Independent Cinema in Sunderland
Supporting Filmhouse Sunderland through our Ignition Awards

We catch up with the team working to bring independent cinema to audiences in Sunderland.

Launched in early 2020, Filmhouse Sunderland is a new project from the people behind Sunderland Shorts Film Festival. Aiming to build on the audience appetite developed over several years of Sunderland Shorts, Filmhouse Sunderland has ambitions to bring the best in world cinema to local audiences who would otherwise have to travel out of the city for screenings.

Their first season was supported by a National Lottery grant through the Hub’s Ignition Awards and managed to run successfully before being truncated by March's national lockdown. We caught up with the project leads Jonny Tull and Chris J. Allen shortly after that for a chat about the latest addition to Sunderland’s cultural landscape, their approach to audience development and what might be next for Filmhouse Sunderland as cinema restrictions ease.

Who's behind Filmhouse Sunderland?

Leading the programme is Jonny Tull, a freelance film consultant working across audience development, programming and distribution. In the last year, he has released films like Home, Push and Climbing Blind, and has worked on development projects with cinemas and arts centres around the UK.

Chris J. Allan is a filmmaker and film lecturer. Chris co-curates the Filmhouse Sunderland project and hosts the weekly film screenings. Following several years of being part of the Sunderland Short Film Festival team as a reviewer and programmer, Chris served as Coordinator for the 2020 festival.

What's the project about?

Filmhouse Sunderland is a series of weekly independent and specialised film shows taking place in the city of Sunderland. Screenings began in January 2020 at the city’s Empire multiplex. Tickets are accessibly priced and each screening has an introduction.

Devised and delivered by the team behind the city’s Sunderland Shorts Film Festival (co-ordinated by Sunderland City Council) and cinema consultant Jonny Tull, Filmhouse Sunderland gives audiences a chance to watch new release independent films on local cinema screens that they would normally have to travel far out of the city to see.

What was your motivation for doing it?

Sunderland Shorts Film Festival has steadily grown an appreciative audience since its first iteration in 2015, attracting attendees from the region, across the UK and internationally. Although Sunderland has a growing arts and culture infrastructure, a strong university offer for film and media, and a thriving underground music scene, Sunderland Shorts is the city’s only regular cultural cinema project.

With the nearest independent cinema 15 miles to the north or 30 miles to the south, Filmhouse Sunderland was created to explore the opportunities to build an audience for new release specialised films in the city.

Sunderland has a population of 277,000 people and we believe that by using the festival and its team to drive the initiative, we can establish a specialised film offer within the city’s emerging cultural landscape and continue to grow audiences for the annual festival too.

   It’s important to us that Filmhouse Sunderland removes barriers to specialised film, so we have taken great care to place it in a venue that isn’t challenging to audiences and which can ensure high quality presentation of these films. Ticket prices are accessible (£5/£4) and the programme is curated to be of interest to different communities.

How did the first season go?

Although we’re in unprecedented times and with not a little uncertainty for cinema, Filmhouse Sunderland has started brilliantly. Our first programme has included a range of independent films, including the BFI’s reissue of La Dolce Vita, eco-documentary 2040, refugee documentary Midnight Traveller, British indies The Runaways and Pink Wall, the animé Weathering with You and Alice Guy-Blaché doc Be Natural.

Audiences have been growing consistently. A major part of our project is to work with groups and communities in the city to develop the programme and its audiences together, so we have been working on each title individually to source speakers to introduce screenings, to build awareness and to enable easier access to the programme for some groups.

   Our screening of Midnight Traveller was introduced by a refugee who discussed their own experience fleeing their homeland and this provided real-life context to the film we were about to see. Alongside this we were able to offer free tickets to local refugee groups too.

Due to this approach, our audiences have varied in terms of demography, and a range of ages, backgrounds and interests have been represented. Our approval ratings are high, our audiences love the programme, and want more. Filmhouse Sunderland is clearly growing in its reach!

What’s next for the project?

Next, we will resume our programme and get back to developing audiences for specialised film in Sunderland once current restrictions have lifted. We can’t wait to see how this exciting pilot project continues, and what the data we gain from it tells us about the future of independent cinema in Sunderland!

Find out more

Filmhouse Sunderland is supported by National Lottery funding through our Ignition Awards. For more information on how we can help your next project, contact our team or visit our Exhibition Funding homepage.

Images 1 & 2: Chris J. Allan.