On 6th October 2022, a little piece of my world was shattered when I awoke to the headline “Administrators called in over Edinburgh International Film Festival and cinemas collapse”. The festival along with the iconic Edinburgh Filmhouse had closed. Without warning, with immediate effect.
This was the unthinkable. For all of us working in film in the city, the Filmhouse is a part of our cultural DNA. As a high school kid, I would regularly skip classes (sorry mum) for the 50p student matinees, for the worlds of Kurosawa and Godard, Cronenberg and Lynch, Gilliam and Varda to unfold at 24 frames a second. House One, as the former nave of a church, was a truly sacred space. The screen our altar. Later, I worked for the Edinburgh International Film Festival and more intimately got to know the inner workings of this temple.
And now it was gone.
This posed a further, more pressing challenge as we were well into planning for the launch of Emma Davie’s documentary THE OIL MACHINE in cinemas across the UK from 3rd November. This was set to include nights at Filmhouse in Edinburgh and its sister The Belmont in Aberdeen with full panel discussions afterwards. We were able to scramble and line-up alternative venues in both cities, reschedule the panels and have very lively events. To our great surprise, three out of the four screenings at new venues in Edinburgh and Aberdeen were completely sold out. As were other screenings of our film elsewhere in the UK. This seemed contrary to what we were hearing from others in the sector.
This was happening against a backdrop of other gloomy industry headlines, which had prepared us for the worst with the film’s theatrical run.
“Distributors and sales agents have given a stark assessment of what some are describing as a ‘crisis’ facing feature documentaries at the global theatrical box office,” wrote Screen Daily on 9th November, just a few days into our release.
Many reports were saying that audiences, after years of pandemic disruption, are reluctant to return to the cinemas and that, in particular, the theatrical market for documentaries has bottomed out over the last year. People are returning for distraction and ‘easy content’ over more thoughtful and challenging work. The Filmhouse and Belmont closures seemed but symptoms of a larger reckoning for exhibitors globally.
So this raised the question: if we’re selling out screenings for a hard-hitting environmental documentary at a time when cinemas are struggling to get people into seats, then what is going on?
The Factor Six
With over 100 UK screenings of THE OIL MACHINE between November and January, we started to see a clear pattern. A large part of the outreach strategy for our campaign had been to schedule speakers and panel discussions following the screening. Wherever possible, this included the filmmakers or contributors to the film. In other locations, we worked with local groups and organisations on the ground to help curate compelling guest line-ups. We had panels and audience Q&As at more than half of these 100 screenings. The pattern in the data coming back from the venues was visible and measurable. On average, screenings with speakers have been selling six times more tickets than ones without.
Earlier than expected, the film was broadcast on BBC Scotland at the end of December and is currently available on iPlayer. We thought that this might hamper interest in community screenings. However, quite the opposite has happened and bookings from community groups (and even a few cinemas) are still strong. It seems that the broadcast and iPlayer streaming served only to generate more interest from groups in creating live events. Again, with the desire to bring people together in-person and catalyse conversations.
THE OIL MACHINE at Picturehouse Central in London, with journalist Terry Macalister, economist Ann Pettifor, and activist Tessa Khan
At the same time, we were also seeing strong turnout for our online livestream screenings and panels. It’s clear that distributors' rush to online screenings during the pandemic was a huge step forward for reaching audiences. It’s also clear, post-pandemic, that these online experiences are here to stay, giving access to those living in a ‘cinema desert’, with limited mobility, or simply without the time or other means to get to their local theatre.
No matter if in person or online, all of this hits home that people, more than ever, are seeking opportunities to come together, collectively share in the film viewing experience, and discuss the issues with others afterwards.
So what does this mean for the future of theatrical documentary screenings?
It seems that a new approach, or even new terminology, is needed. For our industry, it is no longer as simple as differentiating between ‘theatrical’ vs. ‘non-theatrical’’. For audiences, the choice may be between watching in an empty, expensive cinema or on the comfy sofa, assuming the film in question will show up on a streaming service rather soon. Beyond this, there is also an ever more important choice between the ‘sole’ vs. ‘collective’. We are seeing it is the collective experience that audiences are seeking, whether in a venue or online. It is the chance to watch together, share that experience, learn from the speakers, and discuss the issues with each other.
Of course, ‘eventising’ screenings to draw audiences is not a new revelation. After 25 years working for film festivals in the UK and USA (including ten years as director of the San Francisco Green Film Festival from 2010 to 2020), I know only too well — along with all colleagues across the festival realm — that screenings with a special guest, Q&A, or social event attached will draw larger crowds than simply showing a film. However, it’s not possible that every screening every day in every cinema could be an ‘event’. It’s labour intensive and the resources aren’t there, or it just isn’t necessary for the latest popcorn fare. Yet, this aspect certainly made all the difference for the success of THE OIL MACHINE’s campaign as an issue-driven documentary.
Panel event for THE OIL MACHINE at Glasgow Film Theatre with host Rachel Caplan, academic Ewan Gibbs, ex-oil worker Neil Rothnie, and film's director Emma Davie
Another couple of elements have also been key to this campaign’s success: through generous grant funding we have been able to offer free screening licences to groups to host screenings that are free to the public, as well as bringing me on board as the campaign’s dedicated Outreach Coordinator to liaise on all the details. Creating the carefully-curated panel series was also resource intensive and couldn’t have happened without the impact campaign funding. It seems more support for the impact field is urgently needed – especially in the UK – if more films are to run similar campaigns to engage audiences in complex issues.
Although these may seem like challenging times for theatrical documentaries, I believe that, when the campaign resources can be found, there are great new opportunities ahead for connecting films and audiences. Our cinema of 100 years is the constant process of reinvention. It is upon us as the indie creatives to explore what these experiences are, and could be. To push the boundaries of how we create collective and social ‘live’ experiences. It’s more than movies. And it will need to be more than the temple that was our Filmhouse.