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Be passionate, imaginative and ambitious: Cultural Cinema Exhibition

We offered Neil Hepburn, Marketing Manager at the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, a bursary to attend the ICO’s Cultural Cinema Exhibition course in London in April 2015. Here is his insight into the course…

Distributors need to continue to develop more innovative, multi-platform release strategies. Exhibitors need to protect and support independent film. And of course, the government needs to take the arts seriously and not treat them as a luxury.

Does anyone want to watch a film about defective nail growth in the 1960s? You’d be forgiven for saying ‘No. Go away. Leave me alone’. But what if I told you that it’s like an experimental horror short, with weird, hypnotic time-lapse imagery? Does that sound more interesting?

I watched the film in question during the ICO’s week-long Cultural Cinema Exhibition course. Now in its fifteenth year, the course took place at the BFI Southbank and is designed to give people working in independent film exhibition an advanced knowledge and understanding of film programming, distribution and audience development. And if that sounds a little dry, let’s go back to the defective nail growth for a moment.

A medical document from 1960, the film was made to show the effects of a drug on a ringworm-infected thumbnail. Screening alongside some other true oddities (amongst them, Fanny Cradock accidentally serving up live seafood) the selection showed how strikingly unusual archive film can be. But it also tapped into a question that seemed to come up throughout the week: what is cinema and who is its audience?

With so many releases clambering for attention every week, it’s a question that everyone who works in the industry is more aware of than ever before. A panel that looked at artists’ work challenged the ‘what is cinema’ part of the question. Artists can be radical, visionary filmmakers – but can they find an audience in a cinema as opposed to a gallery space?

In terms of audience, artists’ moving image and archive film is small potatoes compared with the rise and rise of Event Cinema. A presentation from the Event Cinema Association showed us why this was the fastest growing sector of the UK box-office. Having worked for years in a cinema, this came as no surprise to me. I’ve seen televised episodes of Dr Who sell out an auditorium faster than you can say ‘experiential cinematic experience featuring Daleks’. But are these events keeping indie films afloat by providing exhibitors with their bread and butter, or are they squeezing out indie films all together?

The idea that many cinemas are becoming gentrified by some of these trends was discussed throughout the week by distributors, programmers and festival directors. In one panel, Adrian Wootton (Film London) talked about cinemas pricing themselves out of the market place. In another, Jason Wood (artistic director of film at Manchester’s recently opened multi-arts venue HOME) spoke passionately about the responsibility exhibitors have in terms of social impact. Cinemas should be a space for everyone, not just the cultural elite.

Of course, looking back to the birth of the medium, there was no such place as a cinema originally. Films reached audiences anywhere you could rig up a projector, an ethos that Michael Pierce (Cinema Nation) and Sam Meech (Re-Dock / A Small Cinema) are positively embracing. Speaking about film exhibition in all its forms, their emphasis is on community, collaboration and creating inclusive environments.

On an accessibility and diversity panel, Lawrence Clark had a thing or two to say about inclusive environments. The comedian and disability rights campaigner often finds trips to the cinema absurdly challenging. Why? Because staff are afraid to discuss his wheelchair requirements, resulting in a catalogue of miscommunication that can ruin a cinema experience and reinforces the idea that this space isn’t for him.

Elsewhere, a panel of top film critics debated their role as cultural tastemakers, discussing the idea of ‘critical consensus’. Sophie Mayer (writer, journalist and academic) asserts that this consensus is dictated by a patriarchal middle-class film elite who decide, and reaffirm, what constitutes the ‘cinematic canon’. Jonathan Romney (Film Comment, The Guardian) talked about the trend for some film critics to make grandiose claims in reviews, as if they own a film or had made it themselves.

Yet critical hype doesn’t ensure box office gold. Film Marketing Consultant Andrew Woodyatt took us through the marketing plan for Frances Ha, showing how festival buzz from critics was just the first step towards reaching a wider audience. Andrew’s insights into genre, positioning, tone and campaign artwork showed the bumps in the road on the journey from festival acclaim to one of the highest grossing indie hits of 2013. 

The ICO tasked us with putting all this knowledge to good use on a series of practical workshops throughout the week. In one, we were asked to view some unreleased films at an ICO screening weekend with a view to devising release strategies for them, which we then presented to the group. Other tasks included putting together an artists’ moving image programme (based around a specific film) as well as pitching a larger project: a complete season.

Our final panel of experts wrestled with the future of the UK film industry. Many were pessimistic about the current landscape and all agreed that something’s got to give. Personally, I think there are reasons to be optimistic. Distributors need to continue to develop more innovative, multi-platform release strategies. Exhibitors need to protect and support independent film. And of course, the government needs to take the arts seriously and not treat them as a luxury.

But the parting message from the ICO’s director Catharine Des Forges was loud and clear: be passionate, imaginative and ambitious.

20 April 2015

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