Suffolk-based Arts Marketing Consultant Andrew Burton spoke to Jane Riley, Chair of the Board of Trustees of Ipswich Film Theatre, to find out how its business model works and what the organisation uniquely contributes to the town.
Tell me about Ipswich Film Theatre, what are its aims and what is your role within the organisation?
Ipswich Film Theatre is an independent, two-screen cinema in The Corn Exchange, Ipswich. One screen can accommodate up to 200 people and the other is more intimate at only 40 seats. We showcase a broad range of cinema, including foreign language films that are rarely shown outside London. Ipswich Film Theatre itself has been around since 1975 when the Corn Exchange building was converted by Ipswich Borough Council into an entertainment complex (there is a large public concert hall on the first floor). However, it ceased to be run by the Council and after a brief period run by a private operator, Ipswich Film Theatre Trust was formed and has now run the cinema since May 2010. I am Chair of the voluntary board of Directors which essentially means I fill in the gaps between the roles performed by the other Trustees!
Ipswich Film Theatre has recently celebrated its first six years. What do you consider its achievements during that time and what do you hope to achieve as it heads towards its 10th birthday?
In 2010 we started showing films on just three nights a week and during our first full calendar year of operations we attracted admissions of 16,451. Now we are open 5 days a week and by last year admissions had leapt to 26,714, a pleasing trajectory for us, and clear evidence that there is a growing market for what we offer. We show up to 8 different films in any one week, including family films during school holidays and screenings of live performances from National Theatre Live and the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company. The Ipswich Film Society has been based at the Film theatre since 1975 and is one of the longest running film societies in the country. We also offer our screens for private hires on Sunday and Monday evenings or school screenings during the day and regularly show films for the Indian Community based in Ipswich and Colchester. We also host talks before and after films and recently participated in the BooksEast and SPILL festivals.
For those who aren’t familiar with IFT, what would you say are its USPs?
We publish a fixed programme a month ahead available on our website and in a professionally designed brochure which we distribute widely. Most mainstream cinemas only publish their programme for the week ahead. Anyone who has ever sat through interminable adverts at a Multiplex will be pleased to hear that we have a policy of not screening adverts as we believe our audiences are interested in the films themselves. We do, however, screen trailers relevant to the film being screened and these help enormously in raising awareness of the forthcoming programme. Also with an eye on customer service, we do not sell popcorn or noisy packets of sweets or snacks as we know how irritating this can be to filmgoers. Instead, we serve a range of locally sourced ice cream, hot and cold beverages including Fairtrade coffee, and have recently introduced local beers which have, not surprisingly, gone down extremely well.
Ten years ago, Ipswich Film Theatre was subsidised by Ipswich Borough Council; now it pays a significant amount of annual rent to Ipswich Borough Council. How has the trust managed to achieve this within such a short space of time, what business lessons for the wider community of small businesses would you extrapolate from IFT’s business model?
We could not survive without our volunteers. They cover all ages and nationalities. Whether sixth form and college students, retired or working people, they all have something in common with the board of trustees: theylove films. We undertook an audience survey in 2013 and overwhelmingly our customers had nothing but praise for the warmth of welcome they received from our staff. We do have paid staff such as the projectionists and also some box office staff, the programming team and of course Phil our cinema manager, who has the task of not only co-ordinating our print distribution but also ensuring that we always have staff on duty. We started with a very small amount of crowd funding to cover the cost of our insurance premium but now generate enough income from ticket sales to cover our running costs.
What threats, competitors and new entrants to the market does Ipswich Film Theatre face, both currently and in the future? How will IFT tackle these?
TV and DVDs were once said to herald the death of cinemas but that turned out not to be the case. Now of course we are able to stream films directly to our home computers, smart TVs or mobile devices, can binge on films with Netflix and watch the latest Scandi drama on our tablet using services such as BBC iPlayer. Also, film distributors increasingly are allowing films to be released simultaneously at home on demand as well as at the cinema. But for me, nothing will ever replace the thrill of sitting in front of a big screen with a group of strangers and feeling the sense of anticipation as the lights go down and the images begin to flicker magically onto the screen. In an increasingly fractured and individualised society, people need this sort of interaction and sense of shared experience more than ever and that’s why I believe cinema will always be with us in one shape or another. New cinemas are opening in Ipswich and Colchester and this may impact on our admission numbers, but I remain convinced that what IFT offers is unique in the town and significantly different from the mainstream cinema offering. Not without reason did the celebrated film critic Mark Kermode title his 2011 book The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex!
At a time when many analogue / high street businesses are struggling to engage young adults, Ipswich Film Theatre has seen a huge surge in attendance by Under 26s in recent years. Can you explain what lay behind this success?
We decided to offer cheaper tickets for those aged 26 and under last year as a way of enticing them into IFT and alternative cinema, and that has been phenomenally successful. Last year, IFT was the only cinema in Ipswich to screen Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. This not only boosted audience numbers for us but also introduced a new, young and adventurous minded group of people to what we have to offer. Many of them were not even aware we existed and one new customer in particular emailed in to say he was switching his allegiance to us as he was so impressed by the whole experience of visiting our cinema contrasted with what he had become used to.
Ipswich Film Theatre is situated centrally within the town, in the Corn Exchange building in King Street, immediately behind the Town Hall and adjacent to Little Waitrose. What challenges and opportunities does this central location present to the business?
Being in the centre of town means that cinema goers have access to any of the restaurants and pubs in the town centre. Parking is available only a few minutes walk away with disabled parking available right outside the building itself.
What has most surprised you during your time so far as IFFT chair?
It was a steep learning curve at first learning how cinemas operate. We screen very few print (35mm film) copies nowadays and films usually arrive digitally either by download via a dedicated internet link or via a hard drive delivered by courier. There are always new challenges and problems to solve!
What has been the most valuable lesson you have learned so far in your role as IFTT chair?
Never be put off. Persistence always pays off.