Break out of the algorithm! Why independent cinemas are an act of resistance

With 45 percent of independent cinemas expected to end the year having made a loss, Adrian Winchester, the director of the David Lean Cinema in Croydon, explains why these spaces must be saved

David Lean Cinema entrance in Croydon. Pic: Adrian Winchester

On March 27 this year, the David Lean Cinema celebrated its 10th anniversary, despite originally opening in 1995 — clearly, the maths doesn’t quite add up. After funding cuts from the council the cinema was closed for three years until Adrian Winchester led a successful community run campaign in 2014 to open the red curtains once again. Winchester organised around 70 film screenings at the local pub, the Spread Eagle to raise money to bring the community-run cinema back to life. Despite there being a Vue cinema a mere three-minute walk away from the David Lean Cinema, punters and cinema buffs alike would still congregate at the local pub to watch whichever film Adrian, or another committee member chose to screen that night.

Like many independent ventures, the David Lean faced further adversity during the Covid-19 pandemic but, with their 80 volunteers working as projectionists, bar staff or front of house, they kept the cinema afloat and welcomed new and old faces, since reopening after the pandemic. Like many other independent venues, David Lean Cinema relies on its volunteers and filmgoers to guide its listings, as opposed to predicted popularity statistics or algorithms that dictate expected audience turnout.

Director Martin Gooch, The Damned guitarist Captain Sensible, photographer Lynda S. Robertson, and Director of the David Lean Cinema Adrian Winchester at the cinema for the Punk Film Festival finale of ‘A Night of a Thousand Vampires’ Pic: Peter G. Ball

This approach to choosing what to show is crucial. In an interview for The Analog Sea Bulletin, 2020, Robert Topping, the founder of Topping & Company Booksellers (an independent book shop with four stores across the UK), was asked why we should care if independent bookshops survive. In his response, Topping describes the browsing experience for his customers – whom he refers to as “friends, readers, and supporters”. They come into the store and mull around, he says, stumbling upon books that they would never see in a Waterstones.

He goes on to explain that chains like Waterstones populate their shelves with books that are purchased in line with consumer habits, meaning that buying algorithms track the most popular books and the chain will simply re-order those top sellers. Over time, this process narrows the variation of books that browsers will find. Topping acknowledges that other creative industries have adopted the same process in their commercial approach to curation.

In contrast, Topping & Company Booksellers take a collaborative approach. They buy books that are recommended by their friends or their employees. Topping says the experience of browsing less commercially curated shelves allows people to break free from the algorithm, finding books that have been obscured from popularised shelves. He refers to this as “an act of resistance”.

Winchester, like Topping, explains that the survival of independent ventures is vital to encourage independent thought. Winchester says, “We put an emphasis on showing films that are harder to see elsewhere,” he then warmly recounts tales of tracking down Nostromo: El sueño imposible de David Lean for their 10th anniversary from Warner Bros. Discovery in Spain.

Being independent may be an act of resistance, but it is also a struggle to survive in the age of algorithms. In October 2023, the Independent Cinema Office surveyed the UK film sector, 45% of responding cinemas (46% of which were independent cinemas) reported that they would be operating at a loss at end that financial year. Although this figure is down from the 47 percent of businesses who reported similar fears to the Independent Cinema Office in 2021, independent ventures are still fighting to make a profit.

Winchester proudly asserts that the David Lean is the only cinema south of Brixton that can show films shot in 35mm. “Although some of us might not think this is a massive attribute,” Winchester explains, “some filmmakers won’t allow their films to be shown if the cinema isn’t able to screen them in their original 35mm format.”

The cinema also encourages its volunteers and committee members to pitch films to the cinema that they want to spotlight; Winchester says, “because we have real enthusiasts on the committee, films that have been shown at the BFI London Film Festival, but not given a UK release may then be played at the cinema, for example, we showed The 78 Project Movie in January 2015, a documentary following American musicians and Frame by Frame in October 2016, a film about Afghan photographers”. This community ethos has created an environment that Winchester refers to as “a place that people strongly identify with.”

The BFI recently released that this year’s BFI London Film Festival will show “252 titles (comprising features, shorts, XR works and series), hailing from 92 countries and featuring 79 languages.” The David Lean Cinema is proud of its freedom to screen independent and foreign language films, Winchester says “the David Lean has a role to play in creating diversity of films that people can see.”

When asked about how the cinema prioritises screening these films among popular blockbuster films, Winchester responded: “We don’t prioritise any film over the other; we keep screening slots free on Wednesdays and Saturdays to allow for flexibility within the schedule so that we can re-show films that have been popular that week.”

Despite David Lean’s capacity to break free from the blues of blockbuster films that many audiences may feel fatigued by – Pact reported that due to the ongoing financial pressure in the industry, independent cinemas are vulnerable to an increased “reliance on safer commercial products such as blockbusters.”

Although, like many film enthusiasts, Winchester credits blockbuster sensations Barbie and Oppenheimer as being pivotal in bringing audiences back to the cinema since the pandemic – he acknowledges that audiences have changed. He says, “Before the pandemic, I could walk into the cinema and I knew two thirds of the attendees, whereas now the average age of the audience has halved.”

This audience pattern has been reported across the UK since the pandemic, a report from Pact says, “the pandemic negatively impacted audiences’ attitudes towards cinema attendance and, although this has been recovering, older audiences have been slowest to return.” In the same report, Pact identifies that this decline has directly impacted the independent film industry as older audiences are a vital demographic of the viewership of these films.

In December 2023, the legendary Hollywood figure, Tilda Swinton made an appearance at the David Lean Cinema. “We were showing A Girl with a Pearl Earring,” Winchester recalls, “when one of our committee members brought Tilda out. It’s moments like this that give our audience a sense that something extraordinary could happen.” 

Winchester clearly admires the cinema’s namesake, the film director David Lean, and finds pride in the role he plays keeping Lean’s legacy alive.

But can he balance the books this year? Winchester isn’t sure. “We had to replace our projector recently,” he says, before adding, “with a second hand one.”

Read the rest of our series, Lights, Camera, Action! here

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