Community Cinemas; Building Bridges, Taking the Fight to The Multiplex

Alsager Civic Centre is an unassuming building in a pleasant but fairly unassuming town. Located on the Staffordshire/Cheshire border, under an hour from Manchester as the Google map flies, the Civic Centre sits in the centre of Alsager, single-story, slightly dated; a large room for dance functions and the like proving the main focus. Currently, probably through the design of some student or another, it has a shopping trolley sitting on its roof.

The Civic Centre faced a challenge not so long ago. Having been handed over from the control of the large Cheshire East Council to the much smaller Alsager Town Council, the newly installed manager, James Bettany, had a question to answer; how exactly to make the Civic Centre different, to make it a part of the community again, to better connect with everyone who lives in the town, to take advantage of the clear passion from some quarters towards the upkeep of the building and the town centre?

The answer was cinema.

Whilst 'The Civic' may not look like the most obvious venue for screenings of Men In Black 3 and Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, every Friday night in August the large hall will be transformed into a 200-seat cinema experience, complete with big screen, popcorn stall and licensed bar area. Daytime shows for parents and children double the number of screenings The Civic intends to put on each Friday.

It's an unlikely scene being reflected in numerous similar towns around the country, as small councils and passionate groups of cineastes seek to reconnect with a public disenfranchised by bad news stories, tax hikes and spending cuts.

'We're lucky in a way not to be a large multi-million pound council' says James, taking a break from presiding over the weekend farmer's market. 'We don't have to focus on the pavements or the roads. We're taking on more services but, at the moment, The Civic is our priority. It's definitely an attempt to reconnect and engage with the people of Alsager. It's a good news story'.

Using cinema to rebuild bridges torn down in the current economic crisis is ambitious enough but The Civic isn't limiting the goals of its cinema to one-track aims.

'We know we cater really well for the over-55s but we need to engage with the rest of Alsager. We wanted something that would bring young people in but not just exclusively young people. There's a lot of stereotyping, in both groups, but we just thought, if we can get all of these people in a room together, they'll realise the sterotypes aren't true.'

Cinema as social conscience? Building bridges that arguably weren't even there in the first place? You bet. And there's more. James pauses when asked if The Civic will be in competition with the larger cinemas in the area. There's two Odeons and a Vue, all a comfortable drive away. Is The Civic taking the fight to them too?

'I suppose we are going to be in competition with them for a short while, yes. Its the children's holidays and parents and grandparents are going to want to do something. Hopefully we offer an affordable alternative for people who don't want to pay £30 or more for a cinema trip.'

The independent arthouse cinema in the provinces is dead. Long live the independent community cinema.

It seems so easy, yet there's clearly been some careful, if quick, planning going on in the background. A schedule had to be agreed and programmed. The day screenings are PG and U offerings, the evenings 12a and 15 releases ('we're mindful an 18-rated film might not be appropriate for a community centre'). Surrounding towns are being targeted as well, adding another string to The Civic's growing repertoire of community benefits ('we're trying to bring people to the town who wouldn't normally be here').

When asked why its taken so long to do something with so many benefits, James is understandably surprised.

'There never used to be any active marketing here, any community engagement. All we're doing is listening to what people want. The feedback has been fantastic. Two or three of the shows will sell out before the doors open. All ages of people have been in to buy tickets.'

The message to other towns seeking a way to connect, a way to show residents that communities are still thriving, a way to build new bridges in tough times, is simple: choose cinema.

'Give it a go. Speak to knowledgeable people. There's a market there that wants this' and again, 'all we're doing is listening to what people want'.

And what people want, what communities want, is cinema.

'Civic Cinema' runs on every Friday in August @ Alsager Civic, ST7 2AE. Day showings start at 2.30pm. Evening showings start at 7.30pm. Prices are £4 a ticket or £14 for four people. For more information see here or contact


  1. I still feel certain communities embrace and desire a film community much more than others. Fresno, in particular, is missing an independent theatre (and quite frankly, I'm not sure there's a whole lot of demand for one).

    1. Perhaps so but if one popped up on a semi-regular basis the results might surprise you. I know this one was partially based on a poll and when asked what they wanted - anything at all - a very small leafy suburb said film screenings they could walk to. On that basis you never know where one might be able to pop up and secure an audience for a month at a time.