UKCA Conference, London

Audiences…Growing the big screen experience


PROJECTING BACK to the calm we enjoyed earlier in the year is difficult, but before CV19 closed cinemas and livelihoods stalled, the UK Cinema Association hosted its annual conference… Let’s reminisce about happier times — 12th and 13th February, writes Melissa Cogavin.

On the first day the atmosphere was buzzing, and the auditorium at Picturehouse Central was packed.


Many had travelled from all over Europe to be there. UKCA chief exec Phil Clapp set the tone with an opening address for a two-day event that unlike previous conferences would stress the theme of audience development and focus on demographics that had not previously enjoyed the attention they deserved. This year, the focus was on youth, disabled, BAME, female and LGBTQ+ audiences by way of spotlights on festivals, audience development schemes and exhibitors’ initiatives.


Edgar Wright on cinema
Powster’s loud and impressive sizzle reels kicked it all off followed by what for many was the highlight of the day. Edgar Wright, director of cult hits like “Shaun of the Dead”, “Hot Fuzz”, “World’s End” and more recently “Baby Driver”, was the day’s keynote speaker. A natural, unscripted orator, Edgar sent us down memory lane with tales of his first experience at the Galaxy Cinema in Westover Road, Swanage, “where, to me aged 5, the stars on the ceiling merged with the stars in George Lucas’ galaxy so the first thing I saw was an Imperial Star Destroyer emerging out of the night sky”.


Edgar’s childlike joy of the cinema reminded us all why we were there, regaling us with a series of anecdotes, he admitted to spending so much time at the movies that “Time Out” actually noted that prolonged visits to the capital might result in a sighting of director Edgar Wright in the audience. He was critical too though, and it was good to hear a prominent director being direct about his impressions of the cinema-going experience. It’s good to hear home truths sometimes. ‘Commercials are too long,’ he complained. Why promote the Big Screen Experience to audiences who are already there? Why preach to the converted? That was hard to counter. He groaned at lavish advertising that precedes the equally lavish product placement in the Bond films. Featuring clips of the film he was about to see in the pre-roll is — in his view — ridiculous and irritating. He’s right.


Overall the shared experience was what hee was keen to stress. Edgar challenged exhibitors in the audience to be the best they can be, in a time of competition and the perceived threats from streamers (pandemics aside).


As Phil Clapp explained, box office was the best it had been in the past two years since 1970. Film-making in the UK is booming, albeit on hold currently. There is a huge opportunity for exhibitors to make their offering the best in Europe, if not the world, against such a positive backdrop.
Insight on exit polling…


Lucy Jones followed up the roars of applause that met Edgar Wright’s keynote with her usual slick delivery of statistics across the UK and Ireland cinema sector, devoting a lot of time to exit polls ComScore had conducted at screenings of the Best Picture Oscar winner “Parasite”, with some surprising results. “Parasite” bucked trends in countless ways but ComsScore’s exit polls showed almost half respondents — 44% — bought tickets having actually been persuaded by critics’ reviews, which are normally responsible for around 6% of ticket sales.
There were a number of spotlight sessions during the event that looked into various aspects of cinema audience development. These included MASSIVE, supported by the BFI and run by David Kapur, a familiar face in the industry having established OurScreen and ElevenFiftyFive, both audience development initiatives. MASSIVE is devoted to growing youth audience, promoting cinema via social media, partnerships and screenings. Essentially a membership organisation modelled on OurScreen, in David’s explanation about the youth market he drew attention to some underlying paradoxes in audiences today: There has been a slight dip in attendance, but a massive increase in attendance among the young.


Social media engagement in 2020 is now the most important element of movie marketing, but loneliness among disconnected young people remains an urgent and thus far unresolved issue, but which chimes in well with the noise on mental health awareness that has been making headlines over the last 12 months.


Cinema for all
In the afternoon, the UKCA’s James Connor kicked off an intelligent debate in the session “Disabled Audiences — Maximising Opportunities For Us All” featuring a refreshing line-up of speakers from prominent independent cinemas around the UK.


Disability as a group routinely gets a lot of attention at UKCA regional events with updates from around the country about visually and hearing impaired but usually it is around the progress of ramp access, subtitle facilities and so on within cinemas regionally. This was a more broad-brush session with some fascinating top line numbers: Disabled people number 22% of the population and are a significant demographic that is all too often forgotten in the leisure industry. 60% of these have disability needs that require special access facilities at the cinema, and yet, according to Rick Williams, who gave an in-depth and persuasive speech in the afternoon, ‘disability is not considered a business imperative’ by decision-makers in exhibition.


The mood historically in this area has been reactive, not proactive. The opportunity to cater for a select group is not seen as a way of reaching 8m customers, more a drain on resources. Clearly, according to Rick, those who speculate will accumulate.


Festivals for all audiences
Film Festivals are now a familiar sight catering for every conceivable genre, ethnicity and sexual orientation, and these have done much to raise the profile of anything from horror films to Bollywood. Usually grass-roots led, with support from organisations like the BFI and the National Lottery, we saw examples of success from Dorothy Smith of Zeffirellis and Jake Harvey from the Phoenix Cinema and Arts Centre in Leicester, whose celebration of Indian cinema has seen a substantial rise in attendance from the city’s Asian residents. Of the UK population, BAME people account for 14% of the total, 7.5% of these are Asian or of Asian descent, according to Stephen Fellowes, who gave an entertaining and memorable round-up of the UK cinema landscape as he sees it.


He credited the BFI’s Diversity Standards agenda for a positive effect on BAME cinema attendance in recent years, adding that over the course of exhaustive research of viewing habits, the age, tastes, preferences, even types of cinemas attended revealed various idiosyncrasies that until now had gone unnoticed. War films weren’t popular but Asian audiences love an action movie, for example. Or, according to Samir Bhamra, from the UK Asian Film Festival, regional differences among Asian audiences are so acute that “In Coventry they don’t even know what an independent film is,” he explained. “They would ask me ‘Well is it from India? Or Pakistan?’”


Streaming, binge-viewing, audience home truths?

Streaming threat?: ComScore’s Lucy Jones showed via a series of helpful infographics that the threat of online streaming on cinema attendance is not as dire as we might have feared, a theme that was current throughout the two-day event. Indeed, Lucy demonstrated that average screen time on various devices started at 9 minutes for a phone, 18 minutes for a tablet, 35 minutes for a laptop, 65 minutes for a TV but a whopping 110 minutes — a feature film length — for the cinema screen, a comforting statistic for cinema advertisers everywhere. The effects on cinema attendance at the sudden lurch towards streaming for many distributors remains to be seen, but since this presentation the mood in general seems upbeat and positive overall; it will just take time to recover.


Binge-viewing: The dapper Malcolm Macmillan of Webedia went into some depth about binge viewing, the impact on advertising revenue and the huge drop in linear TV consumption amongst the younger generation. He made an interesting observation that the current TV demographic skews much older than cinema, which is consistently attracting audiences in the 16-34 age group, so advertisers wishing to attract the binge-watching, Netflix generation would do better to cast their net wider and advertise on the big screen in order to reach them. To underline this point he added that over a 10-year period the percentage of cinema-goers who buy tickets once a year had jumped from 79% to 88%, so clearly there is an opportunity among these numbers.


Great works nationwide
There were impressive presentations on Women’s Cinema and promoting equal opportunities in film-making from the Reclaim The Frame festival; we heard from Kathy Wilson at Derby QUAD whose work with the local deaf community is inspirational. We Are Parable, the events company fronted by Anthony Andrews and his wife Teanne are committed to recognising cinema’s positive representations of black culture, They delivered an impressive presentation showing their work with Black Panther and its premiere at the BFI Southbank. “Times have changed a lot in a couple of generations,” Anthony told us, and it was time to celebrate.


One of the event’s highlights was a presentation by Dan Ellis, owner of the Jam Jar Cinema in Whitley Bay, whose hilarious account of the opening of the town’s independent cinema, from the germination of a crazy idea to the opening day via a flawed business plan and with no idea about digital cinema into a fabulous success story, was frankly hilarious.


It is heartening to see the positive impact that a cinema that is truly engaged with its customers can have on a community; Dan’s clear passion and charisma have worked so well they are opening a second screen and have raised sufficient money for a lift for disability access.


A spotlight on the Rio Dalston

Andrew Woodyatt’s impressive presentation (left) showed the evolution of the Rio in Dalston from disused flea pit to hip community hub; their particular focus is on the young, and especially LGBTQ audience, winning awards and a devoted following as a result. Woodyatt stressed that Gen Z (ie born post-2000) aren’t impressed by brands and that authenticity of experience, not stuff, is key to their loyalty. This deep understanding has clearly paid off at the Rio Dalston.



Encouraging diversity
It was impressive seeing such fervent efforts to encourage diversity, to engage with disparate groups and get to know audiences in such depth; these initiatives, judging by the smiles and positive comments we saw from customers in speech bubbles on the various powerpoints, those efforts are clearly appreciated.


While growing these audiences is important, let’s not lose sight of the commercial opportunity segmenting and exploiting all of these audiences presents. Executed properly the BAME Pound, the Disability Pound and the Women’s Pound will likely become as carefully exploited in marketing circles as the Grey pound and the Pink Pound. Against the backdrop of Coronavirus, all of these initiatives will become even more important once cinemas reopen.


Audience development becomes not just an add-on but a critical element to the future survival of the business. Lately we have rediscovered the value of our communities, our key workers and our neighbours. The cinema has a crucial role to play in future to continue providing this sense of community. At the UKCA 2020 Conference we were treated to a valuable education which should become a focal point for cinemas not just in the UK, but everywhere.


Dementia-friendly screenings

Jane Woodason of the Light Cinemas expanded on her circuit’s dementia screenings. In an era when data segmentation seems on everybody’s lips, event cinema actively caters to the senior market. With economists everywhere waxing lyrical over affluent ‘boomers’ and ‘Grey Pounds’, dementia screenings are another area that, like event cinema, will fill empty auditoria mid-morning, traditionally a quiet time, and those exhibitors who go the extra mile to keep lighting up, sound low, choose easily accessible auditoria and introduce the screening see a room of nostalgic customers, at ease enjoying themselves. ‘It’s about minimising anxiety,’ Jane explained, and showed us photos of rooms full of people having a sing-song and clapping hands enthusiastically.”