Bridgette Wessels

The Formation of Film Audiences conference proceedings address many aspects that feature in the ways in which film audiences form. They are a selection of the papers presented at the final conference of the ‘Beyond the Multiplex: Audiences for specialised film in English regions’ project (BtM) in February 2021. The BtM project focused on the formation of film audiences for specialised and mainstream films, and examined: (1) how to enable a wider range of audiences to participate in a more diverse film culture that embraces the wealth of films beyond the mainstream; and (2) how to optimise the cultural value of engaging with specialised as well as mainstream films. BtM’s central research question was: How do audiences engage with, and form in diverse ways, around specialised and mainstream films? It sought to explore how audiences form around film in particular instances, as well as identifying some general patterns that occur in various places. The audience was at the heart of this inquiry and is therefore central to the papers in the Formation of Audiences conference proceedings. 

Film is the most popular cultural activity in the UK (United Kingdom) (Hanchard et al., 2019). It is enjoyed and valued by people from across socio-economic and socio-cultural backgrounds, gender, ethnicity, and age. There is a diverse range of film to watch in the mixed economy of independent and commercial film and cinema in the UK. Mainstream film dominates the commercial market, with the independent market offering a wider range of choice from across specialised film. Film is often thought about being solely popular culture, however, the diversity of film means that it extends beyond notions of the popular culture to embrace artistic, documentary, and experimental culture. This diversity means that it includes and extends the entertainment value of film into educational, cultural, and social value.

One of the conclusions of the BtM project is that film culture can be termed as ‘open’, in that it is accessible and challenging, thus blurring boundaries between notions of high-, middle- or low- brow culture. The very openness of film means that it supports personal development through film culture and participation. Personal engagement in film culture is at once unique to an individual and intersubjective in terms of social and cultural sensibilities. The rich interaction of individual and social experience in film means that it can bridge individual experience with wider cultural experience. This, with the depth and range of the value of film, suggests that there is a case for ensuring that a wide range of film is accessible for all.  Participation in film and film culture is therefore important to enable inclusive cultural participation and its allied personal development.

Fostering an inclusive and diverse film culture involves addressing the levels of film provision, exhibition and audience development. Although access to specialised film has been enhanced through online provision such as BFI player, specialised film and cultural cinema is uneven across England. Provision at the level of place-based exhibition varies – London offers good access to both specialised and mainstream film, while there is less specialised film and cultural cinema in English regions outside of London. Further inequality is apparent within regions, with some well-served cities amongst other cities that predominantly have commercial cinema and mainstream film. With a few exceptions, towns, rural areas and places on the periphery of urban areas are mostly underserved (Merrington et al., 2021).  Simply providing non-mainstream films is not enough, because there is a need to build a culture of cinema going through audience development. Venues are part of the culture of cinema going and of lived film culture. The terms ‘film culture’ or ‘cultural cinema’ emerged from terms such as independent and arthouse cinema. British Film Institute (BFI initiatives such as the Film Audience Network (FAN) and regionally-based film hubs (FHs) brings to the fore a wider sense of cinema and its role in the community. The recognition of this role has shifted terminology from independent cinema to cultural cinema, championed by Mark Cosgrove of the Watershed cinema in Bristol (UK), for example. 

The work of cultural cinema and the BFI’s FHs and FAN focuses directly on developing audiences. This remit goes beyond merely increasing box office numbers to diversifying audiences, supporting critical engagement with film, and fostering film culture. These ambitions underpin the social and cultural value of specialised film, where access to diverse film can open imaginations by bringing other cultures, peoples, and contexts into the frame. What we mean by frame is the inclusion of stories told through film into the spaces of viewer’s own experiences. The role of venues in cultural cinema has expanded so that, in broad terms, they now offer cultural leadership in terms of film. Developing audiences in this way brings together audience outreach activities, curatorship and programming, and educational activities as well as social activities. Some of these outreach activities seek to make specialised film more accessible to underserved audiences – for instance, running film clubs for less privileged young people or travelling cinemas in rural areas. Education and developing critical engagement with film involves activities such as film talks, festivals of various types, and school film clubs. The increasing recognition of the social value of film in terms of wellbeing has led to activities such as dementia film cafés, engaging young people programme in film production, and activities organised though Into Film. Curation and programming are at the heart of these types of activities and in the role of cultural cinema more widely. Decisions about what to programme and how to curate audience experiences in relation to film supports individuals’ personal journeys with film. Knowledge about new releases as well as archive film inform programming and can help to guide viewers through film by encouraging them to both try new films and enjoy their well-established favourite films. These resources and activities underpin the ways in which audiences form (Wessels et al., forthcoming).

BtM’s focus on how audiences form is distinctive because it addresses the processes as well as the factors underpinning instantiations of audiences. It extends understanding beyond the audience-text interaction, audience socio-economic demographics and socio-cultural profiles. It does this by addressing how people engage with film throughout their life course, and how interests and life experiences, access to film and cinema, engaging with film through friends and family all feature in the formation of different types of audiences and audience experience. Therefore, the BtM project argues that audiences are a process. This refers to the ways in which people develop relationships with film and recognises that these relationships feature in the ways in which individuals create audiences.

The forms that audiences take are more varied in the digital age than in pre-digital periods. The project identified five distinct types of audiences – individual, group, venue, digital and global (Hanchard et al., 2020). Digital platforms open up access to film and give flexibility as to when and where people choose to watch film, and whether alone, with others in small or large groups, virtually or globally. Digital media certainly provides a way to access film and feature in personal journeys with film, however, it is only one aspect of the ways that people engage with, and form relationships with film. Venues, festivals, and film clubs are also important in personal journeys with film. Venues play a unique role in relationships with film, especially cultural cinema venues, which are valued in terms of their respective architecture and atmosphere, programming, special events and sense of community. The combination of these elements engenders a fondness and trust for specific venues. Commercial cinema also features in personal journeys with film, being seen as a place to watch mainstream films and blockbuster new releases. The relationship with commercial cinema feels more transactional for people and is experienced solely in terms of viewing films and consuming food and drink, because film talks and other events are not part of the commercial cinema offer. The difference between these two types of cinemas brings to light more details of how audiences form. Venues, their programming, events and audience experience all feature in the ways that individual and group audiences form, and different venues have distinctive types of audiences. 

At the core of the process of audience formations is people’s relationships with film, which are developed through their personal journeys with film. These personal journeys comprise the ways that people are introduced to film and how they develop their film interests, knowledge and shared film in what becomes lived film culture. Personal journeys link an individual’s unique experience of film with wider and more diverse social and cultural sensibilities. These are shaped by each person’s interests and development through their life course and includes the role of venues, digital media, and access to a wide range of film, as well as sharing film with friends, family and other networks. Together these resources and personal journeys with film create a film culture that is lived, which means that film and its interpretation are taken away from screenings into reflective and critical discussions in communities and across communities. This realises the social, cultural and personal value of film. 

The papers in this publication cover the diversity of cinema and highlight the richness of film audience experience.  They explore aspects that underpin the ways audiences form – across distribution, exhibition and audience experience. The papers’ authors bring practice, policy and academic perspectives into the debate about how audiences form in the early 21st century. 

Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis address the curation aspect of cinema, reflecting upon their approach to the creation, curation and delivery of the Celebrating Women in Global Cinema (CWinGC) programme. This was a unique year-long programming initiative that took place across 2019 (and into 2020) at HOME cinema, Manchester. The CWinGC programme was driven by a desire to continue HOME’s commitment to diversity within the field of film exhibition. The strategic aim was to draw on the diversity of work from across the globe by filmmakers and other creatives from a wide variety of cultural, social and economic backgrounds. This commitment to working with diversity at the global level means that, through curation practices that are committed to diversity, programmes such as CWinGC are able to bring films that are less familiar into their venues. This creates opportunities for audiences to experience a more diverse set of formal approaches and subject matter in film.

Andy Moore addresses the role of digital access to film in relation to collective film audience experiences. The paper starts from the impact of Covid-19 on established models of film distribution and exhibition, which significantly contributed to accelerating existing trends around the online delivery and consumption of film. This resulted in the “watchalong”, which combines elements of “group film audience experiences” and “digital film audience experiences” (Hanchard, Merrington and Wessels, 2020). The “watchalong” involves viewers watching films at home simultaneously with other physically remote co-viewers. This replicates some of the scheduled, event-like quality and shared, collective experience of an in-person film screening. Moore argues that the watchalong serves as a noteworthy example of a contemporary film audience experience that highlights the flexibility of the ways in which audiences form. 

Alice Quigley and Steve Presence focus on the production of documentary film, which is part of the wide remit of specialised film, and one that features across film audience preferences (Hanchard et al., 2019). The authors focus on the cultural history of ‘industry landscapes’ and ‘industry histories’ in their exploration of the evolution of the independent documentary sector in the thirty-year period to 2020. It was during this period that many organisations dedicated to independent documentary were established – such as Sheffield Doc/Fest (1994- ), BBC Storyville (1997- ), Dogwoof (2005) and BRITDOC (2005- ) – and when feature-length nonfiction films established themselves on the UK theatrical circuit, increasing from just four releases in 2001 to around a hundred or more per year from 2015.  Quigley and Presence argue that, although documentary is now a significant and distinct part of the UK’s wider screen industry, the nature of the documentary film ecology is poorly understood and badly catered for by existing UK film policy, which is almost entirely geared towards supporting fiction film. 

Dominic Topp and Lavinia Brydon explore audience engagement and development at a Town and Gown Cinema. ‘Town and gown’ cinemas are independent cinemas located on a university campus or strongly affiliated with a local university, that cater to both the academic community and the general population. Town and gown cinemas face particular challenges in terms of audience engagement and development. As venues they have a complex remit, which involves offering a wide range of films to attract a wide range of audiences, whilst simultaneously serving academic teaching and research needs. In their paper Topp and Brydon discuss how town and gown cinemas must balance different agendas to benefit both the universities to which they are linked and the wider community. They note that the support and resources for building more diverse audiences that are offered by The Audience Agency, the British Film Institute’s Film Audience Network, and the Independent Cinema Office are helpful, however, they are not always attuned to the specific needs of town and gown cinemas. In raising the specificity of town and gown cinemas as a particular type of venue, they highlight the role of venues in the way in which audiences form. 

Polina Zioga and María A. Vélez-Serna consider the ways in which interaction design for audiences might aid in building resilience and supporting the Covid-safe recovery of cultural cinema. They note that, prior to Covid-19, the use of interaction design for new cinematic experiences had attracted the interest of festivals, filmmakers and researchers. Zioga and Velez-Serna argue that the benefits of interaction design and technologies can be extended to help cultural cinema engage and galvanise new audiences to patronise Covid-safe venues. From low-end online platforms to high-end immersive experiences, new technologies are transforming connectivity across society, and have the potential to support access for D/deaf, neurodivergent, and disabled audiences, but they observe that its adoption by exhibitors has been limited so far. They consider the facilitators and obstacles to industry adoption of interactive forms, and the importance of mapping experiences and attitudes across the sector. Working with some of the practical solutions that interaction design can offer, they also point out how it can be used to gather data for future research use. Combining these factors, they argue, will help to pave the way for long-term solutions and design innovation that can build resilience, aid recovery from the Covid pandemic, and reach underserved audiences.

To conclude, these papers explore in detail some of aspects that underpin the ways in which audiences form. Furthermore, they show the importance of supporting the provision of specialised film and cultural cinema in ensuring that people’s personal journeys with film are rich, diverse and personally valued. By extension, this will create a vibrant lived film culture that informs the social and cultural value of film for society and all of its members. 


Hanchard, M. , Merrington, P. and Wessels, B. (2020) ‘Being part of an audience: patterns of contemporary film audience experience’, Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, 17(2), pp. 115-132.

Hanchard, M. , Merrington, P. , Wessels, B. and Yates, S. (2019) ‘Exploring contemporary patterns of cultural consumption: offline and online film watching in the UK’, Emerald Open Research, 1, p. 16. 

Merrington, P. , Hanchard, M. and Wessels, B. (2021) ‘Inequalities in regional film exhibition: policy, place and audiences’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, 18(2), pp. 198-222. 

Wessels, B. (forthcoming) Film Audiences: Personal journeys with film. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 

Bridgette Wessels is Professor of Social Inequality at the University of Glasgow focusing on cultural participation and on digital inequalities.  She is PI on the AHRC funded project Beyond the Multiplex: audiences for specialised films in English Regions. She has undertaken research about audiences in the areas of film and museum and galleries as well as audiences in the digital age and social media.  Recent books include Communicative Civic-ness: political culture and social media (2018, Routledge) and Open Data and the Knowledge Society (2017, Amsterdam University Press). Her forthcoming book jointly authored with colleagues from the Beyond the Multiplex project is Film Audiences: Personal journeys with film (Manchester University Press).

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