Cinema For All! The Changing Ecology Of The Film Club

Cinema For All / BFFS

Radical and inspiring: Ahead of the annual Cinema For All conference, A Small Cinema’s Sam Meech talks about his passion for community film clubs, the challenges they face, and the potential in resource-sharing and unity on a larger scale…

At the end of this month I will be talking at the annual Cinema For All national conference at the Showroom in Sheffield. Formally known as the British Federation of Film Societies, Cinema For All uses the event as a way to recognise the work of grassroots independent film programmers and bring together community cinema groups from across the UK for two days of screenings, discussion and awards.

This layer of film culture is radical and inspiring to me. It is ground-up, for the most part voluntary, unfunded, fuelled by a love of film and an awareness of the role that cinema plays in communities. My interest in film clubs and community cinema is something I’ve been able to explore through my work with both the Small Cinema project (leading to the building of a permanent screening space in North Manchester, the Moston Small Cinema) and more recently, with the Screening Film website – a listings tool for independent film events.

My experience with the Moston Small Cinema has taught me that building a space is a huge challenge, but not as hard as building and sustaining a team. As such, I have a lot of respect for those clubs and organisations who have managed to work together and keep going to screen regularly in their communities. The question of what makes a successful film club is probably open to interpretation, but I suspect at the heart of it its down to two simple things: personalities, and a genuine love for film.

“Film clubs respond to what the community wants”

Established in 1946, The British Federation of Film Societies  “is the national support and development organisation for the film society and community cinema movement”. It does this through advocacy, sharing best practices, offering screening resources and facilitating the licensing of films through brokering discounts, whilst encouraging members to be bold in their programming. Currently there are around 550 members across the UK. Deborah Parker, Managing Director of BFFS explains: “They [film clubs] respond to what the community wants, they help develop audience tastes over time, they bring film to parts of the country that would never have access to film any other way because there’s no commercial cinemas nearby. Basically, what we do is help facilitate the expansion and enjoyment of film across the country.”

A Small Cinema

Though nearly 70 years old, the BFFS interestingly represents a clash of old and emerging models of ‘community cinema’. The challenge for the BFFS is to quickly evolve into an organisation that brings together the traditional model of the (largely rural, predominantly older) film society, derived from village hall committees and workers co-operatives, with the current explosion of bar screenings, ‘pop up cinema’ (a phrase I dislike but have often used myself), special screening events and mini festivals: a new generation of events by organisers taking advantage of cheaper technology, social media and empty spaces to create their own community cinema events.

Moston Small Cinema

The landscape is rapidly changing (even it’s existing members directory map contains a few broken links), with more and more film screenings taking place. The BFFS is addressing this shift; the organisational name change from the formal mouthful of ‘British Federation of Film Societies’ to an ideological mantra ‘Cinema For All’ represents not only an attempt to be inclusive, but also a call to arms, a mission statement.

The question possibly for the BFSS, in being the closest thing to a union, is how can they bring everyone into the fold? How to persuade left-field events like the Bristol Bad Film Club or Manchester’s Optic Film Screenings to feel part of the same ‘thing’ as Wakefield Film Society, and sign up? In one respect, it should be straightforward to broaden the membership; all these groups share a philosophy of cinema beyond the multiplex. Groups such as MiniCine Leeds and Passenger Films in London seem to get it, providing innovative programming whilst recognising they are part of some something much larger.

“There is a huge range of fantastic independent film screenings out there, and by bringing them under one banner, they begin to take on a weight of their own”

The other factor is what the BFFS offer: support and resources for organisers to properly license films, either through the booking scheme or by sign-posting and offering discounts through other schemes. Many emerging film events will already be doing this anyway, but many wont be sure of how to make that leap to properly licensing a film. This experience is where Cinema For All (and its community of members) can really help.

As the current, nationwide Scalarama festival is proving, there is a huge range of fantastic independent film screenings out there, and by bringing them under one banner, they begin to take on a weight of their own. Unity is strength, as the old adage goes. Whether that’s through sharing practise and resources, championing one another and recognising creativity, or simply realising you’re not alone.

A number of the film clubs taking part in the Cinema For All conference are already using my Screening Film site to post events. I get a buzz of excitement every time I see a new screening added. It’s like picking up signals from space, signs of extra terrestrial life; except it’s not a mysterious burst of radio waves from beyond the milky way, it’s a screening of an uplifting Swedish drama about youthful punk rebellion in a village hall in East Sussex. It renews my hope that the truth is out there. There is intelligent life. I very much look forward to greeting these strange beings in person.

Sam Meech is the founder of Screening Film: a free community tool for audiences and exhibitors to find and promote film events.

Hosting an independent film screening soon? Post it here!

Catch Scalarama festival at a cinema near you until 30 September 2014

Posted on 11/09/2014 by thedoublenegative