Article: This Way Up 2021: Every Place Has a Story to Tell: Developing Audiences for Regional Film

Writing for The Bigger Picture, Thea Berry details the This Way Up 2021 session led by Hugh Odling-Smee of Film Hub Northern Ireland, “Every Place Has a Story to Tell: Developing Audiences for Regional Film” which covered Film Hub NI’s film touring programme Collective, celebrating Irish filmmaking, and a presentation from Film Hub Wales about their exciting project Made in Wales which is centred around developing Welsh audiences for Welsh made and Welsh language cinema.

Also outlined was a case study from Early Day Films on their release of Cornish drama Bait (Mark Jenkin, 2019, BFI Distribution), detailing the regional support throughout the South West which made the film to be the huge success it was. 

Hana Lewis, the Strategic Manager for Film Hub Wales, spoke of their programme Made in Wales, which is centred around the provocation ‘what is the lack of diverse representation on screen doing to our sense of identity?’ And so within a Welsh context, if we don’t know or care about complex stories and if they’re not being shown on screen, what impact is this having on Welsh audiences? 

If there isn’t enough investment in staff time in the distribution and marketing of a film, are we really giving those films the best chance of success? […] There needs to be a rebalancing of funds, of stories, or priorities across the film industry chain. Hana Lewis, Strategic Manager Film Hub Wales

The team found from their research that this has in fact had an impact on Welsh cultural identity and how the world around us perceives Welshness – Welsh industry bodies even found it hard to articulate what Welshness is. And so, in moves to decolonise on-screen identity they ask the questions: Who are we? Whose voices aren’t being heard? Whose stories aren’t being told? 

Made in Wales works with the entire film chain – filmmakers, cinemas, distributors – to offer tailored advice and create assets to support a film’s release. For example, they worked with the Aberystwyth-born Prano Bailey-Bond on her feature Censor (2021, Vertigo Releasing) to create assets such a colouring pages and shareable interviews with Bailey-Bond herself, who described their support as “immense and essential” and hopes that “It’ll further highlight the potential bubbling in the country and give Welsh audiences even more to enjoy and be proud of.”

The final example of Mark Jenkin’s film Cornish drama Bait (2019, Early Day Films) proves exactly this that of course there is hunger for regional storytelling. Crucially, Bait is not only a film set in Cornwall, it’s a film about people living in Cornwall. Produced by Linn Waite and Kate Byers from Early Day Films, who are “Resolutely and intentionally Bristol based”, the relevance of their regionality was key to the film’s success and so was the support from Film Hub South West and Watershed – their local cinema. 

Linn and Kate were invited to exhibitor programming meetings, where they discussed how to market Bait to audiences. Through this exposure to the exhibition process, both Kate and Linn spoke about how important it was for them in bridging this gap between production and exhibition. What’s more, understanding the role of trust that has been developed between an exhibitor and their audience has on the success of a film. Distributed by BFI Distribution with the mantra of “No venue too small, no run too short”, Bait is the BFI’s second biggest release, second only to Bladerunner. That joint human experience of collectively watching a film in the cinema was so key making the film successful and impactful, fueling word of mouth. 

Film Hub Northern Ireland’s initiative, Collective, is a touring programme of local films for local people, including titles such as Bump Along the Way (Shelly Love, 2018) and Extra Ordinary (Enda Loughman and Mike Ahern, 2019). With the film industry in Northern Ireland being about 25 years old, there was a concern from exhibitors that features being made in the region weren’t getting seen by Northern Irish audiences, and specifically rural audiences.

With concern raised from hub members that they were feeling quite isolated from the industry, Collective sets about bridging this gap by touring locally made films, with local talent, to local audiences. For example, they are currently touring the beautiful Nowhere Special (Uberto Pasolini, 2020, Artificial Eye), taking it to 11 community cinemas in Northern Ireland and giving rural audiences a chance to see a film they may have not been able to see during the film’s initial release over the summer. Collective’s initiative is about connecting the work that’s being made in their community and funded by their community, directly with their communities and giving them a chance to engage with the films, the talent and the industry itself. 

What the three case studies presented have proved is that regional audiences can be reached through regional work. Of course there is appetite from regional audiences for regional cinema and, crucially, that rural audiences can play a huge role in the success of films. From production to distribution to exhibition, the efforts made to bridge the gaps in the cinema chains are essential to developing regional audiences and regional film culture. Every place does indeed have a story to tell and, more importantly, a story to be seen and heard. 

Image c/o Shamphat Productions

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