A Brief History of 7 Inch Cinema

By Ian Francis


Winter greetings from the second city. I’m sat in a café scribbling this, when really I should be writing brochure copy for our next festival. Still, it’s nice to have an excuse to wallow in the past now and again…

The seeds for 7 Inch Cinema were sown nearly ten years ago. I was working at a ‘proper’ film festival when a vanload of lottery-funded a-v equipment arrived which nobody knew how to run. This strange new world of ansi lumins, female XLRs and magic folding screens opened up the possibility of non-cinema screenings, and the freedom to put on a mixture of shorts and music compiled from submissions and diligent web-surfing. On leaving the festival this was the avenue I wanted to pursue, and a group of us started up a regular night at the Rainbow pub under railway arches in Digbeth which quickly picked up a good following. The Birmingham Post called us “scruffy avant-garde”. All manner of DVDs started landing on the mat. 7inch events offered a gathering point and a test-bed for sketches and experiments that might not otherwise get seen or heard, an alternative to polished shorts made with one eye on a TV career.

As we went along, we realised that all this was nothing new. Cinema had been here a hundred years before, in empty shop-units and on patches of wasteland. Come and see yourself on screen. A film, a conjuring trick, a musical turn. Of course, a pub can be a terrible place to show films. There’s a filmmaker sat at the front chewing her fist over the lack of image contrast, while at the back of the room people are merrily blethering away. Don’t even think about screening Stan Brakhage. On other nights, though, something seemingly quiet and difficult will stop the whole place in its tracks. The real joy is being sat in the middle of your audience, getting instant responses and frequent requests. (Setting up a film tent in a field one summer, an eight year-old boy poked his head through the door – obviously a repeat attender from the previous year. ‘Are you going to show the one with stick-men having sex?’) It often feels like the films are a pretext, a conversational gambit. Look at YouTube – where films and clips offer a social lubricant, a million campfires to gather round. Soothsayers conclude that the programmer’s days are numbered now that everyone can devise their own entertainment schedule, but the job of sifting for good stuff and putting it in context has not gone away. There’s just a lot more people doing it now.

vladmaster-experience.jpgThe Vladmaster Experience

In the interests of taking 7 Inch onto a bigger platform and developing this strange hobby into a job, we ended up running our own four-day festival. Flatpack launched in early 2006, and included such delights as the Vladmaster Experience (a roomful of 3-D viewmasters clicking in unison); a tribute to sound artist and goofing-off guru Henry Jacobs; Mitchell and Kenyon films with live klezmer scores; events in various basement bars and warehouses and even a few cinema screenings. In our cheesier marketing moments we would call it ‘Film, and then some’, or ‘A hundred niches for the price of one’; the idea being that everyone has their own obscure defining passion, and that there’s no reason why a film festival can’t gather together knitters, skateboarders, rail enthusiasts and computer boffins. And get them all doing Heavy Metal karaoke. In some ways we’ve come full circle, once again chasing after disinterested distributors and wading through funding applications. Weird things continue to plop onto the mat, though, and the magic screen is still going strong. Missing a few of its poppers and layered with the debris of a hundred sticky floors, but fully capable of putting on a good show.

Ian Francis is a film programmer and promoter, and has been running 7 Inch Cinema with partner Pip McKnight since 2003. Find out more about past events and future plans at www.7inch.org.uk. The second Flatpack Festival takes place in Birmingham from 1-4 February 2007, and you can find the programme online at http://www.flatpackfestival.org