Joe’s asking and obviously when he’s talking about access and inclusion it’s about ensuring diversity in gender and race and orientation.
And then of course these are class and disability as well and it’s something that everyone in the creative sector needs to do more about, the state of the arts included. But obviously it’s something that goes beyond cinema and it’s a societal and industry wide issue. To the second point, I think I should probably give a bit of context: Joe mentioned Tyneside cinema, and I think he’s referencing an event that happened to the cinema a couple of years ago, based in Newcastle Tyneside Cinema, and over 200 employees put forward claims that there was a systemic issue of sexual harassment and bullying, taking place from management towards staff.
And I think as Joe rightly points out, not only should this sort of thing never happen, but obviously we need to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. So like I said, there is a lot there, but it’s important we discuss it and I’d like to just put to the panelists – who wants to have a go at kicking off discussing it?
I think it’s a really good question and thanks to the person who raised it and it sort of links in what you’re saying before. Well, about kind of what are we assessing now in terms of our roles as organizations and the communities we’re in. I mean, on an optimistic note, this conversation is live and active in the organizations we’re talking to, but it’s a real challenge and it’s something that we’re all responsible for and it certainly won’t ever be done and complete.
It needs to be an ongoing conversation and particularly around kind of inclusion being broader than just what we see on our screens. I think independent cinemas do really well about considering what goes on our screens and what stories we tell. But I think this question is very much looking at broad insights about the governance of organizations.
It’s about the curators of that work. It’s about who writes about that work and how the staff are treated. And it goes much broader than just what goes on screens. I think there’s some resources I might point people to around inclusive cinema – so the hub network across the UK has got a site called Inclusive Cinema, which has got some toolkits and resources around Black Lives Matters, tackling racial injustice, around mental health, which we can certainly kind of share.
I think one of the things that I’d like to see for the future, if we’re talking about ongoing actions, is a real prioritization of HR. It’s a real gap in organizations, particularly in the independent sector that have really squeezed budgets and it makes such a difference for the safe spaces of those working in the workforces that we’re talking about here.
And one just really nice point to highlight over the pandemic. We had our first UK Cinema of Sanctuary in Hebden Bridge, now a safe space for their audiences and for their staff, which is a really wonderful wonderful initiative. So I think there’s plenty of learning to be done. But as Wendy said, we’re seeing a real open sharing of that conversation a couple of weeks ago where people talking about the pledges that they put forward as an organization from BlackLivesMatter and how they’re doing with them and being very honest about it being a challenge and how to kind of overcome that and involving staff and audiences throughout that conversation.
So I’d like to see that sharing continue, being honest about where we’re at and what we’re struggling with.
Yeah. No, that’s great to hear that the resources are out there as well Sally. I think that’s something we’d love to get out to some more people as well and give it a little bit more of a spotlight on. And do any of the other panelists want to jump in to talk about maybe, you know, their perspective from their venues or their take on the whole issue?
Yeah we reopened with a two week Black Lives Matter film program on all sites. I think it was the strongest two weeks of programming we’ve ever had. The films are utterly superb. But no one came. That was the difficulty that we faced, you know, really the fact we had the cultural recovery fund allowed us to program that.
But from a commercial viewpoint, it was a disaster. Artistically stupendous, financially ruinous, and that’s a problem we often face. Our favorite film of last year was The Harder They Fall, which was a superb piece of work, and we programed it at all sites. And it did okay. But we’re talking 20, 25 people, you know, when the mainstream alternative would have been doubled.
And I think one of the things that we struggle with as a commercial independent cinema is, is relatively easy access to support to put these programs out. You know, we have an audience, we have a community that supports us cinemas but we stick with relatively mainstream programing because the cost of doing anything different is prohibitive and the difficulty in accessing funds.
You know, the person that is programing the films is also changing the light bulbs, is also ordering the popcorn, is also cleaning the toilets. We don’t have departments, we don’t have systems. We have to get it done. And we’ve found that, you know, trying to access funding, is prohibitive. It just takes too long for what’s a relatively small amounts of money and the easy route is just to continue with what we, we know, works.
And I think that’s an issue that needs looking at to support us. But I would also throw this back to people, everybody on this podcast. Now, what is the last time that you went to see the film with captions?
So we program captions screens on all the films that we show. But when we do, we take a massive hit because hearing people don’t want to see it with subtitles on the screen. So James Bond sold out; when we put on the caption show we had 20 people and we gave West Side Story the 1:00 show on New Year’s day with captions and the audience was decimated. So actually the public can help by choosing to support a film that has captions even though they themselves might not need it because then we can play captions shows all the time.
So, so that’s a very, very easy way to support your local cinema to do the right thing.
And that’s really interesting. Yeah. What do the other panelists think of that, that kind of role in encouraging audience behavior and how that can help drive what cinemas?
I definitely think it’s one of the things that kind of needs to happen. I think a changing kind of behavior is really important. And I think, you know, historically we’ve had the same problems, around things like captions and there is kind of a shift needed. I guess what I’d say probably is our journey specifically in response to looking at kind of access, but also looking at like how we responded to Black Lives Matter.
And it’s probably a bit different because we are in an urban environment and not just an urban environment, but like a really specific, you know, Hyde Park is a very particular community with you know, a strong student demographic who are kind of more likely to engage with perhaps likes subtitle shows, but are also more inclined to engage with perhaps a wider range of film.
I think some of the conversation was becoming more urgent, not that it wasn’t like a new conversation going on for years, but it was perhaps just coming to the fore more. It was possible to feel like we were in a reasonable position and I think the challenge for us is to really get to understanding how far we have to go, and the fact that we had perhaps a more diverse program and we perhaps work with more external partners, our audience in some ways was kind of more diverse and we had more accessible performances.
So we kind of wanted to know we were doing everything we actually could. And and I think for us it’s been about kind of trying to shift how we think not just say that we’re doing enough, but, for us in our specific set of circumstances, are we doing everything we can be doing and to kind of foreground this in all our decisions.
And it’s difficult. It’s really difficult because I’m not saying there are financial pressures. The last two years have been devastating for us. So trying to sort of put these issues kind of around access and around like structural inequality that is historic and so deeply rooted that it’s been difficult to know how to how to address this and how it factors into administration.
It’s been a real difficulty. But I think we are starting to do better. it feels like it’s kind of urgent. And I think I guess like going back to this question, I am trying to make sure that we don’t lose track of this as something that is absolutely urgent.
And yes, there are challenges and challenges in terms of changing audience expectations, in terms of changing our organizational behaviors by looking at who we hire, who we welcome, who is working with us at the moment. Why are they not? That is the myriad decisions that we’re making that are all kind of combining to say that yeah, there is a strong section of our community that doesn’t feel safe here in our spaces.
We’re starting to scratch the surface. We want to correct it but I’d like to think that we could be better than we are at the moment and that’s something I’m trying to kind of keep in my mind.
I think that’s really powerfully put. Yeah. Well that was, that was great to hear everybody’s sort of experiences and suggestions of, you know, what we can do differently. And I really appreciate the question from Joe as well. It would be really good to revisit some of the stuff we were discussing earlier. Around community and the role of cinema in the community, how it links up with other cultural institutions or other cinemas.
Or just with your audiences. And it’s a broad question, but what do you guys think is the role of not just the organizations you represent but grassroots and independent cinema in communities now? What can it achieve? What difference does it make? And yeah, what do you see its role being in the future?
And this is maybe related to previous questions as well. I think we’ve been through some very tough times, I think. I think the pandemic kind of maybe was the first time for a long time in this country, we went to mass crisis all together. That really affected every single part of society. But, you know, people around the world have gone through terrible things, we’re seeing that right now in the news.
And it’s hard, it’s a hard thing to go through together. It’s just, it’s really tough. And that’s obviously the only way to get through it together. You know, I think the pandemic gave us a taste of what we can do if we actually do pull together.
What we have seen is a resurgence of people working together. And I think if you imagine the ecosystem is like of people that don’t have their continuous screenings, as long as you’re connected with someone else and you can help them through offering equipment or advice, they can get the audience because they will connect there.
And I think the question before about pairing up with other organizations, I think that’s been really good as well during the pandemic to see how others like the museum sector or the gallery sector, how they sometimes get more advanced in the conversations. And I think Joe’s question is really very important because it’s not just like the pandemic started these things, it’s historical things.
Black lives matter didn’t start in 2020. This is historical. And sometimes it’s like we’re too busy. Sometimes we’re so busy running cinemas, we’re not in the right circles to have these conversations and we need to be like, okay with being wrong, you know, and making mistakes. And it’s quite hard because social media can be so cruel.
We have to be more able to, to try something at least and be prepared to be wrong because we do need change. We really do. I think sometimes in the arts we always think of audiences and communities of the people who come through the door rather than actually the community of the people who actually work in the organizations..
I think that’s what it has to start. So I think that’s what triggered this thing as well, and that’s why we took that time out over the last two years to actually reflect on the people who we were working with. And this is endemic not just in the film industry.
It’s across everything, isn’t it, about the conditions of work, don’t you think? I still think this is a good opportunity to consider, what is cinema’s role in these hard times? So what is our role? Because I think if we all find that, we will have a purpose because I think sometimes we’re led a little bit by Hollywood and the big films, we kind of organize our structure based on when those films come out.
And that’s kind of what leads us into making programing decisions. I think when you look at community cinema, really grassroots cinema don’t rely on that big calendar. We talk to people, that’s a community and cinema has a fulfilling role.
As with the austerity and the cuts, you know, the local councils can’t do it anymore. So I think, there’s all these big problems. They still need to be tackled. With conversations like this everywhere, especially when it’s to do with policies changing, with as many different voices as possible will be a way to tackle these problems.
I saw this tweet the other day which said it’s really worth investing in community spaces where you can practice these questions without feeling ashamed to be wrong. I think that’s what community cinema can be. If there’s a discussion after a film, that’s worth something.
I want to say a couple of things as well about safe spaces. So what do we consider a safer space right now. Back in 2020 we had the conversation that seemed like we are going somewhere but sometimes it still feels like we are back in 2019.
I’m sorry to be pessimistic but sometimes I feel like community cinema sometimes plays the role of the governments. Michael and I are based in Liverpool and we say like at times it is a a traumatic area.
What they’ve been going through, having space where they could watch films, it meant the world to them and they were safe of course, because it’s the community we, we are living in at the moment. It’s been the same for shielding people who also really struggled, you know, financially as well. And also like a historical trauma with has to do with racism and xenophobia and so it’s the role of community cinemas in this case where it’s about healing, you know.
So Michael and I, we stopped the cinema in Merseyside for a while and have been asked, when are we coming back? And yeah, maybe this year. But again, we need to make sure that everyone we are working with is okay. In that building, with the people they are working with and the people in the community, for people who have actually no place to go because they didn’t feel safe.
So I think community cinemas have that possibility and flexibility and sometimes we felt that we were like doing the role of the local government or the government in general, you know. And it’s the role that, I feel the local governments should be doing. And I’m sure like the local government support – they are supporting Michael and I a lot at the moment but we need to remember that we are only like small organizations.
And then another thing is this funding was lost. We know the story of how much financially community cinemas are struggling and how viable it feels like doing something and still programming that might not bring money in.
So yeah, it’s a constant struggle, but I think we are so involved in bringing people together, making a space safe for people who actually really are suffering and they are traumatized with what’s happening around us. So yeah I think that’s what I want to see.
Really powerful and important message from Monica and the other panelists about the role that our cinemas play in our communities today. I think everyone listening can agree that was a truly insightful conversation and it was an absolute pleasure to host our panelists. Thanks to Tony, Sally, Wendy, Michael and Monika for joining us. And of course, everyone who joined in the panel audience. We’ll be back with more Culture Matters events over the course of the year.
And of course, stay tuned for more episodes of the State Arts Podcast. Check our website and on social media to keep up to date with everything going on creatively across the north.