Madeleine Mullett has worked for City Screen Picturehouses for the past 13 years, and as one of their cinema programmers for the last eight. Trained first as a film projectionist, she quickly moved into festival programming; for two years she was director of the Birds Eye View film festival. With Tony Jones stepping down as its programmer, Madeleine now adds the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse to a résumé of Picturehouses that includes Tyneside, Kensal Rise and Southampton.
There are 20 Picturehouse cinemas in the UK, that are generally programmed independently – something many Picturehouse patrons hope will continue. Toby Miller from Cambridge 105’s Bums On Seats spoke to Madeleine about her plans for the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse – it sounds like we’re in safe hands.
TM: What do you think Cambridge’s USP is? What are your plans for the first twelve months?
MM: What I’m particularly excited about is that Cambridge has an audience who love world and independent cinema. My background is in film festivals, and I’ve been pioneering world cinema and independent cinema in film festivals for years, and more than fifty percent of those films don’t get to cinema screens. The wonderful thing about Cambridge is there is a mass audience who appreciate and come out to see world cinema and indie film. Last week we had NO and every single film was sold out! There are a dozen films like that every week, and it’s a joy to programme that kind of cinema. In the next six months I want to broaden audiences and bring in some 70mm films – Pink Floyd’s THE WALL, for example. I’d like to bring in some good old fashioned cult cinema as well. There used to be late night screenings here, and I think we should have a go at that again. Apart from that, more of the same. I love the films that have played here and I love the audience that come here.
“I want to broaden audiences and bring in some 70mm films – Pink Floyd’s THE WALL, for example.”
I get called a “film programmer” but I prefer “film curator” because that’s really what we’re doing, we’re curating films for a specific cinema. Each cinema is totally different, and the wonderful thing about City Screen is that we’ve always programmed cinemas differently. We programme films for our customers, so each cinema has its own feel, its own tone. It’s always about expanding and developing audiences. We have a department of ten film programmers, and at least 3 programmers will see any given title. We will then give our professional opinion on where it’s going to play, and what type of audience that film probably has – we talk to the distribution companies about what kind of marketing they’re going to do for it, what specialised work we can do together with the cinema and distributors; so it’s all a bit of a puzzle as to what films are going to be right for any given cinema. And all that, again, is decided around the audience, because we know from experience what the audience like and don’t like.
Cambridge audiences like challenging films. There’s no reason why I wouldn’t continue that.
On top of that there’s the Arts Picturehouse’s enormous reputation of world cinema. Cambridge audiences love wonderful world and arthouse cinema. They like challenging films. There’s no reason why I wouldn’t continue that. Giving all the films that are tough and challenging and intelligent some space to breathe in this programme; giving audiences the opportunity to come and see them.
TM: How does your role differ from that of a programmer at a multiplex chain?
MM: We differ quite a bit, actually. The type of films they play are obviously quite different; we also have less screens in the City Screen cinemas, so we try and play more specialised product and cater for all audiences in the community amongst our three screens here at the Arts, for example. Whereas the ‘plexes have more screens; often more than five and sometimes ten plus. The programming is about what works in what cinema, it always comes down to that. So the multiplex programmers also play what their customers [will] come and see; they just have a different set of customers. We have a repertory space. It’s just about customers, really.
TM: Does a programmer try to keep an artistic credibility about the more commercial films it shows? You can show SKYFALL because it’s British and it’s Sam Mendes; you can show LORD OF THE RINGS because it came from Peter Jackson, and he came from arthouse…
MM: That’s absolutely the right idea. We definitely try and aim for that kind of programming, that kind of voice, really. We all like quality films, and they can be large mainstream or small independent films. It’s all about choosing the right kind of quality for our customers. I’m very aware that customers will want to come and see the Luc Besson films, the Bonds – our customers want to see those films in the comfortable surroundings of their choice. Just because you’re an arthouse member or an aficionado, that doesn’t mean that you don’t want to sometimes see those great big quality films. And it is about choosing the quality mainstream particular for each cinema. They don’t get block booked into a region like the ‘plexes do, the chains. We actually pick and choose specific titles for specific cinemas. So again, it is down to quite detailed curating of films around the audiences that we have in each cinema.
I’ve done touring programmes that have been in Cambridge for years, so I have an understanding of what this cinema is like …
TM: Having just started with programming for Cambridge, how do you go about looking into the audience that Cambridge is going to get? Is there a danger of finding safe choices?
For a start, I’ve worked for this company for thirteen years, and so I’ve got a feel about what the cinemas that we programme for, and own, are like. I’ve done touring programmes that have been in Cambridge for years, so I have an understanding of what this cinema is like and what the city is like. But realistically, it is about looking back on the figures. So I’ve looked back at years and years of audience attendances at Cambridge, and seen what they do and don’t want to come to. How long films have run in Cambridge, for example; people vote with their feet. If they like a film, they will continue to come. LES MISERABLES is still playing here, for example. People are still wanting to see that, so that gives me an idea that that type of film will run for a bit longer. Films like QUARTET, LINCOLN, SONG FOR MARION – they are all very recent films, but they are running continually because people are still demanding it. And that is figures-based research. I’m packing in as much as I possibly can, and then making sure everyone is catered for, and you can do that by looking back on years of audience attendances.
TM: That doesn’t take into account the role that marketing could play in the future. At Cambridge, you will often only find out about the screenings if you already subscribe to the brochure, and interesting developments have passed people by. There certainly seems to be room to cast the net wider.
MM: I’m always interested in new ways of marketing. But I’m never going to alienate my audience who are here on a regular basis. I want to cater for them all the time, but yes, I want to stretch and develop new audiences. That’s something I’m going to do slowly, over time. We have the Slackers Club, for example, which is free screenings for students once a month. They’re anything from classic films like “Indiana Jones” to previews of new films, so we are trying to continually experiment with any audience. Developing audiences takes about six months to a year before word gets out and people come on a regular basis.
We have a 70mm projector here – I want to start playing 70mm films regularly.
And also you evaluate whether that is something that you want to pursue further, or whether there really isn’t an audience for that type of film. We have a 70mm projector here – I want to start playing 70mm films regularly. That’s for the film aficionados that are here. The film industry does work on phases and themes and waves, and you’ll often notice there is a ten year cycle on films. There’s a lot of Scandinavian hype at the moment, and there’s been a lot more Scandinavian film on television. Styles come and go, and in terms of marketing to broader audiences as a community venue, with the resources you have you can only push a couple of areas at a time, otherwise you’re over-expanding. People here are so loyal to the cinema, we don’t want to push them too much.
TM: Digital projection allows the delivery of new releases to be cheaper and faster, but it also allows seasons of classics and one-off screenings to take place. How has the programming landscape changed for you with films on a hard drive rather than films which have to be expensively couriered about?
MM: It definitely makes it easier. I’d say that 95% of films are screened on digital here. We still have several screened on 35mm and I try to keep those to the restored 35mm prints so that they’re not the older ones, that should be archived. What’s wonderful is that there are a lot of classic films being redone and cleaned up, and they look fantastic on digital, and it can bring that film to a new audience and be screened simultaneously across the UK. The distributor can do this with one drive rather than touring the cinemas, and that makes the marketing for such seasons and projects easier. Often there’s a Q&A we can project with satellite on the same day, so it brings together all these communities and is part of a nationwide event. In terms of scheduling, we can play different prints on different screens, whereas with 35mm you had to have that film in one screen for all day. Now I can easily switch to the larger screen if something is selling out. It’s making programming easier.
TM: Can you envision a future where, with the smaller dramatic films premiering on VOD or Netflix, cinemas simply become a palace for events? The big screen is where you see the Royal Ballet beamed in from Covent Garden, the prestige Oscar winner or the latest 48 frame 3D spectacular – and everything else gets shuffled off to the broom cupboard, or becomes something you experience at home?
MM: I already think cinemas are a palace for events – you’re not seeing it in your home. Often it’s done with a partner or a friend or a group of people. Going to the cinema isn’t always a singular occupation. I like the idea that cinemas are a “palace for events”, and more and more a lot of the films we screen are on VOD – but people come to the cinema because films are meant to be shared. Screenings in our cinemas are and should be events, and I don’t think they’re going to be overtaken. That’s been happening for years with DVD. The same thing with VOD, it’s just a bit faster. People still come to cinemas. It’s fun to share a screening with a friend and then discuss it over a glass of wine. There’s just something quite magic about doing that. It’s the experience.