It’s not so grim up north: programming the Cornerhouse

An insight into contemporary film culture Manchester-style with Cornerhouse programmer Rachel Hayward.


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London may be the beating heart of the UK film industry, but is there a thriving film culture present outside of Britain’s capital? What is it like, who does it serve, and most importantly, how is it evolving? I sat down with Rachel Hayward, film programme manager at Cornerhouse, Manchester’s international centre for contemporary art and film, to find out.

Hayward, with her academic background in English and Film Studies, and annual visits to international film festivals like the Berlinale and Cannes, does not seem to represent the average cinema-goer. Quite the opposite: she’s something of a cineaste, critically-minded and arthouse-inclined. How then does she disengage with her inner cinephile and think about what’s going to appeal to the public?

Hayward claims there’s “no science to it”, but that one does have to think about “what people are actually going to come to see, what people are going to want to see, what they’ll pay to see, and what they’ll enjoy watching”. But to make that kind of judgement is no mean feat, and relies on a combination of instinct and experience.

She recalls French crowd-pleaser The Intouchables (2011), remembering that although she knew it had an international fan base before Cornerhouse picked it up, she was unsure as to “whether it would do really well, or whether it was too clichéd – and if people would see through that kind of cloying, sickly sweetness.” Despite her reservations, The Intouchables was a huge hit with the people of Manchester.

Other hits with Mancunians are surprising; long gone is the demand for Ken Loach-esque social realism and bleak kitchen-sink dramas. Rather, Spanish-language, Asian (specifically Chinese) and Arab cinema are Cornerhouse’s biggest draws. Hayward’s findings, though anecdotal, suggest her viewing public’s tastes reflect a modern, multicultural Mancunia, one that Cornerhouse seeks to nurture through careful collaboration with the Chinese Film Forum and the curation of festivals, seasons and one-off events like ¡Viva!, their Spanish and Latin American film festival (now in its nineteenth year).

Rachel Hayward on stage at the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival

Rachel Hayward on stage at the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival

Hayward cites this “regional specificity” as key, maintaining that what differentiates Manchester from say, “London, or Bristol or Sheffield” is all part of what she calls a “big ecology of cinema-going in the UK”. That’s not to say she encourages cultural isolation from other regions, though. She’s keen to discuss the BFI’s newly-launched hub network scheme, a “vision from the BFI for different regional hubs to work nationally”. This is “really interesting”, she says, giving Cornerhouse “more opportunities to share work, good practice and content”.

Sharing solidarity and good practice within the UK’s wider arts community is important now more than ever, Hayward presses. In recent years, harsh austerity cuts to arts funding have affected independent organisations and charities like Cornerhouse directly. Cornerhouse’s grant and aid money has decreased to as little as half of what it received when Hayward joined back in 2005.

Yet she’s optimistic about the creative challenges these cuts present, for they encourages programmers to “look at other ways of making the shortfall”. Such strategies include scheduling in order to make the most of films that are doing well, which in turn enables the screening of smaller, less commercially viable films. One such example of this is Hayward’s decision to run Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom for “nine, ten, eleven weeks, even for just a few screenings, which helped bolster smaller films that we showed in Cinema 3” [Cornerhouse’s cosiest screen, seating just 55]. However, Hayward is wary of selling out, “just showing the big things… and narrowing what people watch”.

Both widening access and democratising film seem to be Hayward’s key concerns, but what of democratising the film industry itself? Hayward and her colleagues at Cornerhouse unanimously agree that the best way that they’re able to play their part is in encouraging young people to “really see the arts as a viable career option”, through their Young People’s Programme, LiveWire.

“We have some absolutely phenomenal projects that Marisa [Draper, producer of Cornerhouse’s Young People’s Programme] has worked on, which has led to many examples of people who have been part of the project, and are now going on to do paid work, either with us or within the Manchester arts sector”, Hayward says. She describes LiveWire as the starting point of a “fantastic, traceable route” for young people who want to compete in the film industry.

However, for Hayward, successful social change can also be found in the individual micro-stories of people who’ve joined the programme and “not really wanted to talk to a group of people because they might’ve been shy, or have had issues”, who then go on to “direct a film and tell people what to do, where to stand and what places to go to.” It’s these little victories – the small, personal journeys that propel people into work in associated industries, or to study in related subjects – that spark real, quantifiable change in people’s attitudes towards the creative industry.

“Obviously if someone’s got no job, if they’re starving hungry out on the streets, and you tell them to ‘go and watch a play!’, that’s not going solve their problems”, says Hayward, arguing that instead, the arts need to be part of “a wide mix of social reform”. In this mix is her own brand of reform: the effecting of social change through film and arts-based education.

But what does she say to those who consider the arts an exercise in frivolity? Hayward, horror-struck, implores them to imagine the alternative: a world without the arts. “If we had no theatres, no cinemas, no books, no literature”, she asks, “what kind of society would we be in then?”

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