What makes for successful film programming today? This depends increasingly on what medium or platform you’re programming – and since vastly more film viewing now takes place on TV and computer screens than in cinemas, there can’t be a “one size fits all” answer. But if real-time social screenings (what we used to cal cinema shows) are now a niche activity, then programming them probably has to find new directions. What’s going to persuade people to leave home and be on time to watch something they’ve paid to see, and can’t just change over to something else?
Image by Dominic, Flickr, creative commons
Most cinema programmes are driven by new releases, which come with their own distribution timetables and built-in marketing – and the relentless over-supply of these has created a situation where few films ever get a chance to create word-of-mouth publicity, which is the cheapest and best of all. But what about thematic or retrospective programming, where there are real choices to be made?
I’ve been involved in different kinds of film programming for nearly forty years, and in the free-lance projects I currently do, I can see some traditional principles still at work. The most important is the idea of creating a dialogue with the audience. Somehow, you need to communicate what the programme is offering, how it’s structured and what’s on offer to those who commit to attending your screenings. Obviously this starts with shaping a programme to lead the audience in – giving it a title, writing an introduction and blurbs on the individual films, and if possible turning up to explain the choices and what you hope the audience will get from them.
This can be a very satisfying experience, as I’ve been reminded by recent programmes I’ve curated. A long series on classic Russian cinema at BFI Southbank has produced some great audiences, for lesser-known as well as famous films, and some welcome email feedback – a new resource for the programmer seeking dialogue. This is another basic principle: mixing the expected with the unfamiliar. You have to show Potemkin, Man with a Movie Camera and Ivan the Terrible, but audiences will also seize opportunities to discover the likes of Boris Barnet and Kozintsev and Trauberg, as we discovered.
Now we’re embarking on an ambitious Aleksandr Sokurov retrospective for November and December, which involves mixing shorts and medium length-films non-fiction with the features – a pattern I also used in a recent short programme curated for the British Museum, to accompany their Australian Season of exhibitions. This consisted of just six programmes, all built around features, some obvious (Ned Kelly, Walkabout) and others less so (Samson and Delilah, The F J Holden), mostly accompanied by shorts that extended the features in different directions.
Every year, we run a Europa Cinemas workshop in Bologna that focuses on how cinemas in the network can create a better dialogue with their audiences: how they can remain attractive and - our theme this year - competitive in a world that offers many attractions other than cinema. Creating a dialogue through programming, and all that accompanies it is clearly central. I’m tempted to say it’s all about remembering to address and listen to the audience as you would want to be addressed, and listened to. A process that social media should only make easier and more interactive.
Ian Christie is a film historian, curator and broadcaster, Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck, University of London, and vice-president of Europa Cinemas. www.ianchristie.org