Inclusive Cinema – an overview

In conversation with Toki Allison, BFI FAN’s Inclusive Cinema project manager.
Jo Taylor

Short synopsis: 

Inclusive Cinema was a UK-wide project developed by the BFI Film Audience Network (FAN) designed to support screen exhibitors. The project celebrated diversity on screen, in the audience and behind the camera.

Inclusive Cinema was at the heart of BFI FAN’s strategy. It aimed to bring British, international and independent film to all audiences. Together with a creative network of partners, we contributed to a skilled and confident exhibition sector,  celebrating our multicultural heritage.

This project was for any and all exhibitors to share case studies, source guidance and access the latest data around diverse audience groups.


Can you tell us a little more about Inclusive Cinema and how it came about?

TA: Inclusive Cinema came about just before the last round of the BFI FAN, beginning in 2017 and concluding this year, 2023.

I was brought on board by Film Hub Wales to bring together work that was being done around dementia friendly cinema screenings by independent cinemas already, because each of the BFI Film Hubs were doing their own work with cinemas in their region or nation.

So, they realised that we needed to collate and share resources, learnings and best practice.

I started to connect that work together,  initially with a focus around dementia, but then as the project progressed, I was tasked with thinking about other underrepresented communities that might experience barriers to attending the cinema and what access measures could remove these barriers.

Film Hub Wales did some consultancy, working with a few different BFI Film Hub members (as well as the ones who were already trying to do dementia or autism friendly screenings or indeed ‘inclusive’ work). Through this work, we ran a survey with some of the BFI Film Hub members to get some raw data on how many accessible screenings were being run and how confident cinemas felt  about working with audiences from underrepresented backgrounds.

The headlines were:

  • A need for more training in different formats, and regularly to handle staff turnover, particularly around areas of access and accessibility
  • Specific project work was already happening – mainly around accessibility (eg. relaxed screenings), but with some work focused on LGBTQIA+, ethnically diverse, lower-income and rural groups
  • The extra financial outlay and staffing needs of providing specialist screenings could be prohibitive, and resource was required, as well as knowledge, and useful partnerships
  • Transport and other wider factors were impactful so needed consideration in any programmes
  • There was a clear appetite from cinemas for resources, training and financial support to embed more accessible activity into their programmes

Ultimately, our focus was “how do we get more audiences into cinemas?”, but also “how do we make sure these cinemas are not only welcoming, but capable of continually engaging those audiences so they feel like these cinemas are for them, that independent cinema is for them?” 

Once we had a strategy in place, it was clear what we needed to do and that we probably need projects around each of those key areas; whether that was looking at access versions that are provided alongside films and whether the hardware (hearing loops etc.) and access materials were available in cinemas for people to be able to access content. 

We also thought about the people who were working in cinemas and were they representative of the communities that they were trying to engage? 

Therefore, the project took on another facet – how could we do more work to explore inclusive recruitment and find different ways of working with people?

From both these B2C (business to customer) and B2B (business to business) needs, we decided that having a web resource would be really useful as a hub to house case studies and best practice from across the BFI FAN membership and network.

As this is a Cross FAN project, we frequently consulted with the other hubs – finding out what members might find useful and what do they actually want?


What are the key projects that have come out of Inclusive Cinema?

Initially, ambition wise, we were looking at a focus on dementia friendly activity in the first year and that worked really well. We created a resource with the UK Cinema Association and Alzheimer’s Society – a go-to comprehensive guide around running Dementia Friendly screenings, whatever size your cinema or whatever your offer could be.

Subsequently, we then went on to do work around autism friendly screenings because the model was not too dissimilar, this was also in partnership with the UK Cinema Association, but this time with Dimensions, a dedicated charity supporting people living with autism.

We’ve often done this work in partnership due to limited resources – sharing responsibility means we were able to deliver high end guides and toolkits but obviously the other benefit is that you get the wisdom of these organisations as well as expert charity partners like Alzheimer’s Society. We can do quality assurance on the guides that have been created, as well as working with people with that lived experience who can actually inform it from that perspective, so it comes from a place of authenticity and informed insight.

After these two pieces of work we were encouraged by BFI to focus on ethnicity and race, and how we could do more work to expand audiences.  So, we put together a steering group of advisors and we called the project Reel Change. Unfortunately, our initial ambitions for the project didn’t come to fruition due to unsuccessful funding bids, but from the steering group some best practice ideas were picked up by the advisory group to use on their own respective projects. For instance, Priscilla at The New Black Film Collective, was part of developing the Reel Change project and some of those learnings and those ideas have gone on to support some of the work that The New Black Film Collective has done – how to work with distributors and exhibitors etc.

We also produced a resource with writer and artist Sadia Pineda Hameed: ’Dismantling Structural Inequality in Your Cinema’. This was much more radical in tone and much more focused on the kind of the systemic changes that need to happen within the exhibition industry (rather than “you can create an environment by adapting a cinema for a one off event,” in the way that we do for dementia friendly and autism friendly screenings).  This was much more like “how is your cinema operating correctly, right from like the board through to the front of house experience? And how do we change it if not?” 

Ideas around recruitment, as well as how to ask some quite difficult questions within an organisation to get to the bottom of how they can change their structures to make their environments better, and stop embedded structural racism or toxicity that might be developing because of poor cultures and systems. 

The toolkit reached beyond the UK as well, with the writer Sadia receiving positive feedback from Megaplex Theatres in the US: “Your work on Diversity and Inclusion is extraordinary.   Megaplex Theatres is a Utah based exhibitor with 176 screens across 15 locations.  We are striving to expand our service model to be more inclusive and the resources outlined in the Cinema Toolkit will be remarkably helpful.” 

More recently, we commissioned some cinemas to run events as part of a project created by So Mayer, T.L.C. (aka Tender Loving Care for Trans-Led/Trans-Loved Cinema). This has personally been a really special project, and the discussions that came out of it were collated into a podcast series. So also wrote a lovely FAQ sheet to support understanding of trans experiences in cinema.

One of our final toolkits is the working class inclusion resource, created and hosted by Dr. Leanne Dawson. Leanne is a huge advocate for working class people and experiences, as well as poorer people too, and her 6-part guide is also available on all major podcast platforms. We also produced a film catalogue to go alongside this, to support cinemas in getting ideas together for working class representation on screen.

In terms of toolkits those are stand out projects for us but also it’s been key for us to better publicise the need for access versions in cinemas – working with the Film Distributors Association, working with cinemas, and with subtitling and audio describing companies to get more versions available on indie film titles. Rather than these formats being ‘nice to have’, it should just be standard so that film is accessible to anyone who’s D/deaf or hard of hearing, or who’s experiencing sight loss. 


How do you think Inclusive Cinema has enacted change within the sector?

I’d say the project has created greater awareness for exhibitors on what they can be doing to become more accessible to everyone and also to encourage them to widen their programming and audience engagement aspirations.

I think the big outcome from Inclusive Cinema from my perspective was that there was a go to place to ask audience engagement questions – whether you’re talking about accessibility, gender or sexuality or ethnic diversity, there are now resources for all these communities that not everyone feels confident about working with. Exhibitors could get connected with a real person (me!) who was then actually able to connect people to advisors that could help them or signpost them to other organisations who had done successful work in this way. We were a conduit and able to champion and rally good quality inclusive practice, essentially.

So I’m really proud of it and the resources we’ve created. I think as well, I guess where I see the proof in it is when complete strangers have like got in touch and been like “oh, somebody told me about this.” And they said it was useful. Or I’ve been at an event and somebody has been aware of who we are and what we do.

I do think any kind of outreach or holistic approach to audience engagement can’t necessarily be quantified in the same sense that an opening weekend box office gauges the success of a film.

This is because it’s a long term legacy activity, because you’re essentially changing the kind of cultural attitudes to the way things have been done and it takes time to see actual change. I’d argue that it’s really taking way too long.


What is Inclusive Cinema’s legacy?

The hope is the legacy is the resources themselves and the learnings that have come out of the projects – I think there’s been this trickling of information that’s come through, (which I think has happened societally too) that people’s awareness has increased.

It’s also Sidecard (which launched last year) – this was a major achievement for us and our collaborators, and one which I also consider part of our legacy too. It is a film access materials database, a website for recording and researching access materials created for film – its intention is to improve and promote accessibility while encouraging the sharing of resources. I’m really glad Matchbox Cine led on this work and have been able to keep the site going into the future.

The other legacy is also the people that we’ve worked with – we’ve had some really great advisors and amazing partners working on projects with us. We’ve also had some really amazing coordinators who came with their own lived experience of diversity, who worked on Inclusive Cinema, some brilliant freelancers, and I feel like that capacity to give work and to support people in their careers is something to be proud of too, despite it being somewhat short-term.

And, holding organisations to account has been important – what should the code of conduct for a cinema be if you’re trying to be, or indeed claiming to be, a welcoming space? Particularly if you’re claiming public money to support your community?

I think the advisory groups have been really useful in informing this in terms of familiarising the use of preferred pronouns, supporting racial inclusion, but then also the access advisory group, which was focused around how we develop our access offer and our different resources and projects.

Ultimately, I hope that exhibitors have felt motivated to make those positive changes around inclusion for their spaces, then we know we’ve achieved something. The work we do stems from topics and issues that are ever evolving and pervasive so these resources will always be needed and benefit those wanting to enact change.




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Opening our Doors: dementia friendly screenings – December 2017

Opening our Doors January 2019



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