[This post inspired partly by Tyneside cinema’s appeal to the public to suggest films for their upcoming programme. I tell a version of this story sometimes when talking about participation on media sites, so apologies if you’ve heard it before.]
In the mid-nineties, while finishing up my studies at Liverpool university, I worked nights at the legendary 051 cinema in the heart of the city. It was legendary for being a brilliant beacon of arthouse and non-mainstream films – only three screens, but with a dedication to film that revealed the passion of those running as well as attending the venue.
[Bear with me for a moment – this wibbly wobbly lined nostalgia is leading somewhere.]
This was before Liverpool city centre was hit by the redevelopment cash in the late nineties. It was a great city, but gritty, and full of the fading, utilitarian end of sixties architecture. The 051 cinema was an unassuming place, in a rather hideous sizties concrete block. Here’s a picture of it during the time I worked there.
I got the job because I spent so much time there in the evenings. Since I was hanging out chatting to the manager before and after films anyway, eventually he asked if I wanted to work regular shifts there in exchange for free entry and a lift home at the end of the night. Of course I did!
So from then on, I just had to turn up an hour earlier than I would otherwise do for a screening, record the answerphone message that gave film times for the week ahead, make popcorn and mix up fizzy drinks (the particular combination of concentrated flavouring syrup and carbonated water the pumps used still haunts my nostrils) or sell tickets before the film, then show latecomers into the darkened screen with a little torch, before settling into the usher’s seat at the back to catch the majority of the movie.
Photo: Cinéma du monde by mrMazure on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
In that year, I missed the beginnings and ends of a lot of brilliant films, and watched still more with the thumping bass accompaniment of the 051 nightclub (which shared the building) pulsating through the walls. It gave Farewell My Concubine a whole new subtext, for sure.
But I digress. I promise you this is going somewhere relevant.
Since it was an independent cinema, the manager could choose what to show. Often that meant new(ish) releases which fit the world/art/indie vibe of the place (like Farewell My Concubine, Lone Star), or blockbusters which had particular literary or artistic pedigree (The English Patient). But the programme often included czech animations, noir classics and other flicks you wouldn’t otherwise have heard of or had an opportunity to see. It also meant the cinema could occasionally programme special events – like showing all the original star wars movies one night – and could respond to special requests from loyal patrons about films they’d like to see.
On the wall next to the ticket-office-concession-stand was a suggestion box. We encouraged people to take a scrap of paper and scribble down any movie they wanted. At the end of the week, the manager would empty it out and sift through the pile of papers, looking for patterns or similarities which might inspire programming, or specific titles, which he could then enquire about with the various distributors.
Photo: Suggestion box by hashmil, on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Every week that I worked there at least, there were +/- 18 suggestions made. Not a huge number, but it was a small cinema with a dedicated and loyal audience, so that was a pretty good number of responses.
What wasn’t so great was what they were asking for. Of the 18 weekly suggestions, at least 12 would be asking for a special showing of Betty Blue. For those who haven’t seen it, Betty Blue – original title 37°2 le matin – is a slightly less than mainstream, slightly more than arthouse French film from 1986 about a woman in a relationship whose behaviour veers from playful to passionate to psychotic. It doesn’t hurt that the actress in the title role, Beatrice Dalle, is particularly easy on the eye and spends a lot of time wearing not very much. I first saw this film in 1987 (I was below the 18 certificate, but snuck in with older friends) and sat mortified through the first scene – a full five minutes of enthusiastic shagging.
So it wasn’t a huge surprise when Betty Blue showed up in the suggestion box. She was much-loved by a particular age of male cinema-goer – they were the ones who had the soundtrack on CD and the poster on the wall, probably somewhere near the bed.
What was problematic about it was that the manager of the 051 knew that he couldn’t get a print of that particular movie from the distributor. He knew because he’d tried. Repeatedly.
So every week, the dozen suggestions for Betty Blue would go into the bin, and the other six suggestions would be sifted through on the off-chance there was something interesting there.
“So what’s this got to do with social media and participation on content sites?” I bet you’re wondering. Good question. I was just getting to that.
After a little while of opening the suggestion box, discarding all the requests for Betty Blue and then considering the rest, I suggested sticking a note on the front of the suggestion box to say “except Betty Blue“. The manager liked the idea and tacked a handwritten note to the box saying
“Thanks for your suggestions. We read them all! NB we can’t get Betty Blue though – we’ve tried! Sorry.”
And then we waited for a week before opening it again. We figured that at the very least, this would save twelve bits of paper a week, as the Betty Blue suggesters wouldn’t bother requesting it again.
When we opened the box, what do you think we found?
Rather than six bits of paper with suggestions on them, or a bunch of requests for Betty Blue, ignoring the note, both of which we were expecting, frankly, we found…
….thirty-one film suggestions, none of them for Betty Blue.
And the pattern continued in the weeks to come. More requests and recommendations than ever before. Over the months that followed, no more Betty Blue; just constructive suggestions. Some even provided reasons why they wanted particular films, above and beyond what we’d asked for.
So what’s the moral of this experience?
I learnt that sometimes being transparent – just demonstrating that you’re reading and trying – even when the results aren’t what everyone might want, can inspire people to contribute even more.
Sometimes, asking isn’t enough. Creating the opportunity to participate isn’t enough. Sometimes you’ve got to set creative constraints, to help people to know how to participate, or how to ‘level up’.
And sometimes, people can surprise you.
So next time your community is struggling to participate, or not contributing in the way you might want them to, think about communicating with them more about what you’re looking for – ask questions, prompt debate, solicit specific experiences or ideas, and be more transparent with them about how the conversation is being managed, or how it might be used – instead of silently gnashing your teeth at the screen.