Keeping Independent Cinema Thriving

A number of smaller arts bodies punch well above their weight — the Independent Cinema Office to name but one. As it turns 15, Duncan Carson explains the work of this champion for independents.


With a mission to “develop an open, challenging and thriving film sector”, the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) supports independent cinemas of all forms in the UK. We want everyone to have access to cinema that nourishes the soul and changes lives. Founded in 2003 by Catharine Des Forges, who is still the director, the ICO’s  vision is for all in the UK to have access to life-changing cinema. This vision grew so that the ICO could support the skills of the those who work in these venues (via training and professional development). We increase access to films available (via distribution and Screening Days projects) and ensure cinemas have the best advice and information.

Backed by the BFI

Historically, the BFI had been central to the establishment of what were once termed ‘Regional Film Theatres’ by funding new builds and giving annual financial assistance. With the advent of the UK Film Council however, the funding landscape changed as well as priorities in cultural activity. There were many venues which served local communities and promoted independent and world cinema who had no formal relationship with any funding body or public agency. The ICO seeks to support these venues, and they are supported by the BFI to do so.

At the same time, there was no training or professional development available for those employed in the cultural cinema exhibition sector, no recognised entry route for individuals, no single information source for areas as diverse as print availability, distributors, rights holders for films or funding sources for projects or capital schemes. There was no agency charged with making cultural cinema available to the widest range of exhibitors nationally through touring material, distributing single titles, artists’ moving work or archival material. The ICO seeks to fill this gap and provide a resource for any independent exhibitor working in the UK.

With the closure of the UKFC in 2011, responsibility for public film funding in the UK returned to the BFI including the distribution of Lottery funds. The ICO continues to be supported by the BFI and is a national strategic partner of FAN (the Film Audience Network), charged with providing of programming, advisory and information services for the sector as well as acting as a national advocate and delivering professional training & development, touring programmes and events to exhibitors across the UK.

Over the past 14 years the ICO has also received support from Creative Europe, Arts Council England, The Japan Foundation, KOFIC and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.


Where does the ICO help?

  • The ICO programmes films for a network of more than 20 cinemas, festivals and mixed arts venues so that anyone can access a shared experience of life-changing cinema in their community, offering a wider range of films to a wider range of people.

  • The ICO offers training so that independent cinema professionals can benefit from high-level knowledge that ensure our sector is successful, innovative and progressive.

  • The ICO provides consultancy to help start, save and grow cinemas, making sure they stay economically viable and build their capacity.

  • The ICO distributes films that contribute to a diverse cinema culture in the UK and make a cultural intervention into the marketplace.

  • The ICO provides free advice and information to make sure that everyone can show films and take part in our sector.

  • The ICO runs events for cinema professionals that help build a robust sector and encourage collaboration.



A useful resource

The ICO website is full of valuable information for anyone who wishes to establish and setup their own cinema. It provides guidance on everything from planning, through building design to operational matters.  


ICO Screening Days

Each year, ICO hosts multiple Screening Days events at independent cinemas around the country, giving those running cinemas an opportunity to see the best smaller release films that are coming up. Without the benefit of having seen the films, it can be hard to find and stand behind titles without gigantic marketing budgets, those films that make independent cinemas stand out.


Jobs Bulletins

The ICO is one of the main sources for job advertising in the sector. Free for advertisers and job seekers, this service helps people advance their careers and find the best staff.


Who is it for?

The ICO is for everyone who shows films or wants to show films in public. It’s much more today for someone with no previous knowledge of exhibition to start showing films in a village hall. With no membership barrier, ICO receives over a thousand enquiries a year from people at all levels.


A look to the future

When the ICO started, there were fewer independents around. The switch to digital projection made it easier to distribute independent films and to build an independent cinemas. Many more entrepreneurs see independent cinemas as an opportunity, many developments include one in their community plans. The future is looking good for the ICO and, as it turns 15, it has spent time looking at the future of cinema. In a survey of over 250 independent cinema workers that ICO conducted, several key themes emerged. The cinema of the future, according to the results, will put community at its heart, commit to independent film, adapt to new pricing approaches and invest in fantastic presentation to keep the big screen special. The ICO is here to help all exhibitors achieve these goals over the next fifteen years.


Further Information

Further Information about the Independent Cinema office, can be found at their website: