Sheffield’s Cinema for All bringing movies to the masses in rural Yorkshire communities

Yorkshire’s cinemas have reopened to offer us some much-needed escapism. But can they provide even more than that in a post-Covid world? John Blow speaks to independents.

Jaq Chell, Jay Platt and Abi Standish who work at Cinema For All, a Sheffield-based community film scheme. Independent cinemas in Yorkshire are coming up with new ways to keep film fans interested in the big screen after lockdown. Picture Tony Johnson

Cinema has, for at least as long as living memory, been one of the great forms of entertainment and escapism.

And for obvious reasons, many people need that more than ever.

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But not only are some of Yorkshire’s independent and community-led cinema operators providing entertainment after re-opening, those who run screenings also believe they are of use in helping people reintegrate into society in a safe and comfortable way – while putting viewers at the centre of what goes on screen.

Jaq Chell is head of programme and business development for Cinema For All. Picture Tony Johnson

Cinema for All is a Sheffield-based organisation which uses British Film Institute funding to help people put on screenings in their own communities around the country, and has been doing so since 1946, often operating in rural and less-populated areas.

Jaq Chell, head of programme and business development, says: “We represent people that put on film screenings in temporary venues really, so some village halls, community centres, schools, libraries, and it’s sort of one of those hidden worlds of cinema that if you have not really heard of it before, you might not have a clue how many there are in the UK, and we’ve currently got over 1,500. And they kind of really exist to fill in the gaps for cinema provision, particularly in places that don’t have, you know, a really spectacular cinema like a Showroom, especially something that might show independent films, or that sort of content.”

She adds: “And they also exist to be local, so that people have something to connect them to their communities.  I think community is a bigger part than the film aspect, and they’re also a lot cheaper as well, so that you’re usually paying around about £5 per ticket, where I think the national average ticket price for cinema at the moment is creeping up to £11, which is absolutely bonkers.”

Though not all of these community screenings have restarted after the lifting of lockdown, in Yorkshire they have previously entertained audiences in and around areas of the Dales such as Grassington, Leyburn, Carleton in Skipton, Osmotherley in the North York Moors, Easingwold near York and towns such as Rotherham and Doncaster.

Graham Relton from the Yorkshire Film Archive and Head of Screen Operation Kathryn Penny at the Pictureville Cinema in the Bradford Science Museum and Cinema.. Picture Tony Johnson

And what can be seen at them is only set to become more tailored to audience expectations.

“People have spent over a year at home choosing their own viewing habits and having almost absolutely everything to choose from,” says Jaq.

“It’s been such a terrible year but one of the things that I’ve always said to my husband has been one of the up-swings is that at least this happened when we had so much to choose from, content wise, to keep us occupied. You know, we’re not just trying to choose for what’s on five terrestrial TV channels – we have all this cinema available to us.

“So I think that’s definitely going to influence how people interact with the cinema when we start going back to the big screen and start going back to fixed venues.

“It’s empowering to have a community choose what they want to see on the big screen. And that might be because they have certain tastes they want to explore but it might be that they want to be connected with a certain topic or a certain sort of social justice theme, or it might be that they want to be particularly connected with their community, it might be something that explores where they’re from, what their race is, what their ethnicity is, whether they’re a queer person, and they get to really engage with that and put that on the big screen and get to see themselves reflected on the big screen in a way that perhaps they wouldn’t do if they’re going to a multiplex.”

Jaq thinks community cinemas will be an important space for people to ease themselves back into cinema-going – seats can be spaced out and if it’s close to home, they might not even need to use transport.

“So for me I think [it’s all about] emphasising the importance of being part of an audience, being part of a community and how film can bring us together and maybe help heal some of the wounds and the traumas that we’ve been through – really help people socialise again and sort of  move past some of the terrible things that we’ve all been through this year.”

In Bradford, the National Science and Media Museum’s cinema became independent in November 2019, becoming Pictureville, after a contract ended with Picturehouse.

Now it wants people from the city itself to play a part in what will be seen there.

Last month it launched its Come and Meet Another Me scheme, supported by Film Hub North with National Lottery funding, and will invite locals to form a programming group. They will be offered six slots over six months to show the films they would like to see screened, as long as the relevant permissions can be found.

Kathryn Penny, head of screen operation, says: “What we saw in the short time we were able to open last year (after the first March lockdown) is that a more cautious audiences would turn out for the more special and curated content. And what could be more special than films chosen by Bradford, for Bradford?”

She adds: “I think this is the time for independent cinemas to shine. The big studio production film pipeline has been really disrupted by Covid so there will be a period of a lean release schedule ahead. This is the time for Pictureville to lean into its uniqueness in the region, showing the best of independent cinema from around the world and incredible repertory and archive cinema.”

Kathryn also highlighted a report by Cinema First, which reports a study with 1,250 cinemagoers that suggested how 38 per cent of audiences planned to return within the first month of sites reopening, and another 34 per cent within the first few months. More than 59 per cent surveyed agreed that the cinema experience cannot be recreated at home, it found.

Meanwhile, work on Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds is under way again, thanks to a £285,600 Capital Kickstart Fund award from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the government’s Culture Recovery Fund. Its restorations and creation of new accessible facilities had been on pause due to the pandemic but completion is now expected in May 2022.

And elsewhere, Hebden Bridge Picture House is due to reopen on June 28 this year, just two weeks before its 100th anniversary, and is planning a centenary calendar of events running until June 2022.

Kathryn says that cinemas are still working at around 30 per cent capacity, though, so challenges lie ahead – but  communities can help.

“This makes it important to fill the available seats as we can’t rely on sell-outs at full capacity to bolster quieter periods,” she says.

“Safety had to be prioritised above everything right now to encourage visitors to leave their home and re-discover the magic of the big screen.”

Get involved in organising screenings

People who are interested in screening films in their own community can get in touch with Cinema for All.

The organisation can offer advice and support, and on its website people can download its help packs, read about other groups’ activities, and apply for its coaching programmes to develop skills and knowledge.

For more information, visit www.cinemaforall.org.uk.

There is also a Cinema For All Podcast, hosted by Jaq Chell and Abi Standish, which is “a true celebration of going to the cinema”.

Anyone wishing to find a community cinema that organises screenings near them can log on to  visit www.mycommunitycinema.org.uk.

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