North by Northwest: How British film culture starts in the regions

Influential independent cinemas like HOME Manchester – and dynamic funding organisations like Film Hub North – are changing the way film is made and viewed at a grassroots level.

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Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax screens Kes followed by a Q&A with actor Dai Bradley. Credit: Robbie Jay Barratt/Square Chapel Arts Centre

Located in the sleek, self-contained development of Tony Wilson Place, just over the road from the red brick arches and nightclubs of Deansgate Locks, is Manchester’s mixed arts venue HOME. Since opening in 2015, this commanding glass building has become a cultural powerhouse for the city, showcasing mainstream and independent cinema, theatre, dance shows and art from around the world.

With its expansive auditoria, chic cafe and eclectic bookshop, it’s the kind of all-singing arts venue that London takes for granted. In the North, where such provision is scarcer, it’s become a cultural cathedral of sorts.

Right now, HOME is in the midst of a groundbreaking David Lynch takeover – a season of events that began during Manchester International Festival last month and has infiltrated every corner of the venue. It features a huge range of work connected to the iconic director, including the first major UK exhibition of Lynch’s paintings, drawings and sculpture, housed in the HOME gallery; a series of one-off live shows from Lynch-inspired musicians in its theatre; and cinema screenings of classic movies and rare shorts by the Blue Velvet filmmaker. It’s precisely the kind of enthralling curation that HOME has become famous for.

Less well known, though, is the venue’s bigger role in a pan-Northern network that aims to boost the power and influence of film across the whole of the North of England. This network includes two other leading independent cinemas: Showroom Workstation in Sheffield and Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle upon Tyne.

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¡Viva! Festival opening night party at HOME. Credit: Chris Payne/HOME

Both of these cinemas have similar cultural creds to HOME, with the former doubling up as a business centre for creative talent and high-growth tech firms, and the latter bringing in the purists as the last surviving newsreel theatre still operating as a cinema. At the heart of this three-strong network of independent cinemas is Film Hub North, a free-to-join membership organisation which funds exhibitors and new filmmakers across the North of England on behalf of the BFI Film Audience Network and BFI NETWORK schemes using National Lottery funds.

If this is all starting to sound rather complicated, it’s because it is – on the surface at least. But it’s this multilayered structure of organisations that’s proving to be so important to developing a vibrant film culture across the North.

The Film Hub North team is split across the offices of the three independent cinemas, meaning it has a fixed presence in each venue. In other words, it’s able to immerse itself in these meccas of independent film and gauge how best to allocate its funding. Film Hub North’s core priorities include increasing the range of films that are both shown and made in the North, and promoting inclusivity in terms of audiences, filmmakers and the types of narratives shown on screen.

“The North is obviously a large place – and not necessarily always the best connected place – so having a presence in each of those locations means that in theory a filmmaker or exhibitor is never too far from a member of our team or we’re never too far from them,” explains Phil Kennedy, marketing and communications officer at Film Hub North.

“Those offices also situate us right in the industry and environment we’re trying to support. I sit next to the HOME film team in Manchester day in and day out, which gives me a first-hand insight into what’s happening on the ground. When we’re running workshops, professional development schemes or indeed putting together our funds, it means we’re responding to the needs of people like HOME, Showroom and Tyneside because we’re in the same rooms as them and can call on their advice.”

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Hebden Bridge Film Festival presents a discussion and screening of Kenyan film Rafiki. Credit: Hebden Bridge Film Festival

Each of the three venues also takes the lead in their respective cities by regularly hosting Q&As and masterclass sessions with leading filmmakers, as well as screenings of some of the most interesting new films. Film Hub North is able to draw on its exclusive access to the cinemas and share these invaluable industry insights among its huge network of exhibitor groups and filmmakers across the North. “It’s not uncommon for a programmer from Showroom, for example, to go to Cannes and watch a lot of films,” notes Kennedy.

“That might not be possible for a programmer from let’s say Square Chapel Arts Centre [in Halifax] – but that programmer would obviously very much like that insight, so we’re able to facilitate that sort of exchange. Another thing we’re looking at doing increasingly is giving new filmmakers access to those screenings with the director, so they can experience that masterclass. It’s about piggy backing on those fantastic events.”

Branching out

This model of mutual support is replicated across the country, with Film Hub North being just one of eight regional networks which support the BFI’s nationwide funding programmes. The regional hubs serve to decentralise funding decisions and ensure that film exhibitors and filmmakers have champions at the grassroots level. That’s why independent film organisations also sit at the heart of the other regional hubs, with Glasgow Film Theatre the base for Film Hub Scotland, for example, and the Independent Cinema Office taking the lead for Film Hub South East.

“When you think about a centralised funder or decision maker, regardless of what field you work in, it’s usually in London,” notes Kennedy. “So part of the regional approach is to dencentralise that and respond to disparities across the country. London is the most extreme example, where there’s a huge amount of provision, whereas Northern Ireland essentially has one dedicated full-time independent cinema.”

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Tyne Valley Film Festival screens The Passion of Joan of Arc at Hexham Abbey. Credit: Tyne Valley Film Festival

Kennedy states that the North of England “sits somewhere in between” in terms of provision, particularly as some urban centres are much better served than others. In part this is down to the huge geographical span that the hub covers. “When you start to break it down regionally you find not just differences between regions, but also big differences within the regions,” he says.

“So in the North, you’ve got cities like Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Leeds that have got reasonably good independent cinema provision, but then there are big population centres with quite poor provision like Carlisle, Sunderland or Middlesbrough. Some smaller market towns are actually better served than those centres. And you’ve got huge rural areas too, so even in our region there’s a big difference in the type of support required and the types of organisations we’re working with.”

Film Hub North works directly with around 200 exhibitor organisations across the North, ranging from large independent cinemas to film festivals (such as Sheffield Doc/Fest), film archive organisations and community groups. In the latter case, Film Hub North helps a diverse range of organisations to exhibit films, from community centres and food banks to charities that support vulnerable people.

The unifying mission is to improve access to film among these audiences and to use film as a vehicle for tackling wider challenges in society. This summer, for example, Film Hub North helped a charity in Bradford called Artworks Creative Communities to put on a programme of films aimed at exploring the experiences of Bradford’s diverse refugee communities. The programme reached out to different refugee groups directly through event co-promotion within these communities and by making use of local grassroots venues.

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Film organisations learn more about inclusive cinema at a Film Hub North professional development workshop. Credit: Film Hub North

“We find quite often that those community organisations that get involved in exhibiting film aren’t necessarily film organisations in the first instance,” explains Kennedy. “Instead they’re using film as a useful avenue to bring people together and confront certain issues.”

Unearthing new talent

From the gritty visions of Ken Loach, to the electrifying talent of Danny Boyle, the North of England has given birth to some of the most iconic films in British cinematic history. Today Film Hub North is working to continue that legacy through BFI NETWORK, a funding programme dedicated to discovering and developing new and emerging writers, directors and producers. This means that some members of the Film Hub North team are solely focused on delivering BFI NETWORK in the North.

As with the funding of exhibitor organisations, this involves forming close relationships with emerging talent across the region, often responding to the challenges faced by new filmmakers at a grassroots level. Besides funding projects, Film Hub North also offers professional development and career support across a huge span of areas, from screenwriting classes to workshops that advise filmmakers on creative sector tax relief.

“At the moment I think there’s quite a full ecology of funding options and career progression options for filmmakers,” says Kennedy.

“Beginning with the work we do at a very grassroots level, a new filmmaker might then work with someone like ifeatures, [Creative England’s development lab], to get their first feature off the ground and then move to the film fund… By being on the ground, our executives are a first point of contact – offering a foot in the door and highlighting the opportunities that might be available to an early career filmmaker, depending on where they’re at and what the next step might be.”

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Widescreen Weekend film festival screens Funny Girl. Credit: Andy Garbutt/Widescreen Weekend

Often this support connects back to the exclusive resources, events and screenings offered by HOME, Showroom Workstation and Tyneside Cinema. With a mission of “fostering a vibrant, flourishing film culture in the North of England”, it’s then down to Film Hub North – and the other regional film networks – to ensure that all parts of the film ecosystem work in tandem for the overall benefit of audiences.

That task is made all the more challenging by wider developments in the cinematic landscape – from the disruptive impact of online streaming services on film distribution and viewing habits, to the increasing dominance of franchises. A quick glance at the listings of a local multiplex at the time of writing shows a familiar mix of superhero films (Spider-Man: Far From Home), tried-and-tested sequels (Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw) and rather pointless remakes (The Lion King). It’s the continuation of a summer box office season that has led to claims of ‘franchise fatigue’ among audiences, particularly after the poor openings of several summer releases.

But while it might seem that audiences are crying out for more varied, independent cinema of the kind supported by Film Hub North, Kennedy believes the picture is far from clear-cut. He notes that for all the talk of ‘franchise fatigue’, those same films are the ones still bringing in the big bucks for major studios.

“The dominant financial model in mainstream cinema at the moment is definitely around major studio pictures, and particularly remakes and franchises,” he says. “They’re the films that are making money and doing really well.”

In many ways, the success of independent cinema is dependent on the continued success of mainstream studio productions. Indeed many of the smaller cinemas that make up Film Hub North’s membership only have one screen, meaning that they tend to rely on the ability of mainstream films to attract big audiences. The commercial benefits of these films then enable these venues to support smaller independent films.

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On the set of Obsession, a short film supported by Film Hub North and BFI NETWORK. Credit: Cameron Bruce

Achieving a “vibrant film culture” is therefore a constant balancing act – and one that organisations like HOME and Film Hub North are always striving to get right. “We believe there’s cultural value in independent film, but also that a more representative and diverse film culture is not just there for the sake of it – we believe it makes financial sense as well,” says Kennedy.

“If the general box office became even more homogenised than it currently is, it probably wouldn’t be a very healthy state for the industry to be in. We’re trying to promote a more sustainable industry that’s based on a more diverse film marketplace, and that’s not always simple.”

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