Tips for supercharging and diversifying your archive film programming

Posted on November 21, 2019 by Herb Shellenberger

Categories: General, Pop-up and Event Cinema

Herb Shellenberger is a film programmer and writer originally from Philadelphia and based in London. In this article you can read his tips for supercharging and diversifying your archive film programming. Herb will be leading a session around diversifying archive film programming at our upcoming Archive Screening Day on Thursday 5 December. Take a look at the full programme and register here.

A Practical Toolkit for Diversifying Archive Film Programming

The ICO’s founder Catharine Des Forges has beautifully described that accomplished film programming “can transform the cultural tastes of a community and change people’s lives, offering them a window on a much wider world than their own and giving them a visual and emotional experience that is quite different to any other art form.” I can attest this is no hyperbole or understatement. Throughout my decade-plus history of continually devouring cinema in all its forms, I’ve increasingly had my perspectives widened, ideas and biases challenged, and learned about peoples, places and experiences I would have never encountered in my daily life thanks to the vast world of moving images.

Archive film programming has played a particularly important role in my self-education, as it should play an important role in any great independent cinema. While our independent cinemas and alternative venues face increasing competition from both art-house chains and mainstream multiplexes — not to mention the increasing plethora of streaming platforms — we certainly hold the upper hand in terms of our capability to craft imaginative, educational, entertaining and expertly produced archive film programming.

But too often when faced with the exciting and daunting task of archive programming — in which we can screen literally anything in the world — do we turn back to Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, Kubrick or other time-tested, much-feted and bankable favourites who we might count on to pack our audiences in. What would happen if we instead gave our audiences the option to discover the works of Ritwik Ghatak, Michèle Rosier or Kira Muratova?

I’d like to encourage those of us in the field of film programming to continually broaden our horizons (and those of our audiences) by challenging ourselves to produce archival film screenings and series that contribute to a continually shifting film history. We should focus on films from parts of the world we don’t see regularly represented cinematically. We should embrace the unfamiliar, the underseen and the small. And we should remember that our canon is formed as a result of many exclusions, not simply due a film’s quality, but by its unavailability.

From my perspective, there are three main routes towards opening up the vast world of archive film programming:

  1. Examining our methods of film research and discovery
  2. Sourcing and securing films that are feasible within our budget and resources
  3. Using technology and equipment to extend our access to films
Soviet Film, January 1987. Photo by Herb Shellenberger at BFI Reuben Library.

Research and discovery

How do programmers dream up the fantastical retrospectives, thematically curated series and completist surveys? The best film programmes and series are usually the result of much studious viewing and reading as well as many conversations and interviews. This research might involve visits to film archives, studios or cinematheques. Conversely, sometimes research can be done alone through deep web searches and a web of emails to track down ideas for film titles, locations of prints and contacts for guest speakers or writers. It can also importantly involve looking at other cinemas, film festivals and screenings internationally, to keep an eye out for archival films that are currently circulating or newly-available.

One of the most exciting ways to discover archival films is to delve into books, magazines and other printed materials. Catalogues of film festivals programmes, exhibitions or distributors have yielded a number of films that I’ve sought out over the years, especially for screening projects on American experimental animation and radical sex education films. I’ve spent hours looking through ASIFA News, Image et son or Soviet Film in the BFI Reuben Library. Elsewhere in London, the LUX library holds many books on cinema and artist film, and the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection also holds a wealth of rare documents and ephemera. Many universities and arts organisations around the UK will hold their own collections with surely different materials and focuses, and examining these local resources can jumpstart ideas for film programmes.

Each programmer will have their own interests and priorities, but these can be radically expanded upon and augmented through archival research.

Kin Kiesse, Mweze Ngangura, 1982, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). One of many films available for rental from Institut Français.


The quest for archive film prints can either be a fun treasure hunt or a painful exercise in futility. Once you’ve compiled your list of eye-wateringly rare films from your deep archival research, you might become disappointed to find that the reason they are so rare is that there aren’t any screenable copies available. Even more frustratingly, you might find them sitting in an archive which charges high loan fees or requires certain conditions of projection equipment and/or operators which your venue doesn’t meet.

Particularly in terms of low resource funding, there are distributors, archives and film collections that allow films to be exhibited for either extremely low-cost or even free. Some of these include:

  • Meno avilys (Vilnius, Lithuania) rents for free HD digital files of twelve restored Lithuanian documentary films, those made before 1990 which were funded by the state production company.
  • Institut Français (Paris, France) rent over 2,000 films on DCP, file, DVD, 35mm, 16mm and Beta SP, the vast majority of them for free. The exhibitor pays shipping on prints that need to be delivered.
  • FilmoTeca de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain) make available a series of 12 screenings called Basic Films of Catalan Cinema, a beautifully kaleidoscopic series of fiction, documentary, experimental and silent short and feature films made between 1904–86.

Exciting programmes could be made through searching the holdings of the above distributors, which should be accessible even to low resource independent cinemas.

Au Père Lachaise, Jean Daniel-Pollet & Pierre-Marie Goulet, 1986, France.


Equipment, technology and expertise can open up an independent cinema’s access to a wider array of archival works, while at the same time deficits in these areas can limit the options available to screen. While an increasing number of newly-restored and digitised films are being distributed via DCP, there are many works which are only available in 35mm, 16mm, Beta SP, DVD or even less-used formats like HDCam, VHS or legacy video formats like Umatic.

Film prints can indeed provide an extra draw for audiences who want to experience watching an archive film on celluloid, something that independent cinemas are best positioned to offer. But what if the film print you locate doesn’t have subtitles? Having run into this problem multiple times, I found a solution that seems to work like magic and has opened up my programming to titles not often shown in English-speaking film screenings.

Qstit is a simple but powerful software for running subtitles live on top of film projections, often referred to as soft-titles. The open-source software was developed by Brussels’ Nova Cinema as an innovative and freely-available solution to running live subtitles in an easy and effective way. Qstit reads .srt or .txt subtitles — which you can either find online or generate easily yourself — and allows them to be controlled and advanced manually, ideally by a speaker of the language spoken.

Qstit interface

For example, during a series I organised with Pavilion in Leeds this past summer, I wanted to screen the short documentary, Au Père Lachaise (1986), a poetic journey through the largest cemetery in Paris directed by Jean-Daniel Pollet and Pierre-Marie Goulet. I found this film in the catalogue of the Institut Français, which hold it in an unsubtitled 35mm print. With a French-speaking friend willing to accurately translate the poetic voiceover for me, I formatted it into an .srt file with lines of dialogue and used Qstit to advance the subtitles along (with my limited competency in French) and successfully screened this rare and beautiful film for our audience at the Hyde Park Picture House.

I’ll delve much deeper into each of these areas — with specific examples and further resources—during my presentation ‘A Practical Toolkit for Diversifying Archive Film Programming’ at ICO’s Archive Screening Day on 5 December 2019 at BFI Southbank. Take a look at the full programme and register here.

Herb Shellenberger is a film programmer and writer originally from Philadelphia and based in London. He has curated screenings at institutions such as Anthology Film Archives, Flaherty Seminar, Irish Film Institute, LUX, New York University and Tate Modern. He has lectured on film and contemporary art at museums, universities and art spaces internationally, and has written for Art-Agenda, Art Monthly, The Brooklyn Rail, LUX and Walker Art Center. He’s been Associate Programmer & Publications Editor for the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival since 2016.

Subscribe to our mailing list

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