Connecting Communities: Film Screenings in North Notts

16 March 17 interview: Dominic Murray

Connecting Communities is a community cinema project providing mentoring, training, and support to assist volunteers in five venues across North Nottingham and Mansfield to deliver film screenings in their local communities. We spoke with John Offord, the project lead, to discover more about it.

So what is this project about?
Our ambition is to share our love of film with local communities who may not be able to otherwise attend cinema. We want to bring people together for a chat over tea and coffee and watch a movie. We want to share our passion for cinema with a wider audience, and to spread film culture, as well as help people realise that setting up a cinema isn’t that complicated.

You’ve started in North Nottingham and Mansfield. What’s the reason for that?
We’ve started small. This is a pilot project across five venues with four films being shown in each. It’s important to find different types of venues initially and get maximum support. The economic factor is also key as an important part of this is to enable anyone to enjoy cinema without having to spend a lot of money, so starting in smaller communities really encourages those who maybe feel priced out of traditional cinema to attend.

You have a variety of venues too. This isn’t like going to a multiplex.
We’ve deliberately worked with a wide range of venues: sports centres, libraries, churches, schools and academies. We want to reach the local communities in their environment. It’s a very different setting than traditional cinema (and cheaper too!).

So how do you pick the films, you’re showing quite a variety.
It’s been a learning curve as we continue to understand our audience and what they want. We show a wide range of films, from BAFTA nominated to old classics, we’re always thinking of who the audience are and plan accordingly. We don’t just show mainstream films, on the 2 April we’ll be showing Song of the Sea. We aim for a mixture of mainstream, specialist and British films and want to introduce some less obvious films as the community grows.

Can you tell us about how you use volunteers?
Local people on the ground have really helped to set this up and increased the ability to make it work. They are supported and trained so that the project can be self-sustaining after the initial pilot scheme. The legacy is that it will continue after the pilot finishes - the volunteers have gained in confidence, and understand event management and how to licence films for public exhibition.

At Bulwell Academy the students got involved in planning which films to show via a Facebook poll of the community, which led to discovering which films they would actually want to watch.

The volunteers have really taken ownership and shown great leadership in this project. We couldn’t do it without them. It’s them who will take this project forward in the future which is why we are inviting them to a celebration event at the Broadway in April. It’s our end of project finale and it’s really important that we can bring everyone back into Nottingham to both celebrate and discuss what we’ve learnt.

What’s the reaction been so far?
It’s been amazing, the audiences enjoy what they see. We find out very quickly what works with an audience and what could improve. It’s a learning curve discovering what audiences want, and also what they enjoy even if they didn’t know they wanted it. We don’t always get it right, but it stands us in good stead for the future.

So this is really focussed on community cinema?
We recently put on a dementia-friendly screening of Casablanca at Mansfield Library as we wanted to bring people together, both those who have dementia and their carers. Whilst the screening was open to anyone we took extra care to focus on the needs of those with dementia and were conscious of appropriate lighting, sound and ensuring there was breakout space, if required. Having an accessible and welcoming environment is vital to the success of this project. 

This sounds quite different to a traditional cinema experience.
It’s intentional. We want a friendly community. We even had people singing along at the showing of Singin in The Rain! Another example of this is St John’s Church in Bulwell where we recently showed The Jungle Book. You couldn’t ask for a more beautiful setting, with its fantastic architecture and acoustics it was a perfect, and special, venue to watch this film.

In setting this up, what challenges have you faced?
Initially getting the film choices right and getting the message out there. Communication has been the key to this. And we’ve had to adapt to the venues, you do what you have to make it work. We have to think about how we bring people in as you can view films in a variety of ways nowadays. We feel that the collective experience of watching films is really important, and is different than watching a film on your own at home. Building an audience takes time so it pays not to be disheartened easily. 

At this point John invited me to observe a screening of The BFG that was taking place. I wandered into the room usually used as a dance studio, the film was midway through and all that was visible was the film on screen, the faint outline of the projector and the heads of an audience all completely focussed on the movie. You could hear a pin drop. Within a few moments the film was paused (a half-time interval for a film clocking in two hours in duration), the lights came up and I observed an audience made up of families of all ages. The break allowed for a top-up of popcorn (only 50p - take that Cineworld!) and toilet breaks for those children who’d had too much to drink. There was a last call to ensure everyone was back in the room before the second half started and then the film resumed. It struck me that this was a really relaxed atmosphere that was focussed on the audience, and ensuring that the experience was tailored to their needs.

We ducked out as the second half resumed and John introduced me to Jo Allis, a volunteer at Mellish Sports Centre.

Hi Jo, so how did you get involved with this project?
Jo: I’m involved in the local football club, and this seemed like a great way to get involved in something else within the community. I’m a single mum of five children and understand just how expensive it can be to take a family to the cinema. This brings families and people together, and really helps to get you out of the house for a couple of hours at little expense. You get a good movie, a good atmosphere, and a good price.

How has this impacted on your family?
Jo: My children are between six and sixteen years old and the whole family can come together. When we watch a film at home it’s easy to get distracted by other things in the house, so sitting down as a family can be quite hard. Coming here enables us all to experience a film together.

You’ve transformed a dance studio into a cinema. How does that happen?
Jo: It’s pretty straightforward, although different venues have slightly different challenges. In here, we have blackout blinds on the windows and getting the screen and sound quality is vital to create the cinema atmosphere, and we had great help from Broadway Cinema. When the lights go out it’s a real cinema experience, and one we’re keen to continue in the future. The atmosphere is also different from a mainstream cinema as the focus is on ensuring the audience enjoy the experience.

What does the future hold?
Jo: This can become a good routine for families, a Sunday afternoon trip to the cinema for little cost. We’d love the opportunity to show more recent films too as this could provide a great service to local communities. I think this project is a great idea. I like the smaller environment to watch films in.

John: The ambition is that this project becomes self-sustaining, and we continue to find audiences to watch films in a variety of venues. This is a completely different environment from watching a film at a multiplex. The audience can chat over a cup of tea and watch the film. In the future we’re looking into introducing Q&A sessions if we feel it’s appropriate to the film. It’s likely we’ll see a continuation of the format over the next year and we’re looking to roll it out in different areas. Mansfield library have licensed two additional films for May and June and we are already moving forwards and planning more. 

The project is supported by Film Hub Central East as part of the BFI Film Audience Network, Broadway Cinema, and Creative Nottingham North.

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