During the ‘Reel Film Series’ film programming workshop, I had the chance to chat with Alice Black about her role as Head of Cinema at Dundee Contemporary Arts, an important resource in the local territory for the promotion of visual culture.
What type of job is “head of cinema” and what does your role entail?
As Head of Cinema, my role is to deliver an international cinema programme which is culturally relevant to Dundee and meets both our audience expectations and hits our financial targets. I select the films and schedule them, negotiate with distributors over rights, write the notes which we use to promote the films and then oversee the delivery of the programme in our cinemas. Day to day, I spend my time watching a lot of films, researching and reading about current trends in the market. With only two screens, we can only show around four new films a week so for every one that I choose, I have to eliminate ten others which are available. It is as much about what we don’t show as what we do. I am also in charge of administrative tasks such as managing budgets, supplier relationships, and developing staff and, as a member of the Senior Management Team, I have responsibility for feeding into the overall strategic planning and management of DCA as a whole.
What is your background in film and how important was it to achieve your successful career?
I was interested in cinema from a really young age and got my first 16mm projector when I was about 12. I went onto to study film at university – did my BFA at Concordia University in Montreal, an MPhil at the University of Glasgow and an MA at New York University. Throughout my studies, I volunteered at film festivals and ran little film societies before eventually leaving academia to start working in the cultural sector and in film exhibition. There’s no straightforward route to becoming a film programmer but one of the key attributes is to have a wide range of knowledge and appreciation for cinema culture. I have over 30 years of watching all kinds of films behind me now!
Do you think that having a film education is indispensable to work in the cinema industry?
I think it certainly helps – it gives you the time and tools to be able to think critically about cinema and develop your own taste. But formal education is not the only route (nor is it a guarantee) into the film industry.You have to be determined and 100% committed to it as a career choice if you are going to make it.
The main thing you need is drive and passion.
What skills would you say are vital for your job, and in general to work in your field? And what tips would you give to someone interested in a similar career?
For my job, you really have to be confident about your assessment of a film. It isn’t so much about your own personal taste but your understanding of what might appeal to an audience and what won’t and that only comes with experience. You have to be open and receptive to all kinds of filmmaking and crucially able to communicate what is important or interesting about a film to other people – be that your team or the customer. My main advice if you are interested in working in the film exhibition is to watch as much as you can and start formulating your ideas about what you are seeing. That could be putting on a season of films or writing a blog – anything to start thinking critically and communicating those ideas to others. Also, there are lots of pathways to getting into the industry and you have to be willing to do the little jobs first – be that as an usher or an office intern or as a set runner – all these experiences will add up.
Talking about issues of the sector, what is your position about equal pays and the role of women in the film world? And how much did this affect your personal experience?
Film exhibition (and probably the cultural sector in general) is a place where there are lots of great female role models and I have to say I’ve never felt that my gender was a barrier in my career. However, in terms of the production world, there definitely isn’t equal representation and the debates around this issue are certainly finally bringing it at least into the public consciousness. It is changing, but there’s still a very long way to go. The film industry is driven by money and commercial success and the more films made by women, starring women and with women’s stories that are embraced by the public, the more of them will get made.
That’s one thing I always say to people, get out there and support women filmmakers by seeing their films. Your money counts!
Last year, in terms of awards, #oscarsowhite dominated the public debate. This year Moonlight won Best Picture, despite the well-known initial confusion. To what extent do you think this will affect the lack of racial diversity in the film industry?
Again, it’s a bit of the same story, the financial success of Moonlight will do as much to change the way Hollywood supports diverse stories and filmmakers as much as the awards it received. Money talks, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that it was a wonderful moment for anyone who loves cinema to see a film of that quality, bravery and difference be recognised and celebrated.
Finally, looking at the future, what are your hopes and dreams when it comes both to the development of DCA and the evolution of cinema?
The big conversation in my sector at the moment is around the competition that cinemas face for customers’ leisure time and there is lot of debate about whether this could mean the death rattle for film-going as we know it. But I’m hopeful that despite how easy it is to stay at home and watch a great Netflix series, there is still an appetite to go out, watch something uninterrupted on a big screen with no distractions, in the company of other people who feel the same. We’ve not seen a drop in our admissions, if anything it has been the opposite, and there are still wonderful films being made which I want to showcase at DCA.
For the future, in order to develop and expand our programme, we desperately need a third screen and that is something that I’m working quite actively on at the moment. But in the meantime, we’ll continue to bring great films from all around the world, blockbuster to arthouse titles, to DCA. I’m one of the lucky few who really can say they love what they do everything day.
There’s nothing quite like feeling the energy of an audience in a cinema experiencing a wonderful film that you’ve had a hand in introducing them to.
Dundee Contemporary Arts is an amazing environment for all those people interested in contemporary visual art and culture. The building contains a gallery, currently displaying Mark Wallinger’s first exhibition in Scotland in collaboration with The Fruitmarket Gallery (Edinburgh), a print studio and, of course, a cinema. If you’re tired of NPH, DCA is only a bus ride away and their student price is just £5 for any regular screening!