Still from Milk, starring Sean Penn

Audience power

How do you give your audience more power over what they watch?

The main locus of power in film societies is in the programming, which can certainly contribute to it being perceived as elitist, but it doesn’t need to be like that. By bringing in opportunities for audience/community input to programming you can counter that impression, and actively make a difference to wider community engagement. However, this does need to be done carefully, without losing your existing audience, and you will almost certainly need to ensure you can adequately resource any extension to your programming.

This post is the fourth in a series that has been inspired by reading Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum,[1] and I’d strongly urge you to read it too, to generate more ideas, and share them here too. I’m acutely aware that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the possible.

I know some film societies just have a single film programmer, and that can work very well; they will invariably get lots of suggestions from other people on the committee and the audience, and ultimately, someone has to make a decision about the range of the films, the balance, and whether they will enable the organisation to continue to operate financially. That doesn’t mean they all need to bring in a hundred punters, but a film society can’t operate with minimal audiences for very long. You need to be aware of what your audience likes, and develop taste and target new audiences as well.

So, whether you have an individual who programmes your films, or there is some collective method, it is very desirable to take suggestions. That can be some sort of film suggestion box, and/or online. We’ve been doing this for a few years now, and always get a good clutch of suggestions. It does have the merit of giving some transparency to our selection process. However, it is important to ensure that they are followed up at committee meetings and not dismissed. You must take all suggestions seriously, thank people for them, and respond, maybe with questions, possibly explaining the licensing issues or why some films are more likely to be chosen than others.

Finally, if you offer people the chance of suggesting films, make sure that you actually choose some of them!

IDEA: Once you have selected a film suggested by the audience, ask the person who suggested it to write the blurb for your programme, the film notes, give you a quote about why they like it, introduce the film, or you could even film them talking about why they love it. Embed your audience in the film selection process and make that really visible (if they are happy with that….).

In addition, you might want to offer alternative ways of giving your audience power over what they see:

IDEA: Devise a short list of films that could be screened one evening (by whatever method, there could be a theme, for instance), and then get a passionate advocate for each to persuade the audience on the night which one should be screened.The audience then votes for what they want, and everyone abides by the decision.

Now, there are some immediate issues: what should be the correct voting method? First-past-the-post? STV? In any event, you’d need a calculation template set up in advance so it doesn’t take hours to work out the result. You’d also need to ensure that everyone knew what they were in for, and what the options were before they turned up; one outcome could clearly be that some people would end up seeing a film they’d already seen.You’d also need to ensure that the distributors were OK with your informing them post event what you actually screened, so it might be easier if the short list was from a single distributor; and you’d obviously need to have copies of all the short list available on the night.

We tried out something similar a couple of years ago when Mike Grenville wanted to firm up the Transition Forest Row programme for the next season. He adopted a clapometer approach and showed trailers for each of the short list, then judged the collective opinion by the loudness of of the applause for each. It was not unsuccessful…

You could also extend that in different ways:

IDEA: On your own YouTube channel post carefully-selected 30 second clips of films on a short list, but don’t indicate what they are, and get your audience to rate them whether they want to see them or not. After the close of the exhibit, publish the result, and incorporate into your programme.

Finally, another way of empower your audience is to make sure they have adequate information about what films are on offer, not just from you, but from any film venue in your area. The simplest way is to get your own listings in the places that people read, be that the local parish magazine, one of the new local listings sources, or on the web and via an RSS feed. Sending them to the Press Association is vital too, so they get picked up in a range of print and online resources, but there is more that your audience may want. We list all the film venues within about an hour’s drive on every page of our website, and we used to try and maintain a film listing as well, though that was too much work. What I’d really like is:

IDEA: A really great online film forum. This has to be something with a decent budget and it mustn’t reinvent the wheel, but what we really need is a site that combines jinni, mrqe, mubi, findanyfilm, community cinema listings, and a good community forum with support for groups, not just individuals, so you can choose to have notifications of the group you are in (ie Forest Row Film Society), or within n miles of your address. How best to take this on? It sounds like something more for BFFS lobbying and engaging with existing sites to get involved to inform new development activities.

Still, that isn’t all the ways in which your audience can get more involved and take on power and ownership of your community cinema’s activities; indeed, all volunteers do already to some degree, be it in making cakes, writing notes, and giving you feedback. But there is always more.

So, power to the people! How else can we do it?

  1. Nina Simon. The Participatory Museum. 2010. Museum 2.0: Santa Cruz, California. Also available on