Session 9 – Audiences, accessibility and responding to the pandemic

Chair: Dr. Matthew Hanchard (University of Glasgow)

On again, off again’ – how a global pandemic impacted cinemas and audiences and shook up the future

Julia Lamaison (BFI Head of Research and Statistics)

Throughout 2020, the effects of the pandemic have resulted in many cinemas entering a critical period. From lockdown closures in March, where revenues lost totalled nearly £6m a day across the sector, to an Autumn season, when almost every Hollywood release was postponed with many multiplex cinemas remaining closed, what was the impact on the exhibition sector and the appetite for film amongst audiences? Have these imposed restrictions and the resulting opportunities changed our relationship with film forever, or is this a temporary hiatus that will bounce back to ‘normal’ as soon as cinemas re-open their doors sometime later in 2021? Throughout 2020, the BFI has continued to draw on industry data sources and its own research to provide evidence and insight of the challenges and opportunities presented by this disruption. This session will cover:
– What effect did cinema closures in March, re-opening in July and closing again in November and December have on the exhibition sector?
– What were the opportunities for changing audience appetite for specialised film at the cinema? Has the lack of Hollywood titles promoted a resurgence in appetite for non-mainstream films?
– Has lockdown and the increase in film viewing at home provided positive opportunities for specialised film?
– What does this indicate for the opportunities and challenges of 2021 and beyond?

Julia Lamaison joined the BFI in 2017 and is responsible for running the Research and Statistics Unit (RSU) as well as other BFI related research initiatives. This includes production of the BFI’s Statistical Yearbook, ‘the Bible of Film’ as well as ad hoc research studies and analysis on a wide variety of topics. Current projects include ‘Film in the wider world’ an audience analysis of film viewing across different screens, platforms and devices, mapping the UK Animation sector, an evidence review summarising the cultural value of film, TV and video games and Horizon Scanning looking at trends which will impact the future of the screen sector. She is passionate about the need to understand audiences in order to ensure future planning is grounded in evidence and fact, and experiences this being brought to life as a ‘living Focus Group’ every night amongst her own family.

Digitally Present: Watch-a-longs and “The Audience Effect” in the Online Space

Dr Andy Moore (University of Edinburgh)

In his recently published monograph on “the audience effect”, Julian Hanich writes about the “collective cinema experience” as vital to how audiences understand film. Hanich contends that the collective experience has been understudied in cinema scholarship, which has thus far neglected the affective and political implications of the shared experience of film viewing. His work presupposes an audience that is physically co-present, though he ends with the provocation that further study is needed into the implications for the audience effect of the move to online spaces of delivery. The Covid-19 pandemic has, as has been widely noted, had a far-reaching impact on established models of distribution and exhibition – including an acceleration of existing trends around the online delivery of content. One notable phenomenon that has grown in popularity alongside nationwide stay-at-home orders is the “watch-a-long”, which sees viewers watching films at home simultaneously with others, replicating some of the scheduled, event-like quality and shared, communal experience of the in-person film screening. Disney recently added a “GroupWatch” function to their streaming platform, whilst third party services like Teleparty and Watch2Gether allow users to synchronise streamed content from platforms including YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and HBO, whilst also participating in text-chats. This paper will explore some of the ways in which Hanich’s work on the audience effect can be extended to the online space by applying his theoretical approach to an investigation of this trend. It will take a recent 24hr ‘watch-a-long’ event organised by Scalarama Leeds as a lens through which to explore the ways in which audiences who are not physically co-present can continue to interact with and have an impact on their co-viewers in a manner that has significant implications for independent exhibitors and distributors seeking to extend participation and engagement, and grow audiences for specialised film.

Andy Moore is a Lecturer on the MSc in Film, Exhibition and Curation (FEC) at the University of Edinburgh. Before joining the teaching team at Edinburgh he held the post of Senior Film Programmer at the Showroom Workstation in Sheffield, a four-screen independent cinema in the centre of the city, and he has over a decade’s experience working in the exhibition sector in various guises. Andy’s career to date sits firmly at the intersection of academia and industry, and he has always believed that bringing the two into closer dialogue can lead to positive results for both, so he feels very much at home as a member of the FEC team – an innovative programme committed to the exploration of film curation and exhibition using a combination of rigorous academic study, integrated applied project work and critical thinking. Alongside his interest in all things film exhibition, Andy’s other research interests include documentary history, ethnographic film and experimental film, and the intersections between these different modes of filmmaking practice. He has a PhD in World Cinemas from the University of Leeds and his thesis, titled “A Documentary Like No Other? Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Embodied Knowledge and the Art of Non-Fiction Film”, traces the evolution of sensory ethnography from the earliest uses of film within anthropology to the most recent, and most prominent, iteration of this phenomenon – the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab.

Industry Case Study: Matchbox Cine

Megan Mitchell (University of the West of England)

Throughout the Covid19 pandemic, as exhibitors turned to screening online to maintain a connection with their audiences, the provision for films with captions was notably increased by Scottish-based independent exhibitors. On retainer with Film Hub Scotland, Matchbox Cine were able to caption 300+ films, shorts and features, working in partnership with exhibitors across the country. The following case study would examine the ways in which this initial repurposing of funding in the wake of the pandemic, alongside a pre-existing awareness and willingness to improve D/deaf audiences, access to films enabled Scotland’s exhibition scene to undertake meaningful and long term changes to the diversity of film exhibition. This case study provides the replicable means by which future developments of access provisions, including but not limited to captioning, can be carried out sustainably across the UK and beyond.

In not only actively encouraging the improvement of accessible provision by independent exhibitors, including film clubs, festivals and venues, Film Hub Scotland engaged Matchbox Cine’s practical expertise with the pre-existing commitment from exhibitors within Scotland, notably mid-sized festivals and independent exhibitors within Glasgow. This case study is a roadmap to opening up films to often excluded audiences, as well as exemplify how online exhibition during the course of the pandemic has enabled exhibitors to reconceive their offerings in more accessible terms. In accepting and anticipating not only a change in audience experience throughout the pandemic, with the move to online, but also understanding the pre-existing expectations of audiences established by streaming platforms like Netflix, which offer 100% captioning, Matchbox Cine, Film Hub Scotland and partner exhibitors have changed the landscape of screenings within Scotland and the UK. This case study would also consider how future policymaking may reflect this co-construction and implementation of impactful change led by independent exhibitors as opposed to funder driven. 

Megan Mitchell is currently a PhD research with UWE Bristol and Exeter University, researching the role/s of independent cinemas in the age of on-demand culture, in partnership with Watershed. Megan is also the Producer of Matchbox Cine and is a recognised leader and champion of more accessible film exhibition within the UK. Over the past decade working in the sector, Megan has continued to prioritise and promote increased equality and access throughout her events and projects, including pay-what-you-can-afford sliding scale ticket pricing and captioning for D/deaf audiences. Megan is also the world’s leading academic on Valley Girl (1983) and co-founder of the world’s first-ever film festivals dedicated entirely to acting legends, Keanu Reeves (Keanucon) and Nicolas Cage (Cage-a-rama).

Interaction Design for Audiences: A Proposition for Building Resilience and Recovery for COVID-safe Independent Cinemas

Dr Polina Zioga and Dr María A. Vélez-Serna (University of Stirling)

As in the broader cultural sector, COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges for cinema exhibitors in the UK and world-wide. Venues have been forced to close for months or operate with substantial uncertainty and reduced capacity. Still, their position remains precarious and the challenges to the sustainability of the sector are ongoing: changing restrictions and associated increased costs, reduction in production and distribution pipelines. The British Film Institute highlighted that the pandemic poses an existential threat especially to the independent exhibitors, and those operating in remote or deprived areas. Thus, COVID-19 has also highlighted existing inequalities, the digital divide, and the need to expand the audiences’ diversity. Meanwhile, in sectoral events, panels have reflected on how exhibitors and audiences have become more accustomed to accessing media experiences online, and this new digital literacy will support cinemas’ efforts to attract cinemagoers in their reopening. Prior to COVID-19, the use of interaction design for new cinematic experiences had attracted the interest of festivals, filmmakers and researchers. In this position paper, we argue that interaction design and technologies can help independent cinemas to engage and galvanise new audiences to patronise COVID-safe venues. From low-end online platforms, to high-end immersive experiences, new technologies are transforming connectivity across society, and have the potential to support access for D/deaf, neurodivergent, and disabled audiences, but adoption by exhibitors is so far limited. We outline the research needs and priorities in this field. These include identifying facilitators and obstacles to industry adoption of interactive forms, and mapping experiences and attitudes across the sector. Together with directions for immediate practical solutions, it is crucial to gather critical data for future research use, in order to pave the way for long-term solutions and design innovation, so that the sector can build resilience, recover and reach underserved audiences.

Dr Polina Zioga is a hybrid artist, researcher and lecturer in Interactive Media at the Division of Communications, Media and Culture of the University of Stirling. Her interdisciplinary practice and research focus on the use of interaction design, novel technologies, and biosensing interfaces, like Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs), in the context of Live Cinema, Interactive Filmmaking, and Neurocinematics. She holds a Ph.D. from the Glasgow School of Art/University of Glasgow, selected as one of the top-ranked thesis abstracts for 2017 by Leonardo (MIT Press). She has written for The Conversation and has appeared on The Guardian technology podcast and TechWorld, while for her projects she has received grants and awards from international organisations. Her creative work and research have been presented and published since 2004 in Europe, Asia, North and South America including: art exhibitions, video-art and film festivals, international peer-reviewed conferences and academic journals, invited talks and guest lectures. In 2017 she founded and is leading the Interactive Filmmaking Lab, a research and production network that facilitates
interdisciplinary research and development in the area of interactive filmmaking and media, including real-world applied and creative projects in collaboration with industry partners; exploratory and basic research, like Neurocinematics; as well as exploration of new theoretical underpinnings that are currently shaping the discourse of the field.

Dr María A. Vélez-Serna teaches Film and Media at the University of Stirling. She is the author of Ephemeral Cinema Spaces (Amsterdam University Press, 2020) and co-author of Early Cinema in Scotland (Edinburgh University Press, 2018).