Film co-ops offer a welcome alternative to the multiplex

Whether they meet in cinemas, member relations’ centres or down the pub, film co-operatives are flourishing. All specialise in showing films that are unlikely to make it to...

The latest to emerge is the Birmingham Co-operative Film Society, established earlier this year.

Its roots go back to 2008 and a Co-operative Party screening of the coffee trade film ‘Black Gold’ in the city. 

Richard Bickle had attended the screening and observed that many of those attending were “not the usual suspects”. Nothing happened immediately but the idea of running regular screenings took root and eventually, with the help of Co-operative Futures, the co-operative was formed.  

Its first screening last month attracted a crowd of around 35 people and, following an April screening of Food, Inc,, the co-operative is now preparing for its May presentation, Bread and Roses. Membership is open to individuals and organisations, with discounted tickets available to members.

A link with Midlands Co-operative has proved crucial in getting the co-operative up and running. John Boyle, the society’s Member Relations Officer, says it was very happy to support the film co-operative in a number of practical ways.

“When I first heard about the film co-op idea I was chuffed as I saw it as an ideal member group. The Western Region Member Relations Committee was happy to support it with a start-up grant and agreement for running costs.” 

The committee also agreed to the new co-op using its function room for screenings. 

The room is part of the society’s Member Relations Centre in Birmingham which, along with its sister centre in Leicester, is something of a rarity now in the Movement.

Mr Boyle happily acknowledges that supporting the film co-operative could also benefit Midlands Co-operative: “One area we fall down on — and all societies do too — is diversity. We knew that a member group of this kind, showing ethical, thoughtful films would bring in younger members, and that should attract potentially active members.” 

Richard Bickle agrees: “We don’t just want to build a bigger audience for progressive films, we want to get a new audience for co-operation.”

Finding a new audience for socialism was the inspiration for setting up the London Socialist Film Co-operative and, nearly 20 years on, it remains one of the most successful film co-operatives. 

Its Member Secretary and Treasurer Nicola Seyd explains that the co-operative had its roots in books: “A group of us were members of the St Pancras Marxist Study Group, who would meet up to discuss books that we’d all read. 

“While rattling our buckets to collect money one day we came into contact with film-maker Chris Reeves and decided it would be interesting to hold discussions based around film screenings.”

In 2002 the co-operative registered its current constitution as a community co-operative and it now has more than 300 members who can all suggest ideas for screenings and vote to approve the programme.

Films are shown once a month from October to June on Sunday mornings at the Renoir Cinema. It is a time-slot that Ms Seyd says is particularly popular with older members. “We always get a very good attendance from older people who enjoy something different on a Sunday morning. The 11am start can be a bit more challenging for some of our younger supporters.”

Although the co-operative has moved away from having themed screenings, films on areas such as Palestine, Latin America and Spain always prove popular.

At each screening, which may include two or more films, the co-operative tries to have either the film-maker or a specialist on the film’s subject, or both, present to lead the follow-up discussion. Regular — and popular — speakers include Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn MP.

The idea of themed screenings is one that has been taken up by the Manchester Film Co-op ( It was established around 18 months ago and operates from city-centre pub, the Kings Arms. The co-operative decides on different themes and then selects appropriate films. Recent themes have included revolution, sustainable futures, political violence and resistance and work. 

Its latest theme is movement. Films being shown include Rize, about the emergence of new dance forms in parts of Los Angeles that are bringing communities together and providing an alternative to gang membership. On May 20th, the co-operative will be screening Berlusconi’s Mousetrap, a documentary about the G8 protests, and the violent reaction to them, which took place in Genoa in 2001.

The idea of co-operators gathering for film screenings is not new. In the 1950s Eric Walker used to work for the education department of the London Co-operative Society and part of his work involved setting up film shows for members.

“I used to deliver 16mm film equipment to the then many Co-op Guilds. I would show publicity films made by the CWS plus some entertainment shorts. The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society had a similar film projection unit. 

“At one time I also used to look after the CWS’s film archive but later we passed it on to the National Film Archive. There was one film made in about 1944 by the Nottingham Co-op to celebrate the Co-operative Centenary. It was a history of the Co-op Movement, which included Gracie Fields singing a song about shopping at the Co-op.”

Although the London, Nottingham and Royal Arsenal Societies — and Gracie Fields — may no longer be with us, the prospects for the new generation of film co-operatives look encouragingly healthy. 

Once the Birmingham Co-operative Film Society is better established it hopes to use its website and its links with the British Federation of Film Societies to promote the idea of film co-operatives using the community co-operative model. 

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