The Centre and the Periphery September 2020 (unpublished)

It seems unbelievable now, but there was a time, not so long ago, when many independent cinemas in this country looked not so very different from their commercial counterparts. They either imported the commercial model of governance and operation unchanged, or else bolted onto this corporate chassis ersatz art programmes and learning departments as a passport to charitable status. These additional elements, where they existed, were really only a means of accessing public funding, and, because of the assumed primacy of first-run films, never stood a chance alongside their mainstream programme counterparts.

What was never questioned was the model itself. The problem with relying on a relatively timid programme; on a staff structure which had no provision for artistic, only executive leadership; and on public funding as a cynical means to an end, was threefold: cinemas lacked creative or critical authority; funders lost interest in a one-way relationship; and audiences found that they could access a similar experience at the new breed of boutique commercial cinemas. What was more, though they sought to position themselves as benign, cultural and charitable, their structures – largely old-fashioned triangular hierarchies borrowed from their commercial counterparts – not only militated against creativity, but paved the way for the abuses of power, and more generally a savage and corrosive working culture, which came to light in 2020. Where independent cinemas should have been able to claim moral and artistic superiority over commercial chains, they could do neither, having imported, wholesale, an operating model predicated on profit alone, yet presided over by CEOs incapable of delivery against it.

Looking back, it seems so simple that the future lay in simply turning this model upside down and inside out, but of course this is to ignore the fact that power isn’t divested easily, and the boards, the senior managers, the chief executives clung on – at first from a position of high arrogance, and latterly rather ignominiously – to what scraps remained for as long as they could. The various funders did little to help the situation, feeling that the wisdom of their investments, too, would be challenged if the model of governance were to fail. As the first cinemas began to crumble following the pandemic of 2020-21, though, it became clear that simply replacing the faulty CEOs who presided over the financial ruin of their organisations would only serve to replicate, not solve the problems further down the line.

First the inside-out: disassembling the rigid old hierarchies was simple, when it happened. Though the senior managers at many cinemas had sought to portray the cooperative model as, variously, ideologically unpalatable; financially unsustainable; or operationally ungovernable, assuming that without singular leadership by a figurehead things would grind to a halt, the transition at most cinemas took place smoothly — and the immediate reward in staff wellbeing, the restitution of public trust, and not least the renewed vitality of cinemas’ artistic programmes, vindicated the decision.

One cinema completely dissolved hierarchies, and staff from across the organisation worked together on its new programme; at another, it was working groups which loosely mirrored its old departments; and at another yet, staff maintained some members senior to the others to undertake the programming — yet the difference was that they were elected, accountable to the wider staff body, and serving a maximum term of two years. Across all which converted to workers’ coops, the most immediately apparent effect, internally, was the volume of ideas, practical, financial, artistic, that now flowed throughout. In it together, there because they wanted to be, and jointly responsible for all elements of the business, coop members saw old silos collapse, and, as a result, a clarity of purpose and quality of programme emerged which began to translate into financial recovery.

Then the upside-down: those programmes – repertory cinema, artists’ moving image, guest curators, archive film, special seasons, live events, and programming for particular communities – previously regarded as peripheral to the ‘mainstream’ programme, subordinate to it and somehow barely tolerated at many venues as a necessary evil in pursuit of public funds, were instead made to assume centre stage. The proposition that workaday, commercial or relatively mainstream material should be activated by the original programming, rather than the other way around, turned the status quo on its head overnight. One cinema summed it up by describing it as a ‘reinvention’: a place of ideas first, and commerce second. 

The first act towards this was really nothing more than marketing sleight of hand, in which the periphery and the centre swapped places in terms of visibility on websites and print, but nevertheless the ensuing difference in audience behaviour was immediate, and positive. The more substantial, and still ongoing piece of work is for venues to reacquaint themselves with original programming. By focusing on interpretation over marketing; by working meaningfully with unrepresented or undistributed filmmakers and local and regional filmmakers who might otherwise be relegated to ‘talent’ programmes; and by reconciling the real needs, and therefore programmatic weight, of original material versus those of the mainstream, cinemas are rediscovering communities – real communities – and a meaningful commons.

A member of one of larger workers’ coops, who had previously worked in the cinema’s bar alongside studying for a PhD, remarked that the changes were ‘in some way an exquisite paradox, both killing the past and reinhabiting it simultaneously.’ ‘That is,’ she said, ‘the most recent past, in which cinemas became leisure venues first and cultural venues second, was overwritten by a model which, in part, came from the more distant past: the repertory cinema of the old film theatres, activated by unique seasons; original interpretative materials; authoritative but also open-minded and playful programming; innovative outreach projects; an understanding of cinema as a site of production as well as of exhibition; and truly mixed audiences.’ 

And what happened to that mainstay of the old cinemas, the white male programmer whose opinion could not be challenged and whose narrow taste formed the velocity of, and defined the fortunes of his fiefdom? He’s still there in some cinemas, relearning his trade from his younger, more gifted female colleagues, but in most places he simply slipped away in the night, his displeasure at relinquishing his substantial salary deriving more from the fact he would be equal with former subordinates than with the amount of the coop’s flat wages in particular. Where he still exists, he has to share festival trips with colleagues now — and the delights of discovery around the world, previously forbidden to but now encountered by his erstwhile juniors, come alive when brought back to their own cinema in a way which never happened before. Either way, programmes across the independent sector are now somehow more vital, more colourful, and certainly more accessible by audiences with additional needs than ever before.

The centre swaps with the periphery. The peripheral becomes the mainstream. Ultimately, it was the simplicity of this proposition which enabled it to take hold. I write from the future, but remember, the possible cinema is just that, even in 2020. It is perilously far away yet tantalisingly close.