Next in our series of guest posts about DIY / emergency screen culture created during shutdown, Programme & Marketing Director at volunteer-led Screen25 Cinema, Catriona Mahmoud, writes about taking their community venue online.
To consider the experiences of community cinemas under the crisis of pandemics and national lockdowns is a multifaceted experience. Screen25 is a community cinema based in South Norwood, and we’re constantly in a state of crisis.
Lockdowns aside, our 6-year existence has seen multiple relocations, financial issues, failed funding applications, struggling volunteer recruitment and fluctuating audience attendance. We crave the January and February months when people are first in line to see the Oscar nominees on the big screen before the awards are announced, and we dread the summer months when even we would rather be in a park enjoying the novelty of sunshine at 8pm.
It is a constant struggle to keep a community cinema alive, and we can often find ourselves in ongoing states of anxiety over something as critical as our very own survival. Subsequently, this experience of crisis possibly made us most prepared for the sudden displacement as a physical live event space to the 15-month online realm.
When we saw numbers drop dramatically in early March – our attendance rate for our eagerly anticipated weekend programme of Toy Story 4 and Hustlers was alarming – we knew the worrying Covid numbers in Italy and the UK would see a similar response to that of China at the time. And while China’s immediate and reactive lockdown was effective and something we hoped the UK could imitate in order to control the spread, we did not anticipate the rebellious and nonconforming nature of both the UK’s government and its society leading to an unnecessarily drawn out entertainment venue closure – unnecessarily in that we felt the West reacted in a ‘too little too late’ capacity.
Screen25’s place in this chaos was somewhat effective and streamlined. We had plenty of experience in crisis management to allow us to calmly and constructively respond to cancelling and delaying live events. Within the first week of lockdown we launched our inaugural Stream25 weekly events, encouraging audiences at home to tune into a film collectively at the same time every Wednesday evening before joining us for a post-film discussion on Zoom at 9pm. The format for Stream25 events would be based heavily on our existing operational construct, and intended to be continually accessible where possible. Screen25’s ethos deeply runs with the objective to be a welcoming space for all to view a mix of arthouse, independent, significant and critically acclaimed film.
First and foremost we wanted to ensure that the films curated were viewable for all, as we were fully aware of the analogue erasure we were about to embark on. We intended to make the process of taking part for audiences as easy as possible, therefore all films were selected based on their availability to view via free streaming platforms. We primarily used All4, but also included films available to stream with free trials from various online platforms including MUBI’s 3 month trial being offered to independent cinemas and a 6-week free trial partnership we secured with BFI Player.
The programme consisted of a really exciting selection of films, launching with the tongue in cheek choice of Force Majeure, and including an array of recent and cult favourites such as Bacurau, Lady Vengeance, It Follows, So Long, My Son, Island of the Hungry Ghosts, and Rashomon. We found our curation style to be much more self-indulgent in a way. This is down to no longer needing to measure event success based on the number of tickets sold but rather the quality of content we were outputting weekly (including written and video essays) and the engagement of post-film discussions.
Stream25’s delivery evolved interestingly too. We began with seven straight weeks of post-film discussions taking place on Zoom. Our initial event included 15 participants (alongside a few Zoom Bombers indicative of the early stages of Covid), and we found ourselves discussing each film earnestly and with immense interest. Some events had a low turnout – disappointing when so much of our week was spent researching and preparing – however most events were truly remarkable and rich with insight into cinema that had sometimes been forgotten or overlooked, including Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (featured image).
The entire 7-week journey was enlightening for us as cinema-workers and for audiences alike. It reminded us of our initial hopes when we first opened in 2015, we wanted to be a site for our community to hold a collective memory experience each time they walked through our doors. Pre-pandemic we feel that we were succeeding well in creating this collective environment, with live events being held up to 4 times a week often including an array of Q&As, roundtable discussions, introductions and workshops. We found through hosting these events online that perhaps we had never truly given ourselves as curators the space to reflect or partake in the events before. When you spend your time working on creating the perfect cinema experience it can be difficult to enjoy it through financial worries, event producing and administration.
Moving online meant that for the first time in a very long time the back of house team were forced to partake in events beyond the production side. We also needed to be a personal catalyst for online audiences to embrace and take part. This meant watching the films along with the audience at 7.30pm – possibly even for the second time that week after an initial view to formulate the post-film discussion. We took it in turns leading discussions, week-by-week researching a film and often at times its national origin’s entire cinema histories in order to come prepared. After almost two months of post-film discussions, and seeing a very gradual drop in attendance, we were almost relieved to think outside the box for future events. We continued encouraging audiences to tune into films at 7.30pm every Wednesday evening until mid-December 2020, however showcasing these films took a different format each week – both to allow for a broader audience experience, and to give ourselves space we needed to bring creativity to hosting events.
Thinking creatively around these events came easily when the programme itself was reflective of our own very personal tastes. An event highlight that strongly stands out was a screening of Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son, accompanied by a virtual Mandarin lesson with a tutor based in Beijing. We found a completely new audience showing up to the session, and for the first time could see the potential in providing an alternative cinema experience.
Despite enjoying the online events and finding exciting new ways to deliver emotive events, reopening as a live venue in July 2021 provided huge relief for the whole team. It can be so easy to spend 8 hours a day focused solely on forming unforgettable and successful online experiences, but we really had to question why this was so important to us, and how we could bring this energy to physical events so that we can feel as fulfilled now as we did online.
Cinema is a space that persists in leading discourse surrounding impactful topics. Reopening 2 months ago has been a tentative, hesitant and frankly nervous experience. There is always going to be concern over the next year about the scope of our brave new world. But if there is one thing we have taken from being so hyper-involved in the audience participation of online events is the opportunities we now have to enjoy this site of memory that we’re working so hard to create and preserve. Pre-pandemic I would only be in the audience viewing a panel discussion to film or take photos, and note down quotes for Twitter. Post-online cinema I found myself in the audience of a Q&A actually listening to the questions and input from the audience after a screening of Jamaican film No Place Like Home, led by Caribbean cinema curators The Twelve30 Collective. I also recently found myself sitting and watching the entirety of a screening of Saint Maud, surely an innocuous activity for a cinema worker, but it was the first time I gave myself the physical and mental capacity to sit and watch a film in my very own cinema since 2017.
Screen25 is a space that prides itself in offering the latest in independent cinema to the local South London community, and in times of crisis we felt like we flourished under the pressure. The brand new environment gave us our own chance to take part in the collective memory we had been instigating and advocating for, for such a long time. While we still are back in a world of financial worries and administration, we can at least now take more pride in our work and allow ourselves to not only be producers, but participants.
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ALSO IN THE SERIES:
- RADIANT CIRCUS on DIY / emergency screen culture.
- Jade Evans on Carol Morley’s #FridayFilmClub
- Michelle Facey on Kennington Bioscope’s silent cinema channel KBTV
- Daniel & Clara on their Moving Image Salon for artists & experimental filmmakers
- Julia Brow of eco film club No Planet B on finding new content collabs
- Sarah Kathryn Cleaver on building Zodiac Film Club’s Instagram community
Vol:02 / REVIVAL?
Our next series of commissions will focus on the theme REVIVAL?, taking its title from our audience-backed #ReviveTheDark campaign. If CRISIS? asked ‘what happened?’, REVIVAL? will ask ‘what happens next?’. It will share a series of arguments for more diverse and distinctive cinema. And it will show how, rather than any single ‘great white film’ coming to save the cinema experience, the foot soldiers in this particular fight are the DIY exhibitors hacking the cinema experience to make it matter to them, and to the audiences who find their way to the light.
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