Case Study: Conversations About Cinema

Conversations About Cinema: Impact of Conflict (Jan – July 2015) opened up discussions around a universal theme through film screenings, events and online publishing. It connected audiences, cinemas and partners across the BFI Film Audience Network, focusing on South West & West Midlands, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  • #convocinema

Why this matters

We believe that as the world becomes more complex, people want to engage with that complexity as well as escape into the neat resolutions of Hollywoodland. Conversations About Cinema shows that there is an appetite for watching films that deal with complex subjects. By experiencing them together, in a social setting, these films become conversation starters that help us understand perspectives that are bigger than ourselves and make sense of the world - especially when the film is accompanied by interesting speakers presenting different views and to kick starting these conversations (both online and offline). Cinemas as trusted local spaces and online brands, can be safe spaces for us connect and share with each other; better understand the world we live in and develop empathy through film.

Project aims

  • Open up and widen engagement with diverse films, across the UK, around the universal theme of Impact of Conflict.
  • Start conversations by creating online and offline spaces where people can discuss the films.
  • Create grassroots demand for films that might be perceived as ‘challenging’.
  • Impact on the sector’s confidence in taking cultural ‘risks’.

Headlines

  • Conversations About Cinema connected independent cinemas, audiences and partners. With an emphasis on coordinated programming around a shared menu of films, and coordinated marketing through shared Facebook campaigns, the project raised the profile of ‘challenging’ films.
  • 85% survey respondents rated their experience as good/brilliant; 59% took part in value-added activities e.g. Q&As; 89% said they learned something new from the screening/event.
  • 25,611 admissions across South West & West Midlands, Wales and Northern Ireland with average admissions of 51 people per screening, resulting in a £2.73 subsidy per head.
  • Shareable assets (from vox pops to event videos) were created with a focus on audiences, experts and talent. While they were hosted on the Conversations About Cinema website and YouTube, the emphasis was on using the trusted cinema brands to place them directly in front of audiences via their digital networks. The @convocinema Twitter helped spread the word further among cinema, media and cinephile networks.
  • Diverse audiences engaged in the programme: 9% of survey respondents noted that they had a disability; 9% that they came from a non-white ethnic background. 28% were in the 16 - 44 years age bracket.
  • Belfast’s QFT and Bristol’s Watershed were amongst top regional sites for Timbuktu (BFI’s Indie Box Office Column, 10 June 2015) QFT was named ‘best new start’ on its opening weekend and Watershed ranked as the 4th highest grossing site in the whole country!

Films

83 films and 57 value added events presented including from a collective menu of titles and region-specific titles/seasons. The menu included Timbuktu, The Look of Silence, Au Revoir Les Enfants, The Last of the Unjust, Villa Touma, The Decent One, Queen and Country, Maidan, Testament of Youth, Selma.

Key partnerships

Watershed (South West & West Midlands) led the project with FAN partners Queen’s Film Theatre (Northern Ireland) and Chapter (Wales). Others included festivals (Sheffield DocFest, WOW, Africa Eye, Borderline), cinemas (Home, Showroom, The Courtyard), Universities (Queen’s University, University of Bristol, Cardiff University, Salford University), distributors national partners ICO and Cinema for All.

Budget in brief

The budget was £147,298. £77,000 (incl. a £7K external evaluation fee) came from Lottery Funding through the BFI PDF Award. The rest was generated through box office income, own resources and partners. £2.73 Subsidy per head.

What worked

  • Increasing visibility around a collective menu of titles using a grassroots, marketing approach (rather than a top-down approach focused on the opening weekend). This visibility was reflected in increased admissions.
  • Building on existing networks and creating new connections to bring together communities of interest, cinemas, festivals, universities, distributors and industry partners across UK.
  • Developing audience engagement through ‘added-value’ events – intros, Q&As, discussions - and amplifying this engagement by sharing conversations via, for example, audience comment cards, vox pops and editorial content, both online and offline across multiple partners’ platforms.
  • Content-led online strategy with an emphasis on placing good quality content directly in front of audiences using the trusted, audience-facing brands of partner cinemas. Channels included Conversations About Cinema website, YouTube channel, Twitter and hosting of Twitterchats, coordinated Facebook advertising across regions/venues.

What has been difficult

  • Unforeseen increased pressure on small teams – especially around collective marketing, content creation and editorial.
  • Press coverage and creating online ‘buzz’ around region-specific films/seasons that weren’t UK-wide
  • Collecting, recording and producing quality venue specific content (vox pops, comment cards and event recordings) proved a challenge for partner venues until additional resources were allocated

What you would do differently if you did it again

  • Allocate more resources to increase staff capacity and build in more responsive resources to support deeper and wider participation.
  • Offer tiers of involvement to widen reach, engagement and impact on audience development. Cinemas with greater capacity could co-curate and commit to the collective menu of films and lead on specific titles. At the other end, smaller / part-time cinemas and community cinemas could be a voice/advocate of @convocinema, add to the coordinated critical mass of activity around a film throughout its lifespan.
  • Focus on a collective menu of new film releases, rather than a prescribed theme, building on the proven successes of the first iteration in providing new ways for audiences to access and enjoy films that go beyond mainstream offer, would traditionally be thought of as ‘risky' with subject matter that lend themselves to engaging audiences in wider ideas.

Awareness / Attitudes

The programme, which explored themes of conflict from across the globe, raised awareness of a variety of experiences, cultures, emotions and ideas. Through the screenings, added value events and discussions, the programme engaged diverse audiences in representations of the repercussions of conflict both contemporary and historical, providing in-venue and online platforms for deeper engagement.

85% survey respondents rated their experience as good/brilliant; 59% took part in value-added activities e.g. Q&As; 89% said they learned something new from the screening/event.

“It’s a brilliant way to engage in important issues & create dialogue around challenging subjects” Audience Response, Borderline

Diversity

Diverse audiences and contributors were actively invited to shape, engage with and contribute to the Impact of Conflict project. Partnerships were key to offering distinctive perspectives, reaching diverse audiences and creating social media campaigns that engage specific communities of interest - veterans, history groups, feminist networks, nurses, faith groups, activists etc.

9% of audience survey respondents noted that they had a disability; 9% that they came from a non-white ethnic background. 28% were in the 16 - 44 years age bracket.

The season offered both an international dimension and a local context as per Northern Ireland’s own post-conflict surroundings. Highlights included a sold out screening of ’71 followed by a panel discussion with author and ex-Sinn Féin member, Danny Morrison and ex-British Paratrooper, Glenn Bradley. Film Hub NI’s Impact of Conflict programmer, Seán Murray commented: “While both men were bitter enemies over a number of years, the discussion concluded with the tacit agreement that all sides had suffered and in tandem with the films message that there can be no monopoly on suffering in order to move forward with the peace process.”

Knowledge & Experience

The ‘added value’ events and partnerships led to illuminating articles, introductions and post-show discussions from a wide range of academics e.g. Dr Su Lin Lewis placed The Look of Silence in the context of the Indonesian Suharto Era; Dr Madhu Krishnan highlighted the historical, political and cultural context of Timbuktu in her introduction, as well as exploring some of the film’s motifs in the post-show discussion.

“I really enjoyed doing it. It was a great way to interact with a wider audience and to think about issues adjacent to my work.” Dr Madhu Krishnan on introduction and Q&A to Timbuktu, Bristol

Conversations About Cinema: Impact of Conflict was highly commended for an Engagement Award by University of Bristol (UoB).  The series engaged academics and students from across two faculties of UoB and inspired similar events within the history department at the University, as a way to engage students in research in an innovative way and to break down traditional ‘expert’/‘learner’ boundaries.

“The project has a clear pedagogic value as well as helping academics to look at their research in a new light and to engage with members of the public in meaningful dialogue rather than dissemination alone.” Dr Victoria Bates, University of Bristol

Many students attended the events, making them teaching opportunities as well as public engagement events. Undergraduate and postgraduate students have also been involved in organisation and in presenting events, giving them a rare opportunity to gain experience in speaking to public audiences and writing public-facing blogs – with a PhD student in history/film Vesna Lukic developing content for the newly created website (conversationsaboutcinema.co.uk) and a UoB undergraduate (Sam Watts, Philosophy) introducing one of the films.

Partnerships with academics can clearly have a positive impact on audience development and engagement. For example, the BFI re-release of Au Revoir Les Enfants achieved 95% capacity with 386 admits over 7 days (six sold-out screenings) in Bristol and 240 admissions in Belfast over three screenings. The introduction to Au Revoir Les Enfants by Dr Martin Hurcombe (University of Bristol) sold out in Bristol and is also now the most-viewed introduction on the Conversations About Cinema YouTube channel with 858 views to date.

Social Cohesion

The act of watching film in a cinema is one of social cohesion at its most basic level. By focussing in on the shared experience and community – through events, discussions, etc – as well as foregrounding people of diverse backgrounds, both onscreen and offscreen (as well as online), Conversations About Cinema can be said to foster feelings of belonging, personal and cultural identity leading to an increased confidence and engagement with society as a whole. Again, impact surveying supports the idea of Conversations About Cinema promoting social cohesion, with sample respondents from Wales commenting on Timbuktu:

“Films on big screens are always a better experience, allied with talks from relevant people interest me even more. I would love more opportunities to talk about films.”

“The big screen, the darkened room all make it feel like a real event.”

Other highlights included a screening and post-show discussion with Director Callum Macrae of No Fire Zone in Belfast’s QFT meant that members of the Tamil community were able to engage with the film’s director over some of the issues suffered by their own community in Sri Lanka. Bristol based author Roger Griffith presented events at Watershed in Bristol and was invited to QFT in Belfast, to introduce Selma at a sell-out screening. It was a profound experience for Roger, who said:

It was a wonderful occasion speaking in Belfast. In my discussion I brought in themes that hark to Civil Rights in America and the commonalities of the Black British and Irish communities (who in the 1950s and 60s faced signs such as ‘No Coloured, No Irish, No Dogs.”

Activity around The Look of Silence demonstrated the huge potential of Conversations About Cinema and is a prime example of how the approach can work with multiple partners and distributors to significantly boost to the ‘conversation’ around a film and enhance audience experience and engagement, and create a wider sense of social cohesion. In addition to the three primary regions, partnerships were developed with Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sheffield Showroom, HOME Manchester, Dogwoof as well as the film’s Director, Joshua Oppenheimer and Producer, Signe Byrge Sørensen.

What audiences said

  • “There is a difference to seeing a film on a big screen in the company of other people – it is a shared experience then.” Audience Comment from Chapter about Timbuktu
  • “Stunning, memorable, powerful film with a crucial message of understanding and empathy. The best part was the Q&A that delivered a message that every one of us should be open to hearing.” Audience comment from Watershed about The Look of Silence
  • “There is something life affirming about watching a terrific film at QFT with other like minded people which cannot be replicated at home.” - Audience comment from Queen’s Film Theatre

What professionals, press and partners said

  • “This is an extraordinary programme. [It demonstrates] an unwavering commitment to audience value…creating value for what people really need. Not supply-led programming.” Russell Willis Taylor, Consultant and former President and CEO of National Arts Strategies, USA, AMA conference 2015
  • “Conversations About Cinema worked excellently when accompanied with strong exhibition support at the Watershed, which led to an incredible result for Timbuktu. The film played for four weeks and grossed £12,811 - ranking as the 4th highest grossing site in the whole country! The additional engagement generated undoubtedly contributed to this fantastic result… it's clear the initiative has a real impact in driving audiences towards specialist films.” James King, Theatrical Sales Manager at Curzon
  • “The project has a clear pedagogic value as well as helping academics to look at their research in a new light and to engage with members of the public in meaningful dialogue rather than dissemination alone.” Dr Victoria Bates, University of Bristol

Press coverage

  • “Giving audiences around the UK the chance to see inspiring films and then enabling them to get involved in active discussion around the important universal themes being explored here with filmmakers and experts, is one of the exciting new opportunities being created by the BFI Film Audience Network and supported by the Lottery.” Screen Daily (6 February, 2015 | By Ian Sandwell) quoting Ben Roberts, director of the BFI Film Fund
  • “We might now be in 2015, but the first world war centenary commemoration is far from over, especially with a new adaptation of Testament Of Youth out next week. This new initiative aims to explore the wider repercussions of conflict in the broadest sense, through film and discussion.” Steve Rose, Sat 23 Jan 2015, The Guardian Guide