In 2016, Animate Projects¹ presented a series of touring programmes, Move It², for hire by cinemas across the UK. The four programmes offered a wide cross-section of current animation practice, focusing variously on films for children, animated documentaries, the best of British work, and experimental animation. Rather than evaluate the project in the normal way, the organisation commissioned a report on the wider context of touring short-form artists’ moving image and animation. The report, underpinned by surveys sent to both exhibitors and curators, and conversations with representatives of each, aimed not only to map the current landscape for touring work but to uncover some of the challenges faced in both creating and exhibiting programmes of this nature.
The narrative below is taken from an edited version of the report. It should be noted that the original context was that of the exhibition sector in the UK, and while some of the structural problems described here might be usefully applied to the sector in mainland Europe, there are many that are particular to the UK, and should therefore be understood in light of that.
The challenges facing cinema exhibitors stem from issues around key resources: money, time and knowledge. Pressure on each affects the other, and the extent to which alternative programming succeeds or fails – or is even considered as an option in the first place – depends on the relative strength or weakness of the resources. While it doesn’t necessarily follow that all three must be robust in order to make touring programmes work, the strength of each dictates the extent to which external programmers must be actively involved in supporting booked screenings.
Exhibitors have to navigate constant commercial pressures, whether direct or indirect. Much of the time, especially with subsidised programmes, the direct financial risk is very low, but commercial imperatives mean that screen time is monetised: a touring programme may have a minimal or non-existent fee, but if it takes up space in the schedule which could otherwise be devoted to a profitable mainstream release, it is effectively reducing the cinema’s profit margin, and the indirect impact, particularly in prime-time slots, is potentially high.
The sheer overload of feature releases, which has tripled in just a few years, means that not only money but exhibitors’ time is at a premium, and therefore exhibitors can rarely consider more ‘difficult’ or commercially risky programmes and programming simply because it takes more time to do so: even if they are sympathetic to such material, the demands of their regular programme on their time, alongside the lack of clarity with which short film programmes can be presented, often conspire to prevent them researching the programmes enough to be able to agree to take them.
Of course, this only takes into account the short term, and the longer term strategies of diversification and audience development via alternative programming could lead to eventual further commercial success by attracting a wider audience. Where the issue of profit margins is undoubtedly a concrete concern to mainstream commercial houses and commercial independent chains, for true independents, often, the threat to profits is more perceived than real.
There is a tendency for independent cinemas to mimic the behaviour of large straightforwardly commercial concerns by apparently setting up ‘specialised/specialist’ (the term itself is a giveaway) programming to fail, as if to prove the logic that has seen many operations become pretty much indistinguishable from mainstream cinemas over the past ten years or so. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy: where ‘different’ screenings are programmed, it is often into third-rate slots, afforded no extra publicity or audience development: this may seem perverse but its function is effectively to affirm the venue’s regular programming, and indeed the logic of the whole model it aspires to.
Pressures on resources cut deeper than box office revenue alone. While in the past, the relative generosity of arts funding to subsidise independent venues meant that exhibitors were often highly knowledgeable about film, job turnover is much higher here as in most sectors, and it would seem many current exhibitors do not come from a programming background. This, coupled with the ever-increasing commercial imperative, means that the cultural basis of independent cinemas is being eroded to be replaced with a business-only model.
Given the straitened circumstances around arts funding, in-house marketing resources are also more stretched than ever. Afforded equal time and space in exhibitors’ publicity material with feature films which have been trailed by multi-million pound PR campaigns, alternative programming often doesn’t stand a chance from the moment it is printed in cinema brochures: it is no surprise that audiences given an equal choice, with no extra context, between the prospect of a feature film that is a known entity on a Friday night, or a ‘difficult’, unknown programme of artists’ moving image on a Monday, will opt for the former.
To escape this trap requires an approach by curators of touring work which acknowledges the pressures, perceived and real, facing exhibitors, and most importantly takes account of their bottom line: the need to turn a profit.
Invariably, the motivation for curators in mounting touring programmes is diametrically opposed to that of exhibitors: they are not least driven by profit but by artistic integrity. This in part explains an often awkward fit between the two, and presents a challenge: how to reconcile them with the result that more alternative programming finds its way into cinemas?
A fundamental challenge is the unsustainability of artists’ moving image or animation programmes – or rather, the failure to demonstrate the value and true cost of presenting such material. On one hand, programmes inevitably need to fit the financial model exhibitors work with: nobody is going to pay €500 for a one-off programme of artists’ moving image, no matter how good it is. On the other, this runs the risk of increasing the level of the already fragile reliance on arts funding to completely subsidise programming. For this reason, curators usually offer their programmes at or below the nominal minimum guarantee of mainstream feature films from major distributors. Presented in this way, as a straight swap for commercial feature releases, creates an unrealistic and unsustainable picture of independent, and especially experimental, cinema. In a market economy where film distribution and exhibition are straightforward commercial propositions, controlled by mega-distributors backed by the US studio system, perceived value rests entirely on economic indicators. The feature film, after all, is a standardised unit, and box office figures for Film A can reliably be compared with Film B to ascertain relative market value. Films, which differ in form or process, which arrive at the cinema from divergent histories and ask different questions of their audiences – never mind the cost of a sole trader paying individual artists, arranging film hire, transport and often publicity and associated costs for a programme which includes upwards of ten films – cannot be judged effectively in the same way.
The result is that the true cost of touring short-form work is invisible to many cinema programmers, and, presented with what appear to be identical propositions – a feature film likely to sell out or a touring programme of experimental animation – for the same price, they are less than likely to choose the latter. But just as the true costs of programmes of independent work are hidden, so are the benefits. The economy of key performance indicators which controls cinemas, predicated on monetising the experience of attending the cinema, lacks the means to assess audience development, cultural diversity or film education – all factors which feed directly into economic success, particularly in smaller towns.
However, at an individual level, there is much that can be done to get more short-form artists’ moving image and animation shown – and getting it shown is a key step on the route to greater sector-wide visibility, and all that that will entail.
Experimental, independent, short-form work cannot be compared to mainstream feature films, as argued above: not financially, not artistically, not in terms of audience experience. Instead, an opportunity exists to market this material as an alternative. Its difference is its strength. Of course, thematic links between touring programmes and current feature releases can be helpful, and exhibitors need help in assessing its relevance to them and their audiences – but assimilating it with mainstream film is ultimately self-destructive.
The solution, both for asserting the true value (and cost) of programming alternative work and for ensuring greater success with exhibitors, is for curators to distance their screenings as far as possible from the ubiquitous cinema-going experience, trading on the sense of difference and opportunity for contextual encounters that the screening presents – whether Q&As and artist talks, live or experiential elements or partnerships with other local organisations. It also falls to curators to learn to communicate with exhibitors in terms with which they are familiar, explaining the project clearly – and, crucially, providing as high a standard of publicity material as possible.
The reality is that, while much of the onus for improving the viability of marginal material would traditionally fall on exhibitors, they are unlikely to undertake extra research or devote significant time to booking and promoting one-off touring programmes. Much of that work therefore falls to the programmer or curator – though it is worth bearing in mind that often, venues will have a marketing department or specialist with, if no spare time, access to social media accounts and the validation that they lend external bookings; existing audience research and box office data which, if they are willing to share it, will help in finding audiences and promoting the screenings without any particular resource implications; and leverage to help curators secure partnerships with other local organisations – all crucial to the success of curators’ programmes.
A programmer’s checklist
- Choose your venues wisely
The size, location and demographics of the town; its transport infrastructure; the existence of other artistic activity, higher education, relevant organisations, clubs or groups; and the profile of the venue itself will all have a bearing on how well your screening works and who attends it. It is not a given that an audience in a well-connected, large university city with a sizeable middle-class population will be any easier to attract than a relatively poor, rural, isolated small town, at all, but the way you approach each will be radically different, as will the time you spend on finding an audience. Bear this in mind when approaching venues.
- Think about your ideal audience.
Why this programme, and why now? Who are you programming for? Who do you hope will see this? Are you aiming it at people who will be largely familiar with the material or form already, or for those who have no prior experience of this type of work? How will this programme help the artists it features?
- Research your existing audience.
This can take many forms, but it would be useful to (a) locate and digest any existing audience research and/or salient box office data; and (b) conduct a survey of the audience who attend your screenings. Sell this last point as a benefit to the exhibitor – that the screening will also function in an instrumental sense as an audience development tool. Artists’ moving image might not immediately appeal to the exhibitor, but the prospect of new audiences should. If you can work with the venue, suggest that you tie your research into the exhibition of short-form work, so that audiences have a ready example to go on. Who comes to what? Why do they come? Is their behaviour predictable? What would convince them to see more short films? Does anyone come only once and never appear again?
- Research the audience you don’t yet have.
You can appeal to those who have already shown an interest in alternative / short film programming, but that won’t reach new audiences. Rather, think more generally: what types of people live and work nearby – and which of them don’t attend the cinema at the venue in question? Why not? Who would the exhibitor like to attract, and how do you think your programmes might help them do so? Thematic programming works especially well as it doesn’t require a focus on the form or history of the work itself, which can often be disconcertingly dense to a non-specialist audience. It is even worth distancing yourself completely from terms like ‘artists’ moving image’ or ‘experimental animation’: terms, which can be toxic to the business of audience development.
- Think about partnerships.
Arrange partnerships with local or regional organisations whose profile and/or marketing reach might help you. Consider linked partnership events, which demonstrate to audiences that this is something worth attending (because at least two organisations say so). And don’t limit yourself to organisations: if you can make links with key individuals who are willing to help you publicise your screenings – perhaps for a (well-spent) fee – they can often make a huge difference. Word-of-mouth is more influential than any other form of publicity.
Think carefully about publicity. Are you happy allowing hiring venues to take care of all publicity for you, given that this will be one small component of an otherwise busy month’s programme, most if not all of which will be mainstream feature films. If you are able, consider producing your own publicity to send to venues for them to supplement with their own in-house materials.
Distinctive print will help distinguish your project. Don’t only make it easy for the venue to publicise the screenings, make it impossible for them not to want to! A social media presence and dedicated campaign will help, too. Here, though, it pays to remember that often the opposite is true to print media: audiences will look to the venue for their validation of your programme. So while it’s sensible to spread your own social media to those specialist groups you may have access to, for general audiences, think about how to make it as easy as possible for the venue to campaign on your behalf.
- Make it an event.
Think about how to move from the known format of a ‘film screening’ to an event. Make the event an experience. From there, how can you export it as such, and afford to make it work for each venue? With the exhibitor, help to turn the screenings into something more: whether it’s just drinks deals in the bar to encourage people to stay on, or some live music, a walk led by artists or curators, an audience discussion, or an artist Q&A, find ways to demonstrate that this is something special, and on for one night only. Bear in mind that while hard costs such as artist travel and accommodation will invariably need to be met by you (though many venues have deals with local hotels, which are worth asking about), many initiatives, such as drinks promotions, needn’t cost anyone anything.
- Audience development is slow work.
It takes time to build audiences, especially for work which is ‘difficult’, unknown, different, or hard to describe. Audiences can be cautious, and are often unwilling to commit to something which arrives out of the blue as a one-off; exhibitors too. If you can, consider suggesting some sort of continuity – not necessarily a monthly programme, but a presence for alternative programming which could take a concrete form and start to create a consciousness among audience members that it is here to stay. Suggest a first programme as a pilot, and back it up with a plan for future developmental work on the back of other screenings and events. If audiences feel that it is something the venue itself values, they are more likely to themselves.
Try to make your projects sustainable. Can you think of ways in which to attract repeat custom from venues? Pay artists properly, offer them the chance to attend Q&As if possible, and credit them generously in your publicity, and the attention will be rewarded in future.
Why is this programme important? It must be clear why you wanted to do this in the first place, and what you want from it. Think about what you want to achieve – and from there, how you will communicate this to a potential audience.
Why should this particular venue book it? Curators should try to get into the mindset of the exhibitor. The most successful external programmers are persistent and thick-skinned.
What does it say, and how does it say it? When dealing with exhibitors – and even audiences, before they’re captive – what might to you feel reductive and a gross over-simplification of your programme and the filmmakers it represents is actually going to help you. What universal or timely themes can the programme be allied to? How far can you boil the programme down to its essential components without losing sight of its value artistically?
Who should come to it? The lack of visibility of different forms is a key reason for the difficulty in presenting alternative work. As above, if you assume that people have no prior knowledge of the films or filmmakers – or even necessarily of experimental animation or artists’ moving image at all – what is there left to attract them? How to convince those you feel would benefit from attending but who are likely to be put off?
Just as there is no single question around what form touring programmes of artists’ moving image or experimental animation take, how they are exhibited, or how much they cost, there is obviously no single solution to the issues that surround their realisation and exhibition. Building a firmer foundation for this type of work relies partly on the grassroots of individual curators and exhibitors, and partly on the sector itself. At a sector-wide level, proper funding, visibility and education around independent and experimental film is necessary to shift the balance more fairly towards that activity which cannot pay its way in the manner of commercial cinema. If it is a given that alternative and independent work must be subsidised in order to be produced or exhibited at all, a large part of the existential problem that this work faces stems from structural inconsistencies and endemic confusion around its status, which can be traced most concretely back to funding agencies in the UK.
The split between ‘film’ and ‘visual arts’ and its application by Arts Council England and the various generations of film funding bodies that have come and go is by far the biggest determinant of the situation we now find ourselves in. Curators find themselves having to navigate the borders of these agencies with ever more cunning, playing the strengths of each particular project to the strategic priorities of funders. It is clear from the survey and interviews that curators can do much more to communicate clearly and persuasively with exhibitors, and exhibitors can go further in recognising the benefit to audience development that artists’ moving image and animation present – quite apart from programmatic diversity. If screenings of this type are to flourish, the link between the ‘unit’ of the feature film and touring programmes of short-form work needs be dissolved and the case for its value as an instrumental activity, targeting new and previously unreachable audiences and establishing new and unique partnerships, made. This will take a certain amount of open-mindedness on the part of exhibitors, but will mostly fall to curators to articulate the work they are promoting effectively, and, crucially, for such work to proliferate in order to reach critical mass.
Adam Pugh is a writer, designer and curator based in Norwich, UK, http://adampugh.co.uk
Animate Projects was founded by Abigail Addison and Gary Thomas in 2007 and since then has worked with more than 100 animators, filmmakers and artists, to create extraordinary and award-winning work.
The organisation works in collaboration with a range of partners, in a variety of contexts – engaging audiences in the gallery, cinema, museum, public spaces, online and through broadcast. Our partners include the Wellcome Trust, The Photographers’ Gallery, QUAD Derby, Channel 4, Vivid Projects Birmingham, Art on the Underground, Phoenix Leicester, BFI Southbank, Flatpack Festival Birmingham, London Sinfonietta, FACT Liverpool, and the National Trust. Work commissioned by Animate Projects has won numerous awards, including at the British Animation Awards, International Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, and Chicago Underground Film Festival.
Move It was an Animate Projects initiative around showing and seeing independent and experimental animation. During 2016, the project offered four new touring programmes:
GBA: Great British Animation chosen from 25 Years of the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s McLaren Award
Parts & Labour: an international selection of cutting edge work by animators and artists
Colour Box: animated films for young people curated by Flatpack Film Festival
Document Differently: animated documentary shorts curated by Animated Documentary.
Move It was led by Animate Projects, working in partnership with QUAD Derby, the Centre for the Moving Image, Edinburgh, FACT Liverpool, Tyneside Cinema and Gallery, and Dundee Contemporary Arts.