Getting The Balance Right - Programming Tips Written by Jonny Tull

Sam

At the recent Independent Cinema Office Screening Days event (at the Phoenix in Leicester, 1-3 July) I was struck by the recurring conversations I was having with colleagues. We talked - over our lunchtime sandwiches, our end of day glasses of wine and our between-film coffees - about the movies we saw: they were 'festival films'; or we lamented how nobody would come to the tougher titles we had loved; and we relished the dead certs’ considering the joys of a healthy opening weekend.

This isn’t new, and this discussion is one of the many great things I enjoy about attending Screening Days. But whilst I headed home after the event I pondered on how many of the films I’d watched that I would pay to see as a customer. I’ve recently left a venue and I’m now starting out as a freelance consultant, and experiencing Screening Days from my new vantage point made thing feel different…

The more I considered it, the more clearly I could picture the scale of the gulf that needed to be bridged between the customer and the venues screening specialised film. As someone who has had the benefit of a career working across both marketing and programming I’ve always tried to ensure that each element informed the other. Would a film find an audience? Who are that audience? How many of them are there? Will people REALLY pay to see this on a Saturday night? All useful questions to ask when trying to work out your slots, length of run or when forecasting your admissions, and crucial ones when you’re trying to wring the most out of the resource that is the hours in your screens.

As we now all know, we face a challenge in exhibition, and that challenge makes understanding the psychology of our customers all the more important.

Audiences have more choice than ever and their time is precious. As a society we are becoming more comfortable with technology and the quality of content premiering on streaming services is rising and rising. Most importantly, distributors – forever our partners in cinematic matrimony – are now embracing digital platforms more and more, extending their market penetration without our help.

It’s not all doom and gloom though: alongside all this change to life outside of theatrical exhibition, inside our cinemas the situation is brilliant. We develop vivid and diverse projects and programmes, we have a wealth of amazing cinema history to draw on and new film releases remain strong. At Screening Days the quality of the programme was incredible: emotionally resonant, brilliant stories are still being told and our audiences will continue to enjoy them.

But for the collective experience of watching film together I think we’re at a crossroads.

With so much distraction from our artform and the method we use to deliver it, and with so much pressure on time and easy opportunity to engage with screen-based media, the decision to go to the cinema becomes a harder one for our customers. Combine that with escalating ticket prices and audiences start to become more and more risk averse in their choices and the number of visits per person a year will continue to drop. As a customer, whilst it’s a fairly easy call to decide to head out and watch the I, Daniel Blakes, the La La Lands or the Moonlights, the perceived value (time/money/effort) of a cinema visit to see a little-promoted new documentary or relatively obscure and independent foreign language title (and which can be streamed at home for less) can start to diminish if it can be seen for less without the ‘hassle’ of going out. In turn, the impact on venues is to become as equally risk-averse, for example minimizing screenings for challenging films, and taking less leaps of faith on more ‘difficult’ titles.

My Screening Days experience really hammered it home: people are different and have different opinions, needs and desires like any animal. Facing the changes we do, I think we need to consider this to keep pace – by understanding and embracing the psychology and decision-making processes of our customers at a deeper level we will better know our playing field. With that in mind the question of “Will people pay to see this on a Saturday night?” becomes more and more relevant. Consider the entity that is your own audience. How well do you know them? What does your attendance data tell you? What excites them? Do you know what works best on a Saturday night? And at what time?

If you aren’t doing this already, interrogate at your attendance data, research your audience and ask them why they come to your venue, and learn from it.

HOWEVER…

This is all crucial information to have at hand, but whilst taking stock of the knowledge we have on customers and attendance and using it wisely to inform your marketing and programme strategy is important, we have to remember why we are doing what we do in the first place and not lose focus.

It would be too easy to fall into a trap that only reflected customers’ habits, and into a future that held an unadventurous and ‘safe’ programme. Our sector is responsive. It has moved a great distance in the last twenty years because we have listened to our customers about the experience we offer. We have diversified our income streams and we have altered our buildings, changing them into places to hang out, even when not seeing a movie. And it has worked.

This is positive change, I feel, but the danger inherent is that we could become distracted from the mission, and when the wine list becomes more important than the film schedule we will lose all that is important to us as independent cinemas.

So, whilst we must listen to our customers, learn as much about them as we can and deploy this information well to enhance our business, we must also protect and champion the collective experience we all know and love, continuing to challenge and excite the brave explorers on the fringes of our attendance figures who want more than what’s hurtling through the Oscar corridor. With so many great stories on our screens and so much brilliant film history to work with our venues are monuments to ‘specialness’, and as programmers we exist to guide explorers through that specialness, through amazing storytelling and experiences.

This diversity in our programming, above all, is the mission.

If, in service to this mission, we get the balance right - between insight and instinct, culture and commerce – then we will continue to thrive and inspire.

Cherish our artform.

Champion the collective experience we provide.

Listen to our customers.

Empathise with our customers.

Challenge them to take risks.

Enable them to do so..

Jonny Tull is a marketing and film programming consultant. You book book Jonny through the Film Hub North A&E scheme to give you bespoke programming advice, for more information please click here or contact Sam@filmhubnorth.org.uk

www.jonnytull.co.uk