Screening films in community cinemas

03 Programming

How to select films to build, challenge and delight local audiences.

Film programming is the process of choosing and booking films to screen to audiences.

Involve your audience

Successful programming should always include your audience. Talk to audiences at the end of screenings, ask for opinions on the films – listen, be reactive and encourage other staff to do the same and feed back to you. This will make you a better programmer, help build loyalty and trust between you and your audience and give you an immediate steer on what type of films to programme initially.

Consider diversity and inclusion. Not only should you ensure that you’re catering to everyone in your local community, and therefore all your possible audiences – it’s crucial for people to see themselves represented on screen – but remember that offering a diverse array of films, that portray people from a range of backgrounds and with differing experiences, is rewarding and enriching for everyone.

It’s  important to develop a community audience gradually, but you should never patronise or underestimate them – for example don’t assume, even if the majority of your audience is aged 65 plus, that all they want to watch are classic films; or if they’re younger, that they won’t be receptive to non-blockbuster films and won’t appreciate arthouse or world cinema.

First films and experimentation

However, getting your audience into the building to start with can be a challenge, and you don’t want to lose them with your first few screenings. So, at first, choose accessible films that you think most will enjoy.

No one film will be to everyone’s liking, but if you ensure that those you play are of a high quality, and you can justify your reasons for booking any individual title (because it has won awards, was an audience request, garnered good reviews, features star names or was made by an acclaimed director) and communicate this to audiences, your honesty and commitment in making programming a two-way process is likely to be rewarded.

You will learn from your experiences and your programming will grow as a result. Once you have achieved some audience loyalty, experiment with different types of film and expand your programming breadth to keep your existing audience engaged and help develop new ones.

Mainstream titles are an easy fallback, but there are benefits to developing a more specialised programme (the official definition of ‘specialised film’ from the BFI encompasses foreign language film with subtitles, documentaries, archive and classic films, artists’ and experimental film, short film programmes, films with complex or challenging subject matter, or those with an innovative or unconventional narrative structure).

Special events

Introductions, Q&As and post-screening workshops or discussions can enthuse audiences, develop their interest in film and make screenings more of an event. Some community cinemas run themed nights linked to particular titles, or include meals or a temporary bar as part of their offer.

Programming foreign language film with subtitles

As already mentioned, rural audiences tend to be older and often welcome subtitled films so they don’t need to rely on their hearing. Foreign language films may also appeal to local communities for whom English isn’t their first language.

Programming documentaries

Documentaries which deal with a range of issues and subjects can pull in new audiences and promote healthy discussions long after the film has finished playing – Q&As can work especially well with documentaries, particularly with a speaker closely linked to the film or its subject. Documentaries also lend themselves to more specific marketing, enabling you to promote films to linked groups. For example, if you’re screening a documentary about climate change, you could contact national or regional environmental charities or local action groups.

Programming archive film

Screening local archive film is highly recommended. Community audiences are always attracted to films with local interest and seeing shared images of the past can be an incredibly moving and meaningful experience.

The BFI National Archive is the UK’s largest film archive. Many of its content is available online and can be viewed on their YouTube channel or BFI Player. In addition, get in touch with your regional film archive to see what material they have available to screen – many now have online catalogues so you can view films before booking them.

For inspiration, see this blog post from film programmer and writer Herb Shellenberger on how to create diversity in archive film programming.

Programming artists’ moving image and experimental film

Screening artists’ moving image or other experimental films can seem daunting, but offers audiences something different. Community cinemas in urban areas are very often successful with artists’ moving image. Starting with shorts in front of features can be a good strategy to start with, particularly in rural areas.

Some audiences may feel that artist’ moving image is difficult, obscure or not for them, but if you choose the right films and market them perceptively, your audience may not even be aware that they are watching an experimental title. Remember that it’s often the labels rather than the films that create barriers between your audiences and their enjoyment of them.

To source films or for inspiration, the best place to go is LUX. They’re the main distributor of artists’ moving image work in the UK and take bookings on individual artists’ films as well as curated touring programmes.

Programming shorts

Shorts are often well received by community audiences if shown before the main feature, to add interest, context and so audiences feel they’re getting something extra and a little bit special. They can be a very good way of promoting the work of (and building relationships with) young filmmakers from local schools, colleges and universities who may otherwise struggle to find screening opportunities for their films. Archive shorts with relevance to your local area are also often very well received.

Looking further afield, film festivals sometimes offer touring packages of the best short films from their programme, such as DepicT!, and Kendal Mountain Film Festival. There are also number of short film distributors (such as Shorts International) you can contact.

Need more inspiration?

  • Read the ICO’s downloadable Programming Guide, written by the ICO Programming Team.
  • Come to ICO Screening Days! Held at venues around the UK each year, Screening Days offers film exhibitors the chance to preview films before their release so they can choose which ones will work for their venues and audiences and get a head-start on their programming and marketing. As well as our main Spring and Autumn events, we hold three specialised events each year with films and sessions relating to all aspects of programming for young audiences; programming with inclusion and diversity in mind; and archive film programming.
  • Browse ICO training and online learning opportunities, including our One to One Consultancy bespoke advice sessions and our Practical Programming online course.
  • Read about currently available ICO films and see what’s coming up on the Cinema of Ideas, our virtual screen.
  • Search the ICO blog for helpful, in-depth posts on all aspects of film programming.

Subscribe to our mailing list

What would you like to receive emails about? *
* indicates required