This month’s Film Hub London Exhibitors’ Breakfast brought together a diverse set of presentations focused on a single theme – moving your cinema programming online. We explored curated online offers, digital ‘touring’ programmes, experiential cinema programming, online event accessibility and mental health initiatives with help from the Barbican’s Gali Gold, Anthony Andrews of We Are Parable, Patrick Bliss of Your Cinema, the Scottish Queer International Film Festival’s Helen Wright, and Tracy Riddell and Aradhna Tayal of The Film + TV Charity.
First up, Gali Gold, Barbican’s Head of Cinema, talked through the launch and evaluation of Barbican Cinema on Demand, a new online player created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We know that the appetite is there, and that there’s room for something special, something Barbican, alongside all of the others already on the market… It was important for us to create an online journey that was easy and smooth, and one in which people feel they are still experiencing something that is very much Barbican.”
For Barbican, it wasn’t about competing with everything that’s already out there – it was about creating a curated experience that felt like going to their cinema, what you would normally find on their screens. At any one time, Barbican Cinema on Demand shows one or two new release titles, arthouse programming, family films, and a selection from the festivals they work with – just as they would in-venue.
Additions to the screenings, such as talks and Q&As, or live poetry reading, have brought audiences to the films, generating more interest. The online player is viewed by the organisation as a fourth screen of the Barbican cinema, one which presents the best of what they do in the venue. One positive of this approach has been to expand the offer way beyond London – to the North of England, Wales, the Midlands – and to make the offer more accessible for people who can’t make it in to the city.
The key for Gali comes down to preserving the identity of the venue, and to knowing your audience: “The appetite for a carefully curated, hand-picked programme is out there. The most attractive offer is the one where your voice, as a venue, is most clearly expressed.”
Next up was Anthony Andrews of We Are Parable, with us to talk about their collaboration with Dogwoof on the release of MLK/FBI, Sam Pollard’s exploration of the US government's surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“It’s about being agile, and pivoting where you can” Anthony says of cinema in lockdown.
As fans of Academy Award-nominated director Pollard’s work, We Are Parable were thrilled to work on MLK/FBI, and to ensure the film reached the widest possible audience.
“We thought this was a great opportunity to engage younger audiences with new ways of interacting with historical content. With that in mind, we commissioned spoken word performers to create pieces of work to help viewers understand the mindset of Martin Luther King, and how it felt to be harassed by the FBI.”
We Are Parable also filmed a Q&A with director Sam Pollard, and organised a roundtable with cultural commentators, to talk about the wider legacy of King’s work. They were careful to create versatile content that could be used in cinema or online, depending on the current lockdown rules for venues. When Tier 4 hit, they had a package ready-made for a virtual screening tour – a poetry reading, then the film, followed by a Q&A with the director. For the first screening on the tour, MLK/FBI generated 3 times the number of ticket sales of any other film with a similar release strategy in that 24-hour period.
“The experience is really important, it acts as a differentiator. Rather than just putting a film on screen and expecting people to watch it, the key is in diversifying your content and making the experience as unique as possible for your audience.”
Also on the subject of virtual cinema, Patrick Bliss introduced YourScreen, a new a platform developed specifically for community cinemas and independent theatrical exhibitors whose ability to screen films has been interrupted by the current pandemic.
“One of the silver linings that has emerged from this crisis is that, for the first time, there is a way cinemas can benefit from people watching films at home.”
YourScreen is a virtual cinema, rather than a streaming library. It is built on SHIFT72, the platform used for the BFI London Film Festival and ICO’s Screening Days. “Importantly, it’s a very secure platform, which gives sales agents and rights holders the confidence to present their films without risk of piracy” says Patrick.
YourScreen present a curated selection of new films, rather than those readily available on other platforms, providing an extra virtual screen on which you can offer an online programme of mostly exclusive global cinema. As well as helping community cinemas in this time of need, YourScreen see the platform as a way of engaging with new audiences – those who find it difficult, even in the best of times, to get to their local cinema, for whatever reason.
“The message we want to get across is to audiences is that there is still a way of helping your local cinema, even if you can’t physically get to the cinema… YourScreen isn’t just for lockdown. It’s a year-round extra screen which allows you to diversify your programme, add an income stream, and, most importantly, reach new audiences.”
An important part of these new models of online events and screenings is to make sure that they are accessible, and we don’t erect barriers for any members of the audience. Helen Wright, Producer and Programme Coordinator of Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF), spoke about the initiatives put in place at her festival, and what we can learn from them, in a series of top tips:
- Always mention deaf and disabled access in your event blurbs, and make sure it’s something you have in mind as part of putting on any film event. While it might not be possible to have captions or audio description, it is possible for you to always mention it – it could be as simple as giving an email address to accommodate accessibility requests.
- Don’t try to do too much – you can’t do everything at once. SQIFF have slowly built up our accessibility offering year on year, alongside engagement of audiences. It’s important to think about what you can do within your resources, rather than worrying about what you can’t.
- Understand the social model of disability – which says the problem is with the way the world is designed, rather than deaf and disabled people themselves. Film exhibition is designed in ableist way, and it’s this default design that needs to change.
While these tips work equally well in a physical event setting, there are also access issues specific to online events. Audio issues, which predominantly but not only affect deaf and hard of hearing audiences, including audio delays, multiple overlapping voices and feedback. Visual issues, affecting predominantly but not only blind and visually impaired audiences, include not knowing who is speaking on screen, and conversations happening in the chat function that aren’t being read out. Other issues with online events include concentration and anxiety, which could apply to anyone and everyone.
Online access solutions include live and auto captioning, BSL-English interpretation, audio and visual descriptions, and regular breaks. Accessible communication is also very important – asking people who are not speaking to keep mics on mute, asking people to speak one at a time and making it clear who is speaking, as well as reading out anything that appears in the chat.
“Be responsive to audience demand or need” says Helen. “Introducing access measure has to go hand-in-hand with engaging audiences, and being responsive to who’s interested in your event, building access measures in tandem with demand.”
Closing the morning of presentations, before a round of jackpot networking, were Tracey Riddell and Aradhna Tayal of The Film + TV Charity.
“The Charity has been around since 1924, but is currently going through a big change – we’re looking to transform the charity, be more forward thinking, and more relevant to our times” says Tracey. “The industry is made up of individuals, with complex lives. We’re looking to be much more person-centred, and recognise that people need emotional and professional support as well as more traditional financial support.”
Aradhna and Tracey then introduced the charity’s new initiative The Whole Picture Programme – exploring what appears to be a mental health crisis in the film and TV industry, with 87% of respondents to a national workforce survey struggling with mental health issues, and workers one and a half times more likely to have attempted to take their own lives than the general UK population.
The Whole Picture Programme is an industry-led movement for long term change which includes support, training, behavioural change, collective accountability, a mental health toolkit and impact assessments.
Aradhna is one of seven leads on the programme: “What we want to see at the end of this programme are very different figures coming back to us, and we believe that the only way we can do that is through a whole culture change in the industry.”
You can contact the Film and TV Charity via their support line (0800 054 0000) – they are available 24/7, and calls are free and confidential. There are also resources and web chat available on their website.