The idea of a new cinema in Saffron Walden dates back to 2003 when various local surveys revealed that a cinema was the amenity most people said was lacking in the area. Uttlesford District Council committed £80,000 to the project, and discussions began about a suitable venue. Around this time, SWCHS had funding to build a second school auditorium and fortunately a school representative spoke to a Council representative and they realised this could be a joint project. In late 2004 / early 2005 a business plan was prepared and market research carried out giving a framework for a community cinema, and the school included a projection booth in its auditorium designs.
The school, the Council and Saffron Walden Initiative worked together to develop these plans and in autumn 2005 a new cinema body was formed which eventually became a company and charity, Saffron Walden Community Cinema Ltd, more generally known as Saffron Screen.
With the funding from the Council in place, we applied for various grants and additional funding was received from East of England Development Agency, Essex County Council, Saffron Walden Town Council, Awards for All and Screen East, as well as fundraising from local businesses and individuals. This paid for the seats, projection equipment and sound system, the screen and the blackout curtains and blinds, as well as start up costs for the business.
In 8.5 years we have shown over 1,450 films or events across 3,175 screenings to a total audience of over 285,000.
In 2007, our first full year of operation, we welcomed more than 31,262 people to 343 screenings (an average audience of 91 people). These figures remained fairly steady but in 2010 we ran another fundraising campaign, raising over £60,000 from our community, to fund a digital projector which we installed in 2011. This improved the quality of films screened, ensured we were prepared for the change from 35mm film, and enabled us to show ‘special events’ – theatre, opera, ballet and concerts broadcast live by satellite from venues in London and elsewhere. This has added a new offering to the people in our area. In 2014 we welcomed 39,222 people to 413 screenings (an average audience of 95 people) which included 46 of these special events.
We do still have our 35mm projector, and screen from it about once every two or three months, when we are showing an older film. We recently screened Christopher Nolan’s epic, Interstellar, on 35mm as that is the director’s preference, and we were one of the few cinemas in the country who were able to do so. Interestingly, it is our younger projectionists who want to have a play with 35mm – those of us who have carried the boxes containing 35mm films up to the projection room are very happy with films coming on digital drives or by satellite!
The other key development has been the gradual move from being a volunteer-run organisation to paying our key staff to ensure our long term sustainability. We now have part-time Business, Cinema, Marketing and Technical Managers as well as paid front of house staff. We still rely on our volunteers, both behind the scenes and at screenings, to supplement the work of the paid staff, but we are no longer placing an excessive burden on our volunteers nor do we feel the cinema is exposed to key person dependency or the tiring of key volunteers.
The Saffron Screen experience
As a cinema within a school, we have been aware of the need to offer a professional experience and once the audience is in our auditorium they enjoy a large screen, excellent sound and superb projection. Our projection team (largely volunteers) were awarded Projection Team of the Year by the projection industry body in 2010; in addition three of our projectionists were the first in the country to be awarded the new digital projection certification – and the quality of projection was mentioned by film critic Mark Kermode in his latest book. Our Technical Manager, Paul Willmott, has recently been appointed a BFI Technical Ambassador offering support to smaller cinemas who are struggling with aspects of projection.
In 2013 we also received funding to upgrade our hearing loop, and we regularly screen films with subtitles for the hard of hearing or audio description for the partially sighted.
In autumn 2013 we carried out a survey of our audience and were delighted with the results: 95% (of nearly 1,000 respondents) were very or extremely satisfied with their overall experience of Saffron Screen. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive but there were suggested improvements which we have implemented where possible. We repeated the survey in autumn 2014 and were delighted to find that 97% of our respondents were very or extremely happy with their experience of Saffron Screen and that 100% of them would recommend Saffron Screen to others. In summer 2014, we also carried out a survey of local people who do not come to the cinema, or come infrequently, to understand how better to programme for or reach these people, as we are a community cinema and wish to serve everyone. We are in the process of analysing and responding to the results of this survey.
Financially, we keep our ticket prices as low as we can whilst ensuring we can stay financially viable for many years to come. The board of trustees review this regularly using key performance indicators. We also have a range of ticket prices, keeping them lower for young people, senior citizens, students, those out of work and service personnel. Our refreshment prices as also kept as low as possible. We have, over the last two years, reviewed all our costs, in particular our staff costs, to ensure that we are operating as efficiently as we can.
We are in a healthy financial position but are working hard to grow our audience numbers, which is the most positive way of increasing our income to cover our costs. We target an average audience of 100 per screening which would also mean that we were bringing a wide range of films and events to a greater number of people. However, as our aim is to offer a broad and balanced programme, some films will not have a wide appeal but will be valued by some sectors of the community.
Our programming aims to offer, across each two month programme, something for everyone – mainstream films, blockbusters, kids’ films, arthouse, classics, foreign language films and documentaries. Research tells us that our audience is split in its cinema needs and the way it perceives Saffron Screen. To many customers we are their local cinema showing mainstream films, but to others we are an independent/foreign film/arthouse cinema, providing chances to see films which would not otherwise be shown in the local area. We take great care in our programming to balance the two, and our audience response suggests that we are succeeding. We tend to get films six weeks after they come out nationally – though with big films that may be a bit longer and with small release films that can be sooner. We book through the Independent Cinema Office who also advise us on programming. Twice a year we go to screening weekends – either in London or a regional city, and watch back-to-back films.
Saffron Screen – part of the community
We aim to work with local suppliers and businesses as much as possible – whether it is being one of the first customers of Saffron Ice Cream, or getting our printing, coffee, design etc locally, or whether it is working with local sponsors. Croucher Needham sponsored two screenings of Frozen sing along last November which sold out so quickly that they sponsored two more – and these also sold out within a matter of hours. They have given something to the people of Saffron Walden, and supported us – and we saw one comment on Facebook that a couple had made an appointment with these accountants purely on the strength of this sponsorship – so it can be wonderfully mutually beneficial.
We also work with local organisations on collaborations – we have just planned our first collaboration with Saffron Hall (a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, with live accompaniment from the BBC Symphony Orchestra) and also work with the Arts Trust, Words in Walden, the Maze Festival and many more.
We have rolled out our ticketing system into Saffron Tickets which offers ticketing for local events and for other small cinemas. We are potentially looking at some local crowdfunding or a community interest company type venture.
Supporting Local Organisations
Saffron Screen is a member of the Saffron Walden Business Forum, Saffron Walden Loyalty Card and Newport Business Association. In addition, we stock only locally produced ice cream from Saffron Ice Cream Company and our tea and coffee is provided by Coffee XTC, a Newport based business. Wherever possible, we endeavour to use local businesses and services.
Supporting the Environment
We regularly look for ways to reduce our impact on the environment by reducing, recycling and reusing any waste produced and limiting our carbon emissions. Plus, we aim to use and provide ethically produced products. For example, our tea bags are made of corn starch and are biodegradable. The tea is handpicked thus ensuring that the pickers get a good rate of pay.
Beyond the films
Over and above the films we offer Q&As with industry professionals, workshops, film-making competitions, hosted discussions, a film quiz – and even Saffron Screen on the Green and Shhh at the Movies. Before Christmas we held a Q&A with playwright and screen writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz after the Polish film Ida. The film was stunning and the Q&A, hosted by local author Clare Mulley, was extremely entertaining. The evening attracted the largest audience we have ever had at Saffron Screen; not bad when you consider that Ida is a Polish film in black and white! The film has now been nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, and we are likely to screen it again at our forthcoming Polish film festival which will take place in the spring.
Our Q&As are all organised through local contacts and we have quite a number being lined up for this year – details can be found on the Saffron Screen website (www.saffronscreen.com). Other highlights have been visits from Jane Horrocks with Sunshine on Leith and Nick Frost with The World’s End, as well as screen writer Ol Parker (Now is Good) whose parents live locally and who is a great supporter of Saffron Screen. We hope he will be back soon with The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Pop-Up Saffron Screen
Since 2015 we have been delighted to offer Pop-Up Saffron Screen where we take our high quality mobile equipment to screen a film in the heart of local communities. If you live in one of the local villages and would like to work with us to hold a screening in the village hall, church or other venue, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss this further.
Come and see us…
We regularly receive feedback from people in and around Saffron Walden that we are ‘the best thing to have happened to the town’. We continue to expand the offering and develop our audience, with film festivals, film seasons, Q&As with industry professionals, workshops and education events, and we are recognised in the national film exhibition industry as ‘punching above our weight’ in terms of projection, programming and marketing. In 2013 we were shortlisted for Film Exhibitor of the Year (25 screens or fewer) in the 2013 Screen Awards and in 2014 our Marketing Manager was shortlisted for the Rising Star award in a very strong industry field. So – if you haven’t yet been to see a film at Saffron Screen, it’s about time you did!