“I don’t think cinemas should only be there to provide entertainment. They also need to educate, enlighten, provoke, stimulate.”
By reaching out to all demographics of its area, independent arts organisations are a wonderful way to build community in large cities. Here in Manchester, we have HOME, a place where film, theatre, art, and dance converge. But how do film societies work, and what do they do?
A core element of building a film society is its programming, which involves developing an audience through the venue’s choice of films and events. Independent arts organisations such as HOME work on a basis of consent and consensus between the staff and the audience, meaning that the films and events put on must reflect the audience’s taste by finding a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the old and the new, the popular and the obscure.
It is that balance that the film programming team attempt to perfect with every season though multiple facets.
A crucial one is the lengthened running time in the cinema, or a slower turnover of what gets screened. HOME’s Cinema 5 allows there to be a rotation of films, a room able to seat around 40 people, and is a unique space that allows opportunities to approach artists through Q&As (although these can take place in any of their cinema rooms), which is a step towards making the cinema goer’s experience an immersive and enlightening one.
Being a part of a large city, the people working at HOME take it upon themselves to reach out to different demographics/communities in the area It is important for any film society to develop an ethos surrounding their film programming. HOME Mcr has done so by limiting the amount of Hollywood/Blockbuster films, ensuring that a certain number of films are UK/World cinema, showcasing a proportion of documentaries and animation each film calendar, but also by making sure each season to programme a film which reaches out to a certain community in the area. For example, hosting half of the Jewish Film Festival, discounted tickets for students in Manchester, a £1 ticket scheme for people from an impoverished background, or hosting a workshop in January for creatives with disabilities.
By installing such initiatives, HOME has seen results, and proven how important programming is within the building of a film society’s audience and their loyalty to the organisation. There is a real creation of community, and the volunteers within HOME help this community function and thrive. Film societies depend on a large staff of both employees and volunteers, who either indirectly or directly tend to the audience’s experiences, by greeting the audience, introducing them to the concept of HOME or simply talking about the event they are about to or have just seen.
Places like HOME make it their duty to prevent certain films from falling into the abyss, or not being widely shared with future generations – planned well in advance, “States of Danger and Deceit” had been in the making for over a year in order to coalesce with the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. This is when the idea to showcase a retrospective of European thrillers came up. Senior Visiting Curator for HOME and Film Studies Professor at the University of Salford, Andy Willis expressed his personal concern that some canonical, pivotal films of his generation had never been heard of before by his film students.
At the centre of the film team is the Film Programmer for HOME, Rachel Hayward, and is pivotal to the smooth running of each film calendar. Her role involves a great deal of public relations, connecting and creating links with people in the industry, as in Arts organisations, the employees are all trying to share the art, whether that be theatre, paintings, or films. “Everyone tries to help each other,” Rachel explained, when talking about the process of putting together a film season for HOME, locating often niche material and obtaining the rights to showcase it.
HOME’s Artistic Director Jason Wood started off as a film maker, but after co-directing three films, realised “it was going to be quite hard to make a career out of”, then moving on to work in distribution. At Entertainment Film Distributors, Jason worked on releasing independent films, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s first two films, and Se7en by David Fincher. Progressing to work in exhibition at Picture House cinemas for ten years as programming manager, he then joined the team at Curzon Artificial Eye as director of programming for five years, and during this time began to write film articles, notably for Sight & Sound and The Guardian.
What appealed to Jason about Curzon in the beginning was that “they were a cinema which showed almost exclusively independent films, not many of the Hollywood blockbusters”. It was when “they wanted to go much more mainstream with their programming”, partly due to financial benefits, that Jason knew he couldn’t work with them anymore.
Previously, Jason had been involved with the Cornerhouse in Manchester and their film programme, and gradually developed much more affinity with their agenda than that of Curzon’s. The opportunity then came up at HOME for Jason to take one the role of artistic director, in “a cinema that was truly a space for independent thought and filmmaking.”
What Jason, Rachel and Andy work towards developing at HOME is a “film programme led by culture, not by commerce”, showing films that might have an alternative point of view from the mainstream or an urgent commentary regarding race, class, gender and/or sexuality. HOME has “proven that you can show a film programme which is led by culture and not just a need to make money”. In fact, as HOME’s cultural led programming has been so successful, other venues have reached out to the programming team to programme their venues as well, such as the Art House in London.
The people behind places like HOME are truly committed to the idea of culturally led entertainment, and have shown what the cinema-going experience can be like if you treat your audience with respect, sensitivity, but also financial inclusion.