Be The Cinema You Want To See or, how to put on that film screening you've been thinking about, but didn't know how!
The Scalarama festival that takes place every September is a great opportunity for people to have go at screening a film of their choice, it also helps the city’s informal film exhibitors to raise their profiles.
With this in mind, I have written this article today, because it is 200 days until the start of the 7th edition of Scalarama!
Last year I was one of the festival's regional co-ordinators and saw at first hand just how many of us there are now.
But first I will explain how what began for me as cinema-based volunteering has turned into a mission to see cinemas starting up in every conceivable space in the city!
The Leeds International Film Festival is one of the UK’s biggest film festivals and every November the festival fills the city with cinema spectacles, international retrospectives of rarely seen films, cult cinema, music docs in hip venues, activist docs screened in the back rooms of bars or cafes and short films of all genres.
Leeds also has two gorgeous vintage film theatres that are open daily, year-round: the Cottage Road Cinema and the adorable Hyde Park Picture House, where you can become totally immersed in plush cinema surroundings with strong coffee, tasty beer, vegan cakes or gourmet ice cream.
These organisations can be rightly proud of their independent programmes and distinctive profiles.
A lot of work goes on behind the scenes in independent cinema exhibition in Leeds, and the amount of volunteers involved in all of this might surprise you.
Underpinning the exciting diversity of film experiences available at the moment is an army of volunteers and enthusiastic amateurs who help to put on film festivals, support independent venues in a huge number of ways and even create new cinemas in spaces all over the city.
Whether you’re queueing up for popcorn at the Hyde Park Picture House or being welcomed into one of the film festival’s screenings, the person greeting you is most likely a regular volunteer for that organisation, or even for both, and often more besides.
I first signed up as a volunteer for the film festival in 2007. I’d recently moved to the city and the festival offered a way to meet new people, discover unfamiliar places and find out about world cinema.
Starting, as many do, as a screening assistant, tearing tickets and running errands for the organisers, after that first year of volunteering, I was hooked!
I soon realised that what I had been looking for was a different kind of cinema experience. When the festival offered me the role of volunteer manager, I joined the team and became more involved in organising the individual events.
As time went on, it became a source of frustration that these esoteric film watching opportunities seemed unavailable beyond the festival dates.
So the next step was to do something about it (of course, I wasn’t the first to do so).
I began volunteering regularly at the Hyde Park Picture House in 2013. Then my first solo project in 2014 was to develop the back room of a much loved Leeds bar and restaurant into the Little Reliance Cinema.
At this makeshift screening venue we started to host monthly film nights that were connected to the venue’s food and drink ethos, but quickly branched out into cult and classic films as well.
Films have to be licensed if they are shown to a paying audience.
DIY means either limited budgets or no budget at all, at my own screenings I’m always wondering if door sales will be enough to cover the price of the single screening license.
If there’s a bit of money left over, it goes straight into the next project.
With help from my friend Alice Miller, with whom I set up a project called Film Fringe last year, I have now screened films at several venues, including Left Bank Leeds, the Leeds College of Art, Headingley Heart Centre, Hyde Park Book Club, Wharf Chambers, Arch Cafe and Sheaf Street Cafeteria.
I rationalise these unpaid contributions I make to growing the independent cinema ecology as a form of cultural activism.
Last year I asked some of the other pop-up cinema organisers in Leeds to tell me why they do it:
Tina Irving is the driving force at Headingley’s Films At Heart community cinema project. Her aim is to show something that “people just somehow didn’t get round to seeing when it first came out” she says.
“I can think of very few more uplifting or satisfying feelings than being totally immersed in a brilliant film and I wanted to share that love of film with other people”.
Jack Simpson is the owner of the Hyde Park Book Club, he hosted screenings there during Scalarama in 2016. He thinks that working together to support film culture is a worthwhile thing to do.
“I'm interested in film as I'm interested in most creative areas, because of its ability to make life better”.
Liz Ainge is a director of Left Bank Leeds. She said:
“I love the passion and diversity of the Leeds film scene”
The film programme at Left Bank Cinema concentrates on leftfield and documentary films.
“Working with Film Fringe and LIFF, we've carved out a great programme of thought provoking radical film.”
Jack Simpson also pointed out that while there are lots of people interested in a more diverse film culture, one big obstacle to getting started with your own independent screenings is the patchy support that exists for this sector.
“There are so many great film makers, and films, that it seems they deserve a better economy around them. With so much growth in Leeds' culture, that seems to be translating into growth in Leeds film.”
So if you want to help us to build this fragile film ecology and tap into the energy of this underground film scene, you'll find that there are plenty of ways on an individual level to get involved and stand up for the cinema you want to see.
And as I said, it is just 200 days until the start of the 7th edition of Scalarama begins!
In Leeds, Alice and I are already making plans to see that September is the biggest month of independent cinema yet. Our first Scalarama Leeds meeting of the year will take place on Monday 6th March at 6pm, at Wharf Chambers, no need to book or RSVP, just come along with your ideas. We are active on Twitter and on Facebook too, so 'like' us and make friends.
There's so much you can gain for giving your time to a cultural project in the city. Robb Barham, who is currently involved with the film festival and the Hyde Park Picture House, put it like this:
“It's a consistently exciting and rewarding opportunity to be involved at the very heart of this perfect storm of passion for such a diverse and invaluable art form.”
* an early version of this article was published in the November issue of Independent Leeds magazine, in 2016.