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This Way Up, what next?

Mark Jenkins is chair and programmer for West Side Cinema in Stromness, Orkney. He received a bursary to attend This Way Up: Exhibition Innovation, the conference we hosted with our colleagues from Film Hub North and North West Central at Tyneside Cinema on 2 & 3 December 2014. Here are his thoughts on the experience… 

The individual brave enough to venture into this troublesome field must be, no matter what the size of the audience, an organizer, promoter, publicist and copyrighter, businessman, public speaker and artist. A conscientious if not pedantic person versed in mass psychology, he must have roots in his community. And he must know a good film when he sees it.

Amos Vogel – Cinema 16

This Amos Vogel quote was part of the ‘Opening Provocations’, one of many successful sessions and panel discussions that took place at This Way Up 14. The two day conference was about getting film exhibitors to think differently, and with panel discussion titles like ‘When is a cinema not a cinema?‘ and ‘We’re all supergeeks now‘, I knew I was in for a thought-provoking time.

Over the two days we were encouraged to contemplate, discuss, argue and write down our thoughts on ‘What Next’ cards. You can take a peek at a selection of the cards on This Way Up’s website.

I thought it useful to look at some of these cards and add my own thoughts.

Card one: ‘Incredibly valuable session, finally we’re asking ourselves why we’re doing this (rather than how).’ (Comment on session ‘The Cinema Difference: Why the Collective Experience Still Draws Audiences’)

Thanks to events like this, why we’re doing it is becoming very clear, and the how a lot easier.

Cinema is best when experienced collectively. In many ways it’s as basic as sitting around the campfire enjoying a good story. For years the cinema fire was mesmerising enough, but no longer. We need to offer the audience more than what they can get from home entertainment, to think about before the fire’s lit and after it’s extinguished.

Cinemas need to create that movie-magic: themed music, atmospheric lighting, additional content and time for post-screening discussions. Make the audience feel part of something unique, something they can’t get anywhere else, then give them a platform to share their thoughts. That’s collective, that’s community. Smaller film societies with adaptable venues are in a great position to do this and are the future of the collective cinema experience.

Card two: ‘Bring Vimeo to the table – online threat to exhibition? 

Is Vimeo a threat? I actually see them as a saviour. Vimeo is where West Side Cinema source all our short films for support of the feature, screening shorts is a huge part of our experience. Embrace the opportunity to screen unique programmes and offer something truly alternative. 

Card three: ‘Theatrical windows – is first run the enemy of good programming and audience development?’

For West Side Cinema as a rural location, and one that seeks to programme lesser known films, 12 weeks after first run isn’t long to wait. But I do think there are two major enemies:

The first, too few programming choices.

For the voluntary-run film society, sourcing a lesser known film and its release date and distributor can be off putting, resulting in programmers looking to a more ready-made menu. The result – replicated programmes across the UK. There are so many international films that don’t feature on regular programming lists, but if the information was easily accessible the landscape could change. Film societies, without the restrictions of the larger chain cinemas, are perfectly placed to be a major player in this.

The second major enemy is minimum guarantee for film societies.

Distributors want 35% of box office with a minimum guarantee sometimes as high as £120. It’s a total killer for small set-ups. Surely 35% of something is better than 35% of nothing if they close. Scrapping the minimum guarantee would make such a difference and I believe a lot more film societies could be set up. More film screenings and a wider geographic spread, isn’t this what the BFI Audience Network is about?

My own ‘What Next‘ thoughts:

I think there would be lots to learn from a cinema and programme exchange, perhaps a hot date as part of the BFI’s future LOVE season!

I’d like access to film programming mentors, it would be great if they could share their thoughts on films with those who can’t get to the screenings. Importantly not just films they’re programming, but equally ones that they don’t programme. Imagine an online platform for these mentors and their followers. Add in up-to-date information on distribution and I think we’d have a very useful resource. 

An idea for ICO Screening Days: while these are great opportunities to see pre-release films and to meet other programmers, two things stood out for me.

The first, although I programme for West Side Cinema, I’m also part of the audience (I’m sure many small set-up programmers are too.) I’d prefer to see half-hour screeners. If I’m hooked, I’ll book. And this way I’d be able to experience the entire film at a later date with the audience I’m programming for (we’d also have time to watch many more screeners.)

The second, without a bursary I probably wouldn’t be able to attend the ICO Screening Days. I’m sure this is the case for many programmers, so why not make the half-hour screeners available online? There would be no fear of piracy and they’d be much more useful than trailers (which try to sell the film no matter what).

The decision to hold TWU in a film venue rather than a conference centre, and such a beautiful one as Tyneside Cinema, was perfect. The whole event was enlightening – hearing from professionals, meeting like-minded people with similar and different ideas and getting the chance to speak my own thoughts was truly inspiring.

I’d like to congratulate the organisers for a brilliantly coordinated event. A thank you to the panellists for getting my creative cogs whirring. And my gratitude to Film Hub Scotland for getting me to TWU 14 in the first place.

Time for a final card: Will anyone commit to doing something different as a result of this conference? Will they report/share next year?

You betcha. This Way Up 15 is at HOME in Manchester. What Next?

Photos by Damien Wootten

20 December 2014

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