Student volunteer Lewis brings in the new academic year by writing the first of a series of blogs about the history of Campus Cinema - the Film Society for University of Exeter film students (though others can come to films too). Screenings begin again this week - this term's programme is shown in the image above.


Part 1- introduction and the 2020s (so far

Film exhibition plays a sizeable role in our daily lives. For most of us, it is an activity that we take for granted. Many people have a passive relationship with cinema. They pay for their ticket; they see the movie and they leave probably thinking about the movie they just watched rather than the cinema experience itself. However, there are a few people who have a real passion for film exhibition. These people probably attend the cinema once or more a week. Some are generous enough to give their precious time to be part of a very special film exhibition establishment that can be found on the University of Exeter campus, one that is rich in history and tradition. These few select people are a group of young people known simply as “Campus Cinema committee members”.

At this point, I wish to take the opportunity to introduce myself. I am Lewis Merritt, and I was the social secretary of the Campus Cinema for 2 years from 2021-2023. I am also a volunteer at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, and I have taken on the responsibility of surveying the Campus Cinema collection at the museum. This series of blogs will give you the opportunity to learn more about the history of Campus Cinema via the many artefacts related to it, along with contextual research and anecdotes. It will also give you a preview of the collection as more of the Cinema’s history is discovered through the acquisitions.

What is Campus Cinema? Campus Cinema is the university's very own cinema. It has existed for over 70 years as the film society for students at the University of Exeter. It has boasted about being the cheapest cinema in Exeter with tickets from just £2. That is less than a cup of coffee. It shows a wide variety of films from recent blockbusters to independent films from the likes of A24 and Mubi. It also shows cult films such as the annual screening of The Room. It also puts on regular film-themed quizzes that sell out every time. I first found out about Campus Cinema before I came to University of Exeter. When I found out that the university had its own cinema, I knew I wanted to buy a membership. I was a fresher when I came in September 2021. It was shortly after England’s covid-19 restrictions were fully eased and I wanted to go to the cinema as much as possible to make up for lost time. The first films I saw at the Campus Cinema included, The Father, Trainspotting (25th anniversary screening) and Candyman (2021). In November 2021, I joined the committee as social secretary as I wanted to help shape the mould of Campus Cinema. I also thought it would be good to get some experience working in film exhibitionism and distribution.  

One of the items in the collection that showcases the wide variety of films on offer at the Campus Cinema is a program from summer 2022. Featured on the front Is a still image from F.W Murnau’s Nosferatu which was the headline film of the summer 2022 programme. The reason why it was a special screening is because it was screened with a live musical accompaniment from renowned harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry. This shows the cinema’s commitment to event cinema but also to enriching students with films that have a substantial amount of heritage attached to them. Nosferatu is a film with substantial heritage of course as it is one of the first screen adaptations of Stocker’s Dracula novel which even predates Universal’s Dracula film. It is also one of the most famous German expressionist films alongside The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis.   


The Nosferatu screening was one of my favourite screenings of my tenure as social secretary, as I do have a strong appreciation for classic cinema and the horror genre. We also had a decent amount of attendees which helped create a shared experience and it was nice to share the experience of viewing a classic film with rich heritage and live-music accompaniment with other people who many only have an entry level knowledge of classic horror enjoying the experience. The event was also organised in collaboration with the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, which is fitting because the event showcases a film which was released before the advent of sound in film and one of the main aims of the museum is to educate people on the history of film exhibitionism. Back in the early days of cinema, a live musician would play music while the film is being shown. It wasn’t until Warner Bros released The Jazz Singer in 1927 that films had sound edited in.

You might be asking yourself why I put an artefact from just a year ago in the first blog. Well, I thought it would be best if we started with the early 2020s and then work our way backwards as the much older Campus Cinema acquisitions will take time to sort through and contextualise. Consider this blog as a prologue for the story we are trying to tell but we hope you will attend the tale of Campus Cinema (yes that was a Sweeney Todd reference).  


Part 2: The 2010s

2019 was the end of the 2010s. But it’s the start of this instalment of this ongoing series of blogs on the history of Campus Cinema. 2019 was also a great year film wise. Some of my favourite films that year include, Rocketman, Toy Story 4, The Lighthouse and Doctor Sleep. 3 out of 4 of these films were shown at the Campus Cinema but one wasn’t. I’m going to let you all in on a little trade secret. Part of the reason why we can sell tickets so cheaply is because we show new release films about a month or two after they started their cinema release. This is because the distribution cost you must pay reduces over time. Although, ironically some older films are more expensive to put on than new releases. One anecdotal example of this is when we wanted to screen Paris is burning for Black history month, the distributer wanted £1000 if we wanted to screen it. So, we had to cancel that screening.

The first half of this blog will focus on a couple of programmes. One from 2019 and one from the early 2010s. The first programme from 2019 that I found interesting was the spring term 2019 programme which was a special programme made to honour that year’s awards season. So, all the films featured in that programme were included with the awards season in mind. Pretty much every film was up for nomination at the major awards shows like the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. For example, you had Green Book which won best picture at the Academy Awards that year and you had Vice, which was nominated for best supporting actor for Sam Rockwell’s performance. I thought it was great to see that in the past, Campus Cinema did special things to honour important film events in the media. When I was on committee, we didn’t include any special programmes for the awards season. I don’t think we even acknowledged it in our advertising, although, on Academy Awards night 2023, we had a committee lock in at the Campus Cinema so that we could watch the ceremony on the big screen.

Moving back now to 2011 to observe the autumn term programme from that year, one interesting detail I noticed when looking at it was the inclusion of a Ghibli film. In this case it was Arriety which had its UK release in 2011 but it originally was released in Japan a year earlier in 2010. The reason I found this interesting was how did a small student run cinema even get the distribution rights to show a Ghibli film. And not just any Ghibli film but a new release Ghibli film. When I was in my 2nd year of being on Committee, we wanted to include a Ghibli film in one our programmes, but we couldn’t because we couldn’t get the rights. I can assume that Campus Cinema was a bigger force back in those days compared to when I was on committee and that’s how they got Arriety in that programme, or perhaps either it reflects the growing popularity of Ghibli or that the industry has changed over the past decade.

All the programmes from the 2010s have pretty much had the same layout, font and design. This is still used to this day, which you probably know if you have seen the Campus Cinemas current programmes around campus. However, did you know that Campus Cinema wasn’t always its name?. Pre-2010s, Campus Cinema was known as CinSoc which is short for Cinema Society. In the next blog which should be talking about Campus Cinema in the 2000s, we will be diving more into the CinSoc days.   


Part 3: The 2000s


The 2000s decade was an interesting decade for film. It was also an interesting decade for Campus Cinema too. However, back in the 2000s it was not known as Campus Cinema. It was known as CinSoc which is short for Cinema Society. Starting off in 2009 we have a programme from the spring term of that year. We can see that the headline film for that programme was Quantum of Solace which is Daniel Craig's second outing as 007. One interesting thing about this artefact is that the layout and the colour scheme is the same as the newer Campus Cinema programmes we are used to seeing but it has the old name on it, which makes for an interesting clash of realities. Also, one noticeable detail about it is that Quantum of Solace is the only blockbuster film in that programme and the rest are less well known or more indie/art house type films. One of these films is W. which is a biopic about George Bush Jr directed by Oliver Stone. As someone who has an interest in politics, political thrillers and is a card-carrying member of a political party (I won’t say which one) I have never seen or heard of this film before. This is one of the periods where they experimented with having mainly indie/art house films on the programme.

Moving backwards now to 2007, the programmes had a different look and style to them. Not only did these programmes have more films in them but an introductory section near the start of the programme explaining the types of films they have on as well as some other information that was unique to that term. For example, in the lent term programme from that year it talks a little bit about how in February there is a programming block dedicated to animated films in honour of that years Animated Exeter festival. At this time Exeter hosted the country’s largest festival of animation, including spectacular events and Cinsoc took part. Each week they showed an animated film that was outside of the realms of the big Hollywood studios. The films they showed were, Flushed Away, Princess Mononoke, Renaissance and Terkel in Trouble. I liked how programme blocking, or seasons, was a thing back in this era of Campus Cinema as it shows a lot of thought and detail has gone into the curation of the programme. One problem I find with the more recent Campus Cinema programmes is the lack of blocking. Blocking in the context of programming refers to having films or TV shows that are aimed at a particular group or have a theme running through them; sometimes they are called seasons or strands. For example with TV you have daytime magazine shows aimed at housewives or stay at home mums around the time of 10 am to 2pm with programming aimed at kids after school time for about a couple hours of later in the afternoon.

Moving all the way back to the year 2000 now, which is the start of the new millenium. The year 2000 was a great year. Everyone was panicking about Y2K, Big Brother graced our screens for the first time and after much controversy the US elected (Geoge W.Bush) as their president. The term 1 programme from the year 2000 has some interesting films in it. One of these films is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. This film had been unofficially banned in the UK for many years. In 1973 Kubrick asked British distributors to remove the film from UK circulation in response to a string of real-life violent incidents that people thought had been incited by the film and because of death threats made to Kubrick’s family. It wasn’t until Kubrick passed away in 1999 that the unofficial ban on the film was lifted. A year later in 2000 the film was released in cinemas nationwide. As a big Kubrick fan, I always find his choices interesting whether they are about film form or ideology. His reason for wanting to pull the film out of UK distribution is understandable, although, I always had the impression of Kubrick being an artist who sticks by his guns and not the type of person to back down in the face of controversary. The unbanning of the film represented a time in Britan where people were becoming more and more socially liberal especially after Blair’s landslide in 1997. This meant people were becoming more open minded about films such as A Clockwork Orange. Campus cinema/CinSoc has always attempted to curate programmes that democratises the distribution of films that are challenging or may not be palatable for mainstream audiences.         


Bonus Entry! The Room and Rocky Horror

Oh hi reader! The 2003 cult classic The Room has played an important part in the history of Campus Cinema as well as the history of film exhibitionism. What is cult cinema? Cult cinema refers to films that were not received well critically and/or didn’t perform well at the box office, but over time have attracted a fanbase that appreciates that film. The Room screening has been a Campus Cinema tradition for many years and last year marked the 20th anniversary of the films release. Screenings of the room always involve a heavy amount of audience participation in the form of call outs and throwing spoons. Many of the Campus Cinema programmes from the past decade have had a screening of the film which usually occurs sometime in term 2. But before I dive deeper into the insanity of the room, I first got to talk a little bit about Rocky Horror as both have similar histories of film exhibitionism.

Just like The Room, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has always been a favourite amongst student cinephiles and cinema attendees with its many screenings at Campus Cinema. I have been a fan of Rocky Horror ever since I was 10 and it introduced me to the acting and singing legend that is Tim Curry. Like The Room, Rocky Horror was a film that didn’t do very well when it first came out but then started to become popular because of midnight screenings and audience participation years later. Also, both films subvert conventional forms of film making. In Rocky Horror’s case its for better and for The Room its arguably for worse. The film's director Tommy Wiseau made some questionable creative choices (whether intentional or not) such as having sex scenes that drag on to long and add nothing to the plot, having shots that are out of focus and having dialogue  out of sync. I do recommend reading The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero. In the book Greg recounts his time working on the film and goes into detail about what Wiseau is like as a person as well as the story of the films production. I met Greg Sestero at a special screening of The Room back in October and I even got a photo with him.

Lewis with Greg Sestero

There is something queer about cult cinema. When I use the word queer, I don’t mean in the context of sexuality or gender. What I mean by queer is that it disrupts heteronormative ideas about what a film should achieve. Many heteronormative ideas are centred around money. A film is made in order to make money, but sometimes this can lead to films with a lack of creativity as movie studios are afraid to take risks. Another book I would recommend reading is The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam. The book is a thesis about how failure can actually be quite productive as it is a way of critiquing capitalism and heteronormativity. As you may know The Room was a financial flop when it was released but it is a film that has been reclaimed by cinephiles who appreciate the films attempt to be creative and different.

Back to Campus Cinema. There have been many examples of The Room being featured in Campus Cinema programmes in recent years and shows how cult films play a big role in the programming of cinemas such as Campus Cinema. Because it has been featured in many campus cinema programmes, I am not going to show a specific programme. But, here are some visuals that were used in campus cinema’s social media marketing. However, if you do want to have a look at past campus cinema programmes you can source them on the museum’s online catalogue at  book an appointment to view them in person in museums viewing room.

Post on screening of 'The Room'

 Part 4: The 1990s

The 1990s is a decade that many remember very fondly. It is the decade that gave us catchphrases such as “Too me, Too You” and “Re-run the fun” thanks to the nostalgic kids TV programming of the decade. It is the decade that spawned music hits such as Wonderwall and Common People. And it is the decade that unleashed the horror that is Mr Blobby. But, it was also a great time for cinema too. There was a sort of renaissance in movie making in the 90s with many Hollywood Blockbusters as well as some creative films from the UK. Even though I just missed out on being born in the 90s, I still enjoy many of the films and TV shows from that decade. I was partial to the odd re-run of The Crystal Maze and Funhouse on Challenge. I would say that Bottom is my favourite British comedy of all time. And of course, Trainspotting is my all-time favourite film. But before I go on too much of a tangent, let’s dig into what Cinsoc was like in the 90s.

Starting off in 1999 we have a couple of programmes that showcase the blockbusters that were shown in that year including The Phantom Menace. I am not much of a Star Wars fan but I thought I would give this film a mention as it was one of the biggest films of the decade and it is Ewen McGregor’s most well-known screen role (even if it’s not his best screen role. Why do so many British actors bugger off to Hollywood?). The closest I have engaged with the Star Wars franchise is going on Star Tours at Disneyland and the Interrogating Screens module back in my first year of university.

Another prominent film of the late 90s is Titanic. It is a film that did so well in the box office that Cinsoc decided to show it 3 nights in a row back in 1998 as seen in the trinity term programme from that year. This is one contrast to the campus cinema programmes of today where films are only shown twice in one night. But I guess one benefit of the old 3 screenings a week arrangement meant that it could be possible to show the same film over two nights to capitalise on the success of a money-making blockbuster. Also a very interesting typo on that programme. But of course one thing we all say about that film is that bloody plank of wood was big enough for 2 bloody people.

Moving now to the mid-90s with 1994. The trinity term programme from 1994 had some great films on it including many 90s classics. Two of these films are Mrs Doubtfire and Disney’s Aladdin. Two of Robin Williams greatest films. Both these films would have been new releases around the time of the programme’s publication. These films were shown back-to-back with each other on the programme which I thought was a smart decision as It would attract customers who were fans of Robin Willaims as he was one of the most bankable actors of the 90s. One thing I do like about the Cinsoc programmes from this period is that the headline movies are split into themed categories. For example in this programme you have sections titled “Star-Crossed Lovers”, “Violent Crime and Violent Cops” and “Two Sides of Vietnam”. You then had all the miscellaneous films on the back of the inside.

Moving slightly backwards into the lent term of 1994 Cinsoc programme. It is a programme worth mentioning as it features Jurassic Park which was the biggest film of 1993. Many cinemas including Cinsoc would have made money on the film. I remember one time my step-dad telling me about his experience seeing Jurassic Park at the old central cinema in Torquay back when the film was first released. I say old central cinema as it has moved from its old location near Abbey Road to its new location on Union Street. He told me that people were lining up round the corner from the cinema to buy a ticket. It just shows that Independent cinemas such as Cinsoc rely on blockbusters such as these to make a profit. It is the profit from blockbusters that allow Cinsoc to take a chance and show films that probably wouldn’t make a profit as easily. One of these more niche films that was featured in the programme was Like Water for Chocolate. Or also known in its original title Como Agua Para Chocolate. It is a Mexican Spanish language film based on the novel of the same name by Laura Esquival. It is a film that celebrates Mexican culture. I’ve never heard of this film before, but it sounds interesting.  

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