Last year a man decided he was sick of his local cinema. His nearest screen was a grubby multiplex inside an inhumanly large shopping centre. Every time he went to see a film there, a bored member of staff would scowl at him as he walked in and scowl as him when he walked out. In between he would sit in one of the vast dingy screening rooms.
There was a sticky carpet that never seemed to get cleaned. Occasionally the seats would be filled by rowdy gaggles of kids, but mostly they were depressingly unoccupied. The film on screen would often be over-hyped and underwhelming. He would leave feeling he’d paid a lot of money for a miserable experience.
So Dave Leydon decided to do something about it. He went and set up his own film nights, Pop Up Screens. Over a three-day weekend he put on a series of outdoor screenings in Hammersmith. Rather than showing new films or the masterpieces that people are supposed to want to see, he chose the movies that people loved. The silly ones and the cult classics that people watch with their friends when it’s raining or when they get back home from a night out.
Because the weekend was in the middle of an English summer, it was cold and wet. The audience had to shelter under rugs and umbrellas. But they enjoyed it. They liked seeing their favourite films on a huge blow-up screen and they liked the camaraderie of being outside. This year Pop Up Screens is back for seven weekends, playing across the south and west London.
Leydon is part of a growing number of people who are ditching the multiplex and seeking out a more engaging cinematic evening. There have always been independent cinemas fighting against the dreariness of their competitors. Networks of art house venues like the Everyman and the Picturehouse or individual cinemas – from Newcastle’s Tyneside to Brighton’s Duke of York – have strived to retain the charm and sense of occasion that going to the movies used to have.
But increasingly, there is a third option – the grassroots film movement. This summer more films than ever are being screened in parks, on rooftops and in warehouses. Old favourites are being shown in settings that mimic the tone of the film. Young filmmakers are showing their work not just at festivals, but in bars and pubs, bringing the underground film scene to a more mainstream audience.
The UK Film Council believes that there are two practical reasons why this grassroots film scene is growing so rapidly. Thanks to the HD and Blu-ray projection, the cost of screening a film has never been lower; and thanks to social media, it’s never been easier to spread the word about a new film night.
In their report to the government this year, the Film Policy Review Panel commended the “success of initiatives such as the UK Film Council’s Rural Cinema Pilot Schemes, pop-up cinemas and other event-based screenings also point to a diverse exhibition sector which is providing enriched audience experiences beyond the four walls of traditional auditoria”.
The Rural Cinema Pilot Scheme is the only government backed project in the grassroots movement; all the rest are independent initiatives. So far scheme has been allocated £1.2 million of Lottery funding and is being tested in Shropshire, Wiltshire and North Yorkshire. New released films are being shown in non-traditional venues – village halls, arts centres and other community spaces.
The project works with local film societies, film clubs, and mobile and community cinemas. When the project launched in 2010, Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, emphasised that: “not only is this an imaginative way of making it possible for people to see a wider range of films, it’s also a great way of communities getting together to enjoy a unique cinematic experience with their friends, families and neighbours.”
This is what all grassroots cinema projects share – a passionate emphasis on building communities. The aim is provide the opposite experience to the anonymous isolation of the multiplex. Pop Up Screen’s Dave Leydon believes that part of the appeal is there is a real sense of innocence to these community driven events.
Instead of feeling like a punter being robbed of their cash, he thinks these events managed to recapture the excitement that the cinema used to have when you were younger. People often come to Pop Up nights for birthday parties, in groups of 15 or 20, the way they did when they were children.
Making people feel re-excited by film nights is what inspired Katie Steed to set up Whirlygig Cinema. Steed puts on a range of nights in London, which allow new filmmakers to showcase their work. Having worked at several UK film festivals, she wanted to create her own smaller, regular events that captured the same kind of buzz.
“There’s a feeling at these festivals that one is part of something really special and unique, particularly when the filmmakers are there in person. At Whirlygig we try to replicate something of the buzz you might expect at a film premiere. The audience often have the chance to meet the director of the film they just watched – that’s something you certainly don’t get at your local Odeon!”
Whirlygig audiences are usually made up of filmmakers, friends of filmmakers, and people who are into the underground film club scene. But as well as cinephiles, they also attract a lot of mainstream newcomers, people who have rocked up by chance, curious to see what it is all about.
Steed says that the main focus of Whirlygig events is on “the audience experience, from carefully tailored and enjoyable programmes through to concise introductions and even Q&As. We always choose venues that have a bar, so audiences can relax with a drink and feel at home.”
George Wood, the director of Luna Cinema, is even more focused on providing the perfect venue. Luna Cinema is England’s largest producer of open-air cinema. They put on screenings across the country, from Hampton Court Palace and St Augustine’s Abbey in Kent and to Dorset’s Lulworth Castle and many of the major London parks.
They’re able to tailor a film to the setting – showing Gladiator in a Roman Fort or Finding Nemo at an open-air swimming pool. Wood admits that the spaces Luna has access to are a major part of their appeal. “The over-riding attraction is the chance to experience amazing venues such as Hampton Court Palace or Kensington Palace at sunset with a picnic.”
Wood also believes that the events create “a sense of community, with people all coming to their local parks to enjoy an evening and utilizing the space in a new way. We find that groups of friends come together – it’s far more sociable than going to a cinema where you interact with the film individually – we find the audience is more like a theatre or music audience who engage as an audience with the film rather than as individuals.”
Rooftop Film Club holds summer screenings across London, from the top of Shoreditch’s Queen of Hoxton and to the glamourous Kensington Roof Gardens. The events are extremely popular – despite dangers of the unpredictable English weather, all this year’s screenings have already sold out.
According to the Film Club’s director, Gerry Cottle Jnr, they too are seeing the kind of exuberant behaviour normally reserved for gigs or West End musicals. Showings of the 1980s classic Dirty Dancing often end with people dancing in the aisles. Cottle says, “we get lots of audience interaction and a round of applause at the end of each screening which you would never get at a normal cinema!”
Spontaneous dancing is not the similarity that the grassroots cinema movement shares with the live music scene. In the last decade, ticket sales for gigs have overtaken the profits from CDs and downloads. People are more interested in paying for a unique experience that they can share than in simply buying a product. You can now easily illegal download any track or live stream almost any film in the world. But as Cottle argues, going to the movies is about more than that.
“Cinema is about escapism. We all know that we could probably download the latest film on our computer or watch them on DVD. But the joy is getting out of the house and seeing it on a big screen”. Luna Cinema’s George Wood agrees with Cottle. “Content is so freely accessible these days that people want experiences rather than just a chance to see a film.”
Wood also thinks this is combined with “the ever present idea that there are a list of films that you have to see on the big screen before you die. There are certain classics that have to be experienced on something larger than your computer or television. It is rare to see lots of the titles we program on a big screen – that’s part of what helps create the excitement around our events.”
How would Wood compare a Luna Cinema event to the sterile offering of a multiplex? “It’s like going to MacDonalds and then going to a Michelin starred chef’s restaurant!” says Wood. Sally Wilton, the director of The Nomad, makes a similar comparison, between MacDonalds and Sushi. The Nomad is an offspring of the Lexi, London’s first social enterprise boutique cinema.
Wilton founded the Lexi and then decided to push the idea of a unique cinema outing even further, by having a roaming open-air film night throughout the summer. The idea of the Nomad is that it’s not just a film screening but a themed event. People might dress up, there’ll be a live music performance after the film or speakers giving a Q&A about the film.
Wilton believes that while there will always be an audience for “MacDonalds” – the latest well marketed blockbuster in a multiplex – “people are increasingly looking for a more authentic experience where the film holds centre stage.”
But interestingly some people would argue that putting that the film centre stage is exactly what a lot of these interactive cinema nights are not doing. Dr Catherine Wheatley, a lecturer in Film Studies at Kings College London, says, “A lot of the kind of event cinema we’re talking about here isn’t really to do with the films themselves, but more the paraphenalia that surrounds them.” At an event where you might have actors dressed up as characters from the film, the audience in fancy dress and there are bars and venders selling specially themed food and drink, the film becomes just one element amongst many.
“Although it is effectively the ‘central’ event, it’s not really the reason why people are attending. It’s not about a fascination with the medium [of film] and it’s certainly not a form of cinephilia. Nor is it really about escapism or fantasy in the way in which a lot of early film going was”.
Wheatley rejects the notion that these grassroots events recapture the sense of occasion that cinema had in the first half of the 20th century. She points out that a lot of early cinemagoers were both regular attendees – going once or twice a week – and mostly working class. These new 21st century cinema nights are far more of a large-scale, one-off affair and their audiences are largely the same middle class demographic who chose independent cinemas over multiplexes.
In fact, Wheatley argues that “a trip to the Imax to see a 3D film like Avatar might better approximate the kind of excitement about film itself that was felt by early audiences.” In both instances the purpose of going to the cinema is to be completely absorbed in the film – to the point where you completely forget your surroundings. By contrast the whole pleasure of many grassroots film nights is the beauty of the setting and the fun of interacting with other audience members.
Rather than being a return to early cinema, Wheatley thinks that one of the fascinating aspects to these events is the return to comforting, early films. “I think there’s a real sense of nostalgia surrounding these events – a lot of the works shown are cult classics that the majority of twenty and thirty somethings have seen in their youth. Most audiences aren’t seeing new films at these events, but re-watching works they’ve probably seen many times already, and which they want to share with fellow devotees. It’s communion, in effect!”
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Photo (top) with kind permission from Luna Cinema