If you’ve ever struggled to catch interesting independent films in the West Midlands, you’re not alone. For all Birmingham is the UK’s second largest city, the region’s indie and arthouse cinema offerings have long been frustratingly limited outside of special events and festivals. But all that is now on course to change thanks to a new project from Flatpack Film Festival.
Launched in 2016, Flatpack: Assemble delivers a year-round programme of screenings and special events aimed at raising the profile of independent film in the region as well as supporting potential exhibitors. Following a preview of Hannes Holm’s irresistible Swedish comedy A Man Called Ove, project manager Amy Smart told Birmingham Review more about Flatpack: Assemble, its goals and its impact so far.
“About five years ago, the BFI set up the Film Audience Network, which was the first time any sort of serious money or support had gone into exhibition, because normally everything tends to focus on production,” explains Smart. “The network consists of nine film hubs scattered around the country, and each one has a lead organisation which is responsible for a given patch. When this started, the West Midlands was weirdly split between Film Hub South West and West Midlands, led by The Watershed in Bristol, and North West Central, which is led by HOME in Manchester.”
“Obviously that was a bit crazy, so Ian Francis, our director, had some conversations with the BFI about how Birmingham and the Midlands were quite underrepresented in terms of the number of screens and funding, and how it needed someone to champion the region. So in 2016, we got the funding from them to set up a sort of sub-hub, working closely with the Watershed in Bristol.”
Part of the difficulty of setting up a full hub in the West Midlands was the scarcity of decent-sized venues: all of the other nine hubs are based in relatively large, multi-screen independent cinemas, of a kind that just doesn’t exist here. Though Birmingham is home to the UK’s oldest working cinema, The Electric only has two screens, and without the safety net of being part of a subsidised arts centre like mac, it also has to remain commercially viable, showcasing popular blockbuster films alongside more unusual fare. As such, in Amy Smart’s own words, “Flatpack probably is the go-to organisation for film in Birmingham”.
To its credit though, Flatpack has managed to turn its lack of a fixed abode – other than its Custard Factory offices – into a strength, reaching out further and holding events right across the region. The next Assemble event, for example, will be an outdoor screening of La La Land in Rugby. The press and industry previews at the heart of its programme, meanwhile, take place at The Electric.
“Assemble is a bit of a beast,” laughs Smart. “Over the last twelve months, we’ve been doing a real range of different things – audience-facing activities like short films and pop-ups, and previews here for the professionals who don’t necessarily get chance to trot off to London to see new releases every other week. It’s also a great chance for press and bloggers to help shine a light on new films. The main thing we’re hoping to achieve is to encourage people to take a chance on indie films more. There are so many films being released every week that often things get lost, and something like [A Man Called Ove] might not even get a screening in the Midlands at all.”
Amy Smart, who previously worked as mac Birmingham’s cinema producer – putting together its screening programme, knows first-hand how tricky it can be for exhibitors to get to London on a regular basis.
“Often people who are working in the industry here end up programming blind – they’re having to go on recommendations and reviews rather than seeing things first, so it’s great that we’re doing these every other month,” explains Smart. “We knew that there was definitely a demand for this amongst distributors. I work with one other programmer from the Midlands who does go to London and see previews, but the others generally don’t, so I think it was quite important from that point of view.”
Flatpack’s criteria for selecting films is far from fixed, however: the only real stipulation is avoiding blockbusters and any films that aren’t likely to need help getting noticed. Of course, sometimes films will defy expectations and end up surprisingly commercially successful – both Moonlight and Hidden Figures received Assemble previews here in Birmingham. More often though, they’ll be much more low-profile picks: powerful documentaries like Notes On Blindness, or foreign language films like the superb Iranian horror Under the Shadow.
“It has to be British and/or independent, and we’ve tried to use different distributors each time so we can build up relationships with different people and get more variety. We’ve also tried to vary the genres, so we’ve done horror, comedy and documentary – we want to make sure it’s not just one kind of offering. But essentially it’s just stuff we want to see in Birmingham and we’re hoping people will trust Flatpack’s suggestions.”
How much take up there is for each screening seems to depend on the title (there have been attempts to vary days and slots with little apparent impact) but audience figures have remained pretty respectable since the project’s inception, particularly considering the Assemble previews are only open to those in the Flatpack network, rather than to the general public.
As well as bringing films to the people who might help to raise their profile or run future public screenings of them in Midlands venues, Assemble also offers professional training and networking sessions for those involved in the local film scene.
“In terms of training and development, we’re quite keen to offer things exhibitors want, so we’re quite open to talking with programmers and projectionists and marketing teams – and not just in traditional theatrical venues. It could be a festival, a pop-up, a community cinema or a film society – anyone who’s exhibiting films in some way.”
“For example, as part of Flatpack 11, the festival just gone, we had an industry day called Film Camp which was a mixture of workshops and panels on things like screening films with a live score. There’s quite a lack of quality children’s programming in the Midlands, so we had a workshop called Build Your Own Family Screening. We also ran a workshop called DIY Driving, where families made big cardboard cars and parked them up to watch a film, which was great – something a bit different from just going to the cinema and watching Frozen or Cars 3 or whatever. We’re quite interested in making events more special and interactive.”
Those looking to get started on new projects like community cinemas or local film nights can take advantage of the specialist advice, training and cheap equipment hire Assemble has to offer.
“We’ve got a project called Build Your Own Film Night that we’re really proud of, which is essentially a workshop to give people the skills, tools and knowledge to put on their own film night legally. We take them through property rights and creating playlists and selecting features, as well as how to promote it and put it on technically.”
We’ve also got some kit that we hire out to people through Cinema for All, which is a national organisation for championing community cinemas in the UK. It’s amazing – there’s a projector, speakers and a 12ft screen, and we’re hiring it out for £25. That gets a lot of use because one of the biggest barriers if people want to put on their own film night is that they’ve got to get kit from somewhere, and if you’re hiring it from a private company, it can cost you about £100.”
“While Assemble is predominantly industry-focused, ordinary film fans and audiences should be equally excited about these developments. With so much support available, we can hope to see a significant expansion and improvement in film offerings in Birmingham and beyond over the coming months and years.” Asked whether she’s optimistic about the future of film in Birmingham, Amy Smart’s response was emphatic: “Absolutely! I think we engaged with just shy of 40,000 people last year, so hopefully it’ll just keep growing and growing.”
“I think film is the most accessible artform, really,” she adds. “Some people wouldn’t necessarily walk into a gallery because they think it’s not for them, but pretty much anybody can walk into a cinema, so we’re just trying to build on that.”
For more on Flatpack: Assemble, visit www.flatpackfestival.org.uk/flatpack-assemble
Flatpack: Assemble will be screening La La Land in Caldecot Park, Rugby on Sat 1st July – in partnership with Rugby Festival of Culture. Attendance is by direct invitation from Flatpack Film Festival.
For more on Flatpack Film Festival, including full details on the Cinema For All and Build Your Own Film Night initiatives, visit www.flatpackfestival.org.uk
Flatpack will be screening American Werewolf in London at Dudley Castle on Sat 5th August, with tickets priced at £10 (concs £8). For direct event info, click here.