Running a cinema with a programme based on the quality of the films rather than their McDonald?s tie-ins is at times a perilous pursuit, writes Frances Longley. Three years ago mac, a diverse and well-established arts centre in Birmingham with a dedicated cinema, was faced with declining audiences for its cultural cinema programme in the midst of an extraordinary mushrooming of competition (over 45 new screens opened in Birmingham in the space of a few months). The buying clout of the multiplexes meant that mac was abruptly pushed to the back of the queue for new releases, and the novelty of the new and luxurious facilities, coupled with beguiling opening offers, lured many regular customers away.
Faced with commercial blitzkrieg, mac turned to a considered approach to recovery: research. Working with the Birmingham International Film and Television Festival, local independent screen the Electric (which sadly has recently succumbed to the overwhelming competition and closed), the Odeon, and our newest commercial rivals UGC, we commissioned a piece of research from Birmingham Arts Marketing. Our aim was to identify the key characteristics and attitudes of existing cultural cinema attenders, and to compare this with mainstream cinema attenders. In a robustly competitive marketplace this was an extraordinary partnership between the commercial, independent and subsidised sectors.
Amazingly, despite the existence of a number of national bodies, this basic intelligence had not been researched before. Previous studies had mainly concentrated on counting the number and value of admissions, but significantly, our research looked beyond this to a comprehensive programme of qualitative as well as quantitative research.
Some of the findings were predictable: looking at mac?s regular audience I was not surprised to be told that their average age is fifteen years older than that of typical multiplex attenders, they read The Guardian, and many of them work in the public sector. More interesting was the high value they placed on advice from a range of sources when picking a film. This in turn meant that they did not want to see a film in its first fortnight of release, as the multiplexes assumed, but preferred to wait a little longer to establish its credentials. Unlike mainstream attenders, the choice of film was far more important than the choice of venue or plush surroundings, and although they often came to films with friends, they saw the filmgoing experience primarily as an artistic rather than a social one.
Informed by the detail of the research we embarked on a programme of change, starting with our programming. We recognised that we should not tamper with our quality-led policy at any cost, but the research suggested that we should phase our programme slightly differently. A new and groundbreaking relationship was forged with Warwick Arts Centre, based twenty miles away in Coventry. Their Cinema Programmer took on responsibility for our programme, enabling us to jump further up the queue with distributors by securing films for both venues in a single booking. This gave us greater choice about when to screen a film, enabling us to secure slots at our optimum point, two or three weeks into release.
Having changed the scheduling we also tackled our promotional techniques. As well as strengthening relationships with film media, we worked with regional radio to secure a regular review slot for our programmer, adding his voice to the list of valuable word of mouth influences on our audience. We also made subtle but important changes to our cinema brochure, taking more trouble to explain why a film might be of interest, providing context and moving away from specialist language. Through this change we aimed to encourage more experimentation among regular attenders and to make the breadth of the programme less daunting for occasional attenders.
Finally, we used the research to steady our nerves. When our audiences had started to decline, everybody had a pet solution for us: Go mainstream! Start selling popcorn! Fight for first runs! Get rid of the brochure! However, the research told us that all of these ideas would damage our reputation and reduce our core audience. Instead, we held onto our core values while broadening our appeal and making it easier for people to choose to come to mac.
Did it work? Happily, yes. Last year cultural cinema attendance across Europe dropped, but our attendance grew. mac?s experience demonstrates that there is a viable audience for cultural cinema, luxury seats are not the only reason to go to the cinema, and learning more about your audience is often the route to success.
Frances Longley is Communications Director at mac. t: 0121 440 4221;