This Week on the Boxoffice Podcast: BFI’s Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit for Cinemas with Sadia Pineda Hameed

Art by Zara Siddique.

This week on the Boxoffice Podcast, co-hosts Daniel Loria and Rebecca Pahle have an in-depth conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the cinema space with Sadia Pineda Hameed. An artist and consultant based out of Wales, Pineda Hameed penned the Dismantling Structural Inequality in Your Cinema toolkit for Film Hub Wales, part of the BFI’s Film Audience Network. Though written for U.K. cinemas, the toolkit provides insights on making cinema an inclusive, welcoming space for all audience members that can be useful for operators regardless of their market. Below is an abbreviated version of the Boxoffice Podcast’s discussion with Pineda Hameed, edited for length and clarity.

Sadia, thanks so much for joining us. Can you give us some background on your work in the diversity and inclusion space, and how you came to write this toolkit for the BFI?

I’m an artist, and I work with film and visual mediums in Wales and in Cardiff. As an artist, I got to know a lot of different organizations, including in the cinema world and theater, and also the visual arts. I also happened to be interested in activism. I’m not sure I’d call myself an activist. I suppose when I see something that’s not quite right in an institution, I am a bit outspoken, and I mention it to someone I know who works there. In a way, particularly post- the resurgence of Black Lives Matter last year, a lot of artists of color have fallen into diversity and consultancy work, just because we know what we want. And also, if the sector isn’t really paying our bills as artists and filmmakers, at least we can get something from telling them how they could start paying us better. [laughs] So that’s how I fell into consultancy—just through wanting to see some change. And Film Hub Wales, which is a local sector of the BFI, reached out to me asking me if I’d want to develop this toolkit with them

Tell us a bit about the toolkit. When we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), there’s two ways that I think it might be approached here among cinemas in the United States, especially. The first way is how we saw a lot of brands go out on social media platforms, express their support, and then have some sort of vague addressing of “We’re going to look at things institutionally.” And the second side of this equation is that this can be actually a little bit intimidating, especially for cinemas that aren’t large corporate chains. It can be a little bit daunting. How do you start these conversations? How do we approach this in the right tone? Could you tell us about your approach in putting this together?

I was commissioned to do it about two years ago. At first it was, “Do you want to make a toolkit asking how to treat people of color better in cinemas?” And I thought, “Yes, there are enough strategies and tools to do that.” And then the toolkit got postponed. Mostly my fault for being too busy. And I only really started thinking about it again with Toki [Allison, BFI FAN Access Officer] and Hana [Lewis, Film Hub Wales Strategic Manager] from Film Hub Wales again around the time of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. And we realized that it’s not enough to just hand over tools to people that aren’t capable of implementing them. Actually, now that people are opening their eyes and waking up to the fact that everything is involved in systemic injustice and the fact that a maybe an Asian person doesn’t feel welcome in your cinema, or an African person doesn’t feel welcome with what you’re screening—that’s all tied into a more systemic thing. And once we start acknowledging that, then more meaningful change could happen. So we rewrote our proposal for this toolkit. And it went from being, “Here are some tips on how to be more welcoming!” to “This will be the last toolkit you’ll ever need, hopefully, as a cinema.”

This toolkit is written for cinemas in the U.K., and there was a lot of input from community cinemas. Looking outside of that—at cinemas in different parts of the world, and some of these larger chains—what would you recommend for maybe a GM or an individual theater employee who doesn’t have contacts in the C-Suite, but who wants to have some of these conversations about how their cinema can affect change?

Writing the toolkit, I did have in mind the different people that would be reading it. I want all the CEOs and directors to be reading it, but most likely it’s going to be an engagement officer or even, maybe, an an engagement assistant that’s one of the most underpaid people in their organization [laughs]. They’re usually tasked with things like this. While I want to reach the big corporations, it’s probably going to be read by a small grassroots cinema that just wants to do their best. So I wanted to keep in mind how to approach all those different audiences. My strategy is to let people feel empowered and capable in the position they’re in. In the toolkit I posture that if you’re an assistant or an intern or underpaid, gain a solidarity with other people in your workplace who feel the same but actually aren’t at as much of a risk of losing their job if they bring up something as crazy as, “Hey, let’s talk about systemic racism.”

And then, to a director, I pose the idea that it’s your responsibility as someone who’s using public funding or is working in an organization whose remit is to serve all people to take this more seriously than someone else. And it’s actually more of a responsibility of yours. It’s kind of hard to talk to both the grassroots cinema and the film corporation who’s got a lot of money invested in it as a sector. But I think the idea is, if we think about everything systemically, everyone has a part to play, whether that’s small or large. And in that sense, it sounds cheesy, but maybe we could start working together!

Something that we’ve spoken a lot about on the podcast is communication—establishing an open dialogue between a movie theater and the community they’re a part of. How important is it for cinemas to reach out to different minority groups in their communities—to make sure their outreach is both general and targeted to specific segments?

One thing that I really stress in the toolkit is the difference between marketing and outreach. Marketing is how you advertise and gain profit and reach enough people to buy tickets. And outreach is completely separate from that. It’s about relationship-building, showing the community that you’re situated in why you deserve to take up space there, because you’re offering them a service. Really, the importance of outreach is that by building a friendship, it opens a much more honest flow of communication. It’s harder to offend someone because they’re involved in the conversation. They get a say in it. They get a say in what language is used about them. They get a say in what their name is put on as a community partner. They get a say in programming. They get a say in how they’re represented. And that’s closer to a friendship than a corporate partnership to tick boxes of how many communities you’ve worked with. 

We apply that in so many other aspects of our life and in other sectors. But in the film industry, it’s almost—I guess because we use the word “audience” a lot, we really love to think of people in categories. And that’s not great, because an audience is a future programmer. An audience member is a future filmmaker. They’re not just consumers of a product. And when we start to look at that, we realize how important it is for those people to feel adequately and honestly represented and provided with opportunities to train and join the industry. Because they’re not passive.

In the U.S. now, may theaters are opening back up. In the U.K., you’re still looking at May. Within this period of shutdown, we’ve seen a lot of cinemas take a step back and reassess how they operate. What can cinemas do during this transitional period to become more diverse and inclusive?

This has offered a really interesting opportunity to mobilize budgets. What would normally go to the maintenance of space—if you’re lucky enough to get some sort of governmental support or things like that—[you can use to] internally pay your staff better, if they’re not getting paid well enough. But in terms of programming, you’ve got money to commission freelancers and smaller filmmakers to respond to films. You’ve got money to put into the industry by funding artists to create or research. You can fund academics to help educate people on histories of cinema. You’ve got money to put back into the communities that we sometimes tokenize as cinemas. To give back to them and say, “We’re not just using you as an audience. We’ve got resources to offer training if people want to become filmmakers and want to find out how to get involved.” Or if they want to become programmers and curators. We’ve got all of these resources, and we’ve got all of this time and space to imagine how we’d like cinema and film to be. The issue is always, “I’ll have to ask my manager.” And then, “I’ll have to ask my boss.” And then, “I’ll have to ask the board of trustees.” But actually, we can imagine further than that. And we can actually start making some really positive and active decisions now.

Right now, as we’re reallocating and reimagining what the cinema experience is like—what your private rentals business is like. We’ve seen that become a lifeline for a lot of exhibitors in not really marketing content, but going out and letting people know that, “Hey, we’ve got this cinema space right here. And these private rentals can be something for you.” How you have that conversation changes. You look at the U.S. market, for example, where one out of every four tickets sold is to a Latin America or Hispanic person. I think there is a great interest not only in investing time and money because it’s the right thing to do—but there is also a financial reward if you make sure people feel included in your space. And I think, especially with the private rentals, this might be a great step forward with the right strategy.

Yeah, absolutely. It’s still an industry, and we’re still happy to be audiences and pay money for tickets to see the latest blockbuster. There’s also this fear of falling into this trap where people of color or disabled people or Queer people are just seen as a special interest group, when really we make up the majority of the global cinema audience. But what this really opens up is the idea that as we slowly open up the physical spaces, how can we treat those audiences more equally? How can we not tokenize them in advertising? How can we create safe spaces? How can we integrate dementia screenings and relaxed screenings and screenings that allow children and talking and food? Because we’ve got a limited number of people that can be in a larger space. We could do loads more screenings and really experiment with what people actually want.

That’s a key thing—sometimes this conversation of inclusivity gets politicized to a point where it can be part of a culture war, about being politically correct, rather than just addressing, “Hey, how can we bring as many people into our space and have them feel as welcome and as comfortable as possible?” This isn’t a cultural war. Inclusivity is literally just that: Trying to make people as welcome and comfortable as possible in your physical space. And I think it’s in the best interest of any business to adapt to that.

In the toolkit I talk a lot about personhood. As much as this toolkit is aimed towards welcoming in people of color or disabled people or intersections between these, it is actually moreso about just treating people like people.

And that involves getting their input on things. On things like programming, or something so simple as just asking people what terms they’d like for you to refer to them as. It’s just about respecting people.

Yeah, absolutely. In the toolkit I talk about how this whole idea of what to call people. What to call different groups of people is such an issue, with people wanting to be politically correct. But I make a point in the toolkit to say that if you have a good enough relationship with that audience and you have a track record of welcoming them in your space and providing resources—you don’t need to even worry about what term you call them, because they’re just friends and collaborators and artists. They’re not any type of demographic. All these terms, from “Queer” to the acronyms of “LGBTQI”—no one chose to be called these things. It’s only through lawmaking and when people finally get a chance to have an input into policies about themselves, we just have to accept some of these terms or use it to be able to speak to them. But no one chooses any of these terms. I hate that the conversation gets so focused on political correctness, and “Should I be calling this person ‘black’ or ‘brown’ or not?”

It clouds, I think, actionable insights. It clouds systemic processes to be implemented once we get caught down in the details. Inclusivity is not a political topic. And we tend to buy into these narratives that ultimately just work against us.

Read the entire Dismantling Structural Inequality in Your Cinema toolkit, written by Sadia Pineda Hameed and designed by Zara Siddique, here.

Listen to the the full episode below and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

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