My placement at Riverfront started on the first week of February. As excited as I was from what I knew about the venue and their initiative, I also did not know what to expect. The exhibition environment was something completely new to me, having only worked in distribution and production before. I was looking forward to understanding how and why films are classified and programming works but was also slightly intimidated by Riverfront. A well-established arts centre at the heart of Newport known for the grand scale of its events and of its venue itself seemed like too much of a challenge for someone with academic ambitions to start off in the exhibition sector. But to my delight, it turned out to be a great experience.
Not having a specific role allowed me to work on a variety of things but my only ‘permanent’ task was ushering. A relatively simple duty that involves mainly checking tickets and showing people to their seats when necessary, ushering is not only an opportunity to watch great films but also a way to get know the kind of audience that Riverfront attracts firsthand. It’s also an amazing job if you’re into people watching – you get to see the full range of human emotions. I’ve seen a couple of the films I was ushering for before, so being able to rewatch them and pay more attention to the audiences’ reactions is an amazing reminder of the emotional power films have on us. Another perk of ushering is getting to interact with the audience and indulge in conversation afterwards, hearing their fresh thoughts on the film. Since all cinemas have a unique audience profile, getting their feedback and opinions on the films is key to creating a buzz and ensuring the high-quality experience they are looking for.
Getting to know the customers is also crucial when diversifying and developing audiences through experimental cinema and alternative content, something that Riverfront is proud to do through screenings of foreign language, independent and arthouse films.
Besides ushering for the screenings of So Long, My Son (2019), Cats (2019) and 1917 (2019), I also worked on the baby-friendly screenings – For Crying Out Loud – of Little Women (2019) and Jojo Rabbit (2019). While the suspicious looks I got for not having a baby with me were probably the most amusing part of that experience, it was still an interesting environment to be in. It’s a completely different kind of event, where the films work only as an excuse for parents to go out and have a day off. For those screenings, there’s a soft level of lighting in the cinema, the volume is lower and there’s soft matting for the babies, even if one of them mistook Taika Waititi’s Hitler for the real man and tried to crawl out of the cinema in fear. At the baby-friendly screenings, I quickly realised that the film is not the focal event and so the main job when ushering for those is catering to the special needs of the audience. That means providing care and support from arrival to departure, as well as maintaining good audience experience through screen alignment, correct sound and light levels appropriate to keep the babies comfortable without sacrificing the parents’ cinematic experience.
I worked closely with Andrew who, as the box office manager, is responsible for booking screenings. Riverfront only screens films six weeks after their original release as their licence is considerably cheaper, so much of our time when researching films to book was spent making sure that six weeks have passed before the date of its proposed screening. As Riverfront only has one cinema screen that is also used for other purposes, the rest of the process was one long and arduous task of booking the room, contacting the distributors of the film and agreeing on a split of profits, and notifying the financial department to authorise the transaction. Once that was done, we’d finally update the website with the confirmed dates/times, synopsis and photos of the film. Booking was probably my favourite job to do, as it gave me the opportunity to learn more about and engage with distributors, suppliers and the financial department, allowing me to handle and resolve issues through nothing but effective communication skills.
Despite the considerable amount of time and work it takes the book the films, Andrew and I managed to get quite a lot done, having updated the cinema programme until the end of April. Some of the films we booked were Parasite (2019), Oklahoma! (1955), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), The Lighthouse (2019), Harriet (2019), Mr. Jones (2019), A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019), Sonic the Hedgehog (2019), The Call of the Wild (2020) and Onward (2020). The most challenging part of booking for me was updating the website. I have to admit I was quite uncomfortable with the idea of doing that at first as I’m not the most tech-savvy person – ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you how many times a day I struggle with my phone. And even though it took me a while to get the hang of managing the website, I’m still glad I did. It taught me to be more patient and attentive since it’s all about double-checking your work – one small mistake can undo a lot of progress. I learnt that the hard way and I can assure you I’ll always triple-check everything from now.
The biggest project I was involved in during my time at Riverfront was the Wales One World (WOW) Film Festival. The festival started in 2001 and has been taking place every year since, having as its main aim celebrating the riches of world cinema by bringing a selection of films from all over the world to cinemas across Wales. As WOW’s programme includes several different films that are screened in several different venues on different dates, we were very fortunate to have been able to host it from March 7th to 11th at Riverfront before the festival was eventually suspended due to the coronavirus. The festival was launched on Saturday with Made in Bangladesh (2019), a story of female empowerment in a textile factory in Dhaka. The screening was part of Riverfront’s celebration of International Women’s Day, alongside with several other events such as workshops, performances a
nd activities that marked the occasion. And although I couldn’t personally be there, I was told that the screening, as well as the entire event, was a success.
The festival continued with screenings of five other films – Arab Blues (2019) from France, Talking About Trees (2019) from Sudan, Running to the Sky (2019) from Kyrgyzstan, Sister (2019) from Bulgaria and Le Grand Voyage (2004) from Morocco. I could only attend and usher the screening of Le Grand Voyage which, unknown to me at the time, would mark my last day at Riverfront, so it’s a day – and film – I remember fondly. Thanks to my involvement with USW’s Film Reviewers Society, I also got a couple of members to come watch some of the films. I saw it as a great opportunity not only to get the society to work together but to also spark debate about the festival and the kind of films it aims to show. The plan was to write about them at our next meeting, which would spread the word about the festival and get our group up and running but those plans never materialised. It was still interesting to hear what my peers thought of the films and of Riverfront as a whole, especially since we’re the kind of audience their programme aims to attract.
Having been mainly working with and for Andrew, it was interesting to get involved in different projects with the rest of the team in my last few weeks at Riverfront. I worked a lot with Sally, the community arts development officer, who was also deeply involved in organising the WOW Festival. We discussed a lot about Riverfront’s website and social media platforms, and about finding a way to get audiences to share and post their opinions and reviews on the films. With that in mind, we’ve made plans to set up a Cinema Critics Club for support groups of recovering patients. The initiative was going to be a partnership with local support groups but unfortunately my placement was terminated before we had a chance to go ahead with that.
Nonetheless, the research I did into other local cinema clubs with a similar initiative was incredibly eye-opening. Even though I’ve been a film lover my entire life, I’ve never really considered the therapeutic – and even healing – aspect of films.
The most interesting project I’ve looked into is the concept of Cinema Therapy, which relies on using the cinematic aspects of film as a way to reflect on our own lives and experiences. Following the basis of many support groups in which sharing and discussion are the key aspects of its effectiveness, Cinema Therapy uses a set of questions to make its members reflect on how the film affects them personally and, therefore, encouraging emotional release and, hopefully, growth.
My last task at my placement involved working with Danielle, who’s the education and participation officer. She had plans to set up an educational initiative using film as a tool to bring communities together. However, much like the Cinema Critics Club project, we didn’t go ahead with it due to the coronavirus situation and the consequent termination of my placement. I still managed to do some research into local initiatives using film as an educational tool around UK and the results were fascinating. From getting students to produce animation storyboards in literacy lessons or using films to introduce a lesson topic, the advantages of implementing film as an instructional medium are endless. Doing that research helped me realise the cognitive benefits of film editing and how the post-production process explores the rhetorical and logical functioning of the human mind.
Having grown up watching films and having them deeply affect my character and personality throughout my formative years, it was moving to read about children and young people who are being encouraged to grow up with the same passion for cinema thanks to initiatives like the one Danielle wanted to set up.
Looking back on it, doing my placement at Riverfront was a very rewarding experience, and even though I’m upset that it had to be cut short due to unavoidable circumstances, I like to think that I’ve made the most of my time there and learnt a lot about the exhibition sector. It was even more rewarding having earned such level of trust and responsibility after a considerably short period of time with the staff. I could feel myself growing by really throwing myself into every task I could get my hands on. I felt genuinely valued as part of the team, and not just someone given a few trivial tasks to keep them busy. The entire team was incredibly welcoming and nice, giving me the freedom to express my ideas and suggestions without putting too much pressure on me. As for the social side of it, they never failed to indulge me in small talk, sweet treats and tea breaks, even after I confessed being a coffee person because, in the words of Frank Sinatra, “way down among Brazilians coffee beans grow by the billions”. The big tea versus coffee debate aside, I miss the staff dearly, especially since I didn’t get a chance to properly say goodbye and express my gratitude to them.
When my placement was eventually terminated, I emailed the team to thank them for everything they have done for me and I was overwhelmed with their response. Amid several of the sweetest ‘good luck’ and ‘wish you all the best’ emails, I was asked if I could write weekly reviews for Riverfront’s website and Facebook page. As it’s right up my alley, I couldn’t turn that opportunity down – as a self-proclaimed writer, it’s always a pleasure to have my work read by as a varied audience as possible. We’re still in the process of organising that as well as setting up a column for audiences to share their own reviews. Besides informally continuing our working relationship, we’ve also been frequently exchanging film recommendations, which led us to discover a shared love for Charade (1963) – we all agreed that no one can make lockdown more entertaining than Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.
All in all, I’m thankful for the placement I’ve been given, for the lessons it has taught me and, most importantly, for the people I’ve met through it – they’re as good human beings as they’re good professionals, and I wish them nothing but all the best. Finishing this journey with a better understanding of the various aspects of cinema exhibition and being able to move from one section of the business to the other, I’m happy to report that my enthusiasm and love for film has only increased upon learning the secrets of this part of the industry.
My biggest takeaway from my time at Riverfront has been the realisation of how important cinema exhibition actually is. In the age of streaming services where it’s easy to just watch the latest release on your phone, working at a venue where every team member puts so much effort into creating a social experience out of a film has sparked in me a desire to promote the power and value of the cinema-going experience.
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