The 40 British Film Institute-funded regional cinemas, all dedicated to showing non-mainstream British and international movies instead of standard Hollywood fodder, have been waking up to the cultural and financial benefits of educational initiatives. Twelve now employ a full-time education officer - twice as many as five years ago.
Full- and part-time film education staff from as far afield as Glasgow and Plymouth met last week in Cambridge during the annual conference of COMEX (the UK art house screens' consortium). They strengthened links which they hope will help introduce thousands to a celluloid world they could never encounter at the local multiplex.
"Traditionally, art house education programmes have operated in isolation within each cinema's community," said Sarah Jones, education officer at Cambridge Arts Cinema. "But in the past 18 months we've started to get together and co-ordinate our efforts."
The local schemes could not be described as mega-budget productions. The officers each have between Pounds 3,000 and Pounds 10,000 a year with which to organise and publicise special screenings, cinema tours, lectures and workshops of an almost limitless constituency of schoolchildren, college and university students, and adults.
That is relatively small beer compared to the Pounds 100,000-a-year core budget of Film Education, the 10-year-old national body which is funded by film giants such as Odeon and Warner Brothers to send out teaching material on new mainstream releases to 9,500 secondary and 23,000 primary schools.
"Our low level of resources means there are obvious financial benefits to be drawn from collaborating," said Sarah Jones. Like most film education officers, she has a job funded by a variety of sources: Cambridgeshire County Council, the Eastern Arts Board, the British Film Institute and the Arts Cinema itself.
Her brief ranges from setting up holiday workshops at which eight- to 12-year-olds draw their dream cinema, to liaising with Cambridge University's modern languages department on its film-related exams.
Beyond the traditional curriculum links with cinema - modern languages pupils watching Jean de Florette to improve their oral skills; English and history students viewing literary adaptations or historical epics - secondary schools are becoming interested in cinema visits to explore film exhibition as a business within the national vocational qualification in Leisure and Tourism.
"We're hoping to produce a joint art house cinema tour pack for teachers by the end of the year," says Jones. "We're also combining our lists of speakers - critics, historians, scriptwriters - to create a pool that we can all draw on."
A recent grants review by the European Union could bring Jones and her colleagues major funding increases. Under the EU's Pounds 240m Media II audio-visual programme, cinemas like the Arts or Hull Screen can now receive up to 16,000 ECUs (about Pounds 13,000) a year for promotional activities, especially education.
But the officers who attended the COMEX meeting are acutely aware of a major obstacle to instilling in young people a long-term enthusiasm for art house film - the dearth of titles with U, 12 and PG certificates.
Most European movies picked up for the art house circuit carry 15 or 18 ratings, so one-off screenings of old classics, and other education activities, however inspiring, can only be of limited benefit if the young people involved can't then develop their interest - and boost box office - by taking advantage of the cinema's day-to-day programme.
"It's appalling that we don't show more European films aimed at young people," says Suzanne Curran, education officer at the three-screen Cornerhouse, in Manchester, which is setting up a further education film studies course in conjunction with Manchester City College. "If I have a group of 30 secondary school kids visiting Cornerhouse, perhaps two will say 'I was dragged in here once by my parents', but most will have been to their local multiplex."
Perhaps inevitably, Curran goes on to make an unfavourable comparison between attitudes in Britain and Europe. "In Scandinavia, governments stipulate that 25 per cent of film production must be geared towards young people, so there are always plenty of suitable homegrown films out there.
"Not only do we not have that kind of quota here, but we are not even picking up the dozens of good, new European films that could appeal to and bring in younger audiences."
The answer, says Ms Curran, must be an industry-wide shift in attitude: the distribution company buyers and art house cinema programmers who trawl the big European film festivals for the pictures they will show in the year ahead must buy in more youth-oriented films.
"Today's pupils and students are our cinemas' future audiences," she adds. "The art house sector has got to start taking them seriously."
A list of education contacts at UK art house cinemas is available from Suzanne Curran, Education Officer, Cornerhouse, 70 Oxford Street, Manchester M1 5NM.