Liverpool’s community cinema craze
Multiplex behemoths and avant garde arthouse venues dominate Liverpool’s cinema landscape but a growing movement is giving the city’s film fans exciting new ways to get their celluloid fix. With pop-up screenings and community cinema spaces fast becoming an integral part of the local entertainment offer, Your Move takes a look at what’s driving this craze and where it might be heading.
Words by Mark Langshaw
You don’t need a gargantuan IMAX screen, an army of staff and a refreshments stand as long as Runcorn Bridge to host a successful film screening. Projection equipment, an empty space and some good old fashioned imagination will more than suffice.
Liverpool’s burgeoning community cinema movement was borne out of this idea and event organisers in the city continue to challenge the traditional perception of what a night at the movies entails.
For instance, Kinematic hosted a screening of ‘Sister Act’ against the unique backdrop of St Bride’s Church alongside live music from a gospel choir, while Empty Spaces Cinema embraced the DIY ethos in more ways than one by holding a film festival at a former hardware store on Smithdown Road.
Pop-up movie events appear to be all the rage in Merseyside but, until recently, the city had its own permanent community picture house in the form of Victoria Street’s Liverpool Small Cinema.
After two years, 270 screenings and 8,000 ticket sales, the cinema was forced to cease operations following the news that its building is being sold for redevelopment.
Liverpool Small Cinema programmer Sam Meech tells Your Move that there are no plans to find another home.
“The project is coming to a close,” he says. “The seats and things are still in place and programmers can hire the building if they want to put something on but it is no longer Liverpool Small Cinema.
“For the time being there is still a cinema in the building, but I can’t say how long it will be there.
“A more permanent space for community screenings in Liverpool might be found but that will probably need to come from somebody else. I really hope it happens.”
Although the loss of Small Cinema is a blow for Liverpool’s indie screening ambitions, the movement is alive and well in the city and the project has proved to be a catalyst for similar ventures.
Members of the Small Cinema team served as volunteers on Empty Spaces Cinema’s Hammer and Nail Pop-Up Film Festival, and Sam says others have received pop-up touring kits from the British Film Institute (BFI) to set up their own events.
“BFI supports all kinds of film societies and events through its Neighbourhood Equipment Scheme and some of the programmers who were involved with Small Cinema have been awarded kits for pop-ups, so I expect to see events in different spaces around Liverpool,” he explains.
The success of Small Cinema, Empty Spaces and Kinematic proves alternative movie events are in demand in Liverpool, but what’s driving their popularity in an age where film fans have more ways than ever to access the latest content?
According to Sam, it’s the rise of social media and the fact it has made it easier for event organisers to spread the word about their projects, coupled with the affordability of basic cinema equipment.
“Cinema is a social pastime and people want to go out and socialise – if you have a film event in an unusual space it adds a bit of novelty to the experience,” he says.
“Independent film screenings are becoming more popular in general because they are easier to organise thanks to social media, people are becoming more aware of licensing regulations and the technology is now more affordable.
“It’s easier to get hold of a basic projecting system. The difficulty has always been finding space to do it. If you can crack that, the other things are fairly straightforward.”
Laura Brown, co-founder of Empty Spaces, identifies another factor behind DIY cinema’s meteoric rise, pointing out that being able to offer cheaper ticket prices makes cinema more accessible.
“One of the issues with the big chains has been price,” she says. “If it costs you a tenner for a film ticket and another £5 to £10 for snacks or a drink then it’s too expensive for many people.
“I grew up in a place where you have smaller local cinemas. You could have birthday parties where you went to see a film – imagine being able to afford to take 15 10-year-olds to see a film now! It’s about accessibility.”
“A festival to bring the community cinema movement together would be a good thing.”
With indie film events attracting a sizable, dedicated following in such a short space of time, a question springs to mind – where is the movement heading and what does the future hold for community cinema in Liverpool?
Chris Brown, the other half of Empty Spaces’ husband and wife co-founding duo, believes pop-up picture houses will continue to spring up around Liverpool and may even reach a level of prevalence which harks back to the golden era when there was a local cinema on every block.
“As long as there is an appetite for people to get together and do this there will be more and more,” he says. “With limited funds, a few people and a space you can set up a cinema now. Our slogan is ‘anywhere can be a cinema’.
“It’s also true that anybody can run one. People want to pick the films they want to see and go and see them with friends. There’s no reason why we can’t have a lot of cinemas dotted around the city centre right out to the suburbs.”
Sam, meanwhile, likens the craze to the local music scene and believes a Liverpool film festival dedicated to community cinema is needed to unify the movement.
“I think a festival to bring the community cinema movement together would be a good thing. My analogy is always the Liverpool music scene and gig ecology,” he explains.
“Unsigned bands have plenty of places to play here and what I’d like to see in the city is more of these pop-up cinema events and a festival where they all come together, in the same way bands do at Sound City and Liverpool Music Week.”
Liverpool’s indie cinema scene is but a small cog in a much bigger machine as similar movements are taking place across the world. Indeed, Sam was inspired to set up Small Cinema after a visit to Berlin where events are held at a network of small independent arts spaces called ‘Indie Kinos’.
Small Cinema was invited to represent Liverpool at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival this year in a discussion about the emergence of local, socially-minded cinemas across the world.
Now that the movement has gone global Sam believes Small Cinema’s legacy and the city’s thriving scene, combined with the popularity of similar projects internationally, could have a far-reaching impact on the film industry.
“I think ultimately it could affect how film distribution changes,” he says. “It will have to be broader in terms of how it accesses audiences – we are already seeing this with Netflix – and the Small Cinema and similar projects around the world fit really well into the discussion around innovative cinema exhibition. I’m very proud of that.”