In the persistent headwinds of social enterprise, the Scaling Catalyst award has offered increased clarity to Open Cinema’s direction of travel, material impetus to its progress, and an improved grip on the rudder.
Open Cinema was founded in June 2009 – the eye of a global financial storm – to enable organisations in the homelessness sector to work with and derive value for their supported communities from participatory cinema and filmmaking. Our mission evolved through early pilots to “enable any individual or community to move from exclusion to participation” in society and culture, and later, through partnerships with employers and educators, in knowledge and economy.
The government’s 2010 spending review severely reduced capital allocations to the local authorities and other bodies funding this sector. Foremost among them, the department for communities and local government reduced its budget by 59%, almost double the next most severely-cut department, that for culture, media and sport (Open Cinema’s other central government recourse).
Our small team persisted through the following years with a determination to survive as a social enterprise, not dependent on grants but on contracts. We are a services company, but with the significant attendant costs of human delivery and support. We recognised, at a time of rapid development in digital products and services, that if we could digitise the infrastructure and resources of community cinema, we could make these services available to community groups at a fraction of the cost and price, and therefore more widely, more sustainably, and with greater resulting impact.
In 2015, we were accepted onto the Dotforge Impact accelerator, among whose supporters were the Cabinet Office (allocating funds from the European Union) and the RSA. We spun out a second company, and built a prototype digital platform for community cinema. This would enable any community to register a venue profile, choose and schedule a licensed film screening, and market the event to their communities. Any individual could buy tickets to this event from any digital device. We subsequently raised £115k in pre-seed funding from two institutional investors, but by April 2016 had run out of money, not yet having gathered sufficient revenues to close a seed investment round, despite international interest in the venture from customers, franchisees and investors. This meant that, for a time, the platform was on hold.
The foundation, however, continued to trade, and create significant impact through its work. In the summer of 2016 we contributed three IT-skills-focused community cinemas and three filmmaking programmes to support organisations across England as part of Reboot UK, a lottery-funded digital inclusion programme. Two homeless participants progressed to Movement to Work, a 12-week pre-apprenticeship programme we delivered for technology giant Cisco Systems, at the end of which three of the 14 participants gained access to a three-year, paid and accredited apprenticeship programme at Cisco (worth £150k per participant). All 11 others gained full-time work in Cisco’s supply chain. We showcased both programmes at the BFI Southbank in July.
During this period, Catalyst enabled critical strategy development for the foundation, as the ‘mothership’ of the platform, including the prospect of further spin-outs (such as through converting our filmmaking programmes into a studio for community film production), and development of its first new website since 2010. We were enabled to work with the world-class designers at Assemble, on a site that would offer built-in adaptability (through its dozens of back-end applications) and scalability, for the existing products and services of the foundation and future spin-outs.
The award also enabled me to pivot Open Cinema’s sales strategy from a project-by-project basis to longer-term partnerships and agreements. In filmmaking, this has taken the form of a partnership agreement with community business fund, Power to Change, whose producing partners we now serve. In community cinema, we are now ‘cascading’ a skills-transfer model of community cinema across long-term partner St Mungo’s estate of 55 projects. This is sustainability through scale, and the foundation’s answer to the chicken-and-egg impasse of funding and results.
Open Cinema has achieved a great deal in its first eight years, some of which is described on our impact page. It has enabled thousands of excluded individuals to participate in culture and society, to develop their skills, expand their networks, and advance their journeys. It has contributed to a material advancement in the research and practice of arts-based programmes in support environments, and of media for development, in the UK and internationally; our first country franchise, Open Cinema Finland, launches later in 2017. Catalyst helped it weather the cross-currents of 2016-17, and take further steps towards being a foundation for community culture, voice and skills, a digital platform for the world’s community cinemas, a studio for community film production, and much more. As the founder of Acumen, Jacqueline Novogratz told a gathering of social entrepreneurs in Oxford in the Spring, “Godspeed, and God knows you’re needed”.