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Making a Modern Cinema
The prospectus for a new series
In my day job, I have it easy. Okay, I’ll qualify: I get to tell people what to do without having to either do the punishing work itself or deal with the consequences if it doesn’t work out. I get to be cinema’s supportive friend, the one who doesn’t tell you to dump that guy but asks the right questions about how you feel when you’re with him.
But as the adage goes, a ship in port is safe but that’s not what ships are for. My ultimate dream is to own and run a cinema myself. Why would I let my fondest hopes reside in a business that is – by popular account – a throwback, slowly pushing itself faster into obsolescence by failing to adapt? I used to have a girlfriend (not an adherent of Yeats) who would tell me that running a cinema (like running any business) was really just boring management, an endless series of accounting tasks, staff rotas, refurbishment quotes, customer complaints and thankless, bottomless admin. I don’t imagine for a second that running a cinema is like riding a magic carpet of sweetened puffed kernels while you line up another sold out Med Hondo retrospective on 35mm for the cheering kids. But if the truth lies somewhere between the two, how can I prepare myself for the drudgery? And does the fountain of fun that the job occasionally is justify it?
With that provocation in mind, I’m going to be writing a series of newsletters about the nitty gritty of what running a cinema is really like. A shamelessly self-indulgent project, without doubt, but since what started as a very ‘inside Baseball’ rant proved to be my most popular piece ever, I’m staking that you’ll follow me on a journey I’d gladly take on my own. My guess is that if you work in cinemas, you’ll have spent some of the time away thinking about different or better versions of how we do this work. And I also know that as we go back that these ideas are likely to get pushed out day by day by what actually is, interceding over what could be. So hopefully this writing jams a little wedge in the window of possibility.
These pieces are going to be thoroughly researched and rely on the direct experiences of people running cinemas around the world. Realistically, I’ll be doing well if I can research, write, edit and upload one every six weeks. I’d also really appreciate any leads to cinema people (especially outside the UK). Below I’m laying out a prospectus of subjects, but this very much based on my naïve impression of what makes a cinema tick. Are there subjects I’m overlooking? Let me know! Do you want to give your two pence on any of these subject (on the record or an anonymous chat)? Get in touch!
The first newsletter is going to lay out a version of cinema that I’m proposing. Given that this is based on fond notions and built on sand, I’m going to use the subsequent pieces to see how realistic it is. Does it get chipped away, one piece at a time to nothing, or is there some scuffed version of it that can survive the relentless depredations of the real world? You can expect that one in the not too distant future.
Then we’ll move into property: is it possible to own your own cinema, or is the constant drain of renting the only feasible route? What should you be looking for in a modern cinema space? And where should you be based, both in the country and within a locale? And what about the space itself? How many screens do you need to be viable? What do you need to be looking for in terms of bar space, plant areas, gallery space?
Pretty closely related to these questions of where are who: the audience. Can you run an indie cinema without making white middle class people (and their perceived tastes) central? How do you estimate the catchment area of a cinema and determine if you’re going to have any success? And how do you forge meaningful connections with your community that go beyond ‘please buy a ticket’?
Then, for some people, the raison d'être: the programme. Can you actually run a cinema outside of central London without showing Downton 2? Is rep cinema simply too expensive these days to make a valuable part of your programme? How do you balance choice against letting films breathe and connect with audiences? Need films really be the dominant part of the programme now anyway? And what are the hidden factors stopping programming being better than it is?
Moving on to something more practical, we’ll look at staffing. How many people do you need to support an independent cinema? And what should they be focusing on? We’ll also look at something often neglected in the arts: Workplace culture. How do you keep staff safe, motivated and happy? What are the ways that cinemas specifically make things hard on the staff and what can a good cinema do to nurture people at work? Then we’ll get more specific and look at a subject close to my heart: front of house staff. What is their role in the business and how do you care for the people dealing with the public?
Finances are the gorilla in the room. How much do you need to make to keep the ship afloat? What are the hidden costs that stop the equation being as simple as ‘ticket sales and popcorn sales minus cost of hiring film and renting the cinema’? What stops cinemas from operating with flexible ticketing models? And who do you look to for your bread and butter and how do you stop them being the only voice you worry about? Can you really ditch the ads and stay in the black?
Then we’ll take a look at technology: what do you need on deck to make it all work these days? Laser or lamp? How do you run a cinema as environmentally as possible?
Finally, we’ll take a look at governance. What model should your cinema take: community interest company, charity or limited company? Should its structure be hierarchical or non-hierarchical?
So that’s the overall plan. One note I want to make is that I’m not going to be touching on either ‘inclusion’ (or whatever you might call thinking beyond people who look and think just like you) or environmental concerns as specific topics. I feel like these are areas significant enough to be woven throughout all of the above.
So email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or DM me on Twitter or reply to this email if you want to talk about any of the above. Looking forward to treading on my dreams, together.