Nestled in the Exeter Phoenix is a beacon of indie cinematic culture. Studio 74 is the solar-powered cinema that hosts event screenings, Q&As, regional premieres as well as top indie film selections. Curating the programme is Claire Horrocks.
“The core of what I do is look after Studios 74,” says Claire as we chat in the Exeter Phoenix bar, just steps away from the cinema.
The selection of films each month includes predominantly independent, world cinema, and British films that you wouldn’t be anywhere else in the city. “I also oversee specialist seasons – the season of Girlhood, for example, and our Big Screen in the Park.”
Claire also co-produces the annual short film festival Two Short Nights with the wider Phoenix Digital team.
“I look after audience development for the cinemas and make sure that we can reach new audiences, under-served audiences, and think about what we can do to meet the expectations of those who are already coming,” she says.
Driving that is the cinematic choice that’s on offer. There’s a general slate of films that come out each month, serving up a rich selection each week. Claire aims to watch them all.
“We make the decisions in advance, and try to pin down a programme up to six weeks before we put them on,” says Claire. Those selections are backed up with a load of research.
“There are some that you get an actual feel for, films that you’ve heard about through festival runs or films that you know are going to make an impact based on who’s directed them,” she says. “There are films you can immediately veto because they are not part of our vision.” The latest Downton Abbey, for example, didn’t get a screening because when they showed the first film, Claire says: “I think we were the only cinema in the country that didn’t have anyone come and see it.” Rather than being glum, it’s a valuable insight into what their audience expects.
“Our audience has definitely evolved from when we opened in 2015,” she says. “It’s an ever-changing thing that differs from film to film, from week to week. We do have a core audience of people that have a trust in us. And there is a committed audience for documentaries, particularly about travel and extreme sports.”
Claire mentions the season of surf films, including the surf documentary BIG vs SMALL, which is accompanied with a Q&A with indie filmmaker Minna Dufton.
That knowledge of what to screen is informed by experience and sharing.
“It’s a massive responsibility of being the only programmer of a cinema. With that in mind, we try to collaborate with other organizations and other exhibitors. And we give space and a platform to other people to enable a wider vision of what can be put on screen,” says Claire. She’s keen to share films with staff at the Phoenix and their parnters, to garner their enthusiasm and perspectives, too.
Part of that vision is of creating a creative event around cinema going. An approach which was perfectly drawn out with the screenings of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, when an artist mingled with the audience and created portraits for them.
“That was the peak when cinema was credible for independent spaces. It was weeks before we all got shut down, which couldn’t be more different now. But I’m seeing things come back slightly,” says Claire. The cost of living crisis and a change of habits after lockdown has seen a squeeze on attendance. But a comeback is being led by the films – Everything Everywhere All At Once was a particular draw.
Another way to attract the audience has been with regional previews, like the one Studio 74 hosted of emotional powerhouse Ali and Ava. There are lots of distributors across the UK who are eager to do more.
The role of programmer feeds Claire’s love of film. “I’ve always had a massive interest in film. Wanting to share what I’ve watched with other people has always been a thing. As a kid, I would make my friends sit and watch what I enjoyed.”
Claire’s journey at the Exeter Phoenix began with volunteering at the Two Short Nights Film Festival and reaching out for whatever opportunities were going, eventually leading to a paid gig at the box office, through to administration and then a role in the digital office to what she’s doing now. In fact, a lot of programming is getting your head around the organisation and a variety of admin tasks.
Despite the ongoing quest for audience, Studio 74 is in a really good position for the future. It’s a member of the BFI South West Hub. That comes with access to funding, training events and more in-depth knowledge about the films. Plus incentives that reward the cinema for putting on a film that you wouldn’t see at a chain.
“It’s a great initiative. And an encouraging way of allowing people to take risks.”
Indie film is all about risks, pushing boundaries and telling stories on the edge. Claire’s creating an indie cinema environment where you can immerse yourself in what the world has to offer.
One of Claire’s most memorable film events was at the Exeter Phoenix’s outdoor cinema, the Big Screen in the Park. They were showing ET.
“It was the most beautiful clear night and it was playing when the Perseids – the shooting stars – were taking place. There’s a scene when ET makes Elliot’s BMX fly. Everyone followed the bike going across the moon and there was this huge, actual real life full moon with shooting stars in the sky. The whole audience gasped!”
The magic, the mystery, the imagination of that shared experience of cinema.
Studio 74 at the Exeter Phoenix | What’s on
top image: Claire Horrocks at Two Short Nights. Courtesy of Rhodri Cooper.
- Ben Kernow | It is alright for a project to scare you a little - August 11, 2022
- Long Way Back | intelligent and unique road movie - August 2, 2022
- Exeter Cinema Heritage | what cinema means projection - July 25, 2022