Screen scenes, revisited

Hailed by many as the renaissance era that birthed a prolific new wave of Black cinematic content, symbolically, the early 1990s also ushered in groundbreaking cultural expansions in film exhibition and saw the dawn of Europe’s first Black-helmed film venues. The Black Film Bulletin’s first editions launched in the Spring of 1993 – its emergence from the BFI’s former African Caribbean Unit undoubtedly inspired by the zeitgeist. To commemorate the BFB’s 30th anniversary, founding editor Dr June Givanni revisits early 90s conversations around the evolution of Black cinema on British screens, with Nubian Tales founder Marc Boothe and The Electric Cinema consortium’s Kwesi Owusu.

17 April 2023

By Dr June Givanni

Malcolm X (1992)
Sight and Sound

 

  • ‘Screen Scenes’ was originally published in the September 1993 edition of the BFB [Vol 1, Iss. ¾]

There is universal recognition that access to and engagement with audiences is crucial to the survival and development of Black cinema. International exhibition forums (Third Eye, London 1983. Black Film British Cinema, London 1987. Show the Right Thing, New York 1989. Available Visions, San Francisco 1992. African American Programming Summit, Boston 1992. Black and White In Colour Conference, London 1992) have put exhibition squarely on the agenda. In 1990 in Paris, the Togolese actor Sanvi Panou opened Images D’ailleurs (Images From Elsewhere), Europe’s first cinema whose two screens are dedicated to showing Black diaspora films seven days a week. In addition, initiatives such as the New York-based film marketing and distribution entity KJM3 have demonstrated the value of focused and informed marketing of Black film.

Among the many Black cinema exhibition plans and strategies being developed in Europe — two leading London-based initiatives make for particularly interesting case-studies. Though they share a certain knowledge about the sector and the need to see exhibition as part of a wider range of activities that influence and interact necessarily for the longer term development of Black participation in the industry; there are still significant differences in their approaches, their starting points and the emphasis they choose in their strategies. These seem to be around balancing the cultural motivations for exhibiting Black film; from ‘representation’, ‘access’, ‘variation’ and those commercial interests necessary for ‘survival’, ‘independence’, ‘control’, ‘flexibility’, ‘profitability’; to ‘self-financing activity’, — all of which are not necessarily contradictory to each other. Sanvi Panou argues that the trick is to have a cultural programming policy and make it profitable. The initiatives in profile; London’s first full-time Black owned and Black-run Electric Cinema, and Nubian Tales, are attempting this to varying degrees.

Electric Cinema, London

The Electric Cinema, London

The Electric Triangle Partners — a consortium consisting of the largest Black UK newspaper; The Voice, the Black-owned radio station Choice FM, and the Black Triangle Programming group, opened on the 3rd September 1993, as “the first and only Black-owned cinema in Britain”. The consortium beat off some formidable opponents with their proposal to take the Electric Cinema from an ailing repertory picturehourse to a ‘first run’ cinema that plans to be the ‘home of Black cinema in Britain’. Kwesi Owusu; a filmmaker and co-director of the consortium, talked to Black Film Bulletin about this long-overdue enterprise.

How did the consortium acquire the cinema and what was involved in its transformation?

The Electric was the first purpose-built cinema in Britain and some say in the Western World. The cinema is also based in one of the oldest Black communities in Britain; in Notting Hill where the largest street carnival in Europe is held. Black Triangle had its first festival here back in 1991.

A first run cinema has first choice in the release of new films and is therefore in direct competition with the major cinema chains and strong independents. To survive and maintain a foothold in the commericial mainstream, we’ve had to conduct a very persistent and aggressive publicity campaign around both the profile of the cinema and the films we show.

The British film industry is in decline and audiences for repertory cinema have dwindled. The agencies who have an obligation to do something about these have failed. Until the new wave of African American films, many distributors felt that black films were not commercially viable. We want to change all that.

The Electric “experiment” is structured around a new Black media synergy. We are introducing new audiences to the cinema using radio, through the pages of The Voice, leafletting, and collaboration with community organisations. In addition, we’ve also installed the latest screen and sound technology, to enhance the basic cinematic experience.”

It sounds great to have ‘first-run’ and to do one’s own thing as well. But how to achieve both, in programming and in profile terms?

The good thing about having your own cinema is that you can do what you want all year round: of course it has to make commercial sense, but you can be more strategic in developing a programme that reflects your objectives and intentions. We are not just interested in simply putting pictures on the wall. Regular first-run programming will combine with festivals, symposia, master classes and training in order to advance our cultural and educational intentions. This year we are part of the BFI London Film Festival, showing some US and Caribbean films. The third Black Triangle Festival will follow at the end of November and focus on films from the African diaspora which have not had UK distribution. It is important to say that we are involved in exhibition because we have an interest in the industry. As a filmmaker I realise the need to have a fairly good idea of where I can show my work. The question of production finance is also a significant one. Distribution is one sure way to accumulate resources for production. The British film industry is in decline and audiences for repertory cinema have dwindled. The agencies who have an obligation to do something about these have failed. Until the new wave of African American films, many distributors felt that black films were not commercially viable. We want to change all that by creating an exhibition concern that stimulates distribution and in turn production, producing a network that would spearhead the development of all the dimensions of the industry.

Kwesi Owusi (centre back) and the Electric Cinema staff
Yves Salmon

How is the consortium opening a cinema at a time when so many are closing in the UK?

There was something wrong with the way the rep movement regarded business. They were stuck in the 60’s approach. There was an unhealthy dependence on funding and programming was geared towards the intellectual interests of a small, select audience. We have opted for the mainstream because we do not believe in boxing ourselves in a corner. A strategy for survival at a time of recession includes making moves in the direction of distribution and eventually developing a national network. Black film has been starved of appropiate funding and we are keen to look at building the resource bases here in the UK. A very important achievement has taken place in music which has attracted mass audiences to Black music and we want to repeat it in cinema.

If the object is to build audiences on commercial product, how will that audience base be carried over into other areas? Might the two strategies be contradictory, with the flexibility to cater for a more adventurous audience working against the need to build a solid commercial image and reputation? Or can it work in practice?

What is interesting about this audience; and we have been doing some audience research, is that they want to see all kinds of films. The audience is not a monofocal audience with one single interest. The industry does not know which films will hit and which ones will not. Exciting new directors always bring new perspectives to the mainstream. What is important to us at this point is to develop the cinema club membership, a sizeable committed audience which will patronise the cinema.

Isn’t it a sign of the times that it’s a Black commercial enterprise that is saving a venue as significant as ‘The Electric’? What is the wider significance of this for Black people in Britain?

The last 20 years have seen developments in exhibition on the cultural and thematic level. But I think that now, many people are beginning to lay down commercial structures and are putting into action the words and theories of the previous years. For instance, we had to prove to an all-white panel of receivers that we can turn the fortunes of this cinema around.
Definitely, I think that in the cultural sphere there is more flexibility and that is why this is happening around cinema. Cultural industries are more malleable to our intervention now, because racism in the other industries is more entrenched. That is why there are so many independent initiatives; not just in this country, but in America as well. In the past we were struggling for profile and representation, but without any real structures to support them. Now the nineties are about claiming structures, by bidding for the mainstream. This is an experiment which has to succeed and many people will support it.

Nubian Tales, London

Nubian Tales is a Black exhibition project set up by Marc Boothe two years ago which now has a team of three. Its original mission statement declares the intention “to promote, market and distribute the best in Black popular culture to multi-ethnic audiences”. A second aspect concerns the creation of a commercial entity around Black cinema and they have been involved in a range of exhibition-related activities using the Prince Charles (a ‘West End’ or ‘Up Town’) cinema as their exhibition base.

Nubian Tales initially aimed its efforts at Black audiences (representing 0.3% of the U.K population) but have now diversified and want to cater for a wider audience through a range of activities which include film exhibition (at the Prince Charles and other independent and commercial cinemas like The Rio, The Odeon and The Shaw); publishing (via The Nubian Tales bi-annual magazine), and film marketing on major commercial releases (among them MALCOLM X, DEEP COVER, CB4 and MENACE TO SOCIETY). Nubian Tales have been involved with 14 releases around the country and via their sub-licensing agreements, have launched four films under their own brand name for theatrical distribution. They plan three more next year, one of which will be STRICTLY BUSINESS.

Deep Cover (1992)

The company’s short-term aim was to build an audience. They now have a membership base of 2,500 and an extended UK mailing list of over 6000. They say “the greatest proportion of what we show is by African-American filmmakers simply because that is what our identified audience wants. But we have and will continue to programme African films, the work of Black women filmmakers and other challenging work”. Nubian Tales do not receive institutional funding or significant commercial backing and that is a constraint they seek to use creatively in their programming choices, stating “we have been very prudent about how we operate as a business and for that reason, we have been able to stay the course for so long. The acid test for any business is the first two years which are now behind us. But we have no overdrafts, no venture capital and we are a wholly independent company so we have the flexibility and the latitude that many others do not.”

With an invite from the Prince Charles Cinema to join them, Nubian Tales earned a degree of autonomy; a confidence gained over time in being able to maintain a level of control over costs. They have developed product-led flexible programming from 1 to 3 and sometimes 6 slots in a week: “If we want to show films 6 days a week, as long as we have material that can justify it within the marketplace, then we are able to do as we wish”. Sometimes Nubian Tales hires the cinema and other times the cinema will invest in the programme so the relationship is flexible and NT can work with and programme other venues. They don’t want to be tied to one venue and they are not purely an exhibition entity. They have found no limitation working in this way: “Sometimes we want to show films which may not be able to cover our costs. But we spread our risk. We know of the limitations of audiences for certain types of movie and the inherent overheads in running a venue 7 days a week. Sometimes it is not in our financial interest to show certain films and the experience of such decision-making over the last two years has given us an insight into the business considerations of exhibition and distribution that can only be gained with time.”

What they have learned over the last few years is persistence. Flexibility in a rapidly changing market and resilience; all of which, they argue, are crucial to survival.

“In the light of competition and market changes we have to adapt and move on and our choice of activities represent growth and development in that sense. Our approach is pragmatic”, they claim. “For instance the Directors Master Classes we ran a year ago came about very much as a response to people asking questions about the filmmakers. We created this as a forum for audiences to speak directly to filmmakers. To date we have had Spike Lee, Leslie Harris, Julie Dash, and Nelson George events”.

Alongside Nubian Tales is Nubian Vision; a new initiative involving the same personnel, based on collaboration with Black independent filmmakers and offering exhibition space for short films; script collaboration; marketing expertise, training and eventually co-production. The brand feels this initiative will enable a greater level of focus on and contact with independent filmmakers: “Here our focus is on the UK, because it is an area long ignored. Because we are UK based, we owe it to the filmmakers here to provide some help and support for their work. Greater acceptance and awareness of this work helps pave the way for others”.

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