Shy Bairns Get Nowt!

By Holly Aylett


Report from the Association of Independent Film Exhibitors’ (AIFE) Conference

At AIFE’s conference on the public value of cinema, professionals working to build a thriving film culture in their local communities shared their experience and strategies. Linda Pariser spoke of running the Viva Film Festival at the Cornerhouse in Manchester, the only Spanish language festival in England. It began in 1995 with the aim of developing an audience for Spanish and Latin American films. Now it involves over 90 – 100 screenings, ticket sales of about 10,000, runs for over 10 days, produces study guides and organises the second largest tour in the country. In spite of its success in widening audiences it still receives no public funding from UK sources, and only survived this year on sweat equity. Ian Wild told the story of the Showroom Cinema. In 1998, nine years after the company was first established, it was under-capitalised, had offices to fill, bank loans to repay and low cinema attendance for non-mainstream films. By sticking to its long-term aims, it is now thriving, provides a managed workspace for the creative industries, runs a thriving festival programme and develops audiences for non-mainstream films.

cornerhouse-manchester.jpgThe Cornerhouse, Manchester

These and other testimonies, including those from Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema and Soda Pictures, made the morning’s dilemma over definitions of public value seem almost preposterous. How much more sweat equity, how many more screenings, how many more festivals, educational initiatives, industry facilities and production are needed to convince the government and its agencies that regional centres of excellence for cinema, and their programmes, deserve sustained and capital funding? Instead of banking on a utopian future of comprehensive digital platforms, a pluralist vision is needed that maintains bricks and mortar: one which recognises the essential role of our cultural hubs in the challenge of securing audiences for critically acclaimed, independent films, and one which plans for the long-term. After years of neglect, these regional centres of excellence have at least gained a brief mention in the UK Film Council’s latest consultation initiative for the next years, Film in the Digital Age

Whether or not it delivers, a new threat has emerged for centres in Nottingham, Derby and Leicestershire involving a proposed change of policy by the East Midlands Regional Screen Agency (RSA). Public funds thus far invested in these cinemas may now be withheld in favour of putting this investment out to tender. If this goes ahead private companies will be benefiting from the appropriation of venues/assets which have been built up and made successful using public funds. The Arts Council of England, who have recently invested £2 million in the Broadway, is one of the public funding partners apparently incensed by this latest development. Whether or not the UK Film Council allows this to take place, organisations with limited resources are now being asked to prepare business plans and find Plan B development partners at short notice and by the next financial year. If the UK Film Council considers outsourcing to be consistent with their remit to support specialist film, East Midlands RSA could be setting an example for other RSAs to follow, keen to capitalise on public assets.

broadway-cinema-nottingham.jpgThe Broadway Cinema, Nottingham

Amidst such blurring of public and commercial interests, mirrored in developments in the struggle over public broadcasting, the search continues for adequate ways to define public value. At the macro-level it’s a concern made urgent by the government’s review of spending, the looming context of the Olympic Games and the likelihood that funding will inevitably diminish for the arts. The chair of the conference, film commentator Agnes Poirier, pointed out that this preoccupation is indicative of a peculiarly British malaise. She reflected on the irony of chairing an event whose core objective would have been considered redundant in France where the significance of the arts in general – and cinema in particular – is taken for granted.

Michael Holden of DEMOS, leading the field in the quest for new definitions, pointed to the major shift from the Sixties in this country when, it is claimed, professionals delivered without the strictures of targets, and the public were grateful to receive. In today’s fragmented, consumerist society however, demand is uppermost, the people must decide, and the institutions must rise to the challenge to find relevant ways of measuring public value. Michael Holden has evolved some geometrical properties to make visible the invisible. His proposition involves the 3 “i”s, or as Tessa Jowell has referred to it, ‘the 3-legged stool approach’. An artistic work or project can now be assessed in terms of intrinsic value (what you and I experience), instrumental value (outputs to meet objective targets) and institutional value (contribution to civil institutions). A triangular approach. Warning triangles, as one waspish delegate whispered to another.

In the presentation that followed, Pete Buckingham from the UK Film Council, alluded to a statement by the Arts Council which echoes the spirit of this brave new era: “if it’s a choice between what the artist wants and what the public wants we will side with the public every time.” Of course the public has the right to demand accountability from its institutions, but an insidious populism creeps into these debates, and particularly when the public value of cinemas it at issue. Film professionals, whether in distribution or exhibition, become synonymous with gatekeepers and elitists on the one hand, and the atomized, mass of creative commons users, freely downloading from the web, on the other. In this view, digital technology stands for democratisation. I would argue that the gatekeepers may change/are changing, but there will still be gatekeepers. Even were it likely that the total production of contemporary world cinema, let alone the historical archive, ever does get on-line, (a huge assumption given the costs and process of digital transfer) is it not likely that the individual searching for a movie might not still seek the curatorial support of a cinema’s programme, let alone enjoy a night out. The long tail, which assumes almost infinite access on-line for the most adventurous niche viewers, may prove a significant and additional marketing tool. However, as Tom Fleming from Creative Consultancy pointed out, it cannot substitute for the work of cultural hubs and a creative infrastructure on the ground. Calling for a re-evaluation of place in debating the digital future of exhibition, he recognised that porous institutions play a central role in enabling “connectivity”. This is a vital element in achieving what he referred to as “socio-cultural gratification, education and economic opportunity”, (intrinsic value), in society.

Whatever the terms, the demand for public value must be met by the exhibition sector to argue viability in the competition for diminishing, public funds. Extensive, and expensive, monitoring reports will need to be fed back, based on statistics which most organisations already keep. This is something the UK Film Council with the excellent services of its research and statistics department, should support, alongside taking a more active role in supporting qualitative as well as quantitative research. For those maximising the benefits of limited budgets with innovative programmes, partnerships and sweat equity there was a message from the conference: amongst the din of commercial lobbyists, organise and shout louder. These are times when “shy bairns get nowt”.

Holly Aylett is a writer, lecturer in film and founder / director of The Independent Film Parliament.