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 film – be reactive, listen 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.

It is particularly 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

Getting your audience into the building to start with though can be a challenge, so you don’t want to lose them with your first few screenings. At first, choose accessible films that you know most will enjoy. You can start to experiment once you have earned your audience’s loyalty. The best way to do so is to ensure that all films are of a high quality. Some will not be to everyone’s liking – you’ll never please everyone all of the time! – but if you can justify your reasons for booking  a film (because it has won awards, was an audience request, garnered good reviews, features star names or was made by an acclaimed director, etc) and communicate this to audiences, your honesty and commitment in making programming a two-way process is likely to be rewarded.

Special events

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

You will learn from your experiences and your programming will grow in tune with these. Once you feel you have achieved some audience loyalty, experiment with different types of film and expand your programming breadth – it will 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’ film and experimental, short film programmes, films with complex or challenging subject matter, or those with an innovative or unconventional narrative structure.

Programming foreign language film with subtitles

As already mentioned, rural audiences tend to be older and often welcome subtitled films as they don’t need to rely on fantastic hearing abilities. 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 – a Q&A can work especially well with documentaries, particularly if you can get a speaker who is linked to the film or its subject (this can also work for other film screenings, not just documentaries). Documentaries lend themselves to specific marketing, enabling you can promote the film to local groups, also helping you develop your audiences. For example if the documentary is about the environment you could contact local ‘green’ charities or your nearest Greenpeace group.

Community screenings of Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Senna, about the great racing driver, attracted predominantly intergenerational male audiences united by a love of cars, and attracted audiences who hadn’t attended previous films. Audience reactions were very positive and confirmed that people’s perceptions of documentary film had changed as a result.

Programming archive film

Screening local archive film is highly recommended – community audiences are always attracted to films with local interest. Get in touch with, or search online for your nearest film archive – many now have online catalogues so you can view films before booking them. Have a look on the Film Archive Forum website to find yours. 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 via BFI Player.  For guidance on screening archive film see our Archive Programming guide.

Programming artists’ moving image and experimental film

Screening artists’ moving image (AMI) or other experimental films can seem daunting, but it offers audiences something different and can be well received. Community cinemas in urban areas are very often successful with AMI. Starting with shorts in front of the main feature initially can be a good strategy, particularly in rural areas. There is a perception from many audiences that AMI material is difficult, obscure, or not for them but if you choose the right film and market it 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 such content. 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 young filmmakers from local schools, colleges and universities who usually struggle to find distribution for their films. Archive shorts that have relevancy to the area in which they are screened are also often 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 DazzleFuture Shorts and Shorts International) that you can contact. You can also contact local shorts filmmakers directly to see if you can screen their films – most will be receptive.

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