The power of participation in community cinemas

The power of participation in community cinemas

What else can a film society do beyond just showing films? Why is it important to connect personally with your community around film? What fun things can you do to develop a participatory film society?

I’ve just completed a series of articles exploring ways in which community cinemas could develop more engagement with audiences. Inspired by Nina Simon’s fabulous book The Participatory Museum[1] and her Museum 2.0 blog, as I read it I realised how many parallels there were with what we’re trying to do in the volunteer-based film society movement, and couldn’t help writing lots of notes, having crazy ideas and starting to think more coherently about how film events can be catalysts for and developed from community participation.

The series of pieces is primarily aimed at other people running community cinemas, but I know from some conversations I have had that our audience members are also interested in other things that we could collectively try out, not only to extend interest in film locally, but also as a means of community engagement.

I’m acutely conscious that I have only read Nina’s book once, and certainly haven’t got a full, nuanced understanding of all the implications and possibilities lurking once you start to open your mind to the impact of stitching participation into the heart of your organisation. But, this is a start. As you read through the pieces, I’m keen to know what you think, whether you run a film society, or turn up to local screenings.

This piece is intended as a quick guide to all the articles, and to highlight areas that I can see I’ve dealt with inadequately or not at all:

(i) ‘The Participatory Film Society‘ sketches what such an organisation might look like and why it might be desirable in the first place.

(ii) ‘A participating audience at community cinemas?‘ describes the different degrees of participation that people may adopt, the objectives of trying to get people to participate, and starts to suggest some ideas.

(iii) ‘Making your audience feel special‘ recognises that we all like to have our contributions valued and that by connecting with our audience we all get that warm fuzzy feeling.

Jim Barratt of Llancarfan Community Cinema added a comment to that post noting that they “run a slideshow of photos before the main performance, depicting local people and places”. This includes recent photos from village events as well as older pictures, some of which are sourced from local residents and then scanned. As he notes, this sort of engagement “it is entirely unique to our offer” and certainly underlines the specialness of the audience and the community.

(iv) ‘Audience power‘ starts to consider how we can draw on our audience to shape our programming, and also to give them other film-watching opportunities.

In that context, Llancarfan have also experimented with audience participation in the programming by inviting the whole community to vote for the film to be screened in July; they can choose from a short list, the trailers of which are posted on the website[2].

(v) ‘Knowing and extending your audience‘ helps us to think about who actually turns up, and how, by knowing more about them, we can do more for them, and get more participation

That piece ended up not really including much about extending the audience, important though that is, and I’m very conscious that I didn’t address targetting participation with children and young people, or more hard-to-reach groups.

One of Nina Simon’s recent blog posts is a very valuable item about engaging young people, and especially in making their contributions meaningful. It is also a sobering reminder of how important it is to ensure that you really listen, and are not just paying lip service to the idea of doing “something for the kids”[3]. Two of her colleagues have also written very usefully about partnering and reaching out to other sectors of the community[4].

(vi) ‘Valuing your members‘ notes that just offering money off admission is only a small thing to offer. What else can you do for your members? If you attend a local community cinema screening, what would you really appreciate?

One member service that appeals to me would be to connect up with neighbouring film societies. I rather fancy a coach trip to a screening in Hurstpierpoint, Lewes, Lingfield or Seaford, with a pub meal beforehand, ideally with a bunch of folk from the host society. It would need sorting out at the start of the season, or even when the two organisations are setting their dates, since so often we screen on the same days. This would be a fun mini project if anyone would like to organise it, please…

(vii) ‘More extended participatory activities in community cinemas‘ was when I started to dream up ever more mad, bonkers and onerous ideas, though some of them still seem rather appealing…

(viii) ‘Films as social objects‘ underlines how films get people talking and engaging, so are almost a ready-made vehicle for furthering that activity.

Now, trying to do all of these things at once is impossible, and it is important to start small, especially since we all have limited time, and we’re all volunteers. Still, thinking about all this has made me very excited about all the things we could do, and how we all (committee, existing audience, and the wider community) can gradually work together in our own small ways to achieve some of it. If you are one of our audience, which of the ideas most take your fancy? What might you be able to help out with? Some things may only need a tiny amount of time.

I’m really looking forward to the future seasons of Forest Row community cinema. How do you fancy participating?

  1. Nina Simon. The Participatory Museum. 2010. Museum 2.0: Santa Cruz, California. Also available on <>
  2. Jim Barratt. ‘July Film Vote Now Open!’ 26 March 2013. Llancarfan Community Cinema blog. <>
  3. Nina Simon. ‘Kids, Coercion, and Co-Design.’ 27 March 2013. Museum 2.0. <>
  4. Stacey Marie Garcia and Emily Hope Dobkin. ‘Radical Collaboration – Tools for Partnering with Community Members.’ 20 February 2013. Museum 2.0. <>