by Ge Allan
“People need connections with each other and community cinema has the power to bring people together"
Cinemas have unsurprisingly been in a bind for the last 18 months. The repeated closures, last minute changes and fear of gathering with strangers has meant empty cinema seats for extended periods. Many of the UK’s cinema chains leant on staff redundancies to recoup losses, while profit-led businesses, such as The Secret Group (responsible for Secret Cinema) were given the largest sums from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund.
There are currently 1500 community run cinemas in the UK. Some have regular screenings and a venue whereas others are occasional film nights or small festivals. The aim of community cinema is not only to provide screenings of films to a small group, but also give community driven support. The size of community cinemas means they are run mainly by volunteers and not-for-profit, and therefore show diverse films or one-off screenings.
Lockdown: social enterprise cinemas lending mutual aid
When Covid hit, many of these groups set screenings aside and focused on the community. “We saw food drives, DVD drop-off schemes, seed swaps, NHS fundraisers and more” said Jaq Shell of Cinema For All, the lead organisation supporting and developing community cinema in the UK, which has been running for 75 years.
The Lexi, a social enterprise cinema, did just this. “We were closed throughout covid, but opened our doors for a couple of days a week for food bank deliveries (half a ton of food was donated)’ says Lexi founder Sally Wilton. The Lexi were also able to transfer screenings online, curating a roster of films to watch from home as well as online discussions on them afterwards. The Cube in Bristol is a not-for-profit co-operative who were able to host a huge amount of online events, and even created and hand-delivered their own zine. By going online, there were many possibilities, as Libby Miller told me, one of the 80 plus volunteers currently working for The Cube. “The cinema’s regular event Bluescreen became Bluestream and continued throughout. We also held free and ticketed online events, exploring our archived videos, and held films and Q&As in collaboration with local group Cables and Cameras”.
While there has been a wealth of inventive output and outreach by these groups, the financial and administrative struggles throughout the year have been tough. The Rio Cinema in Dalston, a Grade II listed institution of a place, created a GoFundMe to get through the closure.
Deptford Cinema in South London, a non-hierarchical, volunteer-run cinema for community programming, is in limbo as the group voted to vacate their current venue. ‘Deptford Cinema has always aimed to balance sustainability with affordability to audiences. With a limited number of seats, and less-than-ideal ventilation at the venue, it is extremely difficult for us to continue to operate with a fair ticket price’ an official statement on their website explained.
Reopening: the Culture Recovery Fund
For many of these spaces, the lack of clear guidance and last minute changes by the government threatened reopening, as did the difficulty in achieving funding from the Arts Council or the Culture Recovery Fund. “We found the process, forms, finances and website really confusing and we really struggled without having dedicated people to work on them” says Libby. However, The BFI, local councils and Film Hub networks have stepped up to the mark, providing funding which has been integral to the groups, even to the venues' very structures.
While cinemas have now been allowed to reopen and the public has rushed to see films in person, community cinemas are still erring on the side of caution. “Many are holding off on events till September”, says Jaq. With surging infection rates and lower levels of the second jab, “it’s understandable for groups to wait for more stability before they dive back in”. Libby reiterates this uncertainy, but The Cube are “trying to remain as flexible as we can, and use the situation as an opportunity for more strange experiments.”
As you wonder whether to go back to the movies, community cinema continues to have the edge over chains. The average ticket cost at a community cinema is £6; The Cube’s are currently £3 and other community cinemas are free. The cooperative venues can help with accessibility and adapt seating for covid safety. The range of films is also vast. The Lexi has screened artists' videos such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Walled Unwalled Light Work while The Cube programme ranges from experimental shorts to Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. One of the central reasons to go is to support places that are run by passionate volunteers and have the community in mind. Sally of the Lexi says they have a tangible “role to play in helping to rebuild community links and to showcase films that help build empathy and understanding between communities”.
Similarly they can be places to meet people and share the love of film in its most organic form. “People need connections with each other – and film has the power to bring people together like no other medium” says Jaq. During this period it has been the community cinemas’ resilience that makes them magic. The hope is they continue to survive and thrive whatever is thrown at them next.
You can find your nearest community cinema by visiting www.mycommunitycinema.org.uk
(Disclaimer: This article was originally published in our print issue, PRECIPICE, in August 2021. Some information may be outdated.)
Ge Allan is the Film Editor of Radical Art Review