The Nerve Centre, Belfast – Ones to Watch Programme

Eavan King - Film Programme Manager, Nerve Centre


The Nerve Centre was set up in 1990 as a self-starting organisation for young people in Derry-Londonderry who felt marginalised by education, politics, and culture at the time. Embracing the creative learning opportunities that emerging digital technologies offered, the Nerve Centre has grown to become Northern Ireland’s leading creative arts and media centre.

The Nerve Centre is also home to the Foyle Film Festival, whose film awards are Oscar and BAFTA accredited. The festival delivers a year-round programme of cultural cinema across Derry-Londonderry and the surrounding areas.

BFI Film Academy is delivered by the Nerve Centre across the three Creative Learning Centres in Northern Ireland.

The Ones to Watch Young Programmers project came about in 2017 in a bid to try and retain the young people coming through our venues for Academy and to connect them to our wider cinema and education offer.

Participants were keen to maintain a link with the centre and to each other and continue to work together on film projects. Film Hub NI supported the Nerve Centre with seed funding to create the Ones to Watch programme.

The programme offers training in film exhibition, marketing, events management, business of film, presentation and curation of online content. Over the last 5 years, the programme has delivered curated film events for a wide variety of community stakeholders, written and produced short films and programmed the festivals, conferences and screenings that showcase their work.

How important is the project in your organisation?

The Ones to Watch project is an integral part of the Nerve Centre’s film education and production programmes. We connect our programmers with the wider activity taking place in the organisation so that they can make a contribution to a range of events (Northern Ireland Science Festival, Stendhal Music Festival, Foyle Film Festival).

Ones to Watch has formed invaluable partnership with a range of education and industry
particularly the Cinematic Arts Department at Ulster University. The partnership was nominated for a Civic Impact award for its work in connecting film as a vehicle to explore mental health and wellness.

The programming team has engaged Cinema for All and Dublin Smartphone Film Festival as training delivery partners in film curation and exhibition skills as well as smartphone filmmaking skills for our core programmer team.

Foyle Pride Festival, the Rainbow Project, Northern Ireland Mental Health Festival have all
collaborated with Ones to Watch to deliver events on themes around diversity, inclusion and positive mental health.

The Brave Lab supports Ones to Watch in the delivery of personal development and resilience in the screen industries by providing training in employability, networking and career progression skills for young programmers.

Prior to starting up Ones to Watch, we knew we were delivering good outcomes for young people in digital skills, in music and industry linked programmes such as BFI Film Academy. These activities weren’t necessarily translating to our cinema offer or bringing young people into our venue regularly to watch films.

We’ve widened our appeal to audiences under 30 across our exhibition and education offer by increasing our youth curated content online; integrating more with the Foyle Film Festival offer & the wider BFI Film Academy programme.

The Ones to Watch group are at the heart of creating content that is personal, engaging and current – as evidenced by the uplift in engaged users online. An audience of 5,400 have actively engaged with our online programme of activity in 2021 alone.

Strategically, the Film Hub investment has paved the way for the development of the BFI Venue Education Fund programme in Northern Ireland, led by the Nerve Centre in partnership with Queens Film Theatre and Film Hub.

Do you have specific aims for the group?

The aim of Ones to Watch is to empower young people with the skills needed to curate and create content and events both for themselves as audience members and also as filmmakers.

How have you recruited for the group and from where?

The project is open to any young person aged 17-25. We find that a lot of the BFI Film Academy alumni get involved, we also recruit students from Ulster University and the Northwest Regional Colleges as well as through our social media channels and website. We offer a blended learning approach, delivering programmes in person and online. Our online programmes attract members from right across Northern Ireland which is brilliant to see.

Who manages the group?

The group is managed by a core group of 5 members, supported by the Nerve Centre film team. We recruit more members based on the type of programme we are delivering. The group meet monthly at the moment and more intensively depending on the needs of the current project. For example, if we are delivering social media takeover campaigns, we will have an intensive period of working to curate and prepare content for the online channels.

How do you structure the sessions

The sessions are structured depending on the needs of the project that we are currently working on. 2021 remained challenging for the exhibition sector in Northern Ireland as a whole.

Our programme structure remained completely online. The group presented ‘Ones to Watch Look Back’ – a series of interviews with leading NI filmmakers on their early short films. These events focused on connecting the wider film industry and a range of short and independent films directly with young filmmakers to increase production, exhibition and distribution knowledge and capacity.

8 events have been made available for free online through our Eventive player and guests have included leading NI names including Seamus McGarvey, Enda Hughes, Margo Harkin, Tracy Cullen, John McCloskey & Tim Loane.

The group meets twice monthly to plan the content for Look Back and then to record the interview with the guest filmmaker.

Ones to Watch Young programmers also get involved with other programmes being delivered in the Nerve Centre. Two of our Ones to Watch group met and interviewed Derry Girls start Saoirse Monica Jackson, as part of a ‘Spring Into The Creative Industries’ event supported by the Department of Communities through Northern Ireland Screen in March 2021.

The group also curated and hosted an online screening event to celebrate Foyle Pride in partnership with Ulster University and Filmbank. Reggie Blennerhasset & Mike Jackson from LGSM formed part of the panel discussion.

The Ones to Watch young programmers group has also been an essential experience for students of film who want to learn the business of film and how to make the most of their brand and maximise audiences for their productions.

During 2021, 52 young people benefitted from a direct programme of training in programme curation and audience development in partnership with Ulster University and Cinema for All. The students created short films themselves and learned how to research, curate and promote a programme of films to complement the theme of their showcase event. The showcase event was held online in May 2021.

Do you offer any incentives?

Participation in the programme is free with incentives such as Mubi monthly memberships/cinema vouchers given from time to time at the end of a programme to thank and acknowledge the voluntary hours participants put into the various projects. We do of course have the odd free pizza. The original (and best) incentive for all film students!

How long do the young people stay with you? Do you recruit every year or on an adhoc basis?

We normally recruit every year but during the pandemic we worked with the core group to deliver the online series and online takeovers. Time wise, they stay with us for 18 months all in and are still involved in whatever programmes appeal to them. Numbers do ebb and flow from project to project as the interests in the group are varied, with some more interested in film production, whilst other love watching and discussing films in a relaxed online environment. We try to meet the participants wherever they are at.

Will you be maintaining a hybrid format or going back to in person only?

Going forward we will be retaining a hybrid format, as it’s worked well for us during the Covid 19 pandemic and it has enabled us to widen the reach of the programme to engage young people right across Northern Ireland.

The Nerve Centre has recorded an overall increase of 20% in audiences online aged 16- 30 engaging with film content since the start of the Covid 19 pandemic.

We also know that most of our young audience aged 16-30 is actively pursuing a career in film, either through work or study at higher education level.

Feel good content such as social media takeovers celebrating film, promotion of positive mental health, showcasing new talent and celebrating young filmmakers has performed particularly well online. Even though box office remains low for online film content, audience figures remains strong for these events.


Here is a short promotional film created by one of our group members Conall, which showcases some of our previous programmes and some quotations from our 2021 participants.