For U.K.’s We Are Parable, Screenings Are More Than Just Movies

When Anthony and Teanne Andrews hosted their first screening in 2013, they had no thoughts that their one-off event—borne out of a shared love for Coming to America—would turn into an actual business. Certainly, that that business might throw them into the same sphere as Spike Lee was beyond imagining at the time. And yet, seven years later the Andrews’ We Are Parable has become one of the most exciting companies in the U.K. exhibition space—crafting innovative events that celebrate Black films, Black filmmakers, and Black audiences.

The core of We Are Parable’s philosophy can be found in that very first event, held at the Stratford East Picturehouse in London. “We just wanted to see one of our favorite films on the big screen,” recalls Anthony Andrews. Not content with popping Prince Akeem back on the big screen and calling it a day, the duo began to think of ways they could communicate their love of the film to moviegoers who hopefully felt the same way. 

The idea to add in a “few visual cues” that fans of the films would pick up on quickly “snowballed,” Andrews says, into a recreation of the fictional kingdom of Zamunda in the theater: crafts makers and other vendors from the African diaspora, dancers and musicians, and—of course—rose bearers. Special touches like these “elicit an emotional response from our audience,” says Andrews. In an age where classics can be rented for a few bucks on streaming platforms, We Are Parable has found success in adding a “little bit novel, a little bit avant-garde” edge to their screenings—thus creating a “connective thread” between audience members who recognize and appreciate the same references. “That’s something that is truly so rare and so precious. And I think the more that we can create those connective threads in in our audience, the better cinema will become.”

We Are Parable’s approach reflects a truth that exhibitors have been familiar with since the first days of the movie theater: that moviegoing is a communal experience. Following the success of their Coming to America screening, We Are Parable built similar experiences around other films, like Love & Basketball (giving U.K. moviegoers “the all-American experience,” with cheerleaders and a makeshift basketball court) and the “Spike is 60” film festival, where (for example) a 25th anniversary screening of Do the Right Thing was coupled with a block party. The festival had already been programmed and scheduled when We Are Parable got an email from the man himself with an unexpected offer. Spike Lee would be in town for a few days. Did they want to do an event together?

“It’s one of those pinch yourself moments,” recalls Andrews. We Are Parable had three days to secure a cinema, put together an event, and sell tickets. (Which they did, to a 400-strong, sold-out crowd.) “We had to move heaven and Earth to make it happen,” Andrews says. “But people were so appreciative of being able to meet him. He did a wonderful meet and greet afterwards, signing memorabilia, signing books, taking pictures. The man is so much for the people…. We still have people come up to us now, saying, ‘That was amazing. I never though I’d meet Spike Lee, and you guys did that.’”

The Spike Lee event marked a turning point for We Are Parable, which was immediately conscious of “really want[ing] to build on that momentum as much as possible,” says Andrews. “That’s when we really started to think of our organization, of what we built, as a business.” They became more focused on funding applications and different revenue streams. A boost to the group’s visibility and reputation as a result of the Lee event helped them make connections and form relationships—key among them a relationship with the British Film Institute. It was the BFI who asked We Are Parable, in 2017, if they’d like to work together on the first-ever public screening of Black Panther, held in February of the following year.

When they were planning We Are Parable’s Black Panther event, Anthony and Teanne had not yet seen the film—but they “knew what the film would mean to our audience. We knew that we had to come correct.” They came up with the idea of reimagining the BFI Southbank in London as a kingdom—not as Wakanda itself, but a representation of what the regal T’Challa would expect to see walking into a cinema. “We had interior designers. We had jewelry makers. We had booksellers. We had fashion designers. Music. Art.” As well as an exhibition showing famous Black characters in comics history. “We created this raw, immersive moment within the BFI Southbank. That was a moment where people really saw themselves represented—not only in the film, but also in the way we put the experience together.”

In the U.K., as in the U.S., the exhibition landscape is largely white—though “it’s definitely getting better,” says Andrews. “Distributors are starting to realize that, yes, they are acquiring these [Black] films, but actually, do they have the knowledge and the tools and the resources to be able to reach the audiences that these films need to be seen by? I think, on their own, no.” Andrews encourages distributors to reach out to organizations and exhibitors such as (but certainly not exclusive to) We Are Parable that put in the work to showcase Black films to Black audiences. The challenge there, he admits, is in “making sure that you’re paying for and you’re valuing the service that these exhibitors bring.”

Since the Black Panther event, We Are Parable went for “bigger pieces of funding” and began to schedule events outside of the London area. If landing Spike Lee and Black Panther (with director Ryan Coogler in attendance for a Q&A) were key moments in We Are Parable’s story, Covid-19 is another—one that shifted We Are Parable from more events to none at all, at least for a few months. 

During that time, however, We Are Parable did not stay silent, shifting their resources to conduct a survey on how customer confidence about a return to cinemas varied across different ethnic groups. Missing in wider conversations about attracting moviegoers back to cinemas, Andrews believed, was an awareness that members of minority ethnic communities were more likely to die of Covid-19 then their white counterparts. Suspecting that this fact would impact willingness to return to cinemas among non-white moviegoers and dissatisfied about the level of attention paid to this “this specific and vulnerable audience”—which, per statistics published by the BFI, see movies more frequently than the overall population (see 2019 Audiences data)—We Are Parable surveyed 1,100 moviegoers, 40 percent of them Black, Asian, or from another ethnic group, about their feelings on getting back to the movies.

The results (found in summary here; full findings available for download here) found that Black respondents on the whole were significantly less likely to be confident about returning to cinemas than white respondents. “Almost a fifth of them said that they wouldn’t be going back to cinemas till 2021. Another third of that audience said that they’re not sure about when they’re going to go back to cinemas. If you think about that, that’s almost 50% of an audience who are some of the most frequent visitors.” On a dollars-and-cents level, “it doesn’t make sense to ignore this cohort of people” and their comparative hesitancy on returning to cinemas. “From a moralistic view, in some ways, it’s unforgivable in my eyes.”

The data We Are Parable has released, Andrews says, has pushed industry bodies in the U.K. to think about how they can better communicate the safety measures they’re taking to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Andrews himself integrated the insight gained from the survey into We Are Parable’s first event post-shutdown: a sold-out screening of Sarah Gavron’s Rocks, held at the Rio Cinema in London on September 8.

We Are Parable was careful to communicate the Rio’s “very stringent” safety measures to their audience in advance of the event. “What we wanted to do is be responsible and not contradict our research by saying, ‘Oh, just come to the cinema! It’s going to be fine!’” Multiple posts on social media reiterated, in a “very succinct” way, the guidelines all attendees would have to follow. Temperatures would be taken. Masks would be worn. Tickets should be purchased in advance. Social distancing will be in effect. Attendees would have to wait outside before the film starts. The goal was “reminding people of the key, fundamental things that you’ll need to do and [explaining] why, perhaps, that might mean that the screening is going to start later than advertised. Because it still is a very much a new normal for people.”

“To the untrained eye,” Andrews admits, “it would look like we are over-communicating. However, I think what we’re doing is showing the commitment to our audience. Myself and Teanne, we always say, ‘We are the audience.’” And, like other audience members, they’re wary of going into public places with the pandemic still underway. “We understand some of the concerns, and I think it would be remiss of us not to communicate and try and alleviate some of those concerns for our audience by quote-unquote over-communicating to them.”

With their own concerns—as exhibitors, as audience-members—in the forefront of their minds leading up to the Rocks screening, Anthony and Teanne were uncertain that the event would be received well. Those concerns were put to rest when the event sold out—even if “sold out” in September 2020 meant 160 seats filled in a 400-seat theater. “That was a great result for us, because we weren’t sure. We were thinking we’d get a smattering of people, but for us to sell out—it  vindicated our decision to go back into cinemas, albeit safely.”

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