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Real to Reel Film Programming: A Guide

by Mark Gladstone on May 9, 2013

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure of teaching college film courses and organizing film programs at several public libraries. This article shares lessons learned from those experiences and provides tips for public libraries on selecting program content, choosing equipment, handling copyright issues, and marketing, to ensure the success of your library’s film programming.

Establishing Your Own Criteria

Why should you choose a particular film for your library’s film program? You could establish criteria for making film evaluations. Some relevant standards, criteria, or questions you might ask yourself include the following:1

  • Are you able to identify the purpose or aim of the film (i.e., to inform, educate, entertain, persuade)?
  • Who is the film’s intended audience?
  • Does the film have a storyline/plot?
  • How are the characters developed/portrayed in the film?
  • Does the motion picture have dramatic appeal?
  • Does it contain a point of view, logic, closure, metaphysical statements/arguments, ambiguity, etc.?
  • What is the central theme, message, or concern of the film?
  • Is the film persuasive? How does the film persuade you of its message (e.g., by emotional appeal, factual evidence, estrangement/detachment, symbolism, an overtly manipulated point of view tantamount to propaganda, etc.)?
  • What do you see as the film’s importance or relevance?
  • What do we learn or fail to learn from the film?
  • What, if any, are the values/ideology expressed?
  • In terms of the film’s technical qualities and aesthetics, how would you rate the overall direction, the acting, the visual elements (e.g., cinematography, special effects, sets, lighting costumes, color, and use of space), the aural elements (e.g., dialogue, music, sound effects, silence) in addition to the editing (e.g., cutting, the film’s rhythm, continuity, disjunction, or effective use of montage sequences)?

Other Routes to Follow

If you are not interested or confident in developing your own film evaluation criteria, you can always depend on the judgment or critical opinions of others
whether it takes the form of reading professional movie reviews, examining the selections of experienced film programmers, or placing reliance on the winners of film awards and festivals, or notable “best film” lists prepared by various cinephiles.

Film Reviews

Newspapers, magazines, broadcast, and online outlets are all pertinent sources for current and retrospective movie criticism. Some notable sources on the Internet include:

Movie Review Query Engine
Established in 1993, Movie Review Query Engine (MRQE) claims it is the Internet’s largest database for movie reviews. It contains a searchable index of published and available movie reviews, news, interviews, and other material associated with films.

Rotten Tomatoes
Provides reviews from critics of accredited media outlets (i.e., print and broadcast) and online film societies in the form of Tomatometer ratings. “A Tomatometer measures the percentage of ‘Approved Tomatometer Critics’ who recommend a certain movie—or the number of good reviews divided by the total number of reviews.”2 Tomatometer criteria are described in detail on the website.

Metacritic compiles reviews from respected critics and publications for movies, DVDs, music, television, and games. Contains Metascores showing the critical consensus at a glance by taking a weighted average of critics’ grades.

This website contains 20,000 capsule reviews of movies and DVD releases prepared by critics at TimeOut magazine including lists of the fifty greatest sports movies, top twenty vampire movies, and so on.

Not Coming to a Theater Near You
This film review site assumes a bias towards older, often unpopular, and sometimes unknown films that warrant a second examination.

Video Librarian and Video Librarian Plus!
Video Librarian is a video review magazine for public, school, academic, and special libraries, as well as video fans who are interested in a wider variety of titles than what’s found in the average video store. Written by staff, librarians, teachers, and film critics, Video Librarian offers more than 225 critical reviews per issue, alerting readers to upcoming new releases of special interest, documentary, and feature films. Video Librarian Plus! offers subscribers both the print magazine and online access to a searchable database of more than 22,000 full-text video reviews.

Film & History Guide to Documentary Films
This website, from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, reviews significant documentaries and provides useful commentary for scholars, educators, and students.

Box Office Statistics

If you are interested in tracking the financial earnings of domestic films, then you should investigate the following online sources reporting theatrical box office revenues. They provide economic indicators of the public’s acceptance or rejection of specific motion picture fare.

Box Office Guru
This website contains box office data on motion pictures released between 1989 and the present. The statistics are manually updated on a weekly basis and more than 3,600 films are contained in the database.

Box Office Mojo
In addition to being a movie publication, this website publishes several sections reporting box office receipts by time period, including daily, weekend, weekly, monthly, quarterly, seasonal, yearly, and all time.

Film Ratings

Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)
MPAA is a film industry association and a source of movie ratings providing parents with advance information about the content of films. Parents can then determine what movies are appropriate for their young children to view. The ratings are assigned by an independent board of parents.

Film Awards

The list of film awards issued by organizations from around the world is lengthy. Some of the more longstanding prizes, both prestigious and notorious in nature, include:

Film Festivals

Film festivals call attention to new and critically acclaimed works released by filmmakers. With more than one thousand film festivals taking place annually throughout the world, how does one become aware of their existence? I suggest visiting one or more of the following useful websites:

Film festivals devoted to specific film genres and audience interests:

Prominent Art-House Movie Theaters

The exhibitors of classic, foreign, independent, and documentary films at prominent art-house theaters might stimulate your thoughts when formulating solid programming. I suggest you investigate the following venues for possible ideas:

Preeminent Museums and Film Archives

Leading educational institutions with small cinemas screening classic and art-house films include:

International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House
The Dryden Theatre, Rochester, N.Y.
The George Eastman House, an independent nonprofit museum, collects and preserves objects that are of significance to photography, motion pictures, and the life of George Eastman. The motion picture department at the George Eastman House covers every fact of film history and houses an extensive film collection. The Dryden Theatre was constructed in 1951.

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters, New York City (www.moma.org); (
The Museum of Modern Art’s department of film, established in 1935, consists of a film study center, a film stills archive, and a circulating film and video library covering the history of film from the 1890s to the present.

Museum of the Moving Image
Astoria, N.Y.
The museum’s film screenings are often presented with personal appearances by directors, actors, critics, and scholars. With live music for silent films, restored prints from the world’s leading archives, and outstanding new films from the international festival circuit. The museum’s rich collection is an invaluable resource.

Pacific Film Archive
Berkeley, California
One of the largest university art museums in the United States, the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) opened its doors on the south side of the UC Berkeley campus in 1970. There are more than 14,000 films and videos in the PFA collection. With daily screenings—more than six hundred different programs are offered each year— PFA presents rare and rediscovered prints of movie classics, new and historic works by the world’s great film directors, restored silent films with live musical accompaniment, thematic retrospectives, and exciting experiments by today’s film and video artists, including provocative, independently made fiction and documentary films.

Library of Congress Film Programs
Movies are shown at:
Mary Pickford Theater, Washington, D.C.
Packard Campus Theater at the National Audio-Visual Center, Culpeper, Va.

American Film Institute
Washington, D.C.
AFI provides year-round programming at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md. Since 1967, AFI has devoted its efforts in preserving and conserving our American film heritage.

British Film Institute
London, United Kingdom
BFI Southbank screens more than one thousand films a year, from rare silent comedies to cult movies and archive television screenings. The venue hosts previews and gala screenings as well as events and on-stage interviews with filmmakers, actors, producers, critics and writers.

Cinémathèque Française
Paris, France
The Cinémathèque Française is one of the largest archives of films, movie documents, and film-related objects in the world. It continues to fulfill its original mission of preserving and restoring films and archives within its collections, and programming major classics as well as complete retrospectives and tributes to filmmakers, actors, producers, and film technicians.

Best Films Ever Made

Periodically, a number of organizations, publications, and critics devoted to film prepare so-called “best” movie lists or rankings. Several notable lists include:

The British Film Institute (BFI) 100
Early in 1999, the BFI surveyed one thousand people embracing all segments of the film, cinema, and television industries throughout the United Kingdom:
producers, directors, writers, actors, technicians, academics, exhibitors, distributors, executives, and critics. They were asked to consider (and vote for up to one hundred) “culturally British” feature films, released in cinemas during the twentieth century, which they felt had made a strong and lasting impression. Altogether, more than 25,700 votes were cast, covering 820 different films. The final selection spans seven decades, from 1935 to 1998, and includes the work of seventy film directors and much international talent.

American Film Institute’s 100 Years . . . The Complete Lists
Similar to BFI efforts, the American Film Institute (AFI) has produced a series of lists including AFI’s 100 Years of 100 Winning Movies.

Films Selected to The National Film Registry, Library of Congress (1989-2009)
The U.S. Congress first established the National Film Registry with enactment of the 1988 National Film Preservation Act, and most recently extended the registry with passage of the Library of Congress Sound Recording and Film Preservation Programs Reauthorization Act of 2008 (PL 110-336). Along with mandating continuing implementation of a plan to save the American film heritage, this law authorizes the Librarian of Congress (after reviewing public suggestions and consulting extensively with film experts and the forty-four members and alternates of the National Film Preservation Board) to select up to twenty-five films each year for inclusion in the registry. The 525 films chosen during the first twentyone years illustrate the vibrant diversity of American filmmaking, and range from well-known Hollywood classics (Casablanca, The African Queen, and A Night at the Opera) to landmark independent, documentary, and avant-garde masterpieces.

Locating Existing Filmographies and Creating Your Own

Comprehensive lists of films in a particular category, such as those by a given director, performer, writer, or in a specific genre, are referred to as filmographies. They can be useful in creating your film program. Filmographies can be located by accessing the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) or examining the Bowker’s Complete Video Directory 2010 Edition.3

IMDB is one of the most popular online entertainment websites. It offers a searchable database of more than 1.3 million movies, television, and entertainment programs and more than 2.8 million cast and crew members, making it the web’s most comprehensive and authoritative source of information on motion pictures.

A good example of a filmography, pertaining to the literary works of Edith Wharton, has been prepared by The Edith Wharton Society.

Other Considerations

After compiling a list of movies comprising your program, the following requirements should carefully be considered:

  • Procuring the necessary equipment for screening the films.
  • Getting permission or obtaining a motion picture performance license.
  • Publicizing the film program in terms of attracting and building an audience.

Film Screening Equipment

For this article, I am limiting my discussion to DVDs as the medium of choice. This necessitates the use of DVD players, DVD projectors, projection screens, audio amplification, and speaker equipment. The basics consist of a screening room, comfortable seating, appropriate flooring, the proper acoustics, lighting, and a fully functional HVAC system.

Depending on the availability of a particular film title in standard or high-definition television (HDTV) disc format, you may need to obtain a standard DVD or Blu-ray HDTV player. Many Blu-ray machines can now play the new HD discs as well as standard DVDs and audio CDs. Please understand, DVDs, in today’s format, are still TV. That translates to 525 lines of resolution per picture. Even with HDTV, you are only getting approximately 1,100 lines and that’s still far less than the clarity of film or digital cinema, which is measured in pixels, not lines. Most Digital Cinema installations in commercial movie theatres are capable of a resolution of 2048 pixels by 1080 pixels (2K) or 4K Digital Cinema systems which are 4096 x 2160 pixels. By contrast, HDTVs are 1920 x 1080 pixels or 1280 x 720 pixels.

Furthermore, the majority of DVD players available in the United States play only Region 1 discs, which are produced for the U.S. and Canadian markets. DVD discs are encoded into six different regions. There are foreign DVD titles from Europe (Region 2), Australia (Region 4), or anywhere else which you wish to screen that can’t be played on Region 1 DVD players. In order to remedy this problem, you can purchase a region-free DVD player.

Detailed discussions of television or HDTV standards, digital cinema, aspect ratios, frame rates, reviews of digital projectors, DVD players, multiregion DVD players, projection screens, and audio equipment can be accessed at:

Public Performance Licenses

According to the Federal Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code, Public Law 94-553, 90 Stat. 2541), a motion picture is not for screening, free or for pay, without obtaining the license for public exhibition. Said license is issued by the holder of the exhibition rights, usually known as the distributor. And then, there are two types of distributors for each work. One grants theatrical rights, and another non-theatrical rights. Theatrical exhibition is for the public at large and the screening is advertised to them. Nontheatrical exhibition is to closed, non-general public groups, such as K–12 schools, colleges, churches, clubs, hospitals, museums, film societies, planes, prisons, libraries, and the screening is only promoted within the group, not publicly. Whether there is a charge for viewing doesn’t enter into obtaining rights and licensing.

The film studios who own copyrights, and their agents, are the only parties who are authorized to license sites such as libraries, museums, film societies, businesses, and so forth. No other group or person has the right to exhibit or license exhibitions of copyrighted movies.

Exhibition rights are not tied to the format used. It makes no difference if the film is a 35mm, 16mm print, a VHS tape, or a DVD.

Obtaining a public performance license usually requires no more than a telephone call. Fees are determined by such factors as the number of times a particular movie is going to be shown, how large the audience will be and so forth. Most licensing fees are based on a particular performance or set of performances for specified films. The major firms that handle these licenses include:

  • Motion Picture Licensing Corporation (MPLC)
    (800) 462–8855 — MPLC is an independent copyright licensing service exclusively authorized by major Hollywood motion picture studios and independent producers to grant umbrella licenses to nonprofit groups, businesses, and government organizations ensuring the public performances of home videodiscs and videocassettes comply with the Federal Copyright Act.
  • Movie Licensing USA
    (888) 267–2658  — A corporate division of Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., Movie Licensing USA addresses the specific movie public performance site licensing needs of schools and public libraries. Movie Licensing USA provides an exclusive license that satisfies the copyright protection needs of the movie producers, while offering a worry – and liability-free movie license.
  • Swank Motion Pictures, Inc.
    (800) 876–5577 — Swank is a major film distributor and a public performance licensing agent in nontheatrical markets where feature entertainment movies are shown. Swank has exclusive distribution arrangements in many markets with most American movie producers for the films seen in theaters. Creating an account requires basic information and pricing varies by format, title, and venue.
  • Criterion Pictures USA, Inc.
    (800) 890-9494

If the film title you are planning to screen is not represented by one of these firms, it’s still necessary to obtain a public performance license from the copyright owner. You can research motion picture and video copyrights using the database at the U.S. Copyright Office. This database lists claimants and copyright ownership to works registered after 1978. To search for works registered before 1978, one must search the Library of Congress online catalog, LOCIS, or in printed Copyright volumes.

Many DVDs or videocassettes, such as educational and special interest titles, are purchased with public performance rights. Certain videocassettes and film DVDs in the public domain do not require a license.

Getting the Word Out

Your film programs need to be publicized to your intended audience. This should consist of but is not limited to:

  • Press releases prepared and submitted to local newspapers or broadcast media (e.g., public service announcements disseminated to local radio or cable TV stations). A release should include a description of the program’s content, venue information, date, time, etc.
  • Lobby displays created for your organization (i.e., eye-catching posters).
  • Printed materials announcing the screenings (e.g., flyers). The use of photos and color in the printed materials will aid your publicity campaign.
  • Postings to your library’s website.
  • Social media.


Whether your aim is to entertain or enlighten the viewing public, or a combination of both, there is no dearth of tools to assist you in the film selection and programming process.

Celebrating filmmakers (directors, performers, writers, and so on) or devoting an entire program to a specific genre requires due diligence and a little imagination. Diligence takes the form of reading critical reviews, studying “best” film lists, surveying selections made by other programmers at film festivals and art houses, scrutinizing existing filmographies, and appraising movies through the use of self-developed criteria.

Film presentations devoted to a specific theme — such as the most controversial movies of all time, the best high school movies, best romantic versus anti-romantic movies, or strangest holiday films — are pertinent examples of screenings devised by programmers. The only formula for success in this entire process is that of trial and error, which leads me to one final recommendation.

Please don’t ever forget or underestimate your audience! Your viewers are the essential source for feedback and their suggestions for specific program fare can be quite useful.


  1. Emily S. Jones, Manual on Film Evaluation (New York: Educational Film Library Association, 1967).
  2. Rotten Tomatoes, Frequently Asked Questions,  (accessed March 26, 2010).
  3. R. R. Bowker LLC, Bowker’s Complete Video Directory 2010 Edition (Armenia, N.Y.: Grey House, 2010).


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