What it takes to be a film programmer

Posted on August 23, 2018 by Maria Pirkkalainen

Categories: Cinema Careers, Training & Conferences

Becoming a film programmer is often seen as a dream job, but how do you get these kinds of roles and what do you need to do it successfully? With applications now open for our next Cultural Cinema Exhibition training course, we talked to some of the graduates from this course (now some of the brightest voices in film programming) about what they think should be in a programmer’s arsenal.

Sheffield Doc/Fest

Melanie Iredale, Deputy Director, Sheffield Doc/Fest, who took part in Cultural Cinema Exhibition in 2006

As a starting point, my advice to anyone wanting to become a programmer would be the same as for anyone wanting to be a Filmmaker: watch a lot. Watch as broad a range of content as you can get access to, and from all over the world, watch often, watch what’s being produced currently, watch films that fall outside of your immediate interests, and outside of your comfort zone. Get a sense of what you like, what you respond to, while acknowledging your own blindspots in terms of lived experience and tastes. Try to see films in different contexts – in the cinema, at other festivals, go to Q&As, read reviews but also blogs and social media – the industry response to any one film might differ from the public’s response, and that may differ again from the reaction of the community represented or explored. Knowing your audience or potential audience and stretching the potential for who they could be is the difference between programming for yourself and programming for an audience.

One of the toughest parts of the role, and one of the most difficult things to explain to filmmakers who have submitted to your festival unsuccessfully, is that curation of a festival isn’t just a case of selecting a number of individual titles, but rather about creating a programme as a whole. That means often having to choose between two or more titles which might be of high quality and which you might have personally enjoyed, but which are too similar in terms of story, theme, or approach, especially where you have limited slots. It also means reaching a balance in terms of form, tone, geography, and the diversity in representation on screen and behind the camera. Another consideration is how fresh the film is, and the premiere status – is it giving audiences access to a film they may not have had the chance to see before, or even that they might have little opportunity to see it in the UK again?

Every festival is different and has its own curatorial approach and brand – it’s your opening film which will set the tone, and the balance of your programme that should tell the story that your festival wants to tell.

Joan Parsons, Head of Queen’s Film Theatre – who took part in Cultural Cinema Exhibition in 2010

Being a programmer is a privileged position, you can be a taste maker, can make or break a business and can change lives. Talk to anyone, film people or not, and most will have strong memories of cinema trips as a youngster or films that changed how they think about something. All these films were selected by programmers, for differing reasons and within specific contexts but once you have understood what a programmer does there is no escaping their influence on your own film history.

When I think about what it takes to be a programmer, my instant reaction is ‘a love of film’ but when I dig a little deeper I think it’s a love of audiences. Audiences are the end game for a programmer, they are your reward and your goal, if getting more of them to watch films is a rush, getting them to watch more specialised film is something else! However, it’s never just a numbers game, their engagement and satisfaction will be your gold medal.

Know your audience – sure you can get all sorts of tech to help with this, and as the age of paper surveys still reigns you can always do these – but for me, the no. 1 way to know your audience is to watch films, in your venue, a lot. Go at different times, to see different films, if you are hosting a Q&A or other event stick around after, speak to people as they leave, be active on social media and be visible. The programmer is an accountable position, you’ll never please everyone and knowing how to respond when you don’t is a vital lesson. I have a distinct memory of debating the pros and cons of Post Tenebras Lux after an audience member confronted me for the shocking film, we were never going to agree but we ended by agreeing on the film’s ability to promote debate and the fact that she was always surprised by the programme and came back even if something didn’t work for her (after some heated discussion of course).

Flatpack Film Festival

Sam Groves, Programmer, Flatpack Film Festival, who took part in Cultural Cinema Exhibition in 2011

I’ve been programming now for over a decade, and by and large it’s been a total joy. When I think back, there have been different phases to my career to date and I can broadly put them into three sections: the ‘running my own monthly short film night in a pub’ phase, the ‘starting to get paid/commissioned to curate and programme whilst still having a job I hated’ phase, and the ‘having a full time programming job at Flatpack’ phase. Naturally the skills I’ve developed over these periods have evolved a fair bit, and I think I’ve had a bit of luck along the way too (right place, right time), but generally speaking there are certain things I’ve learnt which have certainly helped me on my career path…

  • being entrepreneurial– I perhaps didn’t realise I was being entrepreneurial at the time, but since there was no programming role for me to walk into, I started doing my own thing (bought kit, learnt how to use it, and became a programmer for hire), started a company limited by guarantee and carved out my own programming job.
  • finding my niche – I remember David Sin giving me some advice very early on – he suggested I think about a particular area of programming that I focus on, so I did. Shorts, and in particular animation. I now programme all sorts of stuff (features, docs, live AV performances, kids films) but shorts are still my speciality I’d say, and they’ve served me pretty well, certainly during those first few years.
  • make it your life (for a bit) – this probably goes without saying, but putting in all the time you possibly can stands you in pretty good stead. For a few years, I invested so much of my time and money into doing what I wanted to do, and it paid off. I have more commitments these days and less time on my hands so I’m glad I put a shift in when I was able to. It should be fun too, most of the time!
  • thick skin – a few years ago, I started categorising my days into ‘yes’ and ‘no’ days. When you’re trying to pull off something silly like a festival with not enough time or resources, most people say no to your requests and they far outnumber the yes’s, and that can be a bit demoralising at times, but if you can get past those numerous no days, the yes days are incredible, like when you get a yes from the Henson Company to screen two of Jim’s early TV films that rarely get a UK outing. That’s cracking.

My day to day programming job is filled with a fair amount of admin and bureaucracy these days, and that can feel like it’s taking over sometimes. I have to make sure I’m making time to research, to watch, to experience, and to enjoy. It’s good to remind yourself why you started doing this in the first place – I often go back to one of the first shorts I started showing people when I was a teenager. I still love it, and love sharing it with people.

Cultural Cinema Exhibition 2017

Mike Tait, Discovery Film Festival Producer, Dundee Contemporary Arts, who took part in Cultural Cinema Exhibition in 2010

Sitting alone in the dark with a pile of screeners… Is programming best suited to the hermit in each of us?

Tasked with programming an annual 16 day film festival targetting young audiences (and for us, a ‘young audience’ is anyone up to the age of 19 and their friends, families and classmates), finding them ‘the best in contemporary world cinema’ made for their age groups, means you have to be persistent, determined and willing to look far beyond the usual suppliers. Accessing new material at festivals which present work in front of the target audience (rather than only industry professionals) is ideal, which calls for regular trips to BUFF in Malmö, Ale Kino! in Poznan and TIFF Kids. Cribbing ideas from their online programmes is a start, but experiencing the film with an appropriately aged audience is a massive boost. (Though watching Ma vie de Courgette with five year olds at one festival was “an experience”). Networking with local teachers and our inhouse young programmers’ group then refines the choices further as we find our annual playlist of some sixteen features and thirty or so shorts. My having once been a teacher definitely helps with understanding of how films might fit within formal education (and the myriad of logistics required in getting learners out of school and down to the venue); any programmer wanting to engage with school audiences absolutely needs to have a close connection with a teacher/teachers to advise. Sadly, it’s not simply a case of “if you show it, they will come” (apart from Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Selma, for which they did come. In droves. Without us doing anything. The exception that proves the rule?). So programming can be about teamwork as much as sitting on your lonesome wading through film after film, each time thinking the next one you watch will be “The One”.

Carmen Slijpen lead the project to open Depot, Lewes

Carmen Slijpen, Creative Director, Depot Cinema, who took part in Cultural Cinema Exhibition in 2011 

A film programmer needs to have at least a basic understanding of the history of film and needs to have watched and keep watching a wide range of films. Movies are your main passion and you never tire of having to watch one more. The internet has made it much easier to do research and find information to create a programme. Within a few clicks you have a list of the most relevant films. Make sure to never rely on one source only and try to watch as much as you can, regardless of what any reviewer says. Ultimately the programmer has to be able to defend the choices made. Whilst it is relatively easy and certainly great fun to think up a programme, the hard work starts after that: sourcing licenses and a copy of the films.

The Cultural Cinema Exhibition course advised that programmers should not only choose films they like as diversity is key and that is not established by the taste of one person alone. This is certainly true if you are programming for the only cinema in town. I endeavour to see all the ‘smaller’ films as these are picked up by our most risk-taking audience and I want to make sure they can trust my choices. I regularly watch films at Depot to gauge how people respond and talk to many audience members. I watch most films (screeners) in the evenings, at screening weekends and sometimes at festivals. Once a programme has been decided, you need to schedule all the films, making sure that throughout a week different customers have a chance to see the film (mixing day time, evenings and screens so the smaller films also have at least one chance to be seen on a bigger screen). The programmer needs to work closely with Comms so they understand why a film has been selected and which aspect of the film to promote to get the audience to engage. A good programmer caters for diverse audiences and engages with their community to collaborate around issues that are important to it.

Catharine Des Forges at Cultural Cinema Exhibition 2017

Catharine Des Forges, Director, Independent Cinema Office, who is one of the course leaders on Cultural Cinema Exhibition

Film Programming is one of those jobs that at one end of the spectrum, everyone feels that they can do, and at the other end, often seems like an elitist, slightly precious vocation with an air of mystery around what it actually means. Done well however, it 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.

Like many things it is quite easy to be mediocre and very difficult to excel, also like many things it takes practice and experience to be the best you can be as well as imagination, passion and knowledge. Film programming starts with the audience – ultimately you want to show what you love and know with an audience,  so you always have to start with the audience and think about the possible entry points to what you want to show. If you can’t think about why someone might come, buy a ticket, turn up, then you may as well show films in your front room to your friends which is also nice (!) but possibly does not constitute a career.

It’s very important to watch everything – from the whole history of cinema, from every country you can find material from, from every genre and every aspect of cinema. Only by doing this will you understand contemporary work by knowing what has gone before, and how articulating why the work you champion is so important.

It’s also important that it is not about your tastes, they will influence what you are interested in, but if it starts and ends with your tastes then you are going to be limited in your reach. You need to be creative and think about the wider tastes in a community or place – all the stories, all the possibilities of a particular title which may touch someone else and what are the synergies between films?

You need to be articulate, intelligent and engaged – to love the experience of cinema yourself – to genuinely respond and wish to engage with audiences, it’s generally an outward facing activity – your role is to open up the work to an audience, not close it down with one interpretation or a monocultural view.

It’s not just about watching films, it is also about the admin (!) – so you need to be conscientious, tenacious and develop your negotiation skills so it’s very important to have a good sense of your own place in the industry so that you can make intelligent arguments about why distributors , filmmakers, rights holders or sales agents will be encourage to co-operate with you.

Audiences are often quite open in their tastes and do take risks in what they are prepared to watch, but you have to help them by signposting it well and by being inclusive rather than exclusive so it helps to be an outward-facing person. It also helps to be enthusiastic about cinema in all its forms – we all have our passions but you will be better at the job if you can embrace a wide range of work yourself and be articulate about what it offers the audience.

The best programmers are infectious in their enthusiasm, they teach us to be curious, to be interested, to embrace what is offered, to lose yourself in all the glorious moments of cinema and be transformed.

All of the programmers above took part in our Cultural Cinema Exhibition course. If you want to move into film programming, take the next step in your film career or open your own cinema, this course has invaluable lessons you won’t get anywhere else. The application deadline is 4 September for Cultural Cinema Exhibition training course (14-19 October 2018, London). 

Subscribe to our mailing list

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