Moviola and the village hall screen scene

Christina (front, second left) and Toby Walkley (fourth right) with Moviola patron Lord Fellowes at a farewell party for founder Phill Walkley (on Christina’s left next to Lady Emma Fellowes) in January 2017. Photo by Terry Fisher

In the middle of the street in Yetminster, Moviola programme director Toby Walkley is on his way to the Post Office bearing the day’s second armful of out-going discs – and it’s barely lunchtime. With 200-plus venues from Cornwall to Orkney to service, it’s a wonder that he and his mother (and Moviola’s general manager), Christina, haven’t worn a groove from the family home to the counter, so frequently do they make the journey. In fact, when it was mooted that Yetminster Post Office be closed down, Moviola was a large part of the reason it wasn’t.

Moviola is a not-for-profit rural film scheme based in Yetminster, where it began life in 2001 with the aim of showing films in rural communities. Its founder, Phill Walkley, had, with others, started the Purbeck Film Festival five years earlier and initially ran the new venture as a pilot project until it was incorporated as Dorset Film Touring in 2004 and registered as a charity a year later.

Before long, the organisation’s tentacles stretched far outside its home county and in 2009 the name Moviola was adopted to reflect the scale of the operation. Today it has 52 partner venues across the south-west and more than 200 associate venues the length and breadth of the country.

‘We’ve always been a film family and a film-collecting family and that’s down to Dad and his absolute passion for film, so when he said he wanted to start showing films in village halls, we were hooked immediately,’ says Toby. ‘Dad left me to take charge of my first screening at the age of 12: it was Cinema Paradiso and I even gave an introductory speech.’

‘My first solo show,’ says Christina, ‘was in Thornford and I’d got everything set up, positioned the picture on the screen, turned the player off, waited for everyone to get settled, turned it back on, the sound came up but no picture. It was my worst nightmare and I couldn’t think, so after five terrifying minutes I had to admit defeat and asked if anyone knew anything about TV electrics. Five alpha males immediately sprang to my aid and, would you believe it, there was a lead that hadn’t been pushed in far enough. I could have screamed. I went back to run shows at Thornford every year for ten years after that and, bless them, without fail someone always came up to me to remind me of that first one.’

The timeless wonder of the village hall suits Moviola very well. As expected, its audiences are largely aged over 50, but not exclusively so – the 2011 film, Bridesmaids, even drew a few hen parties. In general the screenings attract people who could just as easily stay at home and watch telly, but prefer to go out and be with their friends and neighbours, enjoying the communal experience without having to trouble the town centres. They’re far more concerned with simply seeing the film and are not that bothered about all-singing, all-dancing, ultra high-definition surround-sound screenings.

‘It’s just as well, as Victorian village halls are not really designed for 21st-century acoustic technology, so the sound just bounces off the walls, floors and ceilings and you probably wouldn’t hear a thing,’ Toby explains. ‘When we started, it was all VHS and we used to get new editions of films and think they could never look any better than that. Then DVD came out and now there’s BluRay, which is a step too far for some of our members.’

Moviola programme director Toby Walkley sets up another screening

So, no sign of the crystal-clear sound and vision of DCP, the Digital Cinema Package, at Moviola then?

‘We’ve had demonstrations but the boxes are too heavy to lift and the technology too complex for what we do. For now.’ With a wry grin, Christina adds: ‘After all, this is rural Britain and as any village resident will tell you, the internet is not as reliable out here as it is in the city – mobile dishes are not very good either, so anything involving streaming is a non-starter.’

Last year Moviola’s partner venues hosted some 2000 screenings for 125,000 people. Each entailed Christina, Toby (who lives part of the week in London) or one of seven other projectionists taking a disc of the film, a screen, a player and a projector – preferably with spares of everything – to a village hall, setting it all up and running the show. Each venue sells tickets, pays Moviola and keeps the profits. Some venues add extras like food and drink, others use film nights to raise money for specific good causes. All seem to enjoy it.

Over the years several venues, most recently Motcombe and Bothenhampton, have made enough money to buy their own projection equipment and run their own nights as associate venues, using Moviola as a booking and licensing service that deals with the film distributors and secures better rates by economies of scale. Associate venues pay thirty-five per cent of their ticket money to the film company and a £40 service fee to Moviola. With 200 venues that’s a pretty powerful – and completely independent – nexus for non-theatrical community cinema.

It was Christina, who happened upon a quirky 2009 mock-umentary, Morris: A Life With Bells On. ‘I was on the internet and found this little film that had been shot in Dorset with next to no budget. None of the film distributors wanted it because they thought nobody would watch a film about Morris dancing, which totally misses the point of course, so the producers asked if Moviola would show it, which we did and it was a hit.

‘Not only were the distributors then convinced that the film had an audience, but they started to take Moviola a lot more seriously and we were able to get much better deals to the benefit of the entire network.’

Venues choose from a menu of film titles selected by Toby, place their orders and then Christina (with Toby’s help when he’s home) sets off to Yetminster Post Office to mail out the discs, which are returned in due course and sent back to the film company. Surely, though, in 2018 when films can be downloaded from the ether and watched on a mobile phone screen, sending discs around the country by post is a little anachronistic?

‘Not at all. People like to get together and because we usually get films in the weeks before they come out on DVD but after they’ve finished their cinema run, for a while Moviola screenings are among the few places they can be seen in public.’

Ken Loach’s ferocious lambasting of the benefits system, I, Daniel Blake, was a hit and found Moviola contacted by food banks and Citizens Advice Bureaux to facilitate awareness and fund-raising screenings. It also prompted venues to collect on behalf of food banks. ‘

That was a particularly powerful example of community cinema in action,’ says Christina. ‘I don’t know of a single person who has seen that film that didn’t feel the need to respond to it in kind in some way. Film is an incredibly potent medium, especially when the message is carried beyond the screen.’

Typically though, the most popular Moviola films are somewhat lighter fare. Summer in February, the 2013 British drama about the love life of Edwardian painter Alfred Munnings, flopped at the box office but did so well for Moviola that it eventually accounted for an eighth of the film’s total earnings. For years, Moviola’s biggest title was the 2008 adaptation of the Abba musical, Mamma Mia!, until Nicholas Hytner’s 2015 film of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van smashed all records. The Oscar-drenched homage to classic film musicals, La La Land, has been widely booked, as has the uplifting family story, Lion – there are even some bookings for the gritty coming-of-age drama, Moonlight.

‘We’re not a film society, we’re all about giving the people what they want,’ says Toby – although he later adds that there are times when that’s not such a good idea. ‘Somehow one venue got a little confused and was determined to book Moonlight instead of La La Land,’ he says with a roll of his eyes. ‘They were adamant they wanted Moonlight, the “musicals one”, they said. It took me some time to convince them Moonlight was about a gay drug dealer growing up in Miami, but in the end they were glad I had persisted and potentially saved an awkward moment on the village film night.’

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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