Machar Movies Case Study

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Machars Movies was established at the Isle of Whithorn in early 2009 as a voluntary community association to promote the moving image in the Machars peninsula of south west Scotland.

This distinct geographic area comprises two small towns and several villages, with the rest of the population scattered in small communities and around farms. Newton Stewart, just over 20 miles to the north to the north is the principal market town in the area and has a 200-seat community-run cinema, operated on a conventional, commercial basis and is equipped to 2K digital standards.

Saint Ninian’s – home of Machars Movies

We are an independent voluntary association, with a committee of ten drawn from all around the peninsula. We work very closely with the Isle of Whithorn’s community-led regeneration charity Isle Futures, who were responsible for taking over management of the original Village Hall in 2008, and in 2013 securing a Big Lottery grant for the building of a new tearoom and retail facility to run alongside, providing a magnificent focal point and destination in the area.

Machars Movies is the principal organiser of cinema events – and operates on the lines of a film society. We recently received support from the BFI’s Neighbourhood Cinema scheme to upgrade its projection facility to full HD. There is an annual programme of 14 to 16 screenings operating fortnightly from September to April, and we have a modest but enthusiastic membership. We hire the building and cinema facilities from Isle Futures, who hold the appropriate cinema licensing from the Local Authority, as well PRS, PPL registration and all other legal compliances.

We also assist other local associations and local schools with film events as part of their own activities. Some members of Machars Movies committee are trained to operate the projection and audio-visual facilities to professional standards. The hall is multi-use; and on cinema nights volunteers will ‘pitch in’ to deal with rigging/de-rigging of seating and staging. The Isle Futures team can also provide a licensed catering service as part of their ongoing fund-raising activities.

Organisation’s aims

To advance the education of the public in the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of film (and allied audio-visual techniques); to encourage interest in the moving image as an art form and as a medium for communication. We also want to promote artistic and technical creativity in audio-visual techniques within the communities in our area. We also actively cooperate with other events in the region (film, book festivals etc) to complement and help build these events.

How are you funded:

  • Scottish Screen Digital Projection Fund: cinema equipment (2009)
  • BFI Neighbourhood Cinema Programme: HD projection (2015)
  • Scottish Arts Council: stage lighting, sound and vision facilities as well as multi-purpose staging for raked seating facilities
  • Dumfries & Galloway Council funding was accessed under the Village Hall Improvement Scheme: new heating and auditorium lighting.
  • Isle Futures, community regeneration charity: match-funding for the Village Hall project.
  • Machars Movies received a small start-up grant for website development, programme brochure printing etc.

Routine income generation

  • Membership – Season Tickets, which entitle holders to reduced admission charges to screenings;
  • Guest admissions on the film nights.

In the future we may look at other forms of diversification in funding, such as printed programme sponsorship/advertising.

The routine income pays for cinema hire fees; film hire charges; printing and publicity; annual membership fees (BFFS) etc.

Our Film Programme

Our committee is drawn from a wide range of interests, and we aim to have  an attractive, balanced programme over the season. Through the years we’ve learned that our audience is more attuned to coming to events which have ‘added value’ built in. Our theme nights, with a meal reflecting the subject or the film’s provenance are invariably sold out well in advance. We have to take into account that our audience is predominantly an older age group – we sell more Concession-rate Season Tickets than full price. Consequently, their tastes do need to be recognised, but that doesn’t mean that they do not like the odd challenge! It has proved difficult to attract younger people, and our participation in events such as the ‘Into Film’ Festival has had some modest interest shown by local primary schools. The Film Club scheme has also been tried out, but transport and remoteness for many is a major, challenging factor.

Machars Movies ‘Family’ Theme Night

We promote our programmes primarily through a printed brochure which is designed by a committee member, and commercially printed. 2000 of these are circulated in hotels, pubs and retail outlets throughout the Machars area, as well as locations in Newton Stewart (22 miles away) and Stranraer (34 miles). We feed stories to our two local newspapers – and they are usually quite responsive to this. We have a dedicated website with the screening programme uploaded along with links to film trailers where these are available.  We don’t, as yet, undertake any form of online booking, but we do circulate all participating Season Ticket holders by e-mail notice of upcoming films.

Our most successful cinema activity

Without doubt, the holding of themed nights – essentially a film with food – pulls in a capacity audience. In cinema mode with raked seating we can hold 80. But having a meal as well brings that number down to the 60-mark where we operate in conventional restaurant mode. These events have done much to increase the overall social experience that cinema can and should provide. What’s more, people talk about it, and so promote the enterprise.

We are currently examining the potential for equipping the cinema facility to receive satellite and streamed programming from distributors of theatre, music, and ballet.

And most challenging

Nothing could have been more frustrating than right at the outset, as we tackled the Sargasso sea-like bureaucracy encountered with the takeover of St Ninian’s Hall. Dealing with officialdom can be frustrating at the best of times, but nothing prepared us for the three long years of prevarication by an authority that owned a decaying building and had virtually no budget for repairs. There were times when volunteer-led refurbishment work almost collapsed, disillusioned by official ineptitude/indifference. To those facing a similar challenge in taking over a local community asset – you have been warned – prepare for a long hard slog. All the other challenges that will come later will pale into insignificance.

Our Tips

If you are equipping your community hall as a cinema from scratch do be very particular about technical specifications and quotations. If you can, get a professionally prepared equipment specification that will include equipment and installation, and which reflects your needs, current and into the future. Use this as a base from which to get competitive tenders. Insist that potential suppliers come to see the site at the outset. If they don’t, ignore them. The lowest bidder is not necessarily going to be the one that will work out to be the best for you.

Small community cinema operations in remote locations are not always financially attractive to the suppliers and installers. You’ll soon get the vibes of an outfit that you will be comfortable with, or whether they are just box-pushers. We chose to go down the do-it-yourself route and self-install because we had people on our team who understood the technology that’s involved really well. If you don’t have this, it will more than pay you to have a professional to undertake the job, and make sure all aspects of legal, health and safety etc, are complied with. There’s a lot more to it than the domestic scenario of hooking up a DVD or Blu-ray player and a projector!

Look at what other film societies and clubs are doing – many of them have websites that will give you a notion of their programming and management methods. If you haven’t joined Cinema For All (the former British Federation of Film Societies – do so now to access their valuable resources, most of which are available online, including a booking scheme for a wide-ranging catalogue.

Do make contact with Film Hub Scotland – there are many opportunities for networking, workshopping and a wealth of knowledge to tap into.

You will also benefit from very useful updates about forthcoming new releases that could be just what you are looking for to make your programme that bit different. We’ve noticed recently that the smaller distributors are increasingly favourable to including community cinemas in the first period of general release, and are usually very helpful in supplying posters and other publicity. As an example, we scored a big hit in December 2015 with ‘Sunset Song’ – our largest audience for a non-themed night, and screened only a few days after its general release.

The BFI Neighbourhood Cinema scheme is another very useful information source, as well as providing a listing facility for screenings, and valuable support for recently established cinema organizations (run as part of a charitable concern) in the form of equipment packages – projection, sound, screens, seating, blackouts etc.

Above all, don’t be discouraged by the fact some shows will inevitably have a disappointing audience.  It will happen, and as long as you have a solid core of subscriber members, you should be able to stay viable. Much will depend on your local population and how far they are prepared to travel; the challenge is even greater if you happen, like us, to be surrounded on two sides of the compass by sea!

Our programme/website:

For further information: comprehensively covers the Isle of Whithorn community and its various activities.


Mike Marshall, Machars Movies, Isle of Whithorn, Wigtownshire, DG8 8LH

And your favourite film/director is…

C’était un Rendezvous (Claude Lelouche, 1976), 9 minutes long, one take, and I’m still not quite sure how they did it!


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