In the last of our series of guest posts about DIY / emergency screen culture created during shutdown, co-founder of Zodiac Film Club, Sarah Kathryn Cleaver, writes about growing an Instagram community dedicated to “good looking films & complex female characters”.
Spoiler alert: This story ends with a break-up. But not in a Zola (2020) way.
If I were to write a Twitter thread about Zodiac Film Club’s year in lockdown, I’d start it with THESE pictures… and caption it: ‘You wanna hear about how this bitch emotionally supported me through lockdown, coming up with great ideas to grow our business and then moving on to do her own thing, leaving me with a lot of kind words and all the profits? It’s kinda long but mainly full of nice things.’
In other words, I don’t think anyone is going to buy the rights to it, but for the purposes of this article, here’s how Zodiac Film Club grew through the lockdown, what we learned, and what I’m still not sure of.
We all remember what we were doing in the final days before Covid arrived and everything changed. I vividly recall walking past Boots in Liverpool Street Station, and calling my film club partner Jordan to tell her that I was on the way to the screening of Daisies (1966) we were about to put on in the next half hour, but I thought I should turn back because I had kind of a tickle in my throat and a tightness in my chest and what if I gave everyone in the venue coronavirus? Jordan correctly surmised that my symptoms were likely just anxiety, and told me in a kind way to stop being annoying.
My pre-game anxiety was an occurrence that Jordan had to deal with on a regular basis, like the time I’d had a nightmare about people going mad with terror and disgust at our Audition (1999) screening several days before the real event. In our partnership, I was the perfectionist, who paid attention to the details and taught myself the ins and outs of the technical set up while being incapable of enjoying anything until it was over and done with, and Jordan was the go-getter who had already booked venues and set up meetings before ideas had even finished forming in my head, and had the knack of posting screenshots to Instagram that perfectly captured the zeitgeist and broke our record number of likes. It was the 10th March, 6 days before we’d be officially told to stop all non-essential contact and travel. We’d had one refund request from a cautious customer, no-one was hugging and there was a quiet sense of the tension in the air, but we’d never have guessed it would be our last screening for 18 months.
For nine months after March 2020, Zodiac shrunk to fit on our screens, existing largely as texts, screenshots and voice notes between us. I can scroll back (if I can stand the spinning rainbow wheel) and relive all our small triumphs and every little mistake. At the same time, we expanded virtually, amassing 20,000 Instagram followers, a base of loyal newsletter subscribers and an abundance of online friends we’ve never met. Looking back at our emails, I’m reminded that we were intending to take a break, even before a break was inflicted upon us. Everyone was tired, overworked and over-scheduled, and we were finding it difficult to sell tickets at the pace we’d set ourselves. We knew we were onto something good, but we wanted to find ways to make it count in a meaningful way. What lockdown stole from us in terms of physical communal experiences, it gave back in time to focus on the other things we loved about film, talking about it, writing about it, researching it and reading about it. We started things we’d never have had time to do in life before Covid, spending almost a year getting as much out of the online space as possible. Here are our personal and professional milestones.
The Takeovers: Out of everything we did, this is the one that we credit the most with growing our audience. As analogue-to-digital millennials, we’re always trying to replicate the sense of discovery we felt in a Blockbuster store, or up late alone in front of the TV. We invited people to recommend three to six films over a weekend, along a theme, or none at all. The only rule was that the film had to be available to stream now. We had everything from the ethereal and the controversial to the lesbians in horror (a very important sub genre). It also made us realise that collaborations were part of our future.
The Collective Consciousness: For the first time, we started asking more of our audience. We’d put up a genre in the stories – comfort films, weird films, documentaries – and ask for recommendations. Along with the rest of Instagram, the BLM protests of that year inspired us to expand our knowledge and experience of Black cinema. We collated the resources we used and shared it, asking everyone to share theirs too. I love the idea that you can put together an entire degree on the internet, using free lectures, Google books, reading lists and writing prompts. In a lot of ways, 2020 felt like that theory put into action.
The Newsletter: More than anything we’ve made together, the newsletter is our baby. Zodiac feels increasingly at the mercy of what Instagram deems worth showing our audience, but the newsletter feels like a direct conversation with people who really want to talk. Within the partnership, it also helped me feel like I was paying my way, because if there’s anything I’m really good at, it’s correcting grammar and punctuation.
Women Make Film: There’s no way in hell that the two of us would have made it through a 13 hour documentary together had we not been kept inside for three months. Most of 2020’s text conversation is us reacting through the hour-long blocks we dedicated to watching this film on Wednesday nights, counting down to pressing play at the same time, making notes of which films we wanted to watch for real, and free associating. We’d have been kicked out of the cinema for being this disruptive, some things you can only do in separate rooms over text.
The Watch Parties: These are where we learned a lot of what not to do: Not to choose a film with subtitles to watch while a chat is going on, not to overestimate how many people will actually show up to a free online event (about 10% of the people who booked), not to try anything you haven’t tested and watched all the way through, not to underestimate how often mysterious technical screw ups can occur, and that short clip shows work much better than a feature film. There were highlights of course: the chat feature felt like being back on MSN, I got to further my agenda of making sure everyone in the world watches Cam (2018, featured image) the best film about the internet so far. Only 10% of our audience live in London, so Zodiac will definitely have a future in online events, but hopefully the ratio of trial and error to success will start to balance.
In Jan of 2021, I went through my first business break-up. Jordan was moving to Italy, and wanted to focus more on her other work. It was similar to a real life break up, with lots of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ and crying (mine), but much nicer, because for once the cliche was true, and also I was getting sole custody of the baby. Jordan still replies to every newsletter with compliments, and is on hand when I need help with a decision, but for now, the ‘we’ of the Zodiac voice is just me pretending to have multiple personalities.
So as of this year, I’ve been running Zodiac alone, playing to my strengths rather than Jordan’s, researching and writing long posts about Hollywood cultural histories, starting a bookshop and selling fellow geeks the gorgeous academic film books I’d want to buy for myself, and gradually planning on re-entering the real world. Instagram was good to us when everyone needed it, but I’ve realised that depending on it too much makes me unhappy. I get addicted to good feedback, and a single bad comment can make it hard to get out of bed; everything is life or death on social media. My new business spouse has not yet entered the picture, but hey, this is 2021, perhaps I’m destined for polyamory! I’m looking forward to the tangible experience of sitting with an audience, feeling them react to a film I chose for them, and looking out for my future collaborators.
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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
- Catriona Mahmoud on taking community cinema Screen25 online
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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