Open cinema without borders

Christoph Warrack believes that in the future multiplex cinemas will be sidelined by the growth of community film clubs with a social purpose. Sheena Hastings reports.
Christoph Warrack, the driving force behind Open Cinema. (Nigel Roddis).Christoph Warrack, the driving force behind Open Cinema. (Nigel Roddis).
Christoph Warrack, the driving force behind Open Cinema. (Nigel Roddis).

BACK IN the late 90s, Christoph Warrack was working by day in the film industry, gaining as much experience as he could from set decorating to sound recording, scriptwriting and directing.

It wasn’t a surprising choice of career - one way or another, he had film in his blood. His grandfather Guy Warrack, was composer for documentaries including the official films of the 1948 London Olympics and the Queen’s Coronation, and his uncle Hugh Hudson directed the Oscar-winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire.

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The Yorkshire producer Piers Tempest got him a break writing the script for an ambitious short film called Subterfugue; after that he was on his way. Factors going back to early childhood also influence the work he does today, says Warrack.

Born into an “exhausting, over-achieving family” in Ryedale, North Yorkshire, the youngest child of six had an artistic, intellectually active and socially aware clan to live up to.

During his time at Ampleforth College, a key moment in his teenage years, he says, was a visit to Cold War Eastern Europe with the choir. “It had a long-lasting effect on my understanding of the relationships between culture, politics, economics and religious faith.”

Still a practising Christian, he firmly believes in the power of culture - particularly film - as an agent of inspiration and engagement for those who’ve become socially isolated. While the day job fed his artistic appetite he also spent many hours a week as a volunteer at church-led projects for prisoners and the elderly in the impoverished area of London.

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He moved on to work in his spare time with homeless people through another Church project in Soho, cheek-by-jowl with the offices and editing facilities that were home to the British film industry. “I’d spend my days working on a film, scrambling up the ladder of the film industry in a variously successful or unsuccessful fashion, and then in the evening I’d experience a whole side of life that’s a long way from the supposed glamour of that industry. None of these (homeless) people were going to movies, enjoying the great stuff the world of film offers.”

He came up with a simple idea: take film to socially isolated people by starting a film club in a local setting, giving members a cultural experience as well as the usual food and drink. Warrack’s contacts book meant he could get film makers to come along and discuss their work.

Homeless people said they wanted to have culture in their lives, and responsibility for choosing films was given to them. Volunteers helped to run the club and create a welcoming atmosphere, and information about housing, health and other services were also available. “People came, and it was startling to realise that for many, this was the only door they walked through all week,” says Warrack.

Since that first club was started, 34 film clubs have been opened at 25 venues across the UK and Ireland, using partnerships with support organisations working in homelessness, the care sector, criminal justice, local authorities, mental health, housing and community groups.

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The idea has always been to make the clubs a social enterprise and not a charity, and the company has sustained itself almost entirely on contracts with local groups.

Directors, producers or technicians who turned up to talk about their film work said they found the experience refreshing. Oscar-winning director Kevin McDonald attended a club to talk about his political intrigue movie State of Play, to be told by one of the audience that its ending was “rubbish”.

He explained why certain choices were made regarding the plot, finding the discussion much more illuminating than the usual superficial banter heard at industry screenings, says Warrack. There were gains on all sides.

“The reality was that homeless people were as much in need of cultural engagement and nourishment as they were in need of a cup of tea and sandwich.”

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As the idea took off and flourished outside London - including clubs in Sheffield and Kirklees - Warrack’s own working life moved away from professional film making and into creation of the Open Cinema Foundation, to further the network of clubs but also to introduce previously socially excluded individuals to the process of film making.

Since then over 50 short films have been made and shown. One formerly homeless individual has gone on to study film and television at university, and OC presented films by homeless people at the 2012 Olympics.

“I would go so far as to say, from the evidence of our annual reports, that by giving people access to films and making friends at the club, a sense of community is built which has helped many with their problems,” he says.

Now 40, Warrack and his small team have been developing a web app launching in September, which will, for a £30 monthly subscription, give any community group the resources to open a film club in a suitable neighbourhood space.

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“They can upload a cinema profile, select films from a library of 13,000 (from an eventual choice of 72,000) we have already sorted out the licenses for, and sell tickets. Then they just download the film and plug their laptop into a projector. You’d be surprised how many community halls have a projector gathering dust somewhere.”

The £20,000 used to fund this latest development in Open Cinema has been made possible by investment from the Dotforge Impact programme in Sheffield, which accelerates the growth of software companies using money from The Key Fund, which funds social enterprises in disadvantaged areas.

“We’re not out to kill cinema as we know it,” says Warrack. “We don’t want to cannibalise high street cinema, but want to broaden access to film. We can have both.

“We offer something different, and Open Cinema club members can choose a weekly season of classic films, world cinema, documentaries. There’s a huge choice, and they get to choose.

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“We believe everyone should have access to cinema, without worries about having to pay £10 for a ticket or the stigmatisation attached to looks and dress, which affects many homeless people in particular.”

The team are readying the new digital platform to stream movies straight into community venues across the UK and Europe.

More locally, Warrack is in discussions about partnering with organisations in Bradford that want to relaunch the city’s Film Festival using around 100 community venues to screen films.

Libraries, currently closing at a rate of around 100 a year, are prime targets for community cinema, he says.

“I do consider what we’re doing as part of the film industry, albeit an uncharted backwater at the moment. But I really believe that community cinema is the future of cinema.”