Small but perfectly formed: the 75 seat interior of The Lexi
Nomad HQ is The Lexi Cinema in Kensal Rise, West London. A unique cinema with a purpose beyond showing incredible films and selling freshly popped corn, the Lexi is mostly staffed by volunteers and, just like the Nomad, it’s a social enterprise that drives all profits back to the Sustainability Institute. The Lexi has now been running for nearly ten years, dreamt up and founded by local entrepreneur and philanthropist Sally Wilton. Duncan Carson from the Independent Cinema Office sat down with Rosie Greatorex, our programmer, to talk about putting a cinema at the heart of a community and making a difference to people’s lives.
Duncan: How do the volunteers shape the Lexi and the Nomad?
Rosie: Our volunteers are key to everything we do. At the Lexi, they come from all walks of life – we have teachers, mental health nurses, students, business people, freelancers, retired people, firefighters – every profession and non-profession you can think of. Volunteering at the Lexi has also been a way for quite a few out of work people to improve their CV. We train you up and then you commit to a 3 hour shift every 2 weeks. The important thing is to realise that people volunteer for different reasons: to make friends, to see more films, to support their local community and of course to support our charity in South Africa.
Bittu, one of The Lexi’s 50 volunteers, working in the bar
We made the transition to a volunteer-staffed front of house about five years ago. We took about a year to make the change, and I spoke to loads of community arts organisations and social enterprises about how they manage their volunteer teams; the different models and approaches. We won an award for best practice in the first year of being volunteer-run and last year we were awarded a Points of Light award, too.
I am very aware that there are strikes going on with cinema staff in London, and a very important debate about the Living Wage in cinemas too. We don’t want our volunteering scheme held up as a reason to not pay your cinema staff! This is a model which works for us as a tiny 75 seat single screen with a small bar, in our local area.
At the Nomad, our volunteers are often just starting out in their career in exhibition or wanting to get into some area of the film industry. On both projects, we do try to understand why that person is volunteering and make sure we can help them get the most out of it. Many of our Nomad volunteers have gone on to jobs with us or elsewhere in the industry and come back every summer anyway. The Nomad needs 300 volunteers every year to make it work, so we’re always on the lookout for new people to help out!
Nomad volunteers at St Mark’s Mayfair
D: How do you make the cinema something people want to contribute to?
R: We have a waiting list for volunteering at the Lexi! I guess it’s a really unique project; local people are proud to have us in their area and want to get involved. Mostly they get involved by buying cinema tickets and popcorn and wine, or by getting married here or having their mum’s party here, but we have 50 volunteers at any one time as well.
For me, at the end of a really long day, to see people come to volunteer on our box office or at a Nomad event after they have already done their own full day’s work, is just incredible. We all feel like that at the Lexi, and so even though it can be pretty hectic sometimes – especially in the summer, when Nomad is also in full swing – I think everyone here feels like they are valued and part of something. So I don’t think we do use any particular strategy to make people feel they want to contribute – it sounds corny but we really are a community.
Duncan Carson is Marketing, Communications and Event Manager at the Independent Cinema Office, where he is very proud to support the UK’s thriving film culture. He is a major fan of women’s animation, Czech cinema and would like Gena Rowlands to portray him in the biopic of his life.