How to Offer More Than a Movie: Producing Film Discussions That Are Serious Cultural Events

By Jacobson, Alan | American Libraries, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

How to Offer More Than a Movie: Producing Film Discussions That Are Serious Cultural Events


Jacobson, Alan, American Libraries


Many libraries don't screen I 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?) even though 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 that doesn't take away from my point: A film discussion can be as serious a cultural event as a book discussion--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 (orvolunteer) 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 rollingup 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 in both 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--whatever it takes to get the film series in your local paper's calendar. …

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