The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown has had a huge impact on the community cinema sector, with many having to cancel screenings and uncertainty about when groups can open their door for screenings again. Some community cinemas however, have seized this moment as an opportunity to be creative, filling the gap left by physical screenings by setting up their own virtual film clubs, to continue to connect with their audiences and communities over this period.

Cinema For All Trustee, Sukayna Najmudin, caught up with Emily Steele from Cine-Sister and Gateway Film Festival and Imogen Weatherly from C Fylm and Three Rivers Film Club to talk about their experiences of setting up online film clubs. 


Can you tell us how the Covid-19 lockdown measures have impacted your cinema/organisation?

Emily: Cine-Sister, like many other organisations, has had to cancel all planned events for the foreseeable future.  The Gateway Film Festival (run by Cine-Sister) in Peterborough halted plans back in March and I’m continually reassessing whether or not to go ahead in October.

Imogen: The Covid-19 lockdown has had a big effect on C Fylm, which relies on membership fees and box office income to fund our core activity. I’ve been on furloughed leave whilst C Fylm is closed and events aren’t happening, which is taking some getting used to! I also help to run Three Rivers Film Club at Old Bakery Studios in Truro, where we would normally be holding monthly screenings, but these have also been put on hold during lockdown.


Can you tell us about what you have been doing to engage with your audience over lockdown?

Emily: I’ve been running an online film club called the Stay Home Film Club. It runs very similarly to a book club, I put a poll up of films available free to stream across BBC iPlayer, Channel 4, BFI Player, MUBI etc. A film is then chosen and I record an introduction about the film, filmmakers or any relevant context. I then host a Zoom chat every Thursday at 7pm (the time we’d normally be at the Peterborough Arts Cinema for their weekly screening in the city).

Imogen: At the start of lockdown I set up a Facebook group called Film Club At Home, with a goal to continue some kind of community film club screenings during these strange times. Every week we choose a film to watch together on Wednesday at 7.30pm, then join in the group for a chat about the film. I’ve been so pleased with how it’s taken off, as we now have over 550 members, and this week we will have watched over 13 films together.


How can people get involved?

Emily: We have a private facebook group that you can join here and all the introduction videos are uploaded here.

Imogen: Everyone is welcome to join the Film Club At Home group, to share their film thoughts or just come for a chat! You can find the group here.

Members can participate however they like: voting for the films each week, joining us in watching together, commenting and sharing ideas and reviews, plus suggestions for future films are all welcome and encouraged!


What challenges have you faced?

Imogen: There have been a few challenges along the way, like making the group accessible to as many people as possible. I’ve mainly been using Facebook and platforms like iPlayer and All 4 to try and help with this, as they are free (or covered by the BBC licence fee), and have good subtitles.

Programming can also be a challenge, so to help I shortlist three films for each week, then put it to the audience in a poll to decide which film we will be watching together. This means the audience has ownership over the programming, keeps it interactive, and has resulted in some surprising and brilliant films being picked. I have to keep reminding myself that not everyone will love every film, and that’s ok – we’ve had some great debates and sharing of opinions, which has made our discussions all the more interesting.

Emily: It’s of course always difficult to begin something new entirely online, particularly when people have so many options. Plus of course, the film choices are limited to what’s available legally free online.


What has been the highlight?

Imogen: A highlight for me was collaborating with 606 Distribution, who kindly offered a selection of their titles at a discounted rate to stream for Film Club At Home viewers. Together we watched Polina, a 2016 French coming-of-age drama about a young Bolshoi ballet dancer who takes a wayward journey to find herself. It was a joy to share a film distributed by 606, who are based in Cornwall like I am. It’s definitely given me programming ideas for when we can start our film club screenings again!

Emily: It’s been a great way to engage people at home and continue to chat with people who love film, it’s been as much about my sanity as engaging my audience. It’s been a great way to diversify people’s film watching and collectively see something we might not have chosen ourselves otherwise.


What feedback have you received from your audience?

Emily: The people who take part in the chats over Zoom have thanked me for doing the club as they’ve really enjoyed being able to continue having discussions about film with other cinema enthusiasts.

Imogen: Feedback from our audience has been really positive, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity and enthusiasm of our members! Some of the feedback we’ve had has been:

“Great choice for film club – I probably wouldn’t have watched it otherwise. Thank you” (Audience member at Made In Dagenham)

“I loved this and would never have come across it if it wasn’t for this group.” (Audience member at My Life As A Courgette)

“This group has made lock down more bearable. You are doing an amazing job” (Audience member)


What advice would you give to other groups wanting to do online activity?

Imogen: My first piece of advice for anyone thinking of setting up some online activity would be to take a look at Cinema For All’s guide for online film clubs – and I’m not just saying that because Cinema For All are interviewing me, I promise! The advice is full of useful tips and ideas for getting started, and it gave me an added boost of confidence to press ‘publish’ on the Film Club At Home group.

I’d also suggest taking a look at what else is out there, and join other clubs and festivals to see what’s working for you, what you enjoy, and what you might want to do differently. There are lots of great things happening out there!

Emily: Be as consistent as possible with what days you add things to the group so people know what and when to expect things and let your group have a say in what you watch!