6 questions to ask when creating a diverse and inclusive film programme

One of the most exciting parts about creating memorable event experiences for our diverse audiences, for me at least, is the ability to curate and develop a programme of films that truly engage with people. Whether it’s coming up with a set of experiences that enhance the films of Spike Lee in a nine month season, or producing an Afrofuturistic Kingdom, complete with Cosplayers and African arts and crafts makers for the release of Black Panther, the importance of authenticity, creativity and storytelling has always been integral to our work. 

Even more significant to these factors, has been our commitment to putting our audience at the heart of everything we do. Having run We Are Parable for the last 6 and a half years, we have solely focused on Black Cinema, and as a result, our audience is a direct representation and reflection of the actors and filmmakers they have seen on screen. Therefore, when we create our events, it’s always with the focus of putting our supporters first. 

Just a few of the 750 people who attended the Black Panther preview screening at the BFI, 2018

But how have we done this? It’s something that, initially, we didn’t really take much time to think about; instead, we put ourselves in the place of our audience – what would we want to see? What would make us spend our time (and money) on this event? Would we tell our friends about this? What’s been really useful about following this method is that it allows us to answer these questions very definitively.

However, as we’ve scaled up, we’ve had the chance to really step back and see what it takes to create programmes designed to engage our audience. We think it comes down to asking 6 important questions. Let’s go through them:

1.Who do I want to attract?

It should go without saying, but having an idea on which audience you want to target is the first question to ask. Whether it’s an older or younger audience, or perhaps you want to develop screenings for people with neurodiverse conditions, it’s important to understand the challenges and potential barriers that your chosen audience may have when it comes to going to the cinema. It’s also worth looking around at other cinemas and spaces who currently serve this group, and look at how they attempt to attract them. Until you know who you want to attract with your audience, it’s pretty much impossible to get the programming right. 

2.Why do I want to do this?

A quick disclaimer – the answer to this question is never “To get funding”. Instead, it’s a question that is, although seemingly straightforward, a very hard one to answer correctly. If you’re trying to create a diverse programme that will attract a new audience, you’ll need a “why” to your project  – it’s a reason for this new audience to buy in to what you’re trying to achieve. When we produced the “Black Panther” event in association with the BFI, we knew how important it would be to our audience and that, for many of them, it would be the first time in a long time that Black people would been celebrated on screen in a mainstream movie. So to that end, we produced the “Kingdom” which would showcase some of the richness of the diaspora, from fashion, books to interior design. When people came, they got it – they understood the story we were trying to tell. They understood the “why”. So whether you have a Q+A or panel discussion to complement your screening, make sure you’re able to communicate why this is important. 

3.What’s the perception of my cinema/organisation/space?

Answering this question definitely encourages some self-reflection and the ability to take on feedback which at first might be a hard pill to swallow. Take a look at, say, the last 5 curated programmes and/or seasons that you’ve worked on. What kinds of films have you shown? What experiences have put alongside them? Now honestly ask yourself, would the audience that you’ve defined above attend any of the programmes? If there are one or two, then great; perhaps it’s about how and where you communicate. If there are none of your recent programmes you think will resonate with this target audience, then perhaps collaboration might be necessary… 

4.Who might I collaborate with?

We believe that one of the things that has been integral to our growth has the been the ability to collaborate with other organisations. Let’s face it, as much as we try, we can’t be experts at everything, and that’s why finding groups or collectives who have access to the audience you’re trying to attract with your programme is critical. Collaborators are everywhere – you could team up with other exhibitors (which we did when we worked with The New Black film Collective), or individual artists, performers or curators who will elevate and enhance your programme. What’s also great about collaboration is that you potentially have a new marketing channel – the partner will also want to communicate to their base about what they’re doing, which ultimately benefits your programme. For example, when we created a pop up barbershop to celebrate the sitcom “Desmond’s” and took it it on a nationwide tour, we knew that we didn’t have the reach to promote out to the regions. Therefore, we spoke to groups and individuals who could help us get the word out and who were bought into what we were trying to do. In this case, we were being funded so we had the means to pay these groups, but this hasn’t always been the case; when we started out, it was very much on a quid pro quo basis – look at what you could do for the group, as much as what they could do for you. A word of warning though, if money is going to change hands, ensure that both you and your collaborator know exactly what is expected from each other before any actual activity takes place.

Our pop up Barbershop, Comedy Cuts

5.What could the experience be?

Another factor that has been massively significant for our business is around providing an experience for our audience. Over the last 6 years, quite what that experience is has varied, from creating an African Marketplace to celebrate Coming To America, installing a 10 foot sound system within a cinema that showcased the 80’s culture in “Yardie”  to Q+As discussing the mentality of Black sports professionals, we believe that experiences enhance screenings, and add another answer to the question why your event or programme of events exists. 

Experiences can be the difference. For example, take a film like “He Got Game”, which we recently screened.. You can currently watch this on Sky Movies, so the question that will invariably come up is “Why should I come to your event when I can watch this at home?” The answer is the experience that we brought to it – we had a professional Basketball player recall her experiences of playing in college and in another country and challenged the audience to think in a more conceptual way about the film. Take the time to think about how your programme could benefit from an experience, no matter how big or small. 

We worked with StudioCanal to produce a regional preview screening of “Yardie”

6.What does success look like for us? 

So, you’ve defined your audience, you’ve worked out why you’re creating this programme, as well as the work you may to do to change perceptions as well as line up potential partners to change the game. But before you press ‘publish’ and unleash your new programme to the world, you’re going to need to define how you’re going to measure success. Yes, it’s very easy (and completely valid) to say “ticket sales”, but if you’re set on creating a long term strategy on how to continually attract your audience with brilliant programming, you’ll need a different set of key performance indicators or (KPIs). A useful tool that we’ve made work for us is a questionnaire for our BFI FAN related projects. It asks questions around the likelihood of the audience coming back to another screening hosted by you, whether they have heard of you before and general thoughts about the experience. 

So what’s next?

What we’ve suggested above is purely a guide on how you can create your own diverse programme that engages audiences, but one of the biggest things that you’ll need to consider is just how to make your new approach to programming sustainable. If your projects are resonating with audiences, you’ll be asked what’s coming next. What we’d recommend is that you think at least three to six months ahead of where you are so you can start to create a fully realised programme. This way, you’ll have more time to act upon feedback, identify partners and accurately measure your KPIs. As you might imagine, this is a lot of work. It’s something that we’ve had to do to ensure that our events have a clear ‘why’ and that they make sense for our audience. You won’t always get it right. But by following the above steps, you’ll be on the right path.

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