Our brand new Behind the Scenes series brings you interviews with a wide range of people working in film exhibition in Leeds and Yorkshire, giving you the chance to get to know the individuals behind some of your favourite film organisations. You'll learn about their paths to being involved in the industry, their cinema experiences and the love of film that inspires them.

We're delighted that our first Behind the Scenes interviewee is Wendy Cook, Head of Cinema at Hyde Park Picture House.

Wendy Cook 

Wendy Cook's biography

Born and bred in Leeds, I started working in cinemas in 2001 as a General Assistant at a Warner Village Cinema while studying art at Leeds Arts University (Leeds Art College as was). Two weeks after I got the job I was offered an interview at Blockbuster but my instincts kept me where I was. In 2003 I started working at the Hyde Park Picture House selling sweets, graduating to ticket seller then becoming General Manager in 2006 (ish). Since 2014 my focus has been trying to shift the Picture House from a continual state of ‘surviving’ to ‘saved’ using a capital refurbishment project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Leeds City Council and others. It will allow us to expand our activity, make our beautiful building fit for purpose and develop a new sustainable business model. With the newer title of Head of Cinema my role is varied to say the least, encompassing strategic development, project oversight for the capital works, fundraising, programming and partnership development.

What do you enjoy most about working in film exhibition?

It may sound obvious but the constant access to film and encouragement to make space in my day to day life for watching as many and as wide an array of films as possible. I loved films before I started working in cinemas but I didn’t know how important film as an artform was going to be to me.

What inspired you to become involved in film exhibition and what were your first steps?

Excess exposure to films when I was young and shy as heck combined with youthful fantasies about finding a workplace like Empire Records where a bunch of oddballs could form a community united by apparently menial tasks. Cinemas started as somewhere I could pass the time while studying fine art and trying to move into a career in the Visual Arts. It’s only when I fell in love with the Picture House that I realised this could be a lot more for me.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become involved in film exhibition now?

This may sound like painfully broad advice but I’d say don’t be afraid to own up to the things you don’t know, surround yourself with people who know more than you and be curious. Learn as much as possible but don’t worry that you’re not an expert in everything.

What is the main change you’ve experienced in film exhibition since you started?

I think the conversion from 35mm film exhibition to almost complete digital distribution and projection is the biggest change and weirdly I’m including the past twelve months in this. That switch has been a catalyst for such a lot of sweeping changes in the sector. It facilitated an explosion of the number of films and the type of films released theatrically into cinemas. This has brought with it challenges and anyone following the performance of specialised film in UK cinemas via the BFI statistical yearbook knows that more choice hasn’t equated to more audiences, especially for foreign language film. Still, there’s a potential there that is so wonderful, more than a decade on (for Hyde Park) while we’re still learning how to navigate the ramifications of that transition I think that in my role it’s a change that has made me feel optimistic. I hope in the coming decades we can still be here and more than that, our future is quite open and still to be written.

What would you like to see change in film exhibition in the future?

Right now I think above all else I’m yearning for stability. That’s obviously been impossible this last year but even before that, I feel my life in film exhibition for a long time has been about just spinning plates. I’ve been part of good things, things I’m proud of, but there’s been a precarity to it. There’s no sense that the absolute best of what working in film exhibition can be, should be expected as the norm or possible without compromises. I want to feel like in the future I want the good things, good events, good practices, good moments, are all groundwork for more good things.

Do you have a favourite highlight from working in film exhibition so far?

I’m so lucky because I have a lot to choose from. I’ll pick one from Leeds International Film Festival back in 2014. Watching a family friendly matinee of Song of the Sea at the Picture House to a packed audience of people of all ages. I’d stepped in near the back to see how it was going and the light of the film caught the faces of the audience and what I saw was this mass of people completely bewitched, leaning forward in their seats, so silent you could hear a pin drop, mouths open and 100% in love with these characters they had only met within the hour but would remember for years to come.

Is there a film you love that you wish could be seen more widely by audiences?

I’m going to pick a film that hasn’t actually been released yet which I adore and think of often. It’s First Cow directed by Kelly Reichardt who is one of my favourite directors. It’s a narratively slight film ostensibly about the first cow arriving in a frontier era outpost in Oregon but it’s actually about friendship and masculinity but a really beautiful version of masculinity where all the bad things which get wrapped up in that word are stripped away. It is out in May and I haven’t worked out how to help it find it’s right audience yet but I’m really looking forward to trying as I think it could very easily be missed.

Do you have a favourite cinema-going memory as part of an audience?

I don’t remember the year but watching a performance created using a bank of film projectors at the Picture House by American artist Bruce McClure. It was organised by Will Rose of Pavilion and was one of the most moving cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. Completely beautiful and physical, it used the space in a way that was totally different to anything else I’ve ever seen. It also represents one of the points when I came to understand Will is a programmer or curator, whatever you want to call it, who I trust completely which is a very lucky thing to get as an audience member.

Which filmmaker’s work means the most to you?

I don’t know if I would be where I am today if I hadn’t stumbled upon the films of Wong Kar-Wai playing late at night on channel 4 when I was a teenager. In particular Happy Together and Fallen Angels then later In the Mood for Love introduced me to a kind of visually beautiful, emotionally complex film which is still my idea of perfection today.

Which new film have you loved recently that you would recommend to audiences?

There have been a lot of amazing small independent films released digitally over the past year that I think are so interesting, films like Black Bear that has been added to the Leeds Film Player this week. It’s the sort of small American Indie that can easily come and go and not really get seen by an audience. I can’t quite pinpoint the genre but that’s part of why I really loved it. I felt like it’s one where the makers were really enjoying playing around with the form and the experimentation is intriguing and refreshing.


Part of LIFF Behind the Scenes