Free Film Festivals – A New Way To Enjoy Cinema


telegraph hill park outdoor cinema for free film festival
Going to the cinema is not exactly cheap. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is expensive. Ticket prices have risen over 25% in the past 5 years and gone far above inflation over the past 30. One of the more simplistic solutions suggested last year by a large distributor was to adjust the price of film tickets in line with their budget; if The Hobbit: Battle of the 5 Armies costs you, let’s say, £15, then Boyhood might cost you about 24p. Seems fair.

Amazingly that idea hasn’t taken off, but there might be a more simple approach that is rapidly developing. Enter the Free Film Festivals: the umbrella name for a network of free, community run film festivals in the UK.

Like all good ideas, it started in a pub. ‘I knew someone who wanted to start a film festival in Peckham and another person who wanted to start one in Nunhead,’ says Neil Johns, FFF founder, ‘so we got together in a pub one night in 2010 and that’s how it started.’ Words which, with the exception of Watson and Crick, don’t tend to lead to much. Yet, currently there are 7 festival locations, with 6 in London (mainly the South) and 1 in Weston-super-Mare. ‘We were all local residents who liked living where we did,’ continues Neil, ‘and the idea was really a celebration of our community as much as it was about film.’

Salvation army hall free film festival

Salvation Army hall

This might sound a bit twee to some, but it’s proving to be a sturdy business model. Trust, friendship, ’community’; call it what you like, but the bond between neighbours in these boroughs and pockets is a valuable asset and precisely what makes the festivals free. ‘It’s amazing who comes forward to help,’ says Neil, ‘we have venues saying we can use them for free, caterers offering help with food and drink, shops opening late so they can be cinemas.’

Money is needed to some extent, of course. Collections are held to fund the purchase of licenses the following year, local authorities chip in with generous donations and charitable organisations like Film London, Cinema for All and the BFI provide advice and occasionally grants too. But overall, with each festival running on a budget of £2,000 – £4,000, it remains almost entirely autonomous.

Importantly though, it is always completely free for the audience. ‘When all my family wants to go to the cinema it can cost nearly £40,’ says Charlotte Ashworth who is organising the Herne Hill FFF for May 2015, ‘and that’s not including transport and popcorn. That puts a trip to the cinema out of range of many families which is awful.’

Herne hill station outdoor cinema for free film festival

Herne Hill Station Outdoor Cinema

Beyond making them more affordable, community run events provide a flexibility not always permitted in a more margin driven environment. This May, for example, Herne Hill is showing films ranging from art house to cult at a train station, a lido and a velodrome, whilst the Camberwell FFF (19 – 29 March) is showing similar at venues like a cafe, a church and a whole host of pubs.

Jacqueline Chell is Operations and Development Manager for Cinema For All; a national organisation that supports and advises people who want to set up community film events like these. Jacqueline draws a connection between affordability and this originality. Due to the high price of admission at a cinema ‘audiences don’t go to cinema as regularly, and take fewer risks with their film choices. For many, £9 is a lot to gamble on a film that you might not enjoy.’ But community cinemas with their affordability and eclectic programmes allow audience to ‘take a punt on an unknown or challenging film, and are more likely to come back to your venue more often.’

Jacqueline makes another important point in saying that this is not new: ’Volunteers have been putting on film screenings for a long as film has been around,’ she says, ‘even before the first cinemas were built.’ But although clearly screenings have always been organised by non-commercially motivated groups, their means of doing so has advanced drastically in the past 10 or so years.

The technology is more readily available now; people with no professional background in film can source titles, licenses and screen within a short time span. Importantly, they can organise and communicate better than ever too. 10 years ago a group of previously disparate individuals could not meet, discuss and promote the way that they can now. It is wildly optimistic, but it seems as if the foundations may be being laid for a fresh, affordable and more progressive way of publicly screening and viewing film.

The first of the 2015 Free Film Festivals starts in Camberwell on the 19th March and runs to the 29th. There are also events in New Cross (April/May), Weston Super-Mare (May), Herne Hill (May), Peckham and Nunhead (September), South Norwood and Thornton Heath (October), London Fields (October).

Full details on the Free Film Festival site.

Header picture by Electric Pedals.


About Author

Part-time film writer and maker. Enjoys Mark Cousins’ voice, Mark Kermode’s hands and Lindsay Anderson’s If.