26 Aug The future of film exhibition
The present crisis calls for a reinvention of the way we approach cinemas as a business and cinema as a community asset. . In this interview Rebecca del Tufo, Programming Manager at Saffron Screen and Royston Picture Palace, explains about the future of film exhibition. (Saffron Screen is a not-for-profit cinema screening both arthouse and mainstream films, with regular themed seasons. ) She shares some of the things she has learned during the Covid-19 crisis to ensure how the future programming is as inclusive as possible. This article was published by Independent Cinema Office (ICO). Readers will get a fair idea of what’s not working now and what the future of film exhibition should look like.
What can we learn from the past few months to make independent film exhibition stronger and more inclusive in the future?
Even as venues slowly start to reopen, not everyone will be able to get to the cinema – for the new reasons of reduced cinema capacities with social distancing, quarantine and people shielding themselves or family members, but also for reasons that have always existed such as access, transport, disability, finance or caring responsibilities. These are issues we have perhaps ignored in the past, too focused on the experience in the physical location of our venue.
Programming venues in two small market towns, I am aware that we have audiences for a range of films – for niche documentaries, hard-hitting or challenging fare or specific genres (e.g. anime). But we can’t always find slots for these films, due to programming and economic constraints. And a small audience can feel ‘thin’ in a big venue which doesn’t have the benefit of a studio screen.
So how can we share a broad range of films, and engage in film chat, as widely as possible, even as cinemas begin to reopen? Can we balance the joy of watching a film together on the big screen and the eager desire to get back into our venues, with the reach and accessibility we have all fostered during lockdown?
There have been so many great initiatives to keep audiences engaged in these distanced times: watch-alongs, Twitter and Facebook chats, Facebook Live and YouTube Q&As and Zoom discussions. The benefits of being able to watch a recorded event if you couldn’t be there ‘live’, ‘fitting in’ an extra Q&A while doing necessary chores, or sharing experiences with people around the world, have been immense. And the improved accessibility has been something we are all reflecting on.
I have relished participating in our #SaffonScreenFilmClub (watch the film at your leisure, discuss on Twitter), Carol Morley’s #FridayFilmClub (watch together, talk on Twitter after), watch-alongs with Reframed Film and the Women Over 50 Film Festival, the Bird’s Eye View Reclaim the Frame Facebook Live interviews, Peccadillo Sofa Club and YouTube interviews, the Curzon Living Room, BFI and Picturehouse Q&As on YouTube and private watch-alongs with friends. These have all enabled different ways of watching and discussing films that we had previously not explored.
A Facebook Live discussion of System Crasher, hosted by Saffron Screen. Credit: Rebecca del Tufo
So, in the future, I hope we can continue online programming – hosting or sharing, and promoting, films on our website and via our social media (as we have so far with, among others, Modern Films, 606 Distribution, Peccadillo Pictures and Dogwoof), and roll this out so we can share a wider range of smaller films than we might fit on our big screen. I also want to continue our recommendations of films to watch online, on television and via free or subscription channels, including a broad range of content; these can be featured in local publications as well as online, to share with those without access to the internet. We are all aware that some of our older audience will not have access to our website or social media, nor to online subscription services, as there are still many people without broadband access or free and easy access to a computer or time on a shared computer. And we must not leave those people behind (hence inclusion of television listings in our recommendations and sharing those in local papers).
Film discussion can continue via our Twitter film club and using a new Facebook group page, where discussions can carry on at a gentle, ‘drop-in’ pace across the week, with film recommendations and broad chat. Facebook Live Q&As can share insights, which can be joined live or later via a recording, and can still continue when live Q&As resume in-venue.
The costs of doing this are not high (a few regular hours of programming and marketing time) and we hope to cover these partly via online ticket income but mainly by encouraging donations for the service from anyone who can afford it. We don’t want to make it a subscription service, as that again excludes those who can’t afford extra outlay, but will include a pay-it-forward option for those who can pay a bit more.
Saffron Screen’s film recommendations of the week in their local paper, the Saffron Walden Reporter. Credit: Rebecca del Tufo
Reaching new audiences
We have all learned a lot about access and online offerings, their strengths as well as their weaknesses, across the past weeks and months. I hope we can now use that knowledge for a new type of independent exhibition that is available to all audiences, and not just those who are able to access our venues. We can continue to support our community and widen that community geographically, because the digital offering doesn’t need to be restricted but can be as wide as our interests and ambitions. We can also encourage our audience to access and experiment with more challenging fare. In an ideal world, these people in due course come to the cinema for such films, but for me even if it just means more people stop and think about the world, and about cinema as an art form, that is a welcome outcome from these dark times.
Due to the stresses and strains both on our staff and on our customers, we haven’t dug deeply so far to find out who was using our online offerings or watching the films we share. But we do know anecdotally, from chats on social media, that the geographical reach has been broad (around the UK for the films we were sharing online and international for the films we were recommending), and we have already ‘sold’ a number of tickets to people in different areas for our free online film course at the end of August (supported by BFI FAN Film Feels). This creates a new, fascinating dynamic where local cinemas will have a wide geographic reach in some ways, while being fiercely embedded in their local environs as people travel less and support their home communities more.
How all this will affect our programming of our physical venue remains to be seen, as we reopen and settle into the ‘new normal’ of reduced capacity and much cleaning. We hope we will see a renewed love of cinema, and all types of films from many eras, but how this translates between an online offering and our offering in our actual cinema remains to be seen. And some of that will depend on what concessions distributors make as cinemas reopen their doors, as well as what appetite audiences show. What is certain is that we are navigating new ways of viewing, communicating and sharing our love of film and we are in a terrifying and exciting new world. For now, I might just settle in for my fifth viewing of Portrait of a Lady on Fire!