REACH: Strategic Audience Development
Posted: Wed, 15 Feb 2017 15:35
Maria Fe Valen, Ipswich Film Theatre
REACH: Strategic Audience Development is a six month course delivered by the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) in partnership with the BFI Film Audience Network and supported by Creative Skillset.
They define it as a 'workshop driven, project-based training programme for independent film exhibitors who wish to learn how to expand their audiences in a strategic manner, best utilising available resources of money, expertise and time'
I work at the Ipswich Film theatre, a community-based two screen cinema located underneath the Ipswich Council building, right in the centre of town. Despite this central location the IFT doesn't have a regular cinema façade, being shadowed by the more prominent Corn exchange venue above us. Last year it was announced that a new multiplex cinema would be built at a shopping mall very near us. The nature of the films that we programme is very different to that of a multiplex, and therefore the arrival of such a venue doesn't necessarily present a direct threat to our business. Nevertheless, we felt that we should use this occasion to do something to identify our strengths and weaknesses as a venue and those of our programming, to explore our status and identity for the community of Ipswich, and find room for improvement. So when this course came along I felt that it was a great opportunity for us to have a close and critical look at our organization and figure out how we can improve our visibility and our existing audience's experiences.
The course started in London at the end of May 2016 with three days of talks by film industry experts and case studies by film exhibitors. It was complemented by practical workshops and peer- to-peer discussions. I arrived there with a loosely written project and a lot of excitement.
We were a total of 18 people, from all parts of Great Britain. This diversity was great, as it provided the opportunity to share experiences and different perspectives with similar organizations from all over the UK. The atmosphere was very friendly, the talks very inspiring. We had lovely lunches and one evening we were taken out for dinner, and we all bonded over delicious food! The range of subjects was fantastic, from data analysis to marketing and programming. All speakers were fabulous and incredibly knowledgeable. One talk I remember in particular. On the last day we were given a talk by Caglar Kimyoncu about accessibility for audiences, which I felt was very enlightening and pertinent. Beyond business and the need to have an audience in the first place, this talk highlighted the human experience of visiting a movie theatre, and how we so often ignore people's basic needs in relation to handicaps that are not immediately obvious to most of us. Wheelchair accessibility has become an obvious handicap that has been widely accommodated, yet there are other handicaps such as hearing impairment, sensitivity to noise or dyslexia, or even mental health difficulties and psychological difficulties, that have an impact on a visit to a cinema.
The course modules were very well structured. The first helped me to devise a clear and realistic plan. I was assigned a mentor to help me with the project. I went back to Ipswich and started
planning the next steps. I organized a series of focus group surveys at the same time as implementing some changes around the cinema, mainly intended to improve communication between us and the customers.
My mentor was great in guiding me through the process and participants could attend a meeting half way through the course in London in September where we could all share our experiences so far.
I kept working on the project through September and October, the main focus being a qualitative survey which we held at the cinema, asking questions to our regular customers and also non- customers. Results were encouraging, as people mostly asked for us not to change our identity, and they didn't mind the lack of venue visibility at all, though there were some suggestions that better marketing could help reach a greater audience. They did however ask for minor box office improvements, better access to programming information and, above all, a place to sit and enjoy a drink and snacks, which we don't have at the moment.
At the end of November we met again for a last time in Glasgow, where we all presented our projects and shared our experiences and ideas.
All in all the course was great in helping me to get a good picture of where the IFT stands in the context of the UK industry, and also of its potential and of the hindrances it faces. Beyond my personal interest in the venue that I represent, I found the whole experience very inspirational. I went away with lots of new ideas and many new friends. I would recommend this course to anyone working within the film exhibition industry wanting to expand their horizons and wanting to gain skills and ideas that help reaching potential audiences anywhere.