Rebekah Fozard reports back from the ICO REACH Course Written by Rebekah Fozard from the Hebden Bridge Picture House

Sam

Film Hub North supported Rebekah Fozard to attend the ICO REACH Audience Development Course. Read below to see how she is getting on so far.

Rebekah Fozard, Picture House Manager, 27 September 2017

I applied for and was successful in being accepted onto a competitive, small intake strategic audience development course, organised by the Independent Cinema Office, which runs from September 2017 to March 2018. The course was delivered by senior ICO staff together with industry partners and practitioners of audience development within film exhibition and the arts in general. I attended for 3 days in Bristol in mid-September, and will again for 2 days in March, in London, with mentor video calls happening in between these two attendances. I will design and deliver an audience development project and then evaluate and report on it at the end of the course.

Since becoming Manager nearly 5 years ago the focus has been not only on growing the audience generally, but ‘catching up’ with a long legacy of capital under-investment in the cinema, its fixtures, fitting and technologies, but also improving employee care, and creating better health and safety practices, and new policies and procedures and then, in 2016, recovering from a major flooding event. Initially, there was no marketing officer, no head technician, and little admin support beyond 7 hours financial administration and forward planning was a practical impossibility. I feel we are now in a place of relative stability, where, with Ben and Lisa’s support with maintenance and health and safety, and marketing and audience communication respectively, we can be more strategic about protecting the future of the cinema, by building new audiences.

When building a case for my place on the course, a quick count of tickets sold for evening and teatime screenings over April and May 2017 (Elevenses and Matinees were discounted as entry is a flat rate) revealed 42% of admissions claimed the over 60s or Passport to Leisure discount (PtL is not used that often), and 18% claimed the discount for Under 26s and full time students (the student discount is not often claimed) with 40% coming in for full price and so aged 26-59 inclusive. That 2/5ths of our audience is in the 60 and over category is not that surprising, but that less than 1/5th was aged under 26 was quite a surprise. The teen and young adult market is a hard one to obtain in cinema, with streaming, video on demand, Netflix and Amazon video all competing with cinema exhibition, but the multiplexes succeed in attracting this market, and unless we work to try and retain our current young audience (after the age of 10 or 11 when families stop coming to family matinees together) and recruit new young audience members we won’t have these audience members when they are young adults, new parents or have their own established matinee-going families: they will either not regard cinema as part of their leisure mix, or they will be in the firm habit of going to the nearest large town multiplex.

The course was very intense, but informative. Emphasis was placed on creating and delivering a project that was realistic, and proportionate to both staff and financial resources, and it was reiterated that results should definitely not be measured quantitatively in terms of straight audience numbers, but more qualitatively in terms of audience experience and reaching out to new audience members. It was also noted that whilst the course itself last 6 months and we should be prepared to evaluate the effectiveness of our implemented project next March, this is only the start of something we should be prepared to trial for more like 24 months and be prepared to retain consistently within our offer beyond this time if it is working (an example would be our monthly Parent and Baby screening, which I introduced in January 2013, which mainly breaks even financially but took around 2 years to get to this position, and is seen (much as Autism Friendly screenings are) as something we do as a community cinema to be as inclusive to members of our community as possible).

It was clear that two things are not worth attempting (generally and at HBPH specifically):

(a) Changing our programming mix to try and attract new audience groups – this is because it works as it is (audiences are generally increasing year on year), because we can’t take new releases on date without doing 14 screenings or more of the same film, and because if we skewed our programming away from the current fine balance we would lose / upset many loyal and longstanding customers. We have to realise we are good at what we already do and have average admissions data that many cinemas would be very jealous of.

(b) Offering an experience for free is NOT a good idea – it devalues the experience, is unsustainable long-term and doesn’t build audience loyalty. It is best to develop a great value offer (in terms of money paid but also added extras) and get the marketing right, than to rely on freebies wooing new committed audiences.

When listening to other venues that have ‘gone after’ young audiences one common mistake is to expect an intervention or offer to appeal to a wide age group. The British Film Institute has set its definition of young audiences as an age 16-30 homogenous group but everyone on the course agreed this is flawed logic, as 16 year olds have very little in common with 29 year olds. Projects delivered in Norwich for 16-25 year olds only attracted in fact those aged 16-18 years old and were ignore by the adult contingent, despite the large local student population. Similarly an 11-18 group will not work with many in sixth form / college not wanting to socialise with or be spoken to / communicated at in relation to offers that will appeal to Year 7 and Year 8 students.

We have to be mindful that we are not in an area with a high student population, and so going after an 18-25 audience would be very tricky with no obvious physical locations to start at and work with and out from. We do however have two comprehensives within a 4 mile radius and are within the catchment for pupils attending two Halifax grammar schools. Accordingly, our approach should be on attracting / retaining young people during the secondary education years (as we have them for their primary years with a loyal following for our family matinees), and tailoring our offer to them in some instances, and reducing barriers to entry for them in other instances.

It was also clear that we should not implement any proposed projects before running them by a focus group made up of the age group we want to attract. We will be inviting approximately ten 12-18 year olds to come and chat with me and Lisa on Monday 9th October, and we will listen to their comments on cinema visiting generally and barriers to entry / experiences here, before sharing our plans with them and seeing if they think they will work with their peers.

I will be working closely with Lisa, our Marketing Officer, on this project since it will fail without appropriate marketing input. We have already made an initial failure when planning the focus group recruitment in assuming, since Facebook is so successful for us, that most of the teens attending our focus group use it and have email addresses, but it’s not true! Snapchat and Instagram may be more useful platforms to spread news of events and special offers once we get going. Schools may help us with sharing emails or displaying posters but we will also need some HBPH ambassadors amongst our target groups that will help spread the word and bring friends along and hopefully the focus group will be the first step to finding some young ambassadors to work with me and Lisa.

Whilst it may change after the focus group and with further research, following a discussion with David Sin at the ICO, who programmes for / with us and delivered part of the ICO course, we will try all / some of the following as our audience development project to attract a young person audience:

(a) A youth membership card – effectively a pared down and differently branded Picture This Membership card for school aged people. It will likely be £5, issued at Box Office immediately when requested, and will get you into that film for free (so in essence it is free when you buy a young person’s cinema ticket). It will then give you £1 off a film for every visit for a year (and give us email addresses for our target audience) – meaning the targeted age group (of age 11/12 to 18) will be able to visit the cinema for £4 a ticket. The deal may also include a popcorn and soft drink offer (e.g. show the card to get a small popcorn and can of pop for £2, rather than the £3.50 it normally costs).

(b) ‘Secret’ cinema screenings for 12/15-18 year olds (we need to really work out the age being targeted by this offer but are mindful that many films that would appeal have a BBFC 15 age rating). Filmhouse in Edinburgh pick a film from their programme they are already screening to the general public and create an extra screening of it early evening on a Tuesday (they call it ‘See You Next Tuesday!’, and sent out details of it the previous Friday), which they email to their young person database. The event isn’t in the printed programme, but for us would be a film within the programme, shown additionally, and advertised on a special section of our website and within a Facebook event, and it basically allows audiences within the age group to come to the cinema with their peers, and at a much reduced fee.

One of the problems independent historic cinemas like this have in attracting young people is the feeling / fear amongst them that they will be sitting amongst their parents / teachers / a much older demographic when they come to the cinema and feel judged / uncomfortable for being themselves or just that it’s not, because of these things, where they would choose to hang out.

We would probably pick one or two most suitable films per month and add in screenings on a Friday with a 5/5.30pm film start time for an entry price of £3. Recent examples of films we might have done this with include Logan Lucky (15), Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A), God’s Own Country (15) and Blade Runner 2049 (15). We might also, once established, use this to encourage cross over from block buster films to indie release and retrospective programming, by selecting films such as Wind River (15) – a contemporary American indie drama or The Last Picture Show (15) a retro story of adolescence in a broken down American town, which by marketing specifically to the targeted age group, and removing certain barriers to entry and dropping to price to making it a very low risk experience in trying something new might persuade people to give the cinema a try.

Most people can be converted from indie film to blockbusters and vice versa: research found 59% of people describe themselves as watchers of blockbusters but who are open to indie film with 29% of people the other way round: mainly indie film fans but open to blockbusters. This means that 88% of people will give new films a try if the circumstances are right. Whilst we do take some (but not all) blockbusters, we take them late and this would put some people off waiting to see them here, but we have a fantastic line up of indie films that are not difficult to watch and enjoy. So maybe this strand of the project can be used to encourage horizon broadening, if uptake initially is promising and relationships of trust are developed.

As the delivery of this project is targeted at a young age group the general cinema going public won’t be hugely aware of it, but I ask councillors and Friends committee members, if you do see HBPH / me sharing something on social media relating to this project to please share it and spread the word, as we do genuinely want to successfully appeal to local film lovers of all ages. I will next update the committee on the development of this project in early 2018.