By Saskia Wilson-Brown, May 2nd, 2011

In 2009, as a reaction against an increasingly corporate-ized and fractured media landscape, I decided to start an independent film screening series. My friend and colleague Georgi Goldman was also enthusiastic about the idea, and together we began running a monthly film series in Los Angeles: Cinema Speakeasy.

The purpose of Cinema Speakeasy was to be the filmic equivalent of the slow food movement  (but a heck of a lot less boring). We aimed to process films rather than quickly consume them. Positioning CS a not-for-profit organization, I was quite set on divorcing ourselves from the intervention of brands and sponsorship in the belief that – in this particular case – other people’s marketing strategies would corrupt our intention. Thus, we were to serve as advocates for the arts in a space that was separate from corporate commerce, all while showing people a good time.

With that said, we also hoped to create an alternative and non-inflated marketplace for independent film cause let’s get real for a second: We all have rent to pay. Willingly forgoing corporate support, and not keen on the virtual trumpeting that is crucial for successful IndieGoGo or Kickstarter campaigns, we needed to find alternate ways of creating this self-sufficient revenue stream for ourselves and our filmmakers. We hoped, simply, to survive – and to help filmmakers survive – without selling out. To do this, I believed that we needed a few things: A consistent audience, good programming, and a low overhead. Attaining those things, then, became the organization’s main goals.

We are now approaching Cinema Speakeasy’s second anniversary, with a recent expansion into San Francisco with the wildly popular CS:SF events. I wanted to share some of what we have learned in running this film series over the course of the last two years: The things that have allowed us to survive (and perhaps even modestly thrive?) in a very bad economic climate for the arts. Here, then, are my golden rules for running an independent film screening series.

Golden rule number one: Maintain a not-for-profit attitude, but make sure the organization can pay for its expenses.

When we started CS I plastered ‘we give all our revenue to the filmmakers and the venues’ all over the place. In retrospect, this was a mistake. Although we have maintained that policy thus far, we are going to change it for the simple reason that we need to pay for things like web hosting, promotional materials, advertising. If we don’t pay for those things, we limit our reach, which does a disservice to the filmmakers when no one shows up to their screening.

Having said that, it’s no secret that it’s devilishly hard to make a living while staying independent. So forget about making money, at least for the first 3 years, but don’t forget to apportion a part of whatever comes in to your organization’s survival, and to share the rest!

In practice: Don’t quit your day job, and NEVER get into personal debt for the sake of the organization. If you can’t afford to do the event, consider a different approach where it doesn’t cost so much. Keep overhead low, and be sure to split the revenue at the door between yourself, the venue, and the filmmaker – but always split the money that has come in AFTER deducting the expenses incurred in promoting the screening.

Golden rule number two: Plan for low audiences, and set realistic expansion goals.

Something I learned from my days at the Silver Lake Film Festival is that a too rapid expansion = a guaranteed disaster. It always pays to underestimate the amount of people who will show up. Slow but steady wins the race, when it comes to non-profits, and small is often more fun anyways: It’s better to have a packed-feeling small room than an empty-feeling big room.

In practice: For the first year of Cinema Speakeasy we stayed at a small venue (the amazing Echo Park Film Center) that seated about 60 people. Once we had created a consistent series of events, we dabbled with larger venues through special one-off high-profile screenings.  Now, almost two years in, the organization has expanded to San Francisco (with monthly events run there by a trio of uber-dames: Fhay Arceo, Allison Davis and Kate Sullivan Green), and we are starting to regularly expand to new larger venues in LA. Our larger events, which we typically do at a rate of one per quarter, are working because we have slowly built the audience to support this expansion, and because we are cautious and conservative about numbers and expenses.

Golden rule number three: Keep your eye on quality

It’s one thing to have a democratic approach, it’s quite another to show any old thing. That’s what YouTube is for.

Do not forget to maintain a level of quality. If you show ‘bad’ films, even your best friends will stop showing up, not to mention strangers. You won’t be able to grow an audience, and you will ultimately do a disservice to the filmmakers whose work you show.

However, if you gain a reputation for showing good content- as independent as you please but always to a certain standard (those standards are yours to decide) – you will gain a following and people will be honored to be included. It’s curation, and you can interpret it as you will, but do not forget to set standards – whatever they may be for you – and stick to them.

In practice: This is a golden rule I have had a hard time with, myself, and it’s only through my colleague Georgi’s prodding that I’ve begun to see the light on the value of saying no no no. It’s very hard to balance open access with good content, but it must be done.

In practice, also, if you have a lot of filmmaker friends who you want to support through your organization, consider implementing a ‘friends and family’ sub-series- an open call facet to your screening event, where you provide an audience to people just starting out, or whose work is challenging. Keep it separate from the main curated event, and do these at small venues.

Golden rule number four: Be open to oblique approaches

Be open to other mediums as a way of bringing attention to film, and this sometimes may include non-indie film. We’ve found this to be an excellent way to bring new audiences to our programming. Although every effort should be made to engage fellow filmy types, do not focus entirely on the indie film community. It’s small, it’s self-referential, and it’ll limit you.

In practice: Cinema Speakeasy has partnered with art galleries, music venues and other such entities to create two-part programs around a film. For instance, we did a potato-type ransom note workshop at a local gallery in Los Angeles (Machine Project), and partnered with a local design community (Kernspiracy) to get people interested and thinking about typography. This was all in support of our screening of Kartemquin Film’s ‘Typeface’.

This, and other oddball events such as the Tranimal Makeup Workshop (that we produced, and was curated by artist Austin Young, as a part of our ‘Ultra Fabulous Beyond Drag’ screening event), have been incredibly successful at bringing new types of people to our events, and many of them have come back and proposed some awesome ideas of their own.

Guerilla menu inserts

Golden rule number five: Get the F off the internet, already.

Marketing. The evil reality of doing anything that requires other people in this age of brands and buzz.

One thing’s for certain, and all the talk about ‘the power of social media’ notwithstanding, I’ve found there to be a fairly low correlation between Facebook or Twitter followers and butts in seats. It’s easy to hit ‘like’, but it’s a very different experience to get in the car, look for parking, feed the meter, walk a few blocks, and watch an unknown movie. Put simply: A lot of online participation is not a guarantee that people will show up.

What makes people do THAT is good programming, the potential to meet sexy new people, and (with some exceptions) traditional media support. Not sure why, but in our experience a write-up in the local weekly means a full house, 152 retweets does not. Maybe it has something to do with reaching new people rather than the same people you already communicate with online all the time. Or maybe it’s because people trust traditional media cause they’re better curators.

In practice: Instead of focusing all your efforts on creating buzz online, just BE awesome, focus on showing your audience a good time and on actual word of mouth, and consider traditional publicity for the larger events. Use social media as a complementary strategy, but not THE strategy.

We at CS also tend to engage in teenage-like ‘marketing’ such as sticking handwritten flyers in menus at hip diners, posting stickers everywhere we can get away with it, and generally trying to get attention in the real world. It seems to be working so far, is viral in a way more tangible way, and – mainly – it feels authentic to who we are.

Golden rule number six: Allow the organization to have a life beyond you, but set the rules early

If you succeed with your organization, people will come and want to be involved. You need these people for the organization to succeed. But never forget to make sure you maintain control of your organization’s overall trajectory and vision.

What this means is that you need to set the grand vision early (a mission statement and an organizational bible will help with this exponentially). But you also need to allow for expansion, changes of ownership, in short, whatever it takes for people to want to be involved, and are able to create and implement ideas. It’s basic good management skills, and it’s probably the one thing that will keep you up at night as you grapple with your own ego, sense of insecurity, etc.

One thing’s for sure: If you impose your vision in too draconian a manner, you will lose the very people who can help propel the organization to the next level. BUT, if you do not retain some leadership, you can lose control of the organization’s vision. Not an easy thing to balance.

In practice: When I had the idea to start a film series and call it Cinema Speakeasy, I had a certain vision in mind. When the organization’s current Executive Director Georgi Goldman officially came on board – right before the first screening event – she also had a vision. We were colleagues at work and used to confrontation and adaptation, so we simply confronted and adapted our ideas to one another. Together, we set a certain tone for the organization- and we set it early.

This is, and will, serve the organization well as it enters our current expansion phase. For instance, Cinema Speakeasy’s San Francisco edition was started and is run largely autonomously by its co-directors Fhay Arceo, Allison Davis and Kate Sullivan Green (FAK!) – who have final say in their programming, venues, marketing language, etc.

But, they still also use the visual ‘brand’, as it were (set by our brilliant creative-director-of-sorts Micah Hahn), and stick to the tone of the organization, as well as certain programming guidelines. Thus they maintain an approach that is in line with the larger CS organization- and in fact, take it to the next level of cool – but still act independently of the larger organization in many arenas. It’s a balancing act, and it works out very well if you pick your partners well. Which brings me to…

Golden rule number seven: Partner judiciously

Be picky. That’s all there is to this. There are a bazillion horror stories of what can go wrong if you pick the wrong partners- and I can categorically say that I’ve lived through just about all of the bad scenarios.

As a general rule, when approaching partnerships, it helps to think of what this person/organization can bring you right now, rather than what they could potentially bring you down the road. Keep it real, and keep a focus on your current needs.

In practice: Cinema Speakeasy partners creatively with like-minded folk – not too corporate, arts-centric, and who also have their shit together. We try to find oblique approaches, as well, by teaming up with oddball venues, creating cross-promotional partnerships with groups that wouldn’t usually be so excited about indie film, etc etc etc.

I could write five pages on this, so will leave it at this: Be judicious, work with people who are like-minded, and always write out (and agree to) the terms of the partnership early on.


2009, 20 people. 2011, 300 people.

Golden rule number eight: Expect defeat, and then expect success

If your role is to advocate for film by finding new audiences for the indies, then your goal is quite simple: Get people in seats. Simple, right?

The truth is, there’s no science or method to what will bring people in, all these golden rules notwithstanding. A front page write-up in the local paper will definitely help, but chances are that won’t happen for awhile, especially if you’re in a big city with tons of other competing things going on. A celebrity helps too, but that also gets really cheesy really fast, and can turn into a sort of Faustian deal with the devil, right quick.

In practice: If you want to maintain and grow your audience but don’t have access to tons of press, pay really strict attention to how you present your organization both online and offline, program with an eye towards quality (see rule #3), partner with awesome people and organizations (see rule #7), make every event fun, sociable (and a little raucous), and KNOW that you will occasionally have a occasionally super empty theatre. It’s no biggie. We’ve all been there. Just smile and take amazing photos of the three people who showed up.

Golden rule number nine: Just keep going

When I was in graduate school for fine art, one of the tutors told me that in a class of 20, at graduation all 20 are practicing artists. In five years, about 10 are still practicing artists. In 10 years, 5 are still making their work. But in 20 years only one will be making his work, and that one person will probably be well-known.

Consistency pays off, especially in a field where so many people give up early. Make sure you are in a position where you can maintain your organization in the lean years (see rules 1 and 2), and keep the faith.

As they say in Havana: SUERTE, chicos!

More info about Cinema Speakeasy can be found at cinemaspeakeasy.com. A list of other amazing film programs that are thriving and surviving here in the US and abroad can be found here.

  • Share/Bookmark

Posted in audience creative collaboration distribution event festival

Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

RELATED
COMMENTS

  • Darnell Smith

    I love your advice and I also always wanted to own a small independent theater. Two months ago I bought a restaurant and now turning it into a Dinner Theater. I have all I need now but the contact for independent films. How do I reach out the these great movie makers to show their films?

  • Jose Kun

    Invaluable advice. Thank you very much.
    I am a small bookshop owner and always have a dream of running a small Cinema. Books are going out of fashion and so is the life of my Bookshop.
    Half of the space on the Book-shop is empty now so I am thinking of really opening a micro-Cinema theater for independent films.
    Now I know that some of my questions aren't big challenges as I thought, I will get legal advice and talk with my partners.

    Suerte!

blog comments powered by Disqus
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • delicious
  • youtube
  • vimeo

Join the WorkBook Project mailing list - enter your email below...

NEW BREED twitter
READ

There are no events to show at this time.

Powered by Lifestream.

Podcast Archive