Community cinema has long been an integral part of local life, and the West Midlands currently has a number of volunteer run cinema events in places like Harborne, Kings Heath and Stirchley. We talked to Suzanne Carter, one of the volunteers at Stirchley Open Cinema, about what challenges these kinds of groups face in reaching audiences.
Who first came up with the idea of Stirchley Open Cinema?
When plans for the regeneration of Stirchley Baths were being developed in 2013, the community asked for a cinema facility when it was restored. So when the building re-opened three years later, it included a cinema room kitted out with a fantastic big screen and sound system. The intention wasn’t really to run a cinema, but rather support the community in running it for themselves, which is when a handful of local people came together to apply for a grant to develop Stirchley Open Cinema.
How do you work with the local community in terms of organising the event?
We like to think of ourselves as a resource rather than an organisation. We do screen films ourselves, but our main aim is to support other people and groups to put on events for themselves. For example, a local resident got in touch with an offer to help us run a film event aimed at Stirchley dog walkers. We are now talking about how we can help her to get it organised. Stirchley Community Pop Up Choir got in touch about running a Sound Of Music screening - they organised it, but we were on hand to talk them through the practical stuff and support them on the night. It’s all about collaboration.
What do you think are the positives that community cinema offers compared to a traditional cinema experience?
Hopefully people feel like 'we are in this together' more than they would at the big multiplex cinemas. In community cinema, you can't really just sit back and consume the 'experience' - you actually contribute to it. At our screenings people are invited to bring in their own snacks and drinks. At our last Friday screening a couple brought in a fish and chip supper, and a group of friends shared out a bottle of Prosecco. Okay, we’re not as professional as the real cinemas, but people seem to forgive a few little technical hiccups!
What kind of ethos do you have when it comes to the films you book for your programme?
Thanks to the funding, we have been able to experiment a bit. Our Friday screenings are leaning towards recently released films that did well at the box office, which is what local people told us they wanted in our research phase. Our most popular request has been The Greatest Showman, so that was June's film. Our pilot ‘Saturday Social’ was aimed at families, a second more at teenagers and the Monday matinee is designed with an older audience in mind. We also ran a family short film and craft event during the last half term holidays.
Your social media and poster designs are really well thought out. Do you think community cinema has the chance to be more popular than ever, with so many new avenues to reach people and affordable tools available?
We wanted to create a recognisable brand, so the poster was designed to be an easy to use template for anyone who wanted to collaborate with us - you can use them as a design base, or just print them out empty and write by hand on them. We’re on Instagram and Twitter, plus we print a ‘what's on’ which one of our volunteers distributes around 20 Stirchley based venues. One of the messages we are trying to get out across social media is how expensive it is to run a film event. We need people to understand that unless we can cover event costs, we are not going to be sustainable. It's not just about watching a movie, it is about watching a movie at an event run by the community for the community.
For more information on other community cinemas in the Midlands or to look into starting your own, head to cinemaforall.org.uk