In March 2020, during one of my many periods of not knowing how to process the pandemic and Lockdown, nor how the future might look for exhibition, I undertook the research project PRESSING PLAY. You can download the results of that survey here.
With the advent of the second major Lockdown in January 2021, the introduction of the mass vaccination programme and subsequent ‘roadmap to recovery’ the time felt right to return to Pressing Play.
This was a time when the sector was still unsure about its future and was rapidly experiencing major changes. But this time we could perhaps also see a possible conclusion to the pandemic.
PRESSING PLAY (AGAIN) was launched in early February 2021 and remained open until April 2021.
As well as providing an update to the first iteration of the survey, the ambition of this edition was to look into the impact of the changes happening to film distribution.
Pressing Play (Again) covered the areas of:
How we feel future attendance by different audiences may be impacted by COVID-19.
Specific barriers to attendance cinemas might face.
The nature of the messages that cinemas will adopt to encourage audiences back into their screens.
How exhibitors personally feel about attending events.
And what type of activity may be presented as part of reopening strategies.
SELECTED HEADLINE FINDINGS
Over 50% of respondents were confident about returning to their own social lives.
73% of respondents have confidence that audiences will return to cinemas.
Just 3% of respondents were ‘very worried’ about whether audiences will return to cinemas.
Less respondents in 2021 were anxious about the speed that audiences will return to cinemas than in 2020: 40%, compared to 63% a year ago.
48% of respondents anticipate a major impact on cinema attendance by customers aged 65+, compared to 60% a year ago.
Exhibitors remain less anxious about the impact of the pandemic on cinema attendance by younger adults and families, compared to other age groups.
Fear of infection remains the most significant expected barrier to attendance.
60% of respondents understand that changes to customer viewing habits may be a barrier to attendance.
The sector is eager to reopen its doors quickly.
Almost two thirds of exhibitors don’t intend to create an event of their reopening.
52% of exhibitors were concerned about how customer viewing habits have changed.
Lack of relevant content to screen is a concern for 45% of respondents.
71% of respondents will lead their communications with a variation of ‘Our venue is clean and safe’ as a key reopening message, 64% with a message about shared experience, and 50% with one revolving around cinema offering an immersive escape.
The need for audience safety remains paramount, but the value of the cinema experience and our venues’ role in our communities is vital.
Only one third of exhibitors do not feel threatened by new models of film release.
Exhibitors’ programmes may become more specialist or event-based in the months ahead.
Encounters Film Festival, the UK’s leading short film festival and the UK’s only Academy Award, BAFTA and European Film Academy qualifying festival has partnered with UK cinema agency Tull Stories for the launch of new nationwide theatrical release programme ENCOUNTERS, which begins in July.
Encounters will present curated programmes of UK and international short films which have previously screened with Encounters Film Festival. These programmes will be themed and released quarterly in groups of three, with each month’s programme accompanied by an introduction from relevant filmmakers and artists. July’s line-up is a showcase of emerging female filmmakers each telling stories of young women on screen, with an introduction from actor and producer Maisie Williams and the rest of the Frank Film Club podcast.
Available from July, Encounters has been designed to not only give exhibitors access to the Encounters Film Festival rich catalogue of content, but also act as a catalyst for reigniting networking opportunities in cinemas for filmmakers, audiences and emerging talent as restrictions lift, cinemas reopen, and audience confidence returns.
The quarterly release structure of Encounters will allow exhibitors to programme events farther in advance as the sector opens back up.
Encounters programmes will be approximately one hour in length. This will allow more flexibility in programming and support the addition of networking events, introductions or Q&As.
Encounters programmes will also be made available to exhibitors at a nominal rental fee, to better support accessible event admission fees or pay what you can pricing initiatives.
Dave Taylor-Matthews, Head of Audience at Encounters Film Festival said:
“We’re excited to be able to launch this new programme as part of our sector’s return. Our festival is built around the concept of community building and like so many, over the last year it’s been difficult for us to not be able to connect in the ways we are used to. We see the festival as the place where the story of film begins and really want this programme to help cinemas welcome their audiences and creative communities back into their spaces.”
Jonny Tull, of Tull Stories said:
“This last year has seen the biggest upheaval for film exhibition and audiences in generations. We’ve adapted to new ways of presenting film and coming together virtually and have advanced our relationship with film in so many ways. As a society we love the act of coming together in cinema spaces, and being particularly passionate about it myself, I’m delighted to be able to work with the Encounters team on this project.”
Encounters is where the story of film begins. Encounters Film Festival is the UK’s leading short film festival, providing an internationally recognised platform for new and emerging talent since 1995. The international competition is the UK’s only Academy Award, BAFTA and European Film Academy qualifying selection, and past alumni include Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Denis Villeneuve, Richard Linklater, Thomas Vinterburg and Mark Jenkin. Encounters Film Festival is funded by Bristol City Council’s Cultural Investment Programme and the BFI, awarding funds from the National Lottery.
I’ve really enjoyed working closely with the team at the Oska Bright Film Festival and Carousel over the last year and am happy to report that we’ll be continuing to work together through 2021 on the development of film industry support programmes and finding more ways to bring films made by or featuring people with learning disabilities, autism or Aspergers to the world.
Newcastle upon Tyne-based distributor Jonny Tull will release four titles in the UK/Ireland over 2021 under new banner Tull Stories.
Tull will first release the Irish documentary GROUNDSWELL from filmmaker Johnny Gogan (Prisoners Of The Moon). The film is released in the UK on Friday 16th April via the Modern Films virtual cinema platform, ahead of Earth Day on Thursday 22nd April. It tells of the trials of a small community group in Leitrim as they fight the fracking company who has just commenced work in their county. Set against the backdrop of the years leading up to Ireland’s historic decision to ban the practice in 2018, the film features appearances from International activists including the actor Mark Ruffalo and author Sandra Steingraber.
In the summer (date to be set) Tull Stories will release the London Film Festival-selected documentary SOUND FOR THE FUTURE. From artist filmmaker Matt Hulse (Dummy Jim) and Pinball Films, the film is an affectionate and daring reconstruction and deconstruction of the evolution of The Hippies, the young punk band which was formed by Hulse and his siblings in 1979. The soundtrack features music from XTC, Gang of Four, Sleaford Mods, The Stranglers, Ought, Generation Riot, Doug Champion, Cheap Fags and The Hippies.
In autumn 2021 Tull will release new feature THE FOOTBALL MONOLOGUES from filmmaker and former actor Greg Cruttwell (Naked, Two Days In The Valley, George Of The Jungle, Chunky Monkey). Completed in September 2020, The Football Monologues adopts a talking heads-style structure involving seven people from different backgrounds under the umbrella of the beautiful game. The Football Monologues stars Emma Amos (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Goodnight Sweetheart) and Samuel Anderson (The History Boys, The Lady In The Van).
Tull Stories is also further developing its adventure documentary slate, with the first release being the multi-award-winning PIANO TO ZANSKAR. Michal Sulima’s film is being readied for theatrical release in the summer.
Jonny Tull said:
“I’m delighted to be able to launch Tull Stories with such a high quality and varied slate. My ambition is to work with talented independent filmmakers who tell unique and inspiring stories and each film we have on the way absolutely represents that. I’m looking forward to introducing them – and Tull Stories – to audiences over 2021.”
A John Brabourne awardee in 2020, Tull has worked in distribution and exhibition in the UK independent sector for over 25 years. Tull Stories will work on projects in both exhibition and distribution, providing programming and audience development services for exhibitors as well as distributing specialised film and adventure documentaries.
If you would like to discuss any programming or audience development projects please get in touch.
When the UK went into Lockdown In March, I was reeling in shock. Over two days I had dozens of film bookings postponed or cancelled, and the exhibition projects that I was working on were all suddenly on pause.
I felt that I had to try and process this situation in some way and to look ahead to consider how we in exhibition might begin to talk to our customers and encourage them back to cinemas after this enforced intermission.
It became very clear very quickly that it would be relevant and helpful to talk to my peers and colleagues in exhibition about their own plans, anxieties and expectations, so I created Pressing Play, a snapshot survey which aimed to take the pulse of the current situation we’re in, specifically by asking exhibitors to consider venue closures and life on the other side of Lockdown.
Based on the number of people working in programming roles or similar and who may not have been furloughed the target sample of respondents was set at 100.
This felt realistic and meant that the sample would still maintain as minimal a margin of error as possible. It also meant that I could access input from a broad mix of venues working across the sector, hearing from cinemas, arts centres and film societies.
In all, there were responses from 97 exhibitors.
It was completed by representatives of 49 cinemas, 29 arts centres and 18 Film clubs/societies.
The size of conurbations represented scaled from those with under 10,000 residents to those with over 200,000 residents.
The number of screens each organisation programmed ranged from 1 to more than 5.
The questions asked in Pressing Play revolved around the areas of:
Our own fears about attending events.
How we feel future attendance by different audiences may be impacted by COVID-19.
Specific barriers to attendance we might want to consider.
The nature of the messages we may use with our audiences to encourage them back into our cinemas.
And what type of activity we may present as part of our reopening strategies.
The survey ran from Wednesday 1st April until Tuesday 19th May 2020.
Written within responses is a note of uncertainty, but as time and responses have moved on we can see that confidence is returning to the sector.
Ultimately Pressing Play is an exercise in understanding and empathising with audiences – and one which I hope may help the sector find an easier route to returning and celebrating our artform with our customers.
I hope that it proves useful.
When audiences will return
63% of respondents are very worried about the speed that audiences will return to the cinema.
45% of us are particularly worried that audiences may not return to cinemas at all after restrictions lift.
Impact on particular audience segments
We are less anxious about the impact on younger adults and families’ cinema attendance.
60% of respondents to Pressing Play believe that attendance by older audiences (60+) will be greatly affected (over 25% reduction).
Barriers to attendance
93% of respondents are worried about the impact that fear of infection may have amongst audiences.
49% of exhibitors are worried about the impact of the pause on audiences and the industry.
48% of respondents are anxious about the possible impact of new VOD practices and strategies.
33% of exhibitors are anxious about what will be available to screen when cinemas reopen.
Exhibitors’ outgoing communications on reopening will be made up of an offer of safety, togetherness, a request for support and patronage, and exciting programming.
58% of respondents will lead with ‘Our venue is clean and safe’ as a key message.
72% of us want to make a fuss of reopening, marking it with a special event or activity.
33% of organisations will launch new pricing initiatives and 32% will offer free tickets.
Exhibitors are now resigned to opening with restrictions.
58% of exhibitors who have completed Pressing Play have not undertaken any online activity with audiences.
Now. Here. This. Is a collection of stories of new and old relationships, life-changing revelations and big nights out.
As part of this week-long event, the Encounters team will be also hosting a live Watch Party broadcast of the programme on Tuesday 5th May at 4pm. The online event includes a chance to find out more about the films from the people who created them (subject to BSL interpreter availability)
The screening and Watch Party event is available via multiple platforms. You can find it at:
This programme and the Watch Party are also free to stream.
Rich Warren, Festival Director of Encounters Film Festival said:
“It’s fantastic to be able to present these films to the public. The world is in a unique place right now and cinema has the power to bring people together – even whilst our auditoria are closed. We think that the films that make up Now. Here. This. represent a fantastic selection of terrific talent working today and we hope that audiences around the world enjoy watching them and enjoy finding out more about the creation of them directly from the filmmakers.”
The films featured in the programme all competed for the Deaf Shorts award at the 25th edition of the Encounters Film Festival in September 2019. The total runtime is 47 minutes.
All films are subtitled for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
WELCOME TO THE BALL
A child learns sign language in the hope of making a new friend. USA 2019 | 5 mins | Language: English/ASL Director: Adam Vincent Wright.
IF YOU KNEW
After months of fighting and no communication, two teenager twin brothers come together to spend a day in Canvey Island.
UK 2018 | 5 mins | Language: English/Subtitled Director: Stroma Cairns.
In this comedy about misunderstandings, Ben tells a deaf couple a joke about a deaf man’s house burning down. Will they see the funny side or not?
UK 2019 | 2 mins | Language: English/BSL Director: Charlie Swinbourne.
Hope is a carefree, fun-loving Deaf teenager. But a fatal cancer diagnosis is about to turn her life upside down.
UK 2019 | 27 mins | Language: English/BSL Director: David Ellington.
SIGNKID – DUMBASS (MUSIC VIDEO)
Dumbass is an artistic short film exploring the history of the word dumb and how it has marginalised deaf people. Opening with a short history lesson to set the record straight, it then celebrates the talent of a deaf artist SignKid, who raps to the camera with signsong.
UK 2019 | 4 mins | Language: English/BSL Director: Alexander Darby.
A babysitter takes over for the night. There are some unexpected consequences.
UK 2019 | 4 mins | Language: English/BSL Director: William Grint.
If you would like to find out more about the programme or Encounters Film Festival members of the public should visit www.encounters.film.
Encounters Film Festival is the UK’s foremost international short film and animation festival. Taking place every September in the city of Bristol, Encounters is a platform for new and emerging talent in the film industry, widening the lens of the sector with a diverse and inspirational selection of international talent.
As I write it’s been about four weeks since cinema exhibition was upended by the Government’s advice about staying away from public spaces and the subsequent UK-wide Lockdown measures were put in place.
Like many working in exhibition and distribution I have been in shock, and like many I spent the next few days making changes to distribution plans, postponing cinema bookings, talking to clients about suspending exhibition projects and mentally processing the position we suddenly found ourselves in.
As I surfed through the DABDA curve I started to think about what happens next and how we can best emerge from the other side. As a punter who enjoys cinema, arts & culture, bars and restaurants I began to consider which messages might encourage me back into a public life, and what we might need to keep at the forefront of our minds whilst contemplating our reopening plans.
However quickly we come back, on the other side of this closure the world will be a different place for cinema. We will need to have more empathy than ever with our customers in order to ensure that they continue to be our customers.
What messages should we use? What might our programmes look like? How can we reopen safely and reassuringly and also give the celebration of our art form priority?
To try and find some insight into how we may react to this pause I have created Pressing Play, a short snapshot survey for exhibitors. The survey asks questions about reopening plans, expectations of attendance, impact on specific audiences, and more. I’ll be releasing the complete findings after the survey closes on Monday 4th May, but there is already some initial feedback emerging which may help shape our planning and communications going forward.
RETURNING TO OUR SOCIAL SELVES
We are presented right now with an unprecedented playing field in terms of marketing messages, where our aim must be to focus on the very concept of going to the cinema and on resuming our social lives.
This is reflected in the many conversations taking place around possible national/international marketing campaigns by industry bodies to reignite attendance and bring the public back to cinemas with confidence.
As a starting point my survey asks respondents how they themselves feel about going out in public again. Responses have varied wildly, with some people not worried at all and others placing themselves at the very top of the anxiety scale.
The result is that the mean average from a scale of 1-10 is a fairly hopeful 4.8/10, but perhaps a more robust statistic is that that 60% of respondents have rated themselves as a 5/10 or higher on the scale, with 20% as 7.5/10 or higher.
Concern is in abundance, as we should anticipate.
The survey also looks at potential impact on attendance and our expectations of how specific segments of our audiences may react when we are able to reopen. Setting audiences into 5 basic segments – families, young adults, adults aged 30-60, senior citizens aged 60+ and audiences for access programmes – respondents were able to consider the potential behavior of each segment.
Here is a short summary of how we feel attendance may be impacted from initial findings taken at the time of writing:
Won’t change dramatically (up to 5%)
Reduction up to 25%
Heavily impacted (25%+)
Families with children aged under 18
Chosen by 35% of respondents
Adults aged 18-30
Adults aged 30-60
Adults aged 60+
Audiences for access screenings
We can see here that respondents feel fairly confident about younger and older adults and families returning to our cinemas, but less so about adults aged over 60 or audiences for access programmes.
Looking at barriers to attendance in the surveynaturally fear of infection was understandably selected by most respondents (90%), followed by the change to habits caused by the cultural impact of Lockdown (56%) and the results of the public’s engagement with new VOD strategies (50%). Also, 34% of respondents are worried about the nature of content available to screen when cinemas are able to reopen, and 13% see priceas a potential barrier, post-pause.
Pressing Play also addresses communications, specifically what the backbone of our messaging might be.
There are multiple and varying messages emanating from our sector at the moment – watch parties and online events are connecting organisations with their communities whilst their venues are unavailable, many organisations have made requests for public support, and we are seeing venues proactively looking to the future, reflecting on what we are learning right now and beginning to discuss what’s next, visibly planning a way forward in partnership with their communities.
It is the sense of ‘community’ that resonates with many respondents when considering their communications plans.
From initial survey results the strongest marketing message was being able to offer a shared experience once again. This was chosen by 52% of respondents.
50% recognise the significance of identifying cinemas as community hubs;
45% chose a key message being about the cleanliness and safety of the environments we offer;
and the need for the public to support cinemas, and the content of our programmes were each selected by 35% of respondents.
These messages echo Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs, a psychology theory which considers levels of human motivation. These levels/needs begin with the baseline of Physiological needs (food, shelter etc), and escalate through Safety, Love/Belonging, Self-esteem and Self-actualisation.
Using Maslow as a reference point, cinema is potentially in a stronger place right now. Following Lockdown we will be able to offer our customers deeper, more magnified versions of pre-Lockdown levels of safety, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation.
So what will we actually do when we get the green light to fire up our projectors?
Plans are forming nationwide for reopening parties, seasons, audience votes, free ticket offers and more, but how quickly can we return to business? 58% of us are anxious about the speed customers will return, and only 19% of us are anticipating returning to normal levels of screenings when our doors reopen.
We’ve never been more in need of our customers, and they’ve never been away from us for so long. It is clear that we must make our return to business count.
In coming weeks I would suggest that we begin to ask ourselves the following questions:
How can we mitigate the greater risk that is now temporarily attached to our cinemas – what programming will make going to the pictures ‘worth it’ for our customers and get them out of the house?
We know there’ll be limitations on content available to us for a little while – how do we open our doors to our communities and still have something they want to enjoy on our screens? Recent experiments in China with reopening cinemas with repertory titles didn’t work – might that work in the UK, or could we reactivate different segments of our customers with different types of programming and events?
How can we make the cinema feel like a safe place for them and convey that with confidence?
What will we say, and what visible reassurances might we put in place? Will we temporarily reduce seating capacities, introduce new training programmes for staff and tell them about our new cleaning schedules?
What is your core message to your community when you reopen?
Looking at the messages that emerged above, what might the most powerful marketing messages be for your audiences?
Which of your audience segments might need more careful consideration?
How might you talk to young people, families, or older audiences? What programming and activities will you offer for them?
How can we celebrate our artform with our customers and not to our customers?
Are there ways we can programme with our communities – introducing audience votes or other similar initiatives may give us relevant and dynamic platforms with which to screen older and more readily available titles – and sell some tickets too!
How flexible can we be with ticketing?
Should we change our pricing policies, offer season tickets or look carefully at our refund policies to help alleviate any worries that audiences may have about visiting?
How soon should we – and can we – start?
The world will return quickly and we’ll need to be ready to put our plans in place – whatever they are. It’s paramount that we continue to talk to our customers during this time, keep them at the heart of our plans, and ensure that those plans are transparent.
Should we maintain our new online communities?
Those close links to customers that many of us have nurtured online whilst our doors are closed has been a terrific outcome. Have our watch parties and online events given us a new platform to use in order to keep our conversations going outside of the cinema? Do they add value to our offer and help bring audiences closer to us?
After witnessing the energy of the exhibition sector in recent weeks, and the ways in which organisations have adapted at a time of crisis I’m confident that we’ll bounce back. It might be a slower return to full-time operations than we’d like, and there may be more hardship than we’re comfortable with, but we’re hardwired to want to be together and enjoy social experiences, and in this situation that’s one thing firmly on our side.
The Pressing Play survey is open until Monday 4th May. If you would like to complete it and receive a copy of the results, please visit bit.ly/pressingplayJT
Jonny Tull is an exhibition and distribution consultant.
I’m beyond thrilled to announce that two films that I’m releasing in the UK, David Kenny’s It Is Not One Way and Sarah Outen & Jen Randall’s Home will both be screening at the Central Scotland Documentary Festival at the Macrobert Arts Centre on Sunday 13th October.
I’m so pleased for these brilliant filmmakers and chuffed to be part of their journeys!
Find out more about the releases i’m working on HERE.