Live Cinema
Live Cinema

Sarah Atkinson

Sarah Atkinson is Principal Lecturer in Film and Media at the University of Brighton, UK, and an audio-visual arts practitioner undertaking explorations into new forms of fictional and dramatic storytelling in visual and sonic media. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Helen W. Kennedy

Helen W. Kennedy is Head of the School of Media at the University of Brighton, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2017


Content Type:

Book chapter





Related Content

‘Beyond Film’ Experience: Festivalizing Practices and Shifting Spectatorship at Glasgow Film Festival

DOI: 10.5040/9781501324840.ch-008
Page Range: 83–100


As ‘festivities’ film festivals are characterized by temporal structures (a distinct beginning and end), which present audiences with a momentary departure from the norm, that is, from more routine, or habitual, modes of film engagement. Stringer has suggested that the film festival is an ‘external agency that creates meanings around film texts’ and one could argue that these events offer engagements with film that are more heightened – in experiential terms – than that of the year-round cinema visits[1] or indeed other modes of domestic or mobile film consumption (2003: 6). Within said temporalities, the cinematic experience at film festivals is eventized – or ‘festivalized’ – through multilayered programming (introductions, after screening debates, drop-in salons, screenings in non-cinematic spaces) and by way of ‘classic’ liveness[2] (physical co-presence of special guests, performers, festival curators, audiences), each of which is narrativized in the ‘written festival’[3] as a series of unique, one-off, temporal encounters by way of promotional motifs (‘rarity’, ‘first-timedness’, ‘seeing it first’, ‘one-off moments’, ‘something different’). These components come together to form multifaceted experiences that reach beyond the typical screening and reception of film texts in cinema. While acknowledging that all cinemagoing is experiential on some level, the chapter argues that film festivals are true manifestations of the live cinematic event and offer fertile ground for exploring shifting modes of cinematic exhibition and spectatorship both in the festival context and in year-round event-led cinema.

It is now thought that a film festival opens every thirty-six hours somewhere in the world (Archibald and Miller 2011: 249). Indeed, the extraordinary rate at which the number of festivals has increased signals a growing appetite for the consumption of film in event contexts, and points to the increasing importance of ‘total experiences’ within the experience economy (De Valck 2007: 19). As multifaceted agents, film festivals take various thematic forms from business festivals (Cannes, Venice) to identity festivals (Frameline, UK Jewish Film Festival) to genre festivals (Sheffield Doc/Fest, Screamfest Horror Film Festival). With such a spectrum of characterizations, much effort has gone into organizing and defining these phenomena. Indeed, since the late 2000s,[4] film festivals have gained an increasing level of academic attention and Film Festival Studies has developed as an independent, multidisciplinary research field with growing prominence within the international research community.[5] Nevertheless, although shifting somewhat, a significant proportion of festival research has focused on the industry and/or political role of these events (Archibald and Miller 2011; Cheung 2010; De Valck 2007; Iordanova 2006). Indeed, much attention has been directed at the functioning of international film festivals on the global festival circuit, as well as the historicization of these events as economic and political power forces (De Valck 2007; Iordanova and Rhyne 2009; Wong 2011). With such a global outlook, many of the smaller-local ‘audience’ festivals, which unlike exclusive entities like Cannes and Venice exist and thrive because of attendance by the general public and local communities, are largely underexplored from a critical perspective.

Here attention turns away from the mega-festivals to consider a local audience festival, Glasgow Film Festival (GFF), which occupies an important position within the year-round cultural calendar for cinemagoers in Scotland’s most populated city. The chapter acknowledges that while it may be taken for granted that film festivals offer an experience that is distinctly more heightened, eventful, than that of year-round cinema, the experiential characteristics that might allow for these enhanced cinematic engagements needs empirical explanation. Thus, a key concern is the creative and innovative practices of festival exhibition – that is, modes of event programming – that serve to purposely construct eventfulness and festivity. Furthermore, the chapter serves to further understand the shifts in film audience experience and spectatorship that are signalled by such festivalization practices. Hence, a central aim of this chapter is to explore event-led cinema in the context of the quintessential film event in terms of the ‘constructed’ experience by festival producers, and to highlight the ‘lived’ experience by festival audiences.

Research design

The chapter joins film festival research (De Valck et al. 2016), which has, in various ways, challenged the historic tensions that exist between text and context within Film Studies. Here, there is a conscious sidestepping of the restrictive ‘text above context’[6] hierarchy that, arguably, still lingers within our discipline (although collections such as this are testament to the ongoing development of research that moves beyond the privileging of textual analysis). Thus, to develop an understanding of the eventized film experience in the context of festivity, the textual and the contextual are taken to have equivalent significance. Much like the approach taken by Atkinson and Kennedy (2016) in their investigation of Secret Cinema, an overarching event – in this case, a specific film festival – is taken as the principal object of study. Likewise, a holistic approach to the components that assemble to make up events within the overarching festival occasion is taken, considering texts (film, programmes, written festival), contexts (space, place, apparatus) and people (audiences and other stakeholders).

Drawing on a three-year empirical case study of GFF (2011–2013), the chapter uses a range of materials – internal reportage and archival material on GFF ephemera, sources – interviews and informal discussion with festival programmers and focus groups with audiences, and a mix of desk research and fieldwork methods – interviews, archival research, content analysis, audience research and participant observation. The research took place within the context of industry-partnered research,[7] which allowed for unrestricted access to the festival’s key research assets (documentation, people, screenings). As discussed elsewhere (Dickson 2016), film festival research relies on access due to the often-exclusive nature of these events. Indeed, a tacit view has emerged within Film Festival Studies that research which does not go ‘behind the velvet rope’[8] is less reliable, lacking the legitimacy that comes with unrestricted access and insider knowledge (Dickson 2016).

First, the chapter considers the ‘types’ of events programmed at film festivals – what content is on offer and what each type of event offers audiences in terms of distinct experience: asking what the ‘experiential value’ of events might be. Adopting Klinger’s notion that consideration of the ‘material’ is vital in order to understand reception of the ‘textual’,[9] an extensive analysis of the festival programme and its presentation in brochures was undertaken. This involved content analysis of each festival programme over the research period (2011–2013), an approach first used by Nichols (1994) in his pioneering work on film festivals and new cinema. In doing so, the experiential value of each of the 880 screenings/events included in these programmes was considered. This allowed for the systematic categorization of types of experiential offerings at the festival, and further understanding of the programming practices that shape the overarching festival portfolio.

Moving from programming practices and event typology, the chapter turns its attention to one particular type of festivalized event, which embodies GFF’s augmented approach to text and space. In agreement with Stringer that there is a need for more ethnographic approaches to the study of film festivals (2003: 242), the chapter draws on participant observation of a selection of events during the 2012 and 2013 festival editions. In Brewer’s view, the researcher – as participant observer – must play a double role in which they act as ‘part insider and part outsider […] simultaneously member and non-member’ (2000: 60). To explore both exhibition and reception of event-led cinema required fluidity concerning researcher positioning, which was not without its challenges, as I have discussed elsewhere (Dickson 2016). A fluid approach allowed me to experience events as a legitimate audience member and as a festival insider. As festival insider, I was able to observe and informally discuss the decision-making processes and practices of the GFF organization thereby gaining in-depth understanding of the ‘behind the scenes’ exhibition practices and ideologies that come together to construct the creative programme. Furthermore, drawing on observational accounts of attending these events as ‘audience member’ and pulling testimony from a larger piece of audience research with festival patrons[10] allowed consideration of the alternative forms of spectatorship incited when audience attention is deliberately shifted off-screen, out towards the material characteristics of the physical spaces in which audiences consume film texts.

A case study: Glasgow Film Festival

GFF defines itself as an open-access, audience festival that provides films for all tastes and types of cinemagoers (multiplex to art house). The event is run by the not-for-profit organization, Glasgow Film,[11] and operates out of a hub venue, Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT), in Glasgow’s city centre each February. Although the event remains a youth on the festival circuit, launched in 2005, seventy-three years after the world’s first film festival (Venice in 1932),[12] the festival has matured and developed at a rapid speed, increasing from just below 5,000 attendances in 2005 to just below 40,000 in 2013 when the research concluded, representing around 700 per cent increase in just nine years. The festival’s success narrative is steeped in tribute for its audience with achievements enthusiastically ascribed – via press interviews, screening introductions, marketing materials – to local resident audience’s love of film and appetite for unique cinematic experiences. Nevertheless, while festival organizers are keen to attribute success to audiences, achievements are testament to the distinct identity its organizers have carved out for the event as a populist, inclusive and non-hierarchical festival that celebrates its linkage with Glasgow’s heritage as a ‘cinematic city’,[13] its programmers’ creative and curatorial approach which involves layered programming and the nuanced use of non-cinematic spaces throughout the city, as well as its apparent reverence for festival attendees.

While its identity is somewhat hyper-localized on the ground, GFF exists within broader discourses regarding the value of festivals for cultural tourism and cultural regeneration. Funded in part by Glasgow City Marketing Bureau,[14] the festival forms part of a wider strategy that seeks to strengthen and develop the city’s image as a cultural location by ‘grow[ing] the shop window on Glasgow’ and making it a ‘premier winter destination’ (GFF 2010: 36).[15] Indeed, for almost four decades, cultural events have aided the transformation of Glasgow from its former image as a grimy, decayed and impoverished location to a ‘vibrant, post-industrial, fashionable city’ (Mooney 2004: 329). The city has undergone numerous branding campaigns that have attempted to rejuvenate its profile, for instance the 1983 ‘Glasgow Miles Better’ campaign aimed to reinvigorate Glasgow’s image following deindustrialization and attract inward investment (Alderson 2008: online). However, the city’s 1990 reign as European City of Culture was arguably the most significant period in the city’s reimaging, and marked the initial stirrings of a growing demand for the city to have its own film festival.[16]

Aside from civic strategy, the festival’s inception was also driven by a local audience development project called the Cinezone initiative.[17] The initiative involved the collaboration of three different types of cinema exhibitors on a central strip within the city: a multiplex (now Cineworld, formerly UGC); a cultural cinema/former art house (GFT); and a cross-arts venue (Centre for Contemporary Arts) that would come together to present Glasgow’s first film festival.[18] The event would programme a diverse range of films from ‘mainstream to art house, vintage to futuristic’ (Anon 2011) and map audiences across these three types of exhibition sites during ‘festival time’. Thus, the logic behind Cinezone was both cultural and economic. On the one hand it would cultivate a more eclectic cinematic culture and complicate the mainstream–art film divide, yet it would also serve to increase box office figures at venues outside festival time. Harbord suggests that film culture is ‘institutionally and spatially located’ and that ‘the context of exhibition contributes to the social value of film cultures’ (2002: 39). With Cinezone, it was thought that film culture would become less ingrained in specific venues and that each space would become accessible, inclusive and familiar to audiences through their festival experiences, increasing the likelihood of ‘cross-pollination’ year round (GFF 2004). Hence, the festival was spatially characterized from the outset – in terms of its emplacement within Glasgow and its attempt to address the ways in which cinema culture was spatially structured around particular ‘types’ of cinemas and the cinematic experiences they offer.

It is often necessary for film festivals to expand their venue numbers or move to larger sites because of exponential growth. As De Valck points out, International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) began renting the Pathé Multiplex in 1997 because its core venues – performance art spaces and old cinema/theatres – were literally bursting at the seams (2007: 188). However, in contrast to the IFFR narrative, GFF began life as a spatially diverse institution and despite its links with art film culture – through its hub venue GFT – it functioned in harmony with the postmodern multiplex from the outset, a relationship that, as De Valck notes in relation to IFFR, ‘reveals itself as a hopeful metaphor for the event that nurtures cinephilia in its multiple forms’ (2005: 108). As GFF grew in attendances, and number and variety of films screened, it began to spill out of cinema auditoria across the city, transforming non-traditional sites – such as the city cathedral, museums, public transportation– into cinema spaces, producing a programme which was both textually diverse and spatially transgressive. Since 2005 GFF programmers have continually increased the number of festival spaces in the programme,[19] exercising an enhanced level of creative licence, which goes beyond the booking and scheduling of films. The mounting spatial itinerary of the festival enhances the festival’s inherent connection to Glasgow, creating an ephemeral ‘filmic public sphere’, and demonstrates the festival’s commitment to the experiential possibilities of the aesthetic and narrative qualities of space (Wong 2011: 13).

Festival programme typology

Of central concern here are the programming practices that serve to festivalize these events – in this case, GFF. This requires systematic consideration of the components of the overall festival programme: What types of content/events are programmed and under what principles? Consideration of the types of films/events programmed at film festivals is a less problematic task when examining specialist events such as genre-based festivals (horror, fantasy), type festivals (documentary, silent) or identity-based festivals (queer, Jewish, etc.) because programming strategies are based on an explicit correlation between the festival’s identity and the content it exhibits. When correlation between narrative image and festival image does not exist – as is the case with many audience festivals with diverse programmes – the process of understanding what types of film events are programmed becomes, arguably, more complex. Yet, understanding of the types of events programmed is crucial if we are to understand the ways in which film festivals offer something different from cinema, and indeed, the ways in which festival-like event programming might appear in year-round event-led cinematic programming. However, it would be infeasible to establish aesthetic distinctions of text throughout the GFF programme, given its diversity and scope, yet it is possible to look at patterns of film selection based on festivalization processes whereby the ‘experiential value’ of exhibition is considered alongside the narrative or aesthetic characteristics of film. Experiential value is taken to encompass the combined features and conditions of film/event presentation at film festivals: the film’s availability within its territorial context, its prospective paratextual elements, the meanings of its exhibition venue outside of festival time, its ability to be localized and the various rhetorical categories relatable to its exhibition (‘scarcity’, ‘discovery’, ‘limitedness’, ‘hand-picked’ and ‘first-timeness’ ‘unique cinematic experience’).

Ongoing observation of programming practices suggests that programmers process a series of non-textual questions when programming films: Will it be at another festival within the UK before GFF? Does it have a distributor? Is there any way of localizing the event or making its screening more eventful? Such questions sit alongside questions of aesthetics, cinematic style and narrative quality in the minds of festival programmers. Having considered these non-textual deliberations in relation to all films programmed between 2011 and 2013, a typology of festival programming is proposed, which includes the following: unique to festival (UF) in its locality film, returning to local cinema (RLC) films and beyond the film (BF) events (see Figure 5.1 and Table 5.1).

Figure 5.1. Percentage of festival programme (2011–2013) represented by each type of event in the festival programme typology

Table 5.1. Festival programme typology

 1. Unique to festival (UF)2. Returning to local cinema (RLC)3. Beyond the film events (BF)
Premium value‘Seeing It At All’‘Seeing It First’‘Experience beyond film’
Release/distribution statusNew release. No UK distributor.New release. Scheduled UK cinematic release, often in local cinemas in the weeks following the festival.Already released on film or TV, or newly restored work.
Film type/characteristicsForeign-language film, independent film, often with ‘serious’ subject matter.Can include ‘classic’ liveness – physical co-presence of film talent.Tent-pole films, ‘specialised’ but lean towards mainstream tastes. Likely to have well-known director or cast member/s. Mainly English-language but also includes some foreign-language titles, although mostly French or Italian.Can include ‘classic’ liveness – physical co-presence of film talent.Repertory films from the canon, genre-based texts, and cult films/TV, although not always a screening and includes film and non-film events.Live performance aspect (theatre, film, music, games, literature).Relies on paratext and forms of ‘classic’ liveness – physical co-presence of commentator or local personality (unlikely to be original film talent).Likely to be highly participative with audience being a crucial part of the event itinerary. Element of ‘game-play’ at some events through audience interactions.Content often taps into film education/history and features an educational/learning element.
Festival audienceAttracts a small audience of cinephiles and a generally more risk-taking audience.Hard-sell, popularized through festival rhetoric and associations (“reminiscent of the Coen Brothers”)Attracts cinephiles, highlight seekers and festival scenesters.Taps into fan culture. Attracts a more diverse audience – cinema-goers, music lovers, gamers, academics.
Festival statusWill often have one screening.Will secure a prime spot on the schedule only if it has visiting talent.Reserved for ‘Gala’ strands and peak slots in the schedule. Will usually have two screenings.Programmed across multiple non-conventional spaces and thus relies on partnership with local spaces.Mode of spatio-textual programming.
GFF examplesExamples: Chinese Takeaway (2011) and Banaz: A Love Story (2012)Examples: Arbitrage (2012), Stoker (2013) and Bel Ami (2012).Examples: Jaws (1975) at The Tall Ship, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) at the Cathedral, and Surprise Films.

Unique to festival (UF)

The lifespan of a film in the festival’s geographical context is a key factor in programmers’ decision-making practice.[20] When programming at GFF begins in October/November (five to six months before the event), programmers are aware of the titles that have done particularly well at Cannes, Berlin, Venice, London and Toronto and those that sit on the margins as obscure content, and so by the time a film is booked for GFF its cinematic future in the UK is usually determined. Those that have failed to secure UK distribution, and will not, therefore, have a UK release, are attractive to GFF programmers as they offer the chance to present rare content that, without the festival, will be inaccessible for local audiences. These films – which I term unique to festival in its locality films (UF) – represented 40 per cent of the overall GFF programme over the research period and were the dominant event mode.[21] They tend to be independent, smaller-budget productions and are often foreign-language films. On account of their rarity, the premium ‘experiential value’ and source of eventfulness is: The chance to see it. UF film events, and their promotional narratives, are principally centred on film text, and so the cinematic experience at these events mirrors that of conventional cinema exhibition. Given the dominant position of text, UF events take place in the conventional cinema auditorium so that the screening is, technologically, one of cinematic standard. However, these events can – via supplementary content – take on a live cinema experience with the appearance of live guests and after screening debates. Nonetheless, although festivalized by means of their rarity, they are distinct from event-led cinema because they do not depend of live content and ancillary material, functioning – in experiential terms – on the strength of geographical scarcity.

Returning to local cinema (RLC)

Janet Harbord suggests that the film première is the ‘premium value of a film festival’ because it creates temporal dimension and sense of liveness, of being in a ‘unique moment’ (2002: 68). Certainly GFF has adopted the festival traditions of programming premières, by presenting content prior to cinematic release. These films I term returning to local cinema (RLC) films. The key characteristic of RLC films is that they have UK distribution and will have a cinematic release in local cinemas after GFF. Therefore, the premium value and source of eventfulness of RLC film is: The chance to see it first. These titles represent around 31 per cent of the overall festival programme over the research period. They tend to appear across various strands from World Cinema to Best of British, but most often appear within the Gala strand. They are mainly English-language films but also include some foreign-language films, mostly French and Italian. Like UF films, these events centre on the film text and therefore occur within cinema spaces. They are described as ‘tent-pole’ films because they are guaranteed sellers and ‘hold the festival up’, as such they often occupy the largest auditoria and prime-time slots on the programme.

Beyond the film (BF) events

In her monograph on film festivals, De Valck argues that ‘it is not simply the artwork itself [film], but more specifically its spectacular exhibition that has become a commodified product in the cultural economy’ (2007: 19).[22] This view aligns with the third and final category, beyond the film (BF) events, which represent around 29 per cent of total events programmed at GFF, and is the most pertinent event type to the concerns of this edition. BF events vary greatly but their consistent attribute is that they are purposefully constructed to offer audiences an experience that extends beyond the consumption of text. Thus, the premium experiential value and source of eventfulness is: Experience beyond film. That is to say that for BF events, the film text is only one component, albeit an important one, in the total experience.

A main form of the BF event is repertory content (restored classics, 35 mm prints and cult films) that has previously had cinematic release and has since amassed an established audience following – mainstream, cult or otherwise. As such, the majority of audiences will have seen the film text before in some other context. These texts are layered with rich content to provide an experience that is distinct from previous text-centric engagements. For repertory films, the programming strategy is to present old content with new contextual frameworks, promoting these events as rare opportunities to ‘re-discover’ seen texts alongside nuanced interpretative frames of reference and meaning. An example of this type of BF event is the ‘Retrospective’ strand, during which each year celebrates the career of an eminent star. A single subject, often from the Star System, is chosen and branded – for instance, The Gene Kelly Retrospective – and over the course of the festival a repertoire of his/her work is screened alongside lengthy biographies from festival directors and film historians. For these events, the focus is the broader historical narrative surrounding a specific text and its functioning within the context of the chosen star’s career.[23]

Another rendition of the BF event is exhibition of unknown texts: surprise films. Surprise screenings are promoted to risk-taking audiences via mystery, discovery and suspense narratives. Surprise screenings are ‘festivalized’ via a sense of secrecy, mystery and playfulness – as Atkinson and Kennedy (2016) have discussed elsewhere, which is rolled out in the festival brochure and through social media in the run up to screenings. In looking at the festival programmes over the research period, surprise films are framed as ‘The annual treat […] one of the Festival’s best-kept secrets’ (GFF 2013: 36). These events are also framed with narratives of ‘trust’ in the festival programming (‘trust us, we’re festival programmers!’; GFF 2013: 36). Such playfulness encourages interactivity and participation from the audience, who actively try to guess surprise texts, demonstrating their awareness in various ways, via social media or in the auditorium. For instance, at the surprise screening at the 2013 festival, audience members – who correctly suspected the film would be Spring Breakers (2012) – brought along inflatable beach balls, which were bounced around the auditorium in the lead up to the film’s announcement. Thus, these events are more about circling pre-screening narratives, participations and performances of knowledge than the film texts themselves. Indeed, during audience research, festivalgoers demonstrated recurring attendance at the surprise film screenings, yet were unable to recollect which films were screened:

I’m looking forward to that (Surprise Film). I thought that was really good last year, I really like that idea, it’s really good, you don’t know what you’re going to get you know! Last year it was the Keira Knightly, Carey Mulligan and it was filmed in Scotland. I can’t remember the name of it but it was brilliant, it was maybe not one I’d have picked to see but I really enjoyed it because it was a surprise. It’s the whole thing that the projectionist isn’t meant to know until half an hour before; it gives it a real buzz. And everyone tries to guess what it is; everyone was trying to guess you know. (FG3, GFF12)[24]

Another sub-theme of the BF event is the interactive event. Interactive events are themed around film, cinema or some other medium (video games, animation) but their distinct characteristic is that they require a level of audience participation in order to function. Predicated and programmed on account of their interactive nature, examples include: Cinema City Walking Tour, a guided tour of historic picture palaces throughout Glasgow; Cinema City Treasure Hunt, a smartphone-led game throughout Glasgow; Rab’s Video Game Empty, a gaming event that enables the audience to challenge one another on a cinema screen. Interactive events rely heavily on fan culture, whereby ‘spectatorial culture [becomes] participatory culture’ (Jenkins 2006: 41).

Live performance events also fall within the BF category. In his research on theatrical live streaming, Barker draws attention to ‘the dominant emphases of thinking about liveness within theatre and performance studies’, noting that ‘physical co-presence is the key component and technologies are only permissible to the extent that they do not inhibit, even might enhance, that sense of shared physical space’ (2013: 43). Thus, the premium value of these events is their liveness/performativity and the physical co-presence of performer and spectator in a shared space. In the context of the film festival, the performance aspect of these events must have some connection with moving image. For instance, the Calamity Jane Barn Dance at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry during GFF13 involved multiple experiential components: a screening of Calamity Jane (1953), a live band and barn dancing lessons for audiences. Live theatre also features in this programming category. GFF’s experimental strand dedicated to crossover between cinema, theatre and visual art, ‘Crossing the Line’, often includes high-concept theatrical presentation. As example, an event, entitled ‘85A presents: Jan Svankmajer’, celebrated the experimental work of the Czech filmmaker with short film, installations and theatrical staging and acting, which ‘[coaxes] … surreal imagery off the screen into life in front of you [with] tailor-made installations, costumed performers’ (GFF 2012: 15). Promoted as ‘a night at the multiplex it is not!’, what we see here is film exhibition take on a live performativity whereby the materiality of setting/staging transport the audience into an intermediate space between diegesis and real-world setting (see Figure 5.2). This aligns with Annette Kuhn’s work on memories cinemagoing of the 1930s in which she draws on Foucault, stating that ‘the temporality [and spatiality] of cinema in the world conjoins the temporality [and spatiality] of the world in the cinema: and at the point where the two meet, cinema becomes, in Foucault’s sense of the term, a heterotopia: ‘a sort of place that lies outside all places and yet is actually localizable [sic]’ (Foucault 1986: 12; Kuhn 2004: 109)

Figure 5.2. 85A presents: Jan Svankmajer was held at The Glue Factory, a cross-arts exhibition space in Glasgow during GFF12 . Source: Glasgow Film. Photo by Stuart Crawford.

Spatio-textual programming and embodied spectatorship

In considering film festival management, Alex Fischer argues that programming texts is ‘only a single aspect of the larger and infinitely complex system of exhibition’ (2009: 154). Alongside print acquisition, film scheduling, writing reviews and coordinating media events, he notes that ‘securing appropriate venues’ is a key component of the system of festival exhibition (2009: 154). There is a unanimous perception across the GFF organization that the festival audience is one that it is keen to experiment with cinema contexts: ‘GFF audiences love to see films in unique settings’ (STV 2013: online). As noted, GFF has expanded in spatial terms and is now presented across twenty-seven venues around Glasgow, many of them public spaces that would not traditionally be associated with the screening of film. Festival organizers now employ a specific mode programming – which I term spatio-textual programming – that celebrates a connection between the ‘spatial conditions’ of the exhibition site and the ‘narrative images’ on-screen. The qualifiers of this type of programming are space-text relations in which content (usually repertory) is presented in particular spaces that share some synergy with the on-screen narrative/aesthetic. Thus, spatio-textual programming deliberately draws attention away from the screen out towards the material characteristics of exhibition space. This manner of programming sees programmers match spaces with texts according to the aesthetic characteristics of both story world space and physical screening environments, and so decisions are made on the basis of the aesthetics of site and its experiential possibilities, as opposed the technological specifications. In 2013, GFF programmers featured a screening of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) in a subway station in Glasgow city centre (see Figure 5.3). The film was an ‘unknown text’ event and was promoted to audiences via textual mystery and spatial setting as ‘The Secret Subway Event’. The programme synopsis for film, in which the New York City subway plays a prominent narrative setting, invited audiences to move away from conventional cinema to experience something different:

Are you hungry for a different kind of film experience? Feeling adventurous? Step away from the cinema for one night only and follow us as we head to a land where commuters roam and films are never seen – until now! […] Only fifty lucky souls can boldly go where no projector has gone before so book early for this mystery screening. (GFF 2013: 54)

Figure 5.3. Screening of The Warriors in one of Glasgow’s subway stations during GFF13. Source: Glasgow Film. Photo by Alistair Devine.

A more spectacular example of spatio-textual programming was the use of the city’s Cathedral for a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) with live musical accompaniment in 2013 (see Figure 5.4). For this screening audiences were led inside the cathedral by church ushers (as opposed to GFF volunteers) and directed to their seats in the pews, where they then experienced a spiritually charged rendition of the film with overlaid live score with soprano, church organ and electronics. What was particularly interesting at this screening was the new forms of behavioural practice that played out in the space – the audience was eerily silent and took on a uniformed formality with limited pre-screening prattle and hesitant applause at the film’s conclusion. This indicates the varying forms of behavioural norms that are understood and adopted across ephemeral sites, which, outside of festival time, have very different purposes. Here the audiences’ festival practice moved away from active debate and discussion, more orientated towards a practice that signalled respectfulness and reserve.

Figure 5.4. Glasgow Cathedral during the screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc at GFF13. Source: Glasgow Film. Photo by Eoin Carey.

In each of these examples, festival programmers are encouraging an embodied spectator experience whereby the material and aesthetic characteristics of site are fundamental to the overall experience and the festival practices and performances it implies. In doing so, it potentially incites an immersive experience that differs from conventional notions of cinema spectatorship and indeed festivalgoing practice. Here, a multi-sensorial experience encourages audiences to consume texts textually and spatially, behaviourally and corporeally, diegetically and non-diegetically. Consequently, the experience becomes one of shared symbolic space between virtual setting and real setting, which allows for the momentary transportation to the story world. This prompts connection with notions of the tourist gaze whereby there is a ‘constant push and pull of distanced immersion […] a desire to be fully immersed in an environment yet literally or figuratively distanced from the scene in order to occupy a comfortable viewing position’ (Strain 2003: 27)

In 2012, a nineteenth-century ship featured for the first time as an ephemeral festival space. Berthed on the River Clyde, The Glenlee – a former cargo ship built in 1896 and now maritime museum called The Tall Ship – was used for screenings of the maritime-themed film The Maggie (1954). The event was so successful that the following year the site was used for screening other films with maritime themes such as Jaws (1975), Dead Calm (1989) and Peter Pan (1953). Again, spatial aesthetic was the principal motivation for programmers, and films with maritime themes were then sourced to complement the space, rather than the other way around. The screening of The Maggie involved a heated cargo hold filled with chairs and a DVD screened on a 16 mm projector, making the technical standard no better than home-viewing (see Figure 5.5). Rather, it was the fact that the ‘aesthetics of site create a homology with the content of the film’ – the spatial characteristics of the site and the familiarly between real space and narrative image – that came to the fore as both a motivation for attendance and an experiential pleasure (Harbord 2002: 67). As one participant attending a retrospective screening of The Maggie notes:

What motivated you to come to Glasgow Film Festival this year? (Researcher, FG2)

For me, it’s the special things, like I went to The Maggie the other night on the boat. It was great. You’re looking at a guy on the screen and he’s surrounded by rivets and you look around and there are rivets all about you! And the boat is creaking. (Attendee, FG2, GFF12)

Figure 5.5. The hull of the Tall Ship set up for the screening of The Maggie at GFF12. Source: Glasgow Film. Photo by Ingrid Mur.

This experiential account focuses not on technical specifications or the film itself, but instead on the spatial qualities of the venue and space–text relations. Gratification emerges from historical, aesthetic and thematic allegiance between the text and the space, which I have termed elsewhere as ‘space-text-body pleasures’ (Dickson 2015). This experience is not predicated on distance or otherness (other space), rather the account suggests an experience of shared aesthetics, which sees this spectator actively locate cohesion between virtual and real space identifying visual homology (‘rivets’) and acoustic homology (‘creaking’). This implies a synchronic extension of the aesthetics and narrative of the film text, in which the audience and the exhibition space occupy a key role in the lived experience of the event.

Moreover, when audience gaze is purposefully directed off-screen onto the physical environment in which they consume film, they arguably adopt a heightened awareness of their physical emplacement and embodiment within the cinematic space (Dickson 2015). This incites an acute awareness of the presence of ‘other bodies’ and proximate positioning between the self and other spectators within the real-world setting (Dickson 2015). I argue that this consequently produces an unconventional form of gaze wherein viewers not only observe the film text as object, but also fellow audience members as subjects in the non-diegetic scene/setting:

There was actually a gentlemen there watching the film. My friend overheard him talking. He had sailed the Glenlee back from Canada. He looked about a hundred. And they’ve got an area for children where they can hit a wee button and it recreates the noise of the engines and you can go into a wee gantry. You want to have seen this old fella’s face! They opened it up so that he could hit the button … aw it was beautiful! (FG2, GFF12)

In this spectator’s view, the spatiality of the event and its features provoked a strong sense of nostalgia for his fellow audience member. For the festivalgoer, observing a pleasurable moment experienced by another audience member compounded the overall experience as something special – a unique moment that made his non-diegetic experience something of beauty. Moreover, his articulation of the experience in spatial terms – both in relation to space–text homology and being close enough to this participant to observe his emotions – indicates that for this participant the spatial characteristics, as opposed to the purely textual, are what made his festival experience a memorable one. That is to say that his festivalgoing experience was about the consumption of space, as well as the consumption of text.

Likewise, the spatial attributes of the ship arguably provoked perceived notions of nostalgia and memory through sight, sound and place, which in many ways aligns with Edward Casey’s notion that ‘places serve to situate one’s memorial life’ (1987: 183–184). Much like Kuhn’s work on memories of cinemagoing, this testimony – in which connections between the real world and the story world come to the fore – demonstrates audience understanding of the ‘difference between the world in the cinema on one hand and cinema in the world on the other’ (2004: 113). The experience is enhanced by a homologous relationship between these worlds, yet, while the attendee imaginatively takes meaning from space–text, off-screen–on-screen homology, he remains corporeally present and critically reflective. Interestingly, these observations were made in the gantry on the upper deck of the ship after the film screening, which implies a more diachronic experience in which narrative meaning-making occurs beyond both the screen and the duration of the film and provides a vivid and materially grounded version of the kinds of expanded interpretative time frames suggested by Janet Staiger (2000). As such, there is suggestion here that the festival experience extends beyond the visual pleasures of the screen, offering a more multi-sensory (physical/visual/aural/auditory), and temporally and spatially extended, experience.


A central argument made in this chapter is that in order to understand the popularity of film festivals – and indeed event-led cinema – we must consider the construction of eventfulness through creative programming. Here I suggest that local audience film festivals, which unlike mega-festival function because of mass attendance by the general cinemagoing public, are model entities for exploring the multifaceted assembly of ‘eventfulness’ in live cinema exhibition, and are, therefore, a rich area for research that seeks to understand the construction of event-led cinema and its reception. Nevertheless, as I have argued here and elsewhere, festival research relies on limited gatekeeping and access to a range of festival assets for analysis.

As indicated, festival programmes are eventized through various festivalization practices. One way in which events are festivalized is through the layering of film texts with ‘classic liveness’ whereby special guests – academics, visiting talent, specialists – attend screenings in order to supplement textual content with contextual discussions and interactions. Likewise, the multilayering of ancillary content constructs the event atmosphere and offers interpretative and reflexive frameworks in relation to the production and reception of particular texts. Thus, a methodological contribution of this work is the way in which it moves away from a fixation with the aesthetics and textual value of festival content (Wong 2011), to consider films as ‘events’ and in relation to their contextual value: distinctiveness within their exhibition environment, that is, their territorial context and paratextual possibilities within that context, and the various rhetorical categories relatable to exhibition (‘scarcity’, ‘discovery’, ‘limitedness’, ‘hand-picked’ and ‘first-timeness’). As the GFF case demonstrates, there are patterns of festivalization practice in terms of exhibition and programming whereby the ‘experiential value’ of events can be understood in terms of three typological categories: films that audience will only have the chance to see (in cinemas) during the festival, films that audience will have the chance to see first and events that go beyond the film to offer audiences a unique experience that is textually and contextually compelling. What is clear is that film festivals, in light of their unyielding temporal composition and ‘in the moment’ offerings’, operate within a discourse of opportunity or as I have termed elsewhere within a series of ‘narratives of chance’ (Dickson 2014: 180). Thus, while I agree that a film’s appearance on a festival programme is connected to its narrative, aesthetic and production values, I argue that ‘exhibition value’ is a dominant aspect of event-led programming practice. A key function of the festival programmer is not only the imagining of reception of text for audiences, but the consumption of total experience. It is worth adding that the proposed typology is by no means exhaustive, but it is hoped that it might be adaptable in the context of other film festivals as research on festival programming continues to grow and new understandings emerge.

The final category proposed – beyond the film events – highlights the ways in which eventfulness is a complex blend of multiple experiential components that have congruent significance. In these instances, the traditions of text above context are undermined in favour of experiences that rely as much on the contextual, material and aesthetic conditions of space (whether it is exhibition space or online media space) as they do on text. Furthermore, in the context of spatio-textual events, the physical setting where audiences experience these events often takes precedence over text in this mode of programming practice, in terms of the process of curation (site selection before textual programming). What is more at stake in the spatio-textual event context is the shifting modes of spectatorship that are signalled when programmers deliberately draw audience attention off-screen to observe, interpret and consume the material and aesthetic properties of the exhibition site. Here I argue that in the context of these events, spatial pleasure comes to the fore for attendees because it offers them a multi-sensory experience through shared space immersion – that is, inhabiting a similar spatial setting to the characters in the story world (Dickson 2015). Although there is no suggestion here that conventional cinema is not experiential – as McCulloch and Crisp (2016) note elsewhere: ‘all cinema is experiential’ – this chapter does argue that festivals are in the business of producing heightened experiences that are promoted and received as distinct ‘in the moment’ engagements that are multi-sensorial and corporeally charged, and that spatio-textual programming must be considered more than novelty events.

Through the use of a mixed-method approach and by focusing on a single case study, a key suggestion that is made here is that festival programming does not rely on the overarching event as a means of festivalizing content. The grandiose of the umbrella event as ‘festivity’ is not sufficient in itself. Ruoff notes that ‘the best programming has an inner logic, or narrative structure, that finds audiences for films and films for audiences’ (2012: 17). Indeed, one might argue that in the context of the audience festival event, the latter comes to the fore. Indeed, festival programmers find themselves responding to shifts in cultural consumption signalled by the experience economy wherein cinemagoers are becoming more inclined to experience film in event contexts and experiment with unorthodox screening environments. That is to say, that this work suggests that in the temporal context of film festivals – and indeed other modes of event-led cinema – we see shifts in spectator practices whereby audiences live out their cinematic engagements through embodied experiences, consuming film in highly complex and active ways.

[1] This relates to the standard cinema screening. It is acknowledged that the types of eventized cinema discussed throughout this volume aim to create a distinct and arguably more experiential cinematic experience than the conventional cinema screening.

[2] In Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, Philip Auslander charts the historical development of the concept of liveness. He defines ‘classic’ liveness as the ‘Physical co-presence of performers and audience; production and reception; experience in the moment’. See Auslander (2008).

[3] Daniel Dayan coined the term the ‘written festival’ to describe the circling narratives of the festival which are found in press and marketing communications. See Dayan (2000).

[4] Although studies of film festivals emerged in the mid-1990s (see Nichols 1994), the subject gained real momentum in the late 2000s with the introduction of the Film Festival Yearbook Series (Iordanova et al. 2009–2014), the advent of the Film Festival Research Network (FFNR, 2008) and the publication of various monographs dedicated to the subject (de Valck 2007; Fischer 2013; Lloyd 2011; Wong 2011). For FFNR, see: http://www.filmfestivalresearch.org/

[5] The FFNR coordinates panels/workshops at most major cinema/media conferences: Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (NECS), Screen Studies Conference (SSC) and European Communication Research and Education Association. Film Festival Studies now has two international research groups which meet annually: the Film and Media Festivals Scholarly Interest Group (SCMS) and the Film Festival Research Work Group (NECS).

[6] See Douglas Gomery (1992: 43).

[7] This research emerges from my doctoral research at the University of Glasgow. The PhD was an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project entitled ‘Film Festival and Cinema Audiences: An Investigation of Glasgow Film Festival Audiences’ and their relationship with Glasgow Film Theatre.’ The project was supported by the AHRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) scheme. A key distinction of these collaborative PhDs is the contractual partnering of a non-academic institution (organization, company) with a higher education institution (HEI). For the CDA researcher, access is the key advantage of this kind of doctorate as they ‘[…] provide access to resources and materials, knowledge and expertise that may not otherwise have been available’ (AHRC 2013).

[8] This question of ‘access’ was raised at a workshop I attended at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies in Chicago in 2013. The workshop was entitled ‘Behind the Velvet Rope: Insider/Outsider Dilemmas for Film Festival Researchers’. Over the course of this research I have spoken informally with many festival practitioners (programmers, directors, marketers, founders) and, at times, there has been a sentiment that festival scholarship does not always reflect actual festival practices.

[9] In her research on melodrama spectatorship, Barbara Klinger notes a revived importance placed on film reviews as objects of study, arguing that reviews are ‘type[s] of social discourse, which, like film advertisements, can aid the researcher in ascertaining the material conditions informing the relationships between films and spectators at given moments’ (1994: 69).

[10] Seven focus groups with GFF audiences took place in 2012. For a more extensive look at audience research conducted as part of this wider project, see Dickson (2014) and Dickson (2015).

[11] Glasgow Film is an operating name of Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT). GFT is company limited by guarantee, registered in Scotland No. SC097369 with its registered office at 12 Rose Street, Glasgow, G3 6RB.

[12] It is suggested elsewhere that the very first known film festival took place in Monaco in 1898, see SCMS Film and Media Festivals Scholarly Interest Group homepage: http://www.cmstudies.org/?page=groups_filmfestivals. However, Venice is mainly acknowledged as the first recurring film festival. There is very little known about the event in Monaco.

[13] The festival’s identity is inextricably linked to its historical position as a cinematic city. In 1930s Glasgow, cinemagoing was considered the social habit of the age and thought to be embedded in the patterns of everyday life for many of the city’s residents (Scullion 1990: 42–43). Indeed, in the late 1930s Glasgow was reported to have had more cinemas per head of population than anywhere else in the world outside of America (Historic Scotland 2007: 6; Scullion 1990: 42–43). This linkage is communicated via press materials, marketing and branding.

[14] The event is publically supported at local and national level.

[15] The initial funding proposal for the festival positioned the event as a way of developing and marketing Glasgow’s image as a ‘festival city’ and tourist destination. The proposal was framed by an argument that film festivals were proven to boost the image of their host cities: Thessaloniki Film Festival had ‘injected new life into the city and, above all, contributed towards giving it an image abroad’, Tampere Film Festival had ‘enliven[ed] municipal policy on image and culture’, Oberhausen Film Festival had contributed to the ‘birth of a film production centre’, Cologne Film Festival had advanced the city’s profile as a media centre; Valladoid Film Festival was a ‘benchmark for the image and attractiveness of the city and the development of quality tourism’; and Cork Film Festival had increased tourism and improved the city’s cultural image despite its long held struggle with ‘second city syndrome’ (GFF 2004: 4). The inaugural festival in 2005 was supported by Visit Scotland (Scotland’s national tourist organization), which suggests that the ‘tourism’ narrative was an effective one.

[16] Although Glasgow’s role as ECOC has been criticized for failing to resolve many of the city’s social problems (Mooney and Danson 1997; Spring 1990), Beatriz García’s longitudinal study of the event suggests that ECOC 1990 has had a lasting cultural legacy for the city (García 2005: 841). Accompanied with the slogan ‘there’s a lot Glasgowing on’, Glasgow ECOC involved 700 cultural organizations and around 3,500 events and was critical in transforming the city into a cultural space and promoting cultural tourism (Myerscough 1991).

[17] Cinezone was the brainchild of Glasgow Film Theatre CEO, Jaki MacDougall, drawn up in the early 2000s.

[18] Harbord notes that the three principle ‘types’ of cinematic space used for public film exhibition and consumption are the art house cinema, the multiplex and the art gallery, which very much chimes with GFF’s spatial structure at inception (Harbord 2002: 39).

[19] GFF has increased its number of venues from three in 2005 (inception year) to twenty-six venues in 2013. In part this increase is to accommodate more titles but it also enables the festival to expand its reach throughout the city, create collaborations with venue partners and include unique events.

[20] Of course, at times a certain mystery surrounds potential GFF titles, for instance if a film has not yet been ‘picked up’ by a distributor, then sales agents often hold out before committing to smaller festivals or in some cases a title enters a state of limbo when protracted negotiations between distributors and sales agents take place (Interview Allan Hunter, GFF Co-Director, April 2013).

[21] Although the most dominant mode of programming, UF films tend to be a ‘hard sell’ as they usually feature unknown cast and crew and often deal with thornier subject matter. They are discursively positioned in festival brochures and via other marketing channels as relational to other well-known content, cast or crew – sold to audiences by linking established filmmakers with new talent through patterned phrasing; ‘echoes of … reminiscent of … influenced by …’ Take for instance, the positioning of UF film The Fifth Season (2012), which was linked to contemporary and historical auteurs: ‘Earning comparisons with the cinema of Michael Haneke and Andrei Tarkovsky’ (GFF 2013: 31). Likewise, UF film Nobody Else But You (2012) was promoted to audiences through hypothetical alignment with the Coen Brothers: ‘If the Coen Brothers ever make a film in Europe, it might look like Nobody Else But You’ … (GFF 2012: 48).

[22] In the original PhD thesis this category was split into three categories: ‘Festivalised Films’, ‘Interactive Events’ and ‘Live Performance’. However, in revisiting the data it was clear that all films undergo some process of festivalization during the event, including UF and RLC films (for instance, they might have additional content: special guests, after parties, Q&A, etc.). As such, it would be problematic to suggest that only one programming mode was ‘festivalised’. Likewise, there was a great deal of crossover between these three categories. For example, the Calamity Jane Barn Dance event included a repertory film screening followed by audience participation in dance lessons with live musical performance, which meant it fit within each of the initial categories. Indeed, on further reflection and analysis, it was found that that the shared characteristic of these events was their ‘beyond the film’ offering and the fact that the film text was not privileged as the premium source of value, but one component of a multifaceted experience. As a consequence, the typology evolved from its initial conceptualization.

[23] With the exception of 2011 when the festival dedicated its retrospective to working actress Meryl Streep, the format has tended to feature a deceased star from the Golden Age of Hollywood: John Wayne (2007), Bette Davis (2008), Audrey Hepburn (2009), Cary Grant (2010), Gene Kelly (2012) and James Cagney (2013).

[24] Participants are identified by their focus group number only to preserve anonymity.