When we hear the words ‘community cinema’ it can still conjure up immediate mental images of echoic church halls, lukewarm tea urns and stale malted milk biscuits. Ten years ago I went to my first community film screening. I sat in a primary school hall on a coarsely cushioned foldable chair and watched the third instalment of the Bourne trilogy, whilst sipping weak tea from a polystyrene cup. A small pull-up screen, usually used for projecting the words to ‘Be Bold, Be Strong’ projected the DVD copy of The Bourne Ultimatum. My description above may seem mocking and cruel but my honest recollection of the night is that I thoroughly enjoyed the film and equally enjoyed this new way of experiencing cinema.
The above worked well as a space and environment for those unable to regularly attend movie houses but who still want to engage with contemporary films. Over the last decade, as both my love for cinema and my passion for experimental cinema exhibition have grown, I’ve had both first and second-hand experience of what running community cinema events involves.
From my experience, there are some key things to consider when programming your own films in your local community.
Create the right atmosphere
With multiplexes charging an astonishing amount for a generic and repetitive experience, the most important thing to aim for when organising a film event is to ensure you create a unique environment for your audience. As well as wanting them to pay for the film they will see, you must remember that your audience needs assurance they are paying for something bespoke. Therefore, think about all the crucial elements that go into the cinema experience, as well as just hoping they will enjoy the film itself. With online film streaming and home cinema systems now so easily available to movie lovers, it’s more important than ever to create something your audience can’t experience anywhere else. This means paying attention to the small details that we take for granted when we go to the cinema.
Ensure that the toilet facilities are easily accessible to all, clearly visible and clean and tidy.
If your budget limits your ability to provide comfy cinema style seating, then perhaps provide cushions and booster seats so that the audience aren’t distracted during the screening by the ache in their lower back or constant fidgeting.
It seems painfully obvious but pay close attention to the temperature in the room. If you’re running around setting everything up (and therefore warm), get a second opinion of the room’s atmosphere.
Test the accessibility of your screening by sitting in different seats throughout the room. This will help you to identify any issues you may have with sound (either internal or external), lighting or restricted viewing.
Most importantly, ensure that it has been clearly communicated to your audience if there are any access issues. Advertise if there is or isn’t any of the following:
- Wheelchair access
- Subtitles for hard of hearing audiences
- BSL interpretations
- Flashing/strobe lighting within the film
- Baby changing facilities
- Seating available for partially sighted audiences
It’s also a good idea to advertise the film’s BBFC rating and description so you cannot be blamed for any complaints you may receive regarding the film’s content. Some of the above may seem painfully obvious, but in fact, these details can often be overlooked.
Accommodate for all
You might also want to consider making your events autism or dementia friendly. Making your community cinema events open to all is just a nice thing to do, but also provides an opportunity to collaborate with other local community groups. For example, if a film you screen contains themes of depression or mental health issues, you could hold a discussion or presentation before or after the screening with local mental health charities and organisations. This also provides you with collaborators who can help to promote the event. You may want to hold focus groups with local groups such as the Deaf community and screen films they would like to see with BSL interpretation and a post-screening discussion.
Use social media to promote
Regardless of the demographic of your audience, don’t underestimate the power of social media and its power to promote your event – providing you use it correctly and efficiently. Use Twitter to start conversations around your event, perhaps using a clear hashtag so you can encourage and track direct engagement with your event. Instagram and Twitter can also be used to document the set-up of your event and behind the scenes action which can make your audience feel included and involved in the whole process. Twitter is also a fantastic platform to engage with other organisations and potential collaborators. Remember, the greatest sin of Twitter is to only talk about yourself. Engaging with others also gives your audience more of a sense of the ethos and vision of your organisation or event.
Involve your audience
If you are trying to create loyal, regular audiences, then letting your audience have a say in the films you screen is something worth considering. This is made more complex and difficult due to screening rights and licensing laws, but perhaps propose three choices that they can choose between or hold monthly discussion groups to get a sense of the themes, genres, and stories they’d like to experience and then cater to their needs more effectively.
Have fun with food
On the subject of catering, have fun with food! Perhaps incorporate an afternoon tea into a screening of Brief Encounter or put on a spread of European patisseries when you show The Grand Budapest Hotel. From Vinnie’s authentic tomato sauce in Scorsese’s Goodfellas to $5 milkshakes in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, there are lots of great ways you can incorporate creative cinematic catering into your community screenings.
Community cinema is all about providing an alternative to multiplex movie-going. Above anything else, do not take your audience for granted. Impress and surprise them with bespoke, well rounded and tailored events. To retain your audience, ensure that every screening or event you host has an essence of the unique.
I will leave you with two books that might help spark a creative catering idea for your next community screening. Why not replace the weak tea and biscuits with a Whiskey Business or Bridget Jones’ blue soup?