Interview: Leigh Film FactoryThe makings of new cinema in Leigh
The national award-winning Leigh Film Society opens the doors of their new independent cinema, Leigh Film Factory, this August.
Run entirely by volunteers since 2013 for the benefit of their local community, Leigh Film Society has built its own, purpose-built community cinema space on the 4th floor of the iconic Leigh Spinners Mill called Leigh Film Factory which will open its doors on Friday 26 August 2022.
What started out in a small cafe with no name and 8 people turning up to the first screening, Leigh Film Society continues to explore what film means to people in their community and how it can benefit them through their projects such as Afternoon Classic Cinema Club at the Turnpike Centre, Wigan and Leigh Film Festival and their brand-new cinema space. And to support Leigh and Wigan’s new independent cinema, Film Hub North awarded Leigh Film Society £30,000 with National Lottery funding through its Strategic Fund.
Ahead of the grand reveal, we caught up with Leigh Film Society's Development Director Elizabeth Costello to discuss Leigh Film Factory’s journey so far.
What is the story behind the name Leigh Film Factory? How did you come up with it?
We wanted people to recognise it as an independent cinema as well as a community cinema. One of our team came up with the name Leigh Film Factory because we're not just about screening films, it's what we create when we're there. A factory is about making stuff, it's about whatever you can pull together to create something. And we wanted that to be recognised in how we use film. Also Leigh Film Factory is a great name for a cinema within a mill; we're not just going to be about screening films, we're also going to use films how we've always used films, to raise issues and celebrate National occasions and do more of it.
We hear the seats for the Factory were donated by the London Science Museum. Can you tell us more about that and any other ways you’re building the cinema space sustainably?
The question we tried to answer was how we were going to build a cinema with no money. I heard that the London Science Museum was having a refurbishment so I got onto them and asked what they were going to do with their cinema seats and if we could have them. They said yes, so we sent six volunteers and 3 trucks from Leigh to London to help dismantle the theatre and bring back 150 IMAX cinema seats. The whole dismantling process took them more than 24 hours… they're still not speaking to me [laughs].
I think you'll understand when I say getting funding for what we do at a grassroots level is hard. And we needed to get some money in the bank ASAP so we created a campaign inviting people to support the building of the cinema by paying £100 to forever have their name on the cinema seat. We instantly sold 100 seats which then gave us £10,000 to start the project. This is typical with Leigh Film, we get going and it'll all fall into place eventually.
We adopted this ethos of the cinema having to be green and finding a way to use unloved products and raw materials. So a lot of our woodwork for the ticket booth and the bar is made from recycled floorboards, we use water from a local well, and we've got donated heritage industrial lighting which are amazing and will be used in the hospitality area to give that industrial vibe - yes, you are in a mill, you are in a factory, let's see what can be created here.
We've always been able to push our boundaries and never been afraid to try something new. So that's where we are so far but there's certain things you cannot do by recycling or cut back on like health and safety issues so a lot of the money we've been raising is to pay for the things that we cannot cut back on.
What were you aiming to do with Leigh Film Society and now Leigh Film Factory?
When we first set out in 2013, we wrote down our three priorities of how we use film: One is fighting against social isolation which we do with our afternoon classic cinema club for people with dementia and those who are lonely. The second priority was to create opportunities for young people to work in the film industry because if you come from the North and you’ve got an accent and you’re working class, getting your first step on that ladder is virtually impossible but can be done. And we do that through our annual Short Film Festival where we have work placements and we've been doing that for about seven, eight years now.
And our third priority of how we use film is to support community cohesion and we do that by reusing film in a different kind of way to highlight social issues, national campaigns and to highlight local good causes. So over the past nine years that we've been going, we've used Ken Loach films to raise money for our local food banks, we used the film 'Suffragette' to highlight the national WASPI campaign and got the local WASPI group involved in the screening (they came dressed as suffragettes) and got our new first Labour MP to get the film introduction. So that's how we use them to send a message to raise awareness and to fundraise.
And how does the Film Factory fit into this? We wanted to do more and not be beholden to somebody else's diary; it became so apparent that we needed our own venue so we were in control.
Why is Leigh Film Factory important to Leigh and Wigan?
I think it’s important to the borough of Wigan because it’s their first independent cinema built really from small donations and sponsorships, it’s not had a big budget. It shows what you can do on a shoestring and the great work that volunteers can put in to make something happen.
I will try not get too political here but Leigh has always been on the receiving end of what's left over. We are seeing the shift in that now, especially around arts and culture, but we want to get film recognised like it should be because I think film is such an important contributor to the art and cultural scene of our borough. And especially how we've done it, it sets an example to heavily funded big organisations about what can be achieved when you actually take on board the many diverse groups in your community. We go out there, meet our community and try to understand their needs.
One issue that is close to my heart is digital poverty because during the COVID lockdown, where a lot of arts organisations rushed online, that left behind a lot of people. So we started this campaign called Orange Bags of Cinema Sunshine, where we delivered DVDs to vulnerable people in isolation. So we made over 200 DVDs in the first lockdown, we received donations, we gave away our entire collection, it was quite a big campaign that was well received. So that, again, is the power of volunteers who look after the community. We knew some people couldn't go online and many didn't have DVD players so we also fundraised to buy people DVD players to say we're not going away, we still want to work with you guys, and be here for you. Although we can't be in person, we can leave orange bags on your doorstep. And that's what we did. Never be afraid to take on an idea and run with it.
What were some of the key partnerships you made for this project to go ahead?
We decided to build our cinema at Spinners Mill because we wanted to be part of something bigger than ourselves because what's the point if you're going to go it alone? We wanted to be part of Spinners Mill and everything that was happening there because it's a place for social enterprise, it's a place for community sports, it's a place where if you've got an idea or a business idea, you can take it to Spinners Mill and give it a go. And so we thought yes, we're great on our own and we stand out as an organisation, but also, we want to embrace everybody else because we grow together if we stand together. We will develop together if we support each other. So yes, we are a charity in our own right but we also want to be part of the Spinners Mill family. And that is important to us, that we all stand together, grow together and develop together because if we stand side by side, we will make it a success.
Another group of key partners were our sponsors who initially helped us kickstart this project through our Sponsor a Cinema Seat campaign which helped raise a lot of attention and our patrons got on board.
We also did small funding bids and Wigan Council has given us a small amount of funding. For me one of the main contributors to making it happen, was Film Hub North because for them to recognise the good work that we do, and say we want to work with you meant a lot to me. They're helping us for 12 months with consultancy advice and paying for two people to be working on our screening events because you can't run an independent cinema entirely on volunteers.
What are some of the highlights and learning opportunities that you’ve come across on this journey?
Getting to see each stage of the build like the tiered seating without chairs on it, getting the lights in and getting the ticket booth and the bar all made from recycled products are a few highlights. Another big highlight, for me personally, was having Sally Folkard [Film Hub North’s Strategic Manager] come down to visit us; having Film Hub North come to Leigh and take interest in what we do and how we use film meant a lot to me.
And as for learning opportunities, for me, is how to manage yourself when you're going after funding and talking to people who could give you money. I've learned a lot of new skills in diplomacy because I'm quite vocal about the inequality in the arts and culture industry, but you have to rein it in sometimes. When you’re trying to build something you have to sort of park your political views and say your focus is entirely on making this happen.
We are hoping to open in August and there will be three openings. There will be launch number one which is official and for the people who funded us and supported us. Launch number two will be a complete opening day for everyone to come on down and take a look at your cinema, see your sponsored seat and get the certificate and for us to say thank you. The third launch will be a whole day of film. In the morning, we will go with a children's film, in the afternoon we'll do some sort of big classic, and then the evening film.
Now, the evening film is one of my favourite films and I thought if we're gonna launch Leigh Film Factory, I wanted to choose the film. I’ve not forced it on them, they all agree with me. It’s something that would symbolise us as a community, something that would send a message out that we are about foreign language film, you can come and see an Italian masterpiece at Leigh Film Factory. So we're going to go with that film which I'll take full responsibility for if we don’t have an audience, I’ll sneak out the back [laughs].
Leigh Film Factory is supported by National Lottery funding through our Strategic Fund. For more information on how we can help your next project, contact our team or visit our Exhibition Funding landing page.
Image credits: Leigh Film Society