Working with audiences all my life, I’ve always been sensitive to the perception of cultural venues that the people who don’t visit them have.  I’ve always hoped to find a way to make that first visit to an independent cinema a desirable and comfortable experience for the cautious film lover, and to understand and challenge the psychological barriers we accidentally put in their way.

I’ve written something about threshold anxiety for Film Hub North.

Read it here:



When was the last time you tried to enter somewhere, or do something entirely new? And how did you feel?

Independent cinemas can be terrifying spaces. Many people believe that what happens inside them will never be open to them, and that they don’t have our permission to enter. For a sector that exists to expand horizons we must accept that this perception exists and respond to the amazing opportunity it presents.

 ‘Threshold Fear’ is a psychological term applied to cultural experiences (museums) in 2005 by Elaine Heumann Gurian in her essay of the same name. Also known as threshold anxiety, it’s simply a fear of the unknown. It’s the stress of an unfamiliar situation, arising when a person feels threatened or uncomfortable by a new situation or place.

This huge psychological barrier can prevent potential new visitors from physically entering our cinema spaces and having a great time – all because they feel intimidated and scared by what they think happens inside. Alike to impostor syndrome, it’s all wrapped up in the fear of being found out and of not belonging. But how is this? Our organisations go out of their way to try and make our spaces welcoming, and we create successful projects purely to welcome new audiences. And yet our venues remain intimidating to many.

Well, there are a number of ways that our organisations can accidentally instil this fear. Our spaces are mysterious places, defined by being off the mainstream. It’s this mission to expand horizons and how it materialises in our endeavours that fuels the mystery, and in turn, fuels the fear.

Taking an ‘outsiders’’ critical view of what we offer and to whom we offer it for a moment, most venues which screen specialised film are perceived as catering for a specific demographic. Dare I say it; it’s an audience that is often defined as being quite well off and fairly well educated. I’m (kind of) saying this for effect, of course, and there are countless exceptions, but the next time you have a packed house for a specialised film, take a look at the crowd and consider this bold statement I’m making. Who isn’t there? Allowing yourself the license to look for the gaps in your audience will be utterly liberating.

Like the old chestnut tells us, marketing needs to permeate every aspect of your offer. There are many people from all walks of life not attending our venues because of their perception of what happens inside them. What stops them? How can we find out? We must – in identifying and accepting the elements that may be barriers for those missing audiences; we can then start a process of challenging them accordingly.

For example:

They may be cultural –

How do our programmes look to the vast amount of people who aren’t living inside film 24/7? What do the millions of people who don’t know or care who Michael Haneke or Paul Thomas Anderson are think when they pick up our literature or see posters for their films outside our venues? What’s inside our spaces for them? How can we encourage them to care on their terms?

 They may be monetary –

Are our tickets too expensive? Are we allowing the perceived quality of what we offer and the price we deem appropriate for entry to those experiences slam the door in the faces of a whole section of potential visitors? If that’s the case, how does it make them feel about our organisations?

They may be physical –

How many of us have looked at the entrances to our buildings and tried to visualise how welcoming and easy to navigate they are when a new visitor walks through the front door. How fear inducing are our actual thresholds? What part of town are we in? Does our location say something about us too?

They may even be grammatical –

How do we describe what we do? Where do we advertise? Do we presume knowledge when we write about our films and events? My most hated phrase is “If you’re a fan of….” and when I read it I cringe – what if I’m not? Should I stop reading?!

Do your brochures and copy require an advanced reading age? The Independent Cinema Office has some great advice on this and how to easily measure it here:

You may not wish to or be able to change any of these elements, of course, but it’s important to understand and consider them when doing the exercise of placing yourself in your local cultural landscape.

An example

As a rough-and-ready illustration for the purposes of this article I’m going to use the fairly universal and very current example of young people in their late teens. I believe that there are many reasons that may prevent a young person from visiting an independent cinema for the first time. I’ll miss some, obviously, but they might include:

Our venues are full of old people (to them, anyway) and our audiences don’t look like them.

Our programmes feature lots of films they haven’t heard of.

We don’t really sell hot dogs or popcorn or the food you can buy in other cinemas (and I don’t like olives).

Our tickets may be too expensive for them.

We don’t engage with them using the right platforms.

Our cinema foyers are sometimes quiet and that can be imposing.

It’s where their school takes them to to learn things, so why go there in their spare time?

They don’t know anyone else who goes there.

NB – The macro–factor here (elephant in the room?) is also that it seems younger audiences in cinemas are in decline in the UK and beyond, and in an article by Stephen Follows ( this is explained brilliantly and concisely. As to why, that’s another question for another day…

Here is where I invoke the ‘marketing permeates everything’ epithet again.

What we screen in our auditoria, how much we charge for it, what the experience of reading our websites or our Tweets is like, what its like to walk into our buildings, who the other people in our spaces are, how easy it is to buy a snack (where are your Magnums?!), and even which music plays in your cinema before the film comes onscreen. All are potential barriers, but it is perhaps the last one which is the most important – they simply don’t know what it’s like inside!

The best way for someone entering a new place to feel comfortable is via hearing the experiences of their friends who are already ‘inside’ – if it’s OK for them, then its likely OK for me. But what about the people who don’t have someone on the inside to tell them it’s OK? Clubs are great-unless you aren’t in one.

Trying to dial back my age by 25 years and engaging my empathy circuits to get close to how an 18 year old might feel, the key message which screams out for me about this mysterious experience is this:

“This is not really meant for me.”

And this is just one example.

So how do we start to demystify our spaces?

In her essay Elaine Heumann Gurian mentions cultural venues striving to be the new ‘town square’ and a place to congregate. A former project I worked on was created to encourage 15-19 year olds to visit under their own steam. It achieved many things, but for me, one experience stood out. The project was a gateway for thousands of young people into cinema (ours and ‘the’), but the most joyous moment I had during my work on the project was the first time I saw a group of young people simply hanging out at the venue.

In a small way, and in that moment, we had become the town square.

When I was 20 I was given the incredible opportunity to have a work placement at a weird independent cinema. Did I want to go there? No way, but I reluctantly did, and it opened my eyes to a fantastic new world. It made me fall in love with film and gave me the tools to consider it as a career. I was an outsider, and then I wasn’t.

Scary places can end up being refuges. So how do we give ourselves the tools to throw open the doors visibly?

A checklist

As a starting point, know your audience.   Look at your customers as they enter your auditoria, pore over your ticket sales data, even consider the postcodes of your clientele – if can’t run regular audience research programmes, make sure that you use all the data and opportunities you have at hand to find out as much as you can.

Find some non-attenders and find out what they think about you. Hold an informal focus group with them – what can they say about your venue or your programme that you can’t see because you’re just too close? What are their personal barriers to visiting you? What is the perception of your venue outside of your cultural bubble?

Look at your programme – are there enough easy entry points into what you do for more casual cinemagoers? Would screening a Star Wars film at Christmas or a family mainstream film in the summer open the doors of your venue to new people just waiting for your permission to enter? Imagine what they might watch next!

Look at your building with fresh eyes – how welcoming is it physically to new visitors? Have a walk through and imagine it’s your first visit. Can you hear a pin drop when you enter or is there a welcoming hubbub? Are your box office staff attentive and happy and poised to help? Can you easily find out what’s on just seconds after you enter the front door? Or does it feel imposing, intimidating or confusing?

Read your website and brochure – who is it really speaking to?

Then consider any accidental barriers you find, and if you want to welcome more people on terms that suit them, perhaps make some subtle changes…

Empathy is something that can be lost or set aside easily. Running cinemas is hard work and we have daily conveyor belts of tasks that must be completed in order to keep the lights on and the tickets selling. That conveyor belt sometimes commands all of our attention.

But if you take a breather and consider who is missing out on all the fruits of your hard work it may make a world of difference. Especially to them.

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