How to Offer More than a Movie

Posted Wednesday, July 27, 2011 - 13:13
Producing film discussions that are serious cultural events
Ready for your library's close-up

Many libraries don’t screen films. Many just “play and walk away.” Here’s how to make your screening a quality cultural event equal to your book discussions.

Your library’s films are some of the highest-quality work in your building, often unjustly ignored, maligned, and simply consigned to “popular material” (Charles Dickens or Alfred Hitchcock, anyone?) when there is so much thematic and artistic richness waiting to be mined in a discussion format. But there’s that old saw: “Bring it back to the book.” If only there were such handy alliteration for movies! What are your patrons doing by making your movie collections circulate every bit as well as most of your print collections? Are they . . . “Fetching it forward to the film?” See? It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t take away from the point that a film discussion can be as serious a cultural event as your book discussions—enlightening, entertaining, provocative, and adding a surprising dimension to your services.

Before setting out the popcorn

If you have never run a film program, how do you start? With simple legality and logistics. Even though you don’t charge admission at the gate and sacrifice valuable staff (or volunteer) time to lead a discussion, you have to secure Public Performance Rights (PPR) or you’re in violation of the law. Several companies sell PPR. Swank/Movie Licensing USA is the one we at Oak Park (Ill.) Public Library use for films shown at our Oak Park Viewers group. Our annual blanket license covers every major studio but 20th Century Fox; Swank will secure rights for other films for additional charges. For independent films, you will either discover that it is cost prohibitive—Criterion demanded $200 for Gimme Shelter (Maysles and Zwerin, 1970) or on rare occasion, a company will love libraries, be flattered, and say “Sure, show it for free.”

Now to actually rolling up your sleeves and setting up the equipment. Don’t buy two machines; a Blu-ray player will also play DVDs. As HDTVs have grown enormously both in screen acreage and quality, your room, depending on its size, may only need one nice, big screen. Otherwise, spring for a projector, screen, and speakers; you don’t want hearing-impaired folks to miss out on the dialogue. Recently, these setups have become surprisingly affordable.

Decide whether you want to provide popcorn and drinks. We screen both with and without.

Who wants to run the program? You may find out that every member of the staff does. Let the person with passion and expertise invest his or her energies in it, even if he or she is a volunteer (Oak Park has lucked into a great film historian who does our classic matinees). Always be sure the facilitator—whether retired historian, shelver, or librarian—is indoctrinated, trained, and constantly supported.

An important consideration: Your following will build slowly. Allow me to introduce Mark and Hannah. Nice research associates at a local college, they were my only attendees for three of the first six screenings in my very first series, “Just Jarmusch.” They loved the attention, the detail that went into the preparation, and my being able to tailor my knowledge and research to their curiosity. A horde may show up due to a fluke like programming wizardry, lack of decent American Idol contestants, or an alignment of the constellations. But for the most part, expect just a few attendees here and there for at least the first year. Just give it time to develop into something the community organically discovers and ends up valuing.

Kick-start that growth. Movies are an easy sell. Promoting your program will not only provide company for stalwarts like Mark and Hannah and eventually approach the critical mass every group aims for, but it will tell the community that the library takes its programming seriously. Build an email list and Facebook presence, write press releases and articles—anything to get the film series in your local paper’s calendar. Whether you screen monthly, weekly, or yearly, post and share updates including positive reviews and previews (easy to find on YouTube). Create stunning posters for the film or series. Brand it. Make a logo for your film society. Issue membership cards. Remember, you want to take this seriously so it can build.

If you screen it, will they come?

Programming a successful film discussion series is tricky. Choose discussable movies—rich films with a lot of ideas and characters patrons understand. At first, most will attend just for the film, making discussing clips a losing proposition. Better to present the film as a whole, a text for study just like a book discussion. Remember, your job is to add value to the screening. You enrich people’s experiences. And you will reap the rewards.

Filling seats is a major concern, since every underattended program is crushingly disappointing to the facilitator and a waste of the library’s funds. In our community, intellectuals love the crème de la crème of flicks from other countries. Oak Park Viewers had tremendous success with “The Foreign Exchange Program” series. A couple dozen even showed up for the underexposed Chinese masterpiece Mountain Patrol (Chuan Lu, 2004). Like us, you may have success with classic matinees. Create the program title; whether it’s a Bogart- or book-based series, it’s essential to market a program by tying films together in a logical, attractive package.

Timing is crucial in filling seats and building membership. Look at the release schedule and program a couple of movies in your series by release date. Your patrons in the hold queue will attend. Some will stick around for the discussion. A few will come back for future screenings. I had to pull out extra seats for a recent screening of The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009), which we showed just a day after its DVD release.

No need to reinvent the wheel. The Film Society of Lincoln Center does an amazing job of programming its ongoing film series. So does your randomly picked university with a healthy film program. Art house cinemas often will host inspired series. Rip them off.

Festivals and awards also help. Cannes, Sundance, Venice, and Oscar will help you find prestige films. The American Film Institute has great lists. The British Film Institute “Sight and Sound” poll of critics and filmmakers is the world’s most respected list and comes out once a decade, with a new one due in 2012. And just as choosing a Nobel or Costa contender usually predicts a quality book discussion, selecting a Sundance audience winner, Golden Lion, or Best Picture will offer plenty of themes, ideas, and rich cinematic content to pore over with the group.

Borrow reviews as well as filmographies. From Roger Ebert to Peter Travers and back to Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and so many others, critics have always listed their favorite films. Use those lists. Internet Movie Database has all the data you need on the production of a film and links to a lot of good reviews, including some New York Times and Variety archives. Movie Review Query Engine links to most reviews as well, with nice feature articles, such as one listing Alfred Hitchcock’s best-reviewed films (with Rear Window, 1954, at the top). Rotten Tomatoes does much the same thing but has a far more robust user community, and offers box office info (also available at boxofficemojo) among other features. Common Sense Media offers advice on whether a selection is family-appropriate—although it’s always been my philosophy to fly the intellectual freedom flag in favor of showing the best film possible, whether it’s brutal and claustrophobic (City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles, 2002), or an animated masterpiece (Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2001). Since it’s always best to be responsible and considerate, I will warn of potentially offensive content several times during the prescreening presentation.

What films don’t work? Oak Park Viewers did a “Love! You! Live!” concert film series. Screenings of Festival Express (Bob Smeaton, 2003), Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984), and The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978) filled enough seats but were not discussable. The post-mortems were abysmal. Also, a “Cult Classics” series, featuring everything from sideshow freaks to the Monty Python gang, failed to gain much of a larger audience than the films’ initial theater-run followings . . . except for a certain film starring the Beatles. Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson bombed. Woody Allen was a hit. No matter how esoteric and artsy your constituency seems, name recognition is key.

Prepare for success. Craft good notes for both the presentation and discussion. When showing the films of a serious director, study; books on Scorsese, Jarmusch, and Allen have been indispensable and serve as a bible for the series. Now that Oak Park Viewers is in the thick of our “Best of the 2000s” (pulled from Film Comment,, and about 20 other places), the internet has proven to be an embarrassment of riches. Reviews by everyone from Elvis Mitchell to your local scribe to Bosley Crowther of the New York Times eons ago are free and readily accessible. What you use and choose depends on what you present and how much preparation time you can put into it. I have found an hour or two is the minimum.

To put a finer point on it, I usually go by what I have enjoyed and learned in facilitating discussions (as well as both teaching and attending film classes). I start with a 10-minute introduction: actors, actresses, gossip, something about the country, genre, etc., as well as some thoughtful reviews and mention of major themes to get attendees thinking. Rather than relate Martin Scorsese’s full life story every time, I note that he was a suicidal drug addict who couldn’t get out of bed until Robert De Niro forced him to work on Raging Bull (1980). In presenting Mountain Patrol, rather than talk about China’s history, I had to settle for talking about its film history and dropping a couple of tidbits about the subject matter. You are priming the group for thoughtful conversation. For discussion questions, I usually settle for five or six and pull the major themes, take notes on how they are represented, and share quotes by the director, others involved in the film, and critics.

Getting paid to watch movies

It’s a labor of love for which you earn every penny. You don’t have two hours to discuss everything. More likely, you have 30 minutes. You will also host twice as many people as your average book discussion.

Note: There will be blood. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg’s 2005 entry into our “Best of the 2000s” series) attracted a couple dozen viewers. A wild and wooly 16 people stuck around after the screening. It was chaotic, but manageable. One young man considered Cronenberg’s argument to be that violence was inevitable and must be accepted as such. Another—well, violently—countered that the director was indicting our culture in general (and Hollywood specifically) for filling our screens with often irresponsibly gratuitous brutality.

My point being, it will get heated. You will have to talk over people. Change the subject with the help of an expert, using Ebert or Crowther’s voice to do it. People respond surprisingly well to an interruption like “Roger Ebert said in the September 23, 2005, Chicago Sun-Times that it is ‘about how people turn out the way they do, and about whether the world sometimes functions like a fool’s paradise.’ What does the group think of that?” It’s certainly more efficacious than loudly insisting “Let’s give everybody a chance to talk.”

Getting paid to watch movies actually means a low rate of pay for a ton of work, some of it unpleasant. Not only do you furiously scribble notes (some of which will be illegible since you can’t see in a dark room), but you are the lone chaperone to a (frequently very) mixed audience under that cover of darkness. As a result, people feel safe and often a bit too comfortable. Shut them up, stop the groping, etc. Always be alert; once I had to escort a violent drunk out of the room.

Mark and Hannah recently got in touch. They asked to be taken off the Oak Park Viewers list. It’s now 90-strong, so I wasn’t upset, merely curious, and asked them why I hadn’t seen them lately. They said they had moved east and missed the screenings and especially the discussions. What’s to miss? Carefully chosen films presented thoughtfully, with brilliant patrons expounding on their meanings. They haven’t experienced anything like it where they have settled.

If you’re reading this, Mark and Hannah, come on back—there’s plenty to discuss!

ALAN JACOBSON is a volunteer coordinator, teaches computer classes, and leads film and book discussions in his capacity as librarian at Oak Park (Ill.) Public Library. He can be reached at libraralan[at]