Working in film exhibition

01 Working in independent film exhibition

Independent cinemas are vital in sustaining access to cultural cinema across the UK, ensuring that audiences across can experience a rich diversity of film wherever they live. Roles in exhibition are varied, challenging, exciting and can be immensely rewarding. Here are the main working areas available in independent film exhibition.


The Programmer is responsible for choosing the films that will screen in the cinema. Knowing who their audience is, what they will like and how to develop new audiences are key to a Programmer’s success. The Programmer should articulate a clear cultural objective and identity for their venue via their film programme; however, they will have to achieve these objectives whilst working within a budget for a targeted audience. Programmers need to have an in-depth knowledge of film history as well as of new and forthcoming films, whether gained from a degree course or through previous work in other areas of the exhibition sector. They will attend preview screenings of films months before release and may travel to key international film festivals for this purpose.

It is often the responsibility of the Programmer to write film copy for marketing and to liaise with the Cinema/Operations Manager on the scheduling of film screenings. Developing good relations with distributors and the ability to negotiate are essential skills. Programmers booking films directly, not through a booking agent, also need to take responsibility for the accuracy of contracts and terms agreed with Distributors. The leading industry training course for Programmers is the ICO’s Cultural Cinema Exhibition course.

These days it is rare to find jobs that solely concentrate on Programming – usually the function is combined with marketing or venue management.

Not every venue has a Programmer. Sometimes programming is done centrally, usually in London where there is direct access to preview film screenings, and sometimes venues work with organisations such as the ICO who advise cinemas on their programme – via its own Programmers, who have long-term experience in regional film programming and are able to view all forthcoming releases. There is often a similar scenario with booking films; sometimes the Programmer will do this directly with distribution companies, or this will be done centrally or by an organisation such as the ICO.

For more details on our Cinema Programming service, click here.

Cinema/Operations/General Manager

Responsibilities in this post vary from venue to venue, but generally the Cinema Manager will take overall responsibility for all front of house areas such as Box Office, Café and Bar. They will have to work to budgets, and may have to deliver business plans and reporting for the financial side of the business. More often than not, they also need to ensure that the cinema complies with all licensing and health and safety regulations.

Usually the Cinema Manager will also be responsible for managing and recruiting front of house staff and projectionists, stock control and cash handling. If the venue is very small, the Cinema Manager may also act as the Programmer. In larger venues the Cinema Manager may be supported by a team of Assistant or Duty Managers. Where the cinema is part of a mixed arts venue, the Cinema Manager may oversee theatre and music events in addition to film and if so, may need to liaise with incoming organisations and work in conjunction with technical staff. Many Cinema Managers have worked in other front of house areas and, although there is no formal training, this experience plus management training courses and some experience of financial management can be very useful.


Crucial to any cinema is the Projectionist. Traditionally, in previous years when cinemas screened from 35mm as standard, the Projectionist was responsible for receiving film canisters and then making the film up (which often involves ‘splicing’ – basically sticking together – the different film reels and doing any minor repair work on the print so it is in optimum playable condition). However, most modern independent cinemas have now converted to a digital projection system (though some maintain a 35mm projector in addition), meaning the role of the projectionist is now largely or wholly digital and can include downloading or uploading the film onto the projector servers; attaching any relevant ads reels and trailers to the front of the film; ingesting KDMs (Key Delivery Message – a time code sent by a distributor to unlock the film for specific screenings) to ensure that all film files are playable on date; and running the films for all screenings.

In large projection boxes there is very often a Chief Projectionist who will have management responsibility for the projectionist team and who liaises with the Cinema Manager and/or Programmer on film delivery and formats. Projectionists are also responsible for cinema sound, ensuring that the speakers are in optimum working order and set to the correct levels. For special events such as speaker introductions they may need to co-ordinate the use of microphones and lighting. Projectionist training tends to be taught in house, particularly by the big cinema chains, so it’s mainly on-the-job training.


The Head of Finance or Finance Manager is responsible for all financial planning, forecasting and reporting; setting audience and sales targets; writing business plans; ensuring a variety of funding streams and assisting the Programmer when required to help negotiate terms with distributors. This post can fall to the CEO or overall Manager of a cinema depending on the cinema’s size and structure, and is likely to be supported by an administrative team covering raising invoices, collating figures, paying invoices from distributors and other suppliers, banking, paying salaries and reporting income streams from various different areas of the cinema. Financial acumen is crucial for this post and previous accountancy experience will be very useful, if not essential.


Often responsible for managing a tight budget encompassing the cinema’s website and social media activity, the production and design of its monthly or seasonal brochure and any advertising spend, the marketing department also manages the cinema’s customer database, normally captured by the Box Office’s computerised booking system. Depending on the booking system, it may be possible to target specific audience groups according to the ‘product’ or film, enabling the marketing to be more relevant and direct. Skills required include copy writing, proof reading, knowledge of design software (such as the Adobe Creative Suite) and knowledge of e-marketing and social media. Film posters, trailers and other display materials tend to be ordered centrally from companies that deal with several film distributors’ marketing materials, although smaller distributors may distribute materials directly themselves. Routes into Marketing roles include marketing degrees and journalism experience but, often bigger marketing and publicity departments have more junior positions and you can’t beat on-the-job training.

Press and Publicity

Not always a separate department or post to that of Marketing, this role ensures that all cinema content is publicised locally or, where relevant, nationally and internationally. Historically, print formats such as newspapers were the standard avenue to pursue; the two main outlets now are e-marketing and social media. Rather than having contacts in your local newspaper in order to secure editorial coverage, now the key goal may be to raise awareness of your cinema’s social media profiles and increase the amount of traffic coming to your website.

Having sufficient knowledge of key social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram is therefore essential, as is an understanding of how to use online advertisements economically and effectively. Social media allows for a more in-depth dialogue with your followers and/or customers. You must be able to identify opportunities to create good stories about your cinema on social media or in the local press – newspapers are more often than not still looking for content and have maintained a sturdy readership to this day, despite the broader move to digital.

The ability to write well will come in handy for composing press releases, as will an eye for a good story, and great tact is essential for dealing with any negative publicity. Routes into a Press and Publicity role are very similar to those for Marketing and include a relevant degree, journalism experience, and often bigger marketing and publicity departments have more junior positions. Again, you can’t beat on-the-job training.


Usually a dedicated Education post is only found in larger venues but an Education department, however big or small, can be a great way for a cinema to establish a very positive relationship with its local community and, particularly for venues focusing on cultural exhibition, add context to its programme. For example, a re-release of a Jean-Luc Godard film may be supported by an evening course in New Wave Cinema etc. Often, handouts at screenings that give a bit more information about a film and put it in context can go down very well with audiences.

It’s easy to think of Education as aimed solely at children or families, and this is definitely a very important group – they’ll be your future audience, and school screenings or a young persons’ advisory group on programming or events can be a great addition to any venue. However, adult education is equally important – older generations particularly are often able to make firm commitments to events or courses and enjoy the social element of such events. Some educators have previous teaching experience and a passion for film has led them to work in the cinema. It will be useful to have knowledge of the school curriculum, be used to speaking in front of groups of people and of course, have a good knowledge of film history.

Box Office and Front of House – concession sales/bar/café/usher

Roles like these are an ideal starting point for anyone hoping to work in Cinema Exhibition because you have invaluable direct contact with your audience. You need to be personable, patient, friendly and ideally, interested in film. These roles are a great way to get your foot in the door of the cinema industry and with enough hands-on experience, can help you learn the skills necessary to progress up the ladder.

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