John A Letham: reflecting on This Way Up 2017

John Letham delivered one-to-one mentoring sessions at This Way Up 17, we caught up with him to reflect on the conference and his advice for cinemas and venues.

John A Letham has had a successful career spanning several industries. As an engineer he worked within digital technology at Motorola, moving on to co-found Park Circus, a film distribution company that has offices in Glasgow, London, LA and Paris; it was sold to the Arts Alliance in 2014, with John returning to the company in 2016 as co-CEO.

As founder and director of his company, Considered Thinking, which specializes in executive coaching and mentoring, he works as an executive coach at the company with this breadth of experience. This Way Up were lucky to have him take part in TWU Festival 2017 as a coach, giving rare, personal, one to one, coaching sessions in Hull back in November. We catch up with John to get some his insights on the festival, the industry in general, and some of his top tips.

Could you tell us about your experience at TWU, and your thoughts about it as an initiative?

There is an extra layer, without doubt, about operating regionally […] I think the danger of taking a national event and just having it in London is that those delicate situations of operating regionally aren’t able to come up to the surface. And what I think is important about TWU and about where it is, where it’s choosing as its venues, and being centric in those venues – for example, we were in Hull, the city of culture, we had representatives from the city – the city is very much there, a strong presence, like an attendee at the event, it makes its presence known, which I think is really important because it gives that sense of place […] The vital importance of the event is being able to talk about global issues, international issues, national issues, national considerations, but always having that regional slant, that regional focus – because it is different and there are extra considerations, and pleasures, which is why I think it’s very much a vital addition to the industry calendar.

Could you tell us a little about the differing experiences in regards to the people you consulted with at TWU?

I worked with eight individuals, on a sort of one to one coaching surgery; it’s not something I would normally do, typically I would coach over 6-8 sessions, over a period of time, so I did warn people I would operate at a pace. But from the responses I’ve had, I do think people found benefit from it, and I do think even a brief intervention can have an advantage, an effect, and is certainly worth considering.

It was a great mix of eight people: everything from fairly new in their career path — perhaps in their first role looking to explore where to go in their next transition – right through to management, and beyond into board level. So the diversity of experience and resulting physical age and knowledge was vast; there was also a nice gender balance, which was super.

A lot of different issues were talked about and it was interesting how quickly in every case we got into the issue and finding a solution […] and trying to move forward, even by one degree. I did actually get an email the other day from one of the individuals I saw who has recently made a major change, successfully moving to a new and challenging role, and contributed some of it to the session we had.

Who were the kinds of people in your sessions? Was there a breadth of vocation or a pattern there?

It was a real breadth: covering venues, film festivals, contributors who are organising events within the film space – a real mix, and within that everyone from board members to programmers and administrator type roles.

In your opinion, was there a common theme, a commonality within the challenges people were facing?

Yes, there was. It was quite interesting, there were a number of themes that came through: the first was about confidence and the ability to be able to sell oneself appropriately […] there was a sort of apologetic nature, which I think is a fine balance, but the danger there is if you’re not celebrating what you have achieved and what you are able to do then it can eat away at your confidence generally.

Linked to that there is a phrase that’s used out there: imposter syndrome. People who find themselves in a position and they can’t quite believe that they’re there, and often it’s because people love their jobs […] they aspired to a role and they got it, and all of a sudden they’re like, “Oh my goodness!” Because sometimes when people are learning and performing, that buzz of being out of their comfort zone can make people feel a bit giddy. That doesn’t mean you are an imposter by any means, it’s just a combination of being able to sit back and say, “Well done, I’ve got here, and yes I am learning, and yes I may feel I’m privileged to be in this position; however, I’m working hard, I’m contributing and I’m performing.” Celebrate that.

“Well done, I’ve got here, and yes I am learning, and yes I may feel I’m privileged to be in this position; however, I’m working hard, I’m contributing and I’m performing.”

In regards to operating regionally a couple of issues did come up: if people decide they do want to stay in a particular region or city, or equally, are happy to move from Scotland to Wales for example, there is more limited opportunity […] and people in the industry tend to love the industry, so when people in more senior roles like the industry they’re in, they might stay in that role for twenty-plus years and they’re not likely to be leaving anytime soon […] So it does mean that there’s, not even a glass ceiling, it’s a ceiling of progression, it’s a pipeline ceiling, and often there’s a blockage. So sometimes it’s about thinking, “Maybe I need to go up another pipe.”

A final point that did come up, particularly a mid-career thing, is that when people are younger, generally speaking, people are fairly happy — and I’ll choose these words carefully – with a relatively low level of remuneration as a norm in this sector as opposed to other industries […] That passion and love doesn’t die, but as life throws responsibility at you, such as partnerships and family and property and children and whatever, that low level of remuneration that may have been acceptable when you were younger […] later on, there is a sense sometimes of people feeling that they’re not being paid what they’re worth and that can have impact on peoples own self-worth and value and its just an awareness of that.

Those last two issues — opportunity and remuneration — are more acute regionally, in my opinion, than they are in London.

Could you give us your three top bits of advice?

1. Let Go. When you let go you create space, and much more interesting things can come in to that space. Linked to that, let go of what other people think.

2. Be authentic. Be your own person. Your contribution will probably be richer because of that. Don’t say you like movie, per se, just because everyone does or it’s the ‘thing to do’, be your true person. If you listen to your inner being, no one can argue against you if you say, “In my opinion …” And linked to that: don’t judge other people if they have their own opinion as well. Other opinions are vital. Everyone doesn’t have to agree, and that’s what makes the diversity of the world so rich.

3. Grow and develop confidently. We’re living in fast-paced world right now, and if the world is changing so quickly, you have to change at least the same pace, otherwise, you’ll fall behind […] It is hard work. It does take effort. Staying in your comfort zone and doing the same old same old is easy. But learning new things and trying new techniques, listening intently and trying to understand and empathise with other people’s point of view has major benefits.


Melanie Iredale, Deputy Director of Sheffield Doc/ Fest spoke to Helen Thackery of Hull City Council, Mat Steel, Head of Production at Sheffield Doc / Fest, Tracy Ford of Sheffield Council and Maxine Rowson representing Rape Crisis,  in the wake of the recent Harvey Weinstein revelations, and asks what we could be doing as an industry to improve safety for staff and guests.

Iredale referred to a recent Indiewire article which suggests that film festivals often create an environment where there is potential for harm; namely, groups of people away from home for long periods of time, a culture of heavy drinking and partying, and the attitude that ‘what happens at a film festival, stays at a film festival.’

Maxime of Rape Crisis Tyneside and Northumberland spoke of the importance of treating those who come forward with dignity and respect. It is vital not to tell victims that they are being silly, it is important to respect privacy, and to hand autonomy back to victims by asking them what they want to do.

All of the panelists reiterated the need to work with local authorities- councils, the emergency services, and other organisations which may have examples of best practice, and can help to create a safer environment for staff members and guests.

Tracy Ford spoke of the Ask for Angela campaign, which is now being rolled out across England and Wales, which aims to help women or men who are feeling vulnerable, and the Best Bar None campaign  which similarly aims to assist young people under the influence of alcohol. Whilst these schemes may not be relevant for the exhibition industry in their entirety, there are elements of both campaigns that could be used for events where many people are meeting, possibly for the first time, and alcohol is being consumed.

Once questions were thrown to the audience, many were asking for guidelines, with one suggestion being that members of the UK Cinema Association should be offering such guidelines. However, it was reiterated by Tracy Ford, that responsibility needs to fall on the venue, who may well have a different relationship with their customers, or different sorts of issues with their events.

It was also pointed out by other audience members that certain jobs within film festivals are at an increased risk of harm. Volunteers are particularly vulnerable, and with the role of Volunteer Coordinator often starting later than the rest of the core team, this can lead to serious breeches of safety. A shocking remark from Helen Thackery, was that the film industry is one of the only industries that still allows lone workers, and when female members of staff are being left alone to look after older, sometimes famous men, this immediately creates a high risk, and that risk needs to be eradicated.

The clear learnings from the panel, are that systems need to continuously be reviewed, and examples of best practice shared. Film festivals, for the most part, are fun, exciting, and sometimes glamorous events. But the fun can be easily spoiled if procedures aren’t in place. It is also important to remember that it is not just visiting guests that need to be protected, it is also the staff. An open environment where staff feel they can speak freely is essential in any organisation, and it is vital that the film industry gets up to speed.

Nia Childs

DAY TWO: Impacts, Campaigns and Data

As a strategic consultant, Sarah Mosses talked about the ways in which she and her organisation use data and analytics to more successfully put out projects such as campaigns or screenings.

Sarah argued that it is important to devise strategies that include distribution and revenue targets in line with the campaign’s impact strategies when thinking about how to put out a project. She went through one case study, which was a film project that Together Films not only consulted with, but also distributed. The film was Unrest, a documentary film about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) by Jennifer Brea, who suffers from it. The project was initially Kickstarted, but it found its way to Together Films as part of the Sundance Creative Distribution Funding Scheme. After Together Films got involved, they began devising marketing strategies to best put out this film to its appropriate audience.

Targeting appropriate audiences and collecting data were two key points in how to market the campaign successfully. Sarah discussed how Jennifer wanted to also do a VR experience alongside the film, which many exhibitors were really keen on, where others weren’t. By gathering data on who would be interested in pursuing their VR experience, they were able to market it differently for each exhibitor and distributor they got in contact with. They also collected data on a large part of the target audience that would not be able to actually go to the cinema to see the film – sufferers from CFS or similar illnesses that had them bedridden, and unable to leave the house for the screening. So they devised a virtual screening plan to send a feed of the actual cinema screening simultaneously to an online stream, which they could buy an online ticket for. All of this made it a more successful project in terms of understanding who they were marketing the film to and making sure that its main audience would have actual access to the film.

Beyond targeting audiences, Sarah also described how important it is to collect data in order to keep track of organisations and partners to work with in the future, by keeping a spreadsheet of detailed information on how they have worked together. She also explained that within any organisation, it’s imperative that this data be easily accessible to everyone who is involved in planning, programming and organising projects.

Sarah emphasised the importance of setting achievable goals but also to keep striving to beat these goals once they have been reached. For any exhibitor or distributor putting out a project, all this data collection, targeting audiences and strategizing needs to be met with goals that are realistic for where the organisation is at that given moment, and grow from there.  And deadlines were also a key element of this. Sarah spoke on how it is important to plan ahead and accordingly to how you want your project to be released, and also within the timelines of your partners.

Finally, Sarah spoke on how different platforms are equally important in managing the marketing and targets of projects. Press data as well as industry papers and audience responses are all good ways of gathering information, and social media as well as more analogue forms of marketing all serve their own purpose depending on who you are trying to engage with your project. She gave examples of apps to use to track social media reach, like Buffer and social press kits, as well as Facebook Pixel and Facebook analytics as a way to further understand who you are reaching and how to reach who you want to. Always striving to understand what you are marketing and how the audience you want to market it to will engage with it is the one of the most important points to consider when thinking of collecting data and the impact your project can have.

Mariana Duarte


The second and final day of This Way Up in Hull saw a wide range of subjects covered; failure, safety, the future of foreign language cinema, archiving of contemporary cinema, collecting data, and disruptive festival platforms. There was a lot of ground to cover, and a number of things to take away from the past two days. As much as being learnt in lunch breaks as from the panelists, and it is clearly vital that events such as This Way Up continue to bring exhibitors together.  The sharing of information and demonstrations of best practice are desperately needed, and that sense of community needs to be kept alive as things become more difficult.

A clear example of this was a panel on safety and safeguarding. Melanie Iredale of Sheffield Doc/Fest lead the panel, which wanted to discuss the topic  in the wake of the Weinstein allegations.  In the current climate where fresh allegations are being revealed daily, and conversations online and in the pub are still ongoing, it was useful and desperately needed to have a conversation that offered and discussed practical advice, and allowed members of the panel and the audience to highlight problem areas and share information.

As well as the need for community, diversity is still on everybody’s mind, but more importantly, it’s meaning is being interrogated- it truly needs to include EVERYONE.

As mentioned previously by Simran Hans in her keynote on day one, it’s deeply important that equality in all its forms is not performative or co-opted by organisations in a way that is insincere, and This Way Up does offer a space to go deeper beyond the hashtags and the online noise. Questions were raised about the true nature of diversity in our industry, and the consensus seems to be that we need to go deeper and expand our meaning of the word. Our industry is still not as inclusive as we are lead to believe; we are still incredibly London-centric, we do not include D/deaf and disabled people in our discussions, and funding is still something of a tick boxing exercise that only serves organisations that have the most choice in the first place. And we as exhibitors need to ensure that we keep having those discussions, and being bold enough to make changes to improve it; whether that means assigning some of that precious budget to ensure the safety of your staff,  or increasing the number of subtitled screenings to include your D/deaf audiences.

Looking to the future, let’s hope that at the next This Way Up, some of those learnings have been implemented and we can continue to see positive change.

Nia Childs

#FaveFail from Sambrooke Scott

As a naive, green Press and Marketing Assistant for a large Indy distributor, I was responsible for arranging prizes for competition winners.

One prize was an all expenses paid trip to America. I was arranging travel with the prize winner and liaising with the travel agent. The prizewinner had many demands and requested multiple changes to the travel package. I passed these changes on to the travel agent, adding a rant about the moany, fussy prize winner.

The travel agent then replied to me confirming the changes to the travel package.

You can guess what’s coming right?

I merrily forwarded those changes in an email to the prize winner.

Of course, what I had neglected to do was delete my rant about the moany prize winner.

I received an email back from the prizewinner apologising for their requests but explaining that they had mobility issues and the changes requested to accommodate those.

I realised what a shit I’d been and wrote a long apologetic email and learnt a valuable life lesson about email etiquette, understanding other peoples issues and being a good human.

#FaveFail from Anna Kime

When I worked on the former London’s Children’s Film Festival they had a practice of reading subtitles out loud from the front of the screen. I’d arranged a team of ‘readers’ but at the last minute one called in sick.

So, I read instead for a Turkish film at the Rio I hadn’t seen.

Before I started a Turkish lady with her family stood up and complained it was a terrible idea. As the reading had been announced we explained we’d go ahead. I did my best well aware I was garbling the characters’ names and completely miss-conveying the tone with an audible background of fury at my voiceover.

Fight or flight kicked in and I had to physically stop myself from running out of the screen. Afterwards I forced myself to wait by the door for everyone to leave. In a way this paid off as the lady’s partner said I did well to have a go and apologised for the tirade.

After substantial recovery time I learnt you can survive any embarrassment and I’m unlikely to have a comparable experience when speaking in public again. More pertinently I learnt about audience expectations – the lady was rightly furious because she’d brought her children to see a rarely available classic film that she cherished only for it to be carelessly mangled by me.

#FaveFail from Alison Kennedy


I managed to secure an interview at a top university as a trainee AV technician. I was told how amazing it was that I got to the interview stage by the prospective employer as there was something like a million applications (might be a slight exaggeration there…!). I was pretty pleased with myself and jaunted off to the interview with a spring in my step. The interview went fairly well. Until…

They asked me what a HDMI cable was and to describe what it’s for.


Tumbleweed blowing across my stupid empty head. It felt like the time that passed between the interviewers asking me the question and me displaying any kind of recognition on my face was about 20 years. I eventually pulled myself together and knew I had to say something. My response was ‘errr…it’s a cable for computers’. That’s it.

Needless to say, I did not get the job. The most annoying thing is that I DO KNOW WHAT A HDMI CABLE IS, I use one fairly frequently. I guess I just thought that they would never ask me something as simple as that.

The lesson learnt is: don’t forget the basics! And anyway, a few months later I went for an interview at the National Archives which inevitably led me to where I am today and I would not change a thing.

This Way Up 2017: What’s your story and how do you tell it?

Speakers: Hugh Odling-Smee, Sara Gunn-Smith, Aaron Guthrie, Andi Jarvis

Film Hub Northern Ireland presented  a case study using five small cinemas to demonstrate the ways in which cinemas can set their identity and engage their audiences. At the start of the event, audience members were asked to  write two sentences that described the identity of their venue or freelance work, as a means to demonstrate a starting point for thinking about how venues and community cinemas can market themselves by developing a sense of identity and gaining an understanding who their audience is.

Three case studies were discussed at length: the Black Moon Film Club, whose pitch began with a discussion around accessibility, as they wanted to be a film club for adults with learning disabilities. The second case was of Ballyclare Picturehouse, a small cinema in a rural community, who with the help of marketing training,  were able to use their rural identity in how they present themselves to their audience.

The last case that was discussed was that of the New Notions collective, a documentary screening group. They began with very small screenings, but eventually went on to put up an exhibition of original short films and archive footage about the Belfast shipyard and its workers and community, as well as live storytelling sessions. The New Notions screenings and events are free with a pay-as-you-can option, which Aaron Guthrie explained was actually beneficial to them because it invited audiences that could not afford to pay for a ticket to see, and it invited those who could pay to give however much money they could afford.

What became clear from the panelists was that with a limited budget,  marketing teams in community lead projects need to work with the communities they are trying to be effective. It is important to help build confidence in small film communities in their work, because, as Andi Jarvis highlighted, a lot of groups tend not to apply for funding for fear of not understanding the application process.  With the support these small cinemas received, they  were able to gain a clearer sense of identity and became more effective in engaging their audiences.

Mariana Duarte

This Way Up: Day One

The first day of This Way Up 17 was kick started with the theme of resilience. Resilience is vital when working in the cultural sector, and part of being resilient is coping with and implementing change. Whether it’s achieved through a review of pay practices in the workplace, an overhaul of  exhibition windows or a development of a code of ethics for emerging technologies, it is very much at the forefront of every exhibitor’s mind.

The audience in the sessions I attended were particularity interactive, and what is obvious is that those working on the ground in the industry are desperate for action. It is not enough just to discuss the issues we’re facing as an industry, there needs to be changes implemented, and quickly. There were solutions being offered publicly in the auditorium, and among ourselves between breaks. What is clear is the real sense of community within the industry, with everyone wanting to help each other, but feeling strangled by the structures in place that may work well for big cities like London, but do nothing to help cinemas and community lead projects in smaller cities and rural areas.

Diversity has been discussed at length in the film industry for some time now, and today was a day to take stock and reflect on whether it’s really being achieved. Is diversity really being achieved, when as Jenny Sealey’s rousing keynote rightly pointed out,  disabled people are still regularly being played by able bodied actors? Is diversity really being achieved, if it’s merely being co-opted by corporations with poor ethical practices to push ticket sales,  as Simran Hans remarked in her keynote? Do we need to start thinking about programming diversity, when currently,  smaller community projects are denied funding because they can’t meet tick boxing requirements, a problem that was pointed out by Louise Carney of Heartland Film Society in Scotland?

Despite the challenges however, one thing that remained was the sense of togetherness. Cinema is not for the individual, it is for everyone. A standout moment came from Moira .Sinclair, CEO of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. As the CEO of a funding body, Sinclair has a breadth of knowledge across a wide range of organisations and the ways in which they operate. And what was made clear was this- if, as an organisation, you don’t have serving your community, through love as well as duty, at the very heart of what you do, then you are far more likely to come unstuck. And this attitude needs to permeate throughout the organisation, which cannot be achieved without treating each member of the team fairly, and kindly.

Nia Childs

How can we make our cinemas Deaf friendly?

Duncan Carson from the Independent Cinema Office spoke to David Ellington of VS1 Productions about how to best make cinemas accessible and engaging for D/deaf audiences.

David  (interpreted by Jess Veal) began by giving background information on how D/deaf people communicate, explaining British Sign Language (BSL), Sign Supported English (SSE), and oralism; and the difference between “Deaf” and “deaf,” which is significant in how exhibitors and distributors might want to engage with these communities, as well as  difference between captions, subtitles, descriptive subtitles and audio description. David explained how for D/deaf audiences, descriptive subtitles are preferred. The presence of descriptive subtitles makes the film entirely accessible for D/deaf audiences, as they would be experiencing a complete version of the film, not different from what hearing audiences would be watching.

The audience heard more about  Deaf Conversations About Cinema programme in Bristol, a monthly screening of mainstream films which are entirely accessible to D/deaf audiences, with BSL introductions and DS throughout the film, with post screening discussions, all in BSL. This is a clear demonstration that there is an appetite for BSL & DS screenings, which can be easily implemented. 

For the benefit of cinemas, David summarised the key factors that can make screenings feel less accessible, with captions and subitles and the variations of these being key In the case of foreign language films for example, films may already have subtitles, however they won’t be descriptive subtitles, so a lot of the nuance of diegetic sounds and dialogue will be overlooked. In order for this change to happen though, this needs to come from distributors.

Through research between the ICO and Film Audience Network, Duncan then summarised how best to engage deaf audiences. He explained the benefits of getting get a good D/deaf friendly programme and marketing  it well, as well as reaching out to members of the Deaf community and working alongside them to work out how to make accessible provisions for the audiences. Attendees were shown a video of BSL that ushers and front of house staff could use to speak to customers (such as “welcome” and “ticket please”) and were given a short tutorial on BSL to try it out. Improved screening times and set weekly or monthly slots for DS films are also ways to make advances towards a more D/deaf accessible venue.

Mariana Duarte