How do I start a local, open-to-the-public film society?
March 17, 2009 3:53 PM   Subscribe

What is required to start and run a film society that stages periodic, open-to-the-public screenings of classic, obscure and indie films in one's own town?

I'm a film geek in a town (Santa Barbara, California), that doesn't really meets a film geek's needs. Sure, there are occasional college screenings and a yearly film festival, but most of what's theatrically available here is ultra-mainstream. There's a "Santa Barbara Cinema Society", but it's secretive, pricey and members-only.

Thus, I've been seriously considering being the change I wish to see and founding a local film forum operating on the model of nonprofit film organizations like I've seen in action in major cities: monthlyish screenings of classic, obscure, local and indie films open to both members who have pre-paid for the "season" and the general public on a first-come-first-serve basis as well. Nothing too fancy.

What I'd like to know from any MeFi denizens with even a shred of experience in this arena is as follows: what steps should I take to get this train moving out of the station? Here are the things I know so far that I'll need, but any gaps in my knowledge that people can fill in would be much appreciated:
  • A venue. The options I can see here are (a) rent an existing, equipped screening room (perhaps one in a regular several-plex sort of theater, if they rent them out, although the local museum also happens to have one) or (b) rent the necessary gear to hold the screenings in an unequipped room, such as a public library could provide. I'm not sure which of these would be preferable in the long run.
  • Films. Selecting movies to screen isn't a problem so much as finding firms that rent out prints. I don't quite understand why they're so difficult to locate online. Would anyone happen to know an approximate average cost for a 35mm print rental of a film that's not new, not mainstream or both? And where would be a good source of information on the applicable rights issues?
  • Money. How are these sorts of outfits funded? Tickets sold, certainly, and also memberships, but what about sponsorships? Are those generally doable?
  • Publicity. This is the least hard of the bunch, from what I can see; I'm already pretty heavily involved with a few sectors of the local media. But is there any form of publicity that people starting a film series don't normally think about that they should?
And here's a larger question: is there a smaller-scale way to get a film forum like this off the ground that I'm not seeing? Maybe screening movies on video for a while? (Rights issues there?) Maybe doing local films only for a while? I'm not quite sure how to scale the operation down so as to get it most manageably started.

Here are a few somewhat informative documents I've already unearthed:But as you can see, none of it's terribly in-depth.
posted by colinmarshall to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You should memail this guy, who owns and runs an indie theater in Springfield, Missouri. He may be able to offer a lot of advice.
posted by dersins at 4:37 PM on March 17, 2009

It seems you already have done quite a bit of research. Here are my ideas, based on having grown up in Santa Barbara, and thinking on this for a few minutes, but lacking any critical background you're looking for.

Santa Barbara is full of people interested in arts. You could start showing stuff to friends and colleagues in a private setting. See how that goes, and ask the viewers if they'd want to see it expanded to a larger setting.

Have you contacted local libraries? I'm not sure if they host screenings, but they might have everything set up to do so, only lacking the person hours to get it started.

If you lack a venue but want something public, why not try guerrilla performances? All you'd need are some outlets and big blank wall. That could be a great start to getting a buzz started.

If you want to go through proper channels, you could try contacting actual auditoriums and ask about non-profit showings of films. They might cut you a deal if you talk to them about testing the waters for a monthly event. Otherwise, you could look into venues that house group meetings like AA, as they would have the required space and amenities, even if the sound setup wouldn't be a proper auditorium.

Public domain films could be an inexpensive way to start showing things, and possibly a short-cut through trying to find who to contact. comes to mind as a source for such films. Otherwise, local artists would probably be easier to track down for rights and permission. Once you get into things, it sounds like distributors are the most common source of films, but you could also try to track down the people who have the rights to the really indie stuff (it might be people who are excited that you want to share their films). The rights worry me (because it seems there could be layers of rights), but I'd imagine that distribution companies would handle all that for you.

But if you're just looking to throw your vision into the community and see what happens, why limit yourself to film reels? If an indie producer wants his or her films show but only has DVD-Rs, couldn't that work for early runs?

Set your sights high, but be comfortable with starting out small. If you want this to continue, throwing everything into the first go could be overkill, or could drain your resources and general interest. If you start small and something goes awry, you didn't lose much, and you can try again. And keep us posted on your progress - I'd definitely come back to SB to see this?
posted by filthy light thief at 4:45 PM on March 17, 2009

Sounds like what Washington Psychotronic Film Society does. Try memailing Doctor Schlock.

Based on my involvement, I can say the venue is going to be a big hassle, and if you get noticed you're going to have to deal with licensing issues.
posted by JoanArkham at 5:12 PM on March 17, 2009

The best theater in la [in my opinion] is cinefamily They blend perfectly the really obscure with the obscure that brings in crowds. They do monthly memberships as well.

Also, BOYB establishments always get my vote.
posted by mattsweaters at 6:12 PM on March 17, 2009

I've spent the last three years helping to run Doc Films, the University of Chicago's film society, along with a smaller once-a-week film society specializing in classic American films. I'd be happy to share my experiences.

To address the questions you've laid out here:

1: Venues
It'd be cheapest and most convenient to find a place that will let you use their space for free. Both the places I work for do this - Doc obviously benefits from its university affiliation, but the other place talked a bank into letting it use its auditorium on Saturday nights back in the '70s, and they've let us hold on to it ever since.

2: Equipment
It sounds like you want to show actual film prints. Awesome! This means you'll need some equipment, and people who know how to run it. If you'd be content with 16mm prints, you can probably buy some tabletop projectors for cheap (this would simplify your space issues, too, as well as cutting down on film rental and shipping costs). If you want to screen 35mm prints, though, expect to shell out a couple thousand dollars for a projector - and a couple thousand more for a second projector so you can do reel-to-reel projection if you want to borrow prints from places like the Library of Congress or something someday. Having people to run the equipment who know what they're doing is essential. Tabletop 16mm projectors are easy for anyone to run - but being a projectionist requires technical skills (a good resource if you want to learn more about those skills is Film Tech).

3: Film Distribution
If you want to show 16mm, a good place to start is Em Gee. He's cheap and has a lot of stuff, if you're into old American films and whatnot. 35mm prints from assorted distributors can cost anywhere from just the cost of shipping (Library of Congress - if you meet their stringent qualifications as a venue!) to $800 or so for recent films from mainstream distributors. It all depends on the distributor and on exactly what you want to show. I don't know as much as I could about the distribution end of things, but I can put you in touch with people who know a ton about it if you memail me.

4: Money
How frequently are you planning to hold screenings?
Are you planning to have paid employees?
Can you find a space to use for free?
What kind of audience do you hope to attract? What kind of audience can you attract?
It all depends on the answers to these questions. Doc Films screens a completely obscure film or two every night of the week, most to audiences of 25 or less - but pays for all those nights of failure with screenings of second run blockbusters and such to audiences of 60-100 on weekends. The other place I work for only does one screening a week, but only rarely sells fewer than 100 tickets. If you're really worried about funds, sell popcorn. It costs nothing and even if you sell it for $2 a bucket you'll make a profit.

Expect the whole thing to be a lot of hard work. Good luck!
posted by bubukaba at 6:35 PM on March 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

Oh, and here is Doc's page on finding distribution. It's somewhat incomplete, but it should help some.
posted by bubukaba at 6:36 PM on March 17, 2009

Lots of good advice in the above comments; memail me if you'd like more suggestions. Good luck and have fun!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:52 PM on March 17, 2009

I helped with a film series at a small arts non-profit. I don't know a lot, but here are some attempts at answers:

-Venue: we used the gallery room we already had (very simple: fold out chairs, concrete floor, and the organization bought a projector screen). I do not know a lot about the different kinds of projectors you'll need, but even our organization had to borrow sometimes from individuals who happened to own the right projector or from the local film society or from the nearby university. We formed strong partnerships with all of them, which meant more people knew about our programming, too.

-Films: we worked with Filmmaker's Cooperative, Canyon Cinema for film; Video Data Bank and Electronic Arts Intermix for video.

-Money: we sold tickets between $3-$5 for films on the night of the screening.
posted by val5a at 7:58 PM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used to go to Cine16 when it was in San Jose. It was a monthly presentation of historic documentary or industrial films. It was always entertaining. The guy who started that (Geoff Alexander) also ran Cine16 in St Louis

He has a page on his site that explains how Start Your Own Cinema which goes over topic such as:

1) Film degradation basics
2) Film storage and preservation
3) Film repair
4) Film stock basics (with Eastman date code chart), with degradation data specific to particular film stocks
5) Acquiring film
6) Selecting a projector
7) Venue and admission charges
8) Publicity
posted by bottlebrushtree at 8:39 PM on March 17, 2009

(You might know all of this already, but I figured I'd try.) Different departments at UCSB show a bunch of films to small audiences regularly, open to the public, just not well-publicized. Anyway, I'd first ask Magic Lantern whether they'd be interested with collaborating with you on this; IV Theater is definitely set up for it and has empty nights, but they might not have the energy to develop audiences for less-popular movies. For a smaller scale effort, there are rooms in the UCSB library that can be set up for showing movies — or ask Shayna about using the English department's media room!
posted by dreamyshade at 10:33 PM on March 17, 2009

Oh yeah...and if you can get a few current UCSB students to help organize things, you can apply for some financial support from the After Dark fund.
posted by dreamyshade at 10:43 PM on March 17, 2009

A few thoughts about venue and money. While doing mobile screenings is really fun and creates excitement, it involves tremendous set-up hassle and may be difficult to collect admission fees from your patrons. Long term, partnering with a university, community college, museum, or whoever owns a defunct movie theatre, might be an easier option until you have a reliable staffer or two. (Note that when you partner with someone, they may not permit you to collect admission fees because they are a nonprofit or their charter otherwise does not allow it).

Which brings me to money. In my experience, sponsorship tends to be for a particular program that the corporate sponsor finds worthy (like something targeted to children), which may not be what you're interested in. They don't necessarily fund general operating costs. You may be eligible for grants at the city, county, state, or national level, which may offer more flexibility, but require more work in that you actually have to write a grant proposal. You can look for foundations that support your work at United Way -- I think they maintain a book of funders, as well as online. You can also look to in-kind support for projectors, screens, refreshments, etc. from local establishments. Another option for unrestricted money is a fundraiser -- maybe someone famous in your area could be the headliner, which would allow you to charge a reasonable amount for tickets.
posted by *s at 7:59 AM on March 18, 2009

I just remembered the Goleta Drive-in is closed. Setting up showings there would be amazing. Trying to do it guerrilla-style would be great, but hard to pull off as the location is visible from Highway 217. Apparently there are still swap meets there, so it's not completely abandoned.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:45 AM on March 18, 2009

I contacted a few companies & they told me that the best way to is to go on IMDB and look up the distributor for the film & contact them.

Licensing seems to run around $300 per day for displaying at a public venue.
posted by Muffy at 2:52 PM on March 18, 2009

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