Report to the AGM of the Cheltenham Film Society 2014

Let me introduce myself. My name is John Morrish and I am responsible for promoting the society in the media.

I am a journalist by trade and, like all journalists, I like telling stories.

The society certainly has a good story to tell. Last year we showed 14 films. We had 477 members and also sold 313 guest tickets, in other words about 20 per film. In terms of audience appreciation it was the most successful season in the 20 years we have been keeping score. The final film, Untouchable, was the highest-scoring picture we have ever shown, with 93 per cent of those who attended giving it an A.

But it was equally encouraging to see that members were prepared to give a hearing to more difficult material. The season included some very strong films, in every sense of the word. Tyrannosaur comes to mind; indeed, it is very hard to get it out of your mind.

We hope you will find the programme for this current season equally stimulating; there are some superb films on the way, but again they are not safe choices. Opinions in the viewing group were often sharply divided, but that is perhaps how it should be. We are also keen to your suggestions for next year’s programme. Write via our email address: cfs@cheltfilmsoc.org.uk.

This season we also have a brilliant new projector and better sound quality. And we are trying something new in the way of programming: CFS Extra. It’s a way for us to bring some older classics into the mix at very little extra cost to members. The first CFS Extra series is called The Paris Collection.

Paris is, of course, the city where cinema as we know it began. In 1895, The Lumière Brothers showed ten shorts to a paying audience for the first time. The event took place in the basement of a café near the Place de l’Opéra. Who knew this new artform would conquer the world? Since then the city has proved an inspiration to film-makers from all over the world. The first of the collection, Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle, or Breathless, is on November 18. We feel confident you will feel intrigued enough to see, or see again, this remarkable classic; and we certainly know that you love France.

This season we closed our membership at just over 500. We think we are probably the largest film society in the country: the average is about 150 members. We were delighted by the rapid take-up of memberships at the end of the summer, which included an 81 per cent renewal rate. We concentrated on email as our main marketing tool, and it proved extremely cost effective. Please make sure we have an up to date email for you; we won’t abuse it.

The disadvantage of this success is that we had to close membership earlier than we would have wished in order to maintain the best conditions for everybody. We have had no problems putting bums on seats. Making them comfortable on those seats is a different matter. But there’s good news there, too. From November, our excellent hosts at the Bacon Theatre will be replacing the foam cushioning on the benches.

So things look good; we have a big society with a high level of satisfaction. But we owe it to the great tradition of this club, 70 years old next spring, to think about the future.

Film societies face a number of challenges. The change to downloaded films, rather than the old DVDs and Blu-Rays, is imminent. The downloaded versions won’t freeze and stutter and get scratched; but there will be severe restrictions on the way we watch and show them. Downloading looks to me like an anti-piracy scheme rather than one that will in any way improve the experience of watching films.

And then there’s the nature of the audience. Most of us acquired the art cinema habit early. That is not the case with some young people today. I asked a student relative whether he’d be interested in our society. He goes to Cineworld for the blockbusters. He liked the idea of our films, and the price. But then he said he could get them or nothing by streaming them or torrenting them, or he could buy them for peanuts, and he could watch them with his mates while eating, bantering, taking phone calls, looking things up on Wikipedia, tweeting, and generally messing about on social media.

That way of “consuming” films is not better or worse, it’s just different.

Actually, I lied. To me it is worse. It is destroying the artform and its economics and, more importantly, it impoverishes the lives of the viewers.

I believe in cinema as a force for good. It challenges your prejudices. It enlarges your human sympathies. The films we show here invite us into other lives and other cultures. It tells us what those people think about themselves, and that is not what you get from Hollywood or the TV news.

I do not believe the society should change what it does. But I believe we need to be more welcoming. And we need to tell people what the society is all about. In particular, we need to talk those young people now – while stocks last – and invite them to share the powerful emotions we experience when we sit here quietly, in the dark, watching films in languages we mostly don’t understand.

The committee is having a strategy meeting next month. We are discussing where we go from here, and in particular how our continuing relationship with the university is faring. You will have seen the student films and I hope you agree they represent a worthwhile strand in our programming as well as offering encouragement to the young film-makers.  We would love to hear your views on these subjects. Again, contact us via email, or buttonhole one of the committee in the foyer before or after a show. We are always ready to talk about films.

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