Community Spirit

How my dream of setting up a community cinema taught me a few home truths.

A little while ago I tried to set up a community cinema. In fact, this time two years ago I was excitedly planning for the first screening of seasonal favourite The Muppet Christmas Carol.

I really believe in the power of cinema to unite people. I think that feeling stems from childhood, spending rainy Sunday afternoons watching old Hollywood classics with my nan. Those films united us in a shared experience and cemented very happy memories.  I wanted to bring that experience to my community, to provide a place for the generations to come together. I hoped it could help to combat social isolation, particularly for the elderly and for those parents with young children for whom going out can be difficult. So after a few years of thinking about it, I set myself the huge task of making it happen. I had a completely blank sheet of paper, and I set about filling it with my dreams.

Like all great modern adventures, it started with a tweet. I put the idea out there so I would have to try it or I’d look daft. I had no idea what I actually needed to do to set up a cinema. So I found out. I was meticulous in my research, I found some amazing resources and information, I spoke to people who might know people, I made contact with other community cinemas. I did some research locally about what people might want to see. I set up a social media presence and started building a bit of a buzz around it.

The best move I made was applying for a grant from Cinema for All, a national support and development organisation for community-led cinema. My successful bid gave me access to a small amount of money towards two screenings, their equipment hire scheme and film catalogue and other support. The most invaluable part of the package was a series of online tutorials with their expert team in how to set up and run a cinema. Knowledge is power and all that.

I decided to put on a pre-Christmas family friendly screening of The Muppet Christmas Carol, and set about making it happen. There were significant challenges. Finding a venue was hard, we borrowed equipment but it was in Sheffield and we had no transport to pick it up. Film licences are a minefield and cripplingly expensive.

But with the support of my family, against the odds I managed to stage a successful film screening. And it really was fantastic. When I looked around the hall at the families who had come along to watch a film together and support our community venture, I felt incredibly proud. I made that happen.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Unfortunately it didn’t work out as I had hoped. I put in a huge amount of time and effort and I took all the steps I could but I wasn’t able to make it sustainable. I managed one further successful screening a couple of months later, showing the hauntingly beautiful animation Song of the Sea. Again the hall was full, but we couldn’t cover the costs of putting it on.

Despite the support and encouragement of some people in the area, it just didn’t find its place in my community. In other parts of my city and across the country there are a many wonderful, successful community cinemas. But my community weren’t overly keen to be honest. I couldn’t find people willing to embrace it and make it work by getting involved in the running of it, and I couldn’t do it on my own. I had no permanent venue, I had no equipment (and nobody backed my fundraising efforts to get equipment either.) In the end, basically all I had was access to film licenses and some lovely posters. After yet another knockback with funding for a further screening, although I was devastated to do so, I called it a day.

Bouncing back and learning to deal with adversity has not always been easy for me. My mum always uses phrases like ‘it’s character building’ and ‘it’ll make you stronger’ and she’s right (mums always are.) The humility we gain through failure allows us to appreciate the success. It was a wonderful shared experience for me and my family. I loved discussing film ideas with my husband and really appreciated his practical and emotional support. My young daughter loved helping out at the screenings too. My mum even came along and served the refreshments.

After a fair amount of feeling sorry for myself at the time, I feel positive about it now. I had inspiration, vision and enthusiasm about the project and I turned that into something real. I gained practical skills and I learned a lot about myself.  I can put on events, I’m good at social media marketing. I made some great connections with local people, and gained a huge amount of knowledge about film programming. I picked up plenty of reusable skills and gained a lot of enjoyment from the experience, and it helped me to appreciate my strengths.

I achieved my main aim, to bring that shared film experience to my community, it was just short lived. Crucially, it hasn’t stopped me having more ideas about using cinema to bring people together, and I’m sure I am stronger for the experience. There’s an inspirational Christmas message in that surely?

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