Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Do I Want To Start a Film Club?

This weekend at the Roxy Bar and Screen, Scala Forever presented a panel of film club curators to provide a discussion point for those inspired to start a film club, under the revealing title 'I Want To Start a Film Club!'

By implication, those in attendance were interested in starting a club, and while I do fall into that category, I had a second agenda, stemming from a general interest in mapping the current 'club' scene in London and hearing more from the people that make it tick.

The panel was nonimally hosted by Michael Pierce although as the director of both Midnight Movies and the Scala season itself, he was as much a part of the conversation as any other of the panelists. The rest of the panel varied greatly in the style, content and type of event they run with a common theme of determination and love for what they do.

The bulk of the discussion was about motivation and history of the groups. Fielding the first question was Alex Kidd of the Duke Mitchell film club, which operates monthly themed nights from the Kings Cross Social Club. Kidd gave the Duke's mission statement as showing "films you've never heard of," and explained the evolution of the night from the co-creators' (Kidd runs the night with freelance film journalist Evrim Ersoy) living rooms to the back room of a pub so that they could share the fun they had. It operates under the philosophy that the organisers are going to enjoy the night, whether or not anyone else turns up (although with their creative programming and contagious enthusiasm, drawing a crowd is never a problem).

Of the eight clubs represented, there was a rough divide in motivations between the business minded 'arts' events, the academic events, and the celebratory don't-care-if-anyone-attends-we're-just-having-a-good-time. Appearing to join the Duke in this latter category was Filmbar70, as represented by Justin Harries. Filmbar70 aims "to celebrate" and "to contextualise" film which often gets dismissed as "trash" or "cult" with a particular focus, as its name would suggest, on films of the 1970s. Harries explains the aim is to have a night which is not academic, and not filled with "curios," but themed programming building up to "main meal" films that stand alone in their own right.

The most academic addition to the panel is Amy Cutler of Passenger Films, whose nights are not so much evolved as a premeditated affair, designed to bring together film fans and the cultural geography academics she works with in her day job. The film nights are cerebral with "think-tanks" including discussions and speakers. Getting more involved with the film club scene, she notes "once you get into it you realise how friendly the film societies are."

In the more business modelled category, Michael Pierce talks of the long history of late night screenings, popular in the 70s. It has always been difficult to show cult/art house/niche interest films at peak time in a cinema as it will always have to replace a more mainstream showing, and must therefore guarantee the same returns through both ticket and popcorn sales. Hence the birth of the Midnight Movie - all the facilities could be made available without detracting from other scheduling, creating less financial risk. Conscious of the need for a unique selling point and broad appeal, Midnight Movies make a point of showing not just horror, but gay and lesbian, cult, Asian, animation and more. Part of MM's mission is to attract new audiences into art house in general, and the Soho Curzon specifically. It was noticed that the missing demographic from art house were the young and the enthusiastic, and ultimately MM is working to address this. The ever business conscious Pierce points out that a film club can work as a business, but it is hard work.

The Lost Picture Show's Jim Dunnet is disillusioned with the way cinema has changed over the past 10 to 20 years - "it's a stitch up the way distribution has gone ... they get away with showing such shitty films because people don't know any better." He refers as much to the content as the environment in which films are shown. LPS is intended as the antithesis to this - restoring the hypnotic escapism which the conveyor belt of the multiplex has removed. Dunnet had a background in low level TV production, and made the leap to pop up cinema thinking "how hard can it be?" Tonight he ironically answers his own rhetorical question, "Very!"

Jesus Mateos of Land in Focus had a background in producing corporate events, and a dream of one day being a movie director.With a passion for both film and organisation, the eventual fall into the role of "revealing and promoting emerging talents from the countries we work with" seemed retrospectively natural, but Mateos echoes the emphasis on hard work, and also a need to know your purpose. His biggest piece of advice was that one should ask oneself "Why do I want to start a film club? ...For fun? For business? As a community service?" and "Where am I going to be in three years?"

Phil Wood owner of Roxy Bar and Screen, and director of the Scala Forever season studied film, and, like Mateos, had wanted to be involved in film production and direction. After discovering painfully, first hand, how hard it is to get noticed among so much talent that is out there, he decided to give himself not to contributing to the mass of talent, but to helping to seek it out and give it a stage. Also, like Dunnet, he wanted to get past the conveyor belt tackiness of the multiplex - realising that "instead of popcorn and coke, we could sell beer and nice food." Since setting up the cinema he has become slightly more pragmatic - "the Roxy is a business first," and films must be chosen to get people through the door. But he is prepared to be an open stage - convince him your film or your club night will get bums on seats and he's sold. Programming is all about partnerships, and being business minded can open more creative doors - hosting seasons can lead to sponsorship; press coverage; speakers and building a reputation that allows for more freedom of programming in the future.

The most naturally evolved of the larger clubs seems to be Josh Saco's Cigarette Burns. Saco describes Burns' history simply that, enjoying films so much, he was compelled to ask if he could show films at his local pub. The pub responded "monday's are dead, fill it up!" With quietly spoken passion, he talks of the accentuated enjoyment of watching films he loves, not just with a couple of friends and a TV but on a big screen. As the club grew, so did his aspirations, moving from a pub to Dalston's Rio cinema to the Prince Charles in the heart of the West End. In the recurring theme that a film club is hard work, he describes it now as "a beast" to organise and is hard to keep on top of  and should be considered before embarking. Burns' growth seems organic and not premeditated. This must be attributed to Saco's relaxed attitude, and view that while films have art and class and love, they are primarily fun.

As well as inspirations and motivations, the panel touched upon all levels of practicalities - finding venues, marketing, networking, funding to mention a few. As was rightly pointed out, it is a minefield out there - a big part of showing films publicly is obviously obtaining permission from whoever owns the rights, yet no one could give a comprehensive answer to questions such as whether a separate license may be required for the sound track of a film, or whether it makes a difference if a club sets itself up as a private members club or if it is public. Challenges such as this arise all the time in the world of clubs and societies, and this is where the real commitment comes in.

So... Do I want to start a film club?
The panel was a great success - fascinating and revealing, and giving a good impression of the joys and pitfalls of the realities of running a club. I came here open minded, and left with even more respect for these people and all the elbow grease they put in to maintain their respective clubs. Be it for business, for art, for academia or for fun all of today's panelists are united by a love and passion for what it is that they do, and a will to share it. They demonstrated that this passion goes a long way, albeit along with some sweat and blood, and that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Maybe one day my film nights might just leave my living room, and if they did I know I'd have good role models.

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