Programming and Curating Short Film Screenings
Part 2: Short Films in Cinema Programmes

After taking a look at programming and curating at festivals in the first part of this article, we will now turn our attention in the second part to programming models and curatorial strategies for the presentation of short films in a cinema setting.

Short Film in Cimemas (on screen: “Der Hahn ist tot”, Zoltan Spirandelli) © Yumi Machiguchi


Programmers and curators both exist in the cinema sector. However, for the majority of movie theatres it is not necessary to draw a terminological distinction between the two activities, as the programme of a normal commercial cinema is determined according to economic criteria in accordance with market forces and not on the basis of other considerations regarding content. In first run cinemas, the selection is limited a priori to those film releases that are offered by the distributors. Within this framework there is some room for individual decisions regarding quality. All too frequently though, the “majors” use their market power to influence the selection of their film titles and how long they will be shown, even going as far as pressuring multiplexes to show them in specific screening rooms. How long a film is to remain in the programme and whether or not the time has come to make room for the next wave of releases is negotiated and decided with the distributors every weekend on the basis of the box office figures to date, weighing them against the projected box office potential of the next releases. Only very few of this sort of first run cinemas allow themselves the space to cultivate curatorial niches in their programmes – usually owing to personal commitment, the need to maintain local co-operations or the desire to spruce up their own images when they do.


Cinema Types

Starting in the 1970s, alternative commercial cinemas began to spring up in Germany, cinemas whose chosen descriptor already called attention to the fact that their film selection was following programmatic by following programmatic criteria. We are referring here of course to “Programmkinos”, German programme cinemas, that chose their films according to their quality and content and arranged them in a fixed order of individual dates – typically in the scope of a monthly programme. In the 1990s, many of these dedicated programme cinemas were forced to close their doors or alter their business models. The theatres that succeeded the programme cinemas received the label “Arthouse-Kino”, or arthouse cinema  – which is actually misleading considering the fact that the term comes from the United States, where it used to refer to the country’s own programme cinemas. Today only very few true programme cinemas remain – almost all of them located in large cities. Unlike programme cinemas, German arthouse cinemas are first run cinemas and can cut short or extend film runs according to economic criteria instead of having fixed programmes. This means that opportunities to create or curate programmes are also very limited in this cinema segment. However, more than a few arthouse cinemas do book short films to show them as supporting films before features and are open to hosting occasional short film programmes.

So, among the various types of cinemas, we are effectively almost exclusively left with non-commercial, cultural cinemas when it comes to curated programming. The German Federal Film Board (FFA) classifies these cinemas along with various other types – from drive-in theatres to travelling cinemas – as special types of cinemas and keeps track of them statistically in the context of this group. For the cinema form of communal/cultural cinemas that we are concerned with here, the most recent study of this special catch-all category  (FFA, 7/2016) for the year 2015 counted a total of 155 screens nation-wide. That amounts to 3.3% of all of the cinema screens in Germany, with a viewer share of 1.2% for the same year.


Programme Models for Short Films in Cinemas

The simplest model is a programme consisting of a supporting film and a feature-length main film. One can only speak of curation in the context of programming a supporting film if there is a close thematic or aesthetic connection between the films or a discursive field for discussion is created by such a juxtaposition.

It is good programming practice to select a short film that complements the main film thematically. This is made easier by subscribing to short film services, such as those offered in Germany by Hamburg’s KurzFilmVerleih  and interfilm-Verleih in Berlin, or in France by the Agence du court-métrage (RADI). Following this model, one can choose an appropriate counterpart to the main feature freely from a pool of films. An index featuring keywords for the films in an online database helps to facilitate this sort of search. In addition, the distributors support programmers with concrete film recommendations for current and up-coming releases of selected arthouse films.

As both real-life experience and tests have shown, audiences do not always embrace the supporting film model. For some cinemagoers, a supporting programme – subjectively perceived as unnecessary – extends the waiting time before the main film, which is of course ultimately the reason that the cinemagoer has chosen to attend the screening. Another problematic thing about this model is the fact that the additional costs incurred in renting the supporting film are not allowed to be paid for with part of the proceeds from the admission ticket, which is only valid for the main film. Cinemas may however cushion the additional expense with a screening grant from the FFA.

There are no misunderstandings for cinemagoers when it comes to dedicated short film programmes. The most common model is booking a feature-length programme. “Package” deals of this nature are put together by the respective distributors as well as by organisers of competitions and short film festivals. These may also include thematic programmes curated by the organiser or programmes featuring prize winners. The programme of the Kinotournee Deutscher Kurzfilmpreis is also an example of one such prize winner programme.

Prize winner programmes – in similar fashion to the competition programmes at festivals – are not curated programmes. They qualify for attention due to the respect for the reputation of the jury in question and above all due to the image transfer of the organizer. This model used to be very popular with audiences in the past. However, more recent experience has shown a decrease in audience interest in this regard. Apparently the “blind faith” which the general audience has to possess for such programmes to work is disappearing. And blind faith is of course especially important when it comes to short film programmes that lack any media coverage, that is, where the film titles are typically unfamiliar to audiences and the cinemas cannot advertise for the programmes using well-known names either.

One can only speculate about the reasons for the decreasing interest in prize winners. It is most likely due to a general change in the behaviour of cinemagoers. The same phenomenon can actually also be observed in the area of fiction features. Whether a film has been honoured at a festival or not is no longer automatically a significant factor for drawing viewers to the cinema. Golden palm fronds or laurel branches on film posters no longer act as seals of quality, and have instead perhaps almost become warning flags!

Without listing possible culturally pessimistic reasons for this tendency here, it stands to reason that this loss of trust is a reaction to changes in the festival landscape itself. So it is that the proliferation of festivals, which taken altogether represent a sort of parallel world of cinema, has lead to a corresponding decrease in the value of such a distinction. And for the still renowned feature film festivals that enjoy wider exposure, a tendency has been perceived among the general public that such institutions increasingly feature typical “festival films” – as a new genre that is exploited exhaustively outside of the world of movie theatres.

What have proven to be considerably more successful are arranged short film programmes that are put together in such a way that they either fulfil a need for entertainment or a thematic, cultural need. One factor in the success of the popular version of an arranged short film programme is the fulfilment of viewers’ expectations that there will definitely be something that appeals to them in such a programme. This model can work well, provided that it is both heterogeneous in content and visual approach and that the complete programme exhibits a well thought-out dramaturgy. This includes such characteristics as variety of narrative pacing, different sorts of visual stimuli and appeals to a wide range of emotions.

There were already recommendations of this type for programmers back in the early days of cinema. That is, back in the day when every film was a short film and no one had thought to use the terms exhibition curator or especially film curator at all yet! In one of the few German-language publications on the subject of programming films (The Art of Programming: Film, Programm und Kontext*), in her contribution Andrea Haller quotes the basic guidelines for putting a programme together from a 1910 issue of the magazine Lichtbild-Bühne. The article recommends the following mixture: »1. music scene, 2. currant events [sic!], 3. humorous, 4. drama, 5. funny, – intermission –, 6. nature footage, 7. funny, 8. the main attraction, 9. scientific, 10. earthy humour«. Today, one hardly needs to add anything to the list, aside from updating the terminology a little of course. Perhaps one would replace the music scene with a music video and the earthy humour with some more high-brow comedy. Arranging for a harmonious ending, one that causes cinemagoers to leave the projection room with smiles on their faces, is definitely one of the oldest tricks in the programming book.


Curated Cinema Programmes in the Narrower Sense

When it comes to cinema, one can speak of curated programmes when the arrangement of the films – whether it is a series of feature-length films over a certain period of time or several short films in one programme – follows one theme or thesis, for which the individual components of the programme have been specially researched and selected. Usually, the curators of programmes like this serve simultaneously as the programmers of the cinemas as well – that is, they have a dual role. Freelance curators, like at film festivals, are almost never engaged any more, for financial reasons.

A special role is occupied by film museums or cinemas in film museums, when they are institutionally linked to an archive or a film collection. In these contexts, curators are active in the original sense of the their title, preserving and in some cases restoring works that belong to our cultural heritage and making them accessible to the public in exhibitions or programmes while also presenting them in their specific historical, thematic and aesthetic context.

One challenge which must be mastered in curating film programmes is striking a balance between one’s own intentions and the intentions of the works’ authors. Even though, unlike competition programmes at film festivals, the individual films have to subordinate themselves to the mediation aim, the integrity of the individual cinematic work must not be compromised. The red line must indeed be drawn at the point where the author’s intentions are twisted in such a way that the work is attributed meanings other than those originally intended. However, elements of a programme may gain new significance through their contextualisation in an overarching programme, as contextualisation is the nature and purpose of curated programmes.

Well curated cinema programmes distinguish themselves through localisation, that is, through their adjustment to the hosting venue and the local audience expected to attend the event.  This can be a specific target audience, though it doesn’t have to be. An experienced cinema owner or manager knows their audience and also takes their needs seriously (though not in a populist sense). Qualitative standards must also be applied to the choice of themes.

Current historical and societal themes resonate very well with audiences. Short film programmes are often better suited to fulfil this interest than the use of individual feature-length films or a film series that is extended over a certain time. In a thematically motivated programme, it is the curator’s duty to not only use (and exploit) films as vehicles for content, but instead to also place their formal design and aesthetic dimensions in the foreground. Models in which films are compiled as proof of a thesis seldom work as film programmes anyways.

The opportunity to engage in a discussion with the audience following a programme should definitely be seized. Especially in an age of (un)social media that lead to private cocooning and of vanishing public spaces for discourse, there is not only a great need but indeed also a societal necessity for face-to-face debates and for communicative and participatory activities. This is also a unique feature of film presentation on a public screen, whether it be in the cinema or at a festival.

To the extent that a curated programme focuses on non-cinematic themes, collaborations with partners who can contribute expert knowledge and experience are also a concrete option. This has the positive side effect of generating additional attention and mobilisation target groups.

In the consideration of the needs of both audience and programme partners, there is also always a risk of making adjustments to the detriment of the quality of the programme. This can happen due to economic factors, naive lack of intention and even by co-incidence. A good example for the latter is the success of the Internet Cat Video Festival at the Walker Art Center. This is a well known problematic in all cultural areas and a perpetual topic of discussion.

Included in this category are any sorts of pandering in museum-based educational work with target groups, such as coffee klatches for senior citizens, Snapchat events for teens or bouncy castles for kids on open house days. The buzz words in this regard are “low threshold”, “creative marketing” or  “making an effort to pick up people where they are”. Frequently, one can remark cynically, this sort of strategy leaves people standing back again at the exact same spot where one picked them up. Even respected institutions are not immune to selling themselves too short and thus undermining their own purposes, and even their reason for being. Paradoxically – or perhaps not? – it is often the public sponsors and funders themselves that demand that cultural institutions implement such popular and populist measures.


Everyday Practice

Beyond the world of red carpets and popular events, room for well designed and curated short film programmes in cinemas has become very scarce due to ignorance regarding cultural film work and austerity policies and budget cuts applied across the board. The energy and expense involved in procuring film copies, the funds required to cover rental costs owed to distributors and the curatorial mediation efforts are already all greater for short film programmes in the first place, and thus beyond the means of most cinemas in both personnel and financial terms. So it is that in the best case scenario short films make it to the screen in an uncurated manner, in prize winner packages or as a sort of pseudo-festival, in which submitting filmmakers are fleeced of their rental fee.

The effort inherent in in-depth film research, the prerequisite for any well programmed or curated film programme, is enormous. Since neither a centralised research platform for locating films nor a directory for copies exists, short films that deserve more attention and could potentially fulfil a need also end up being relegated to the shelf or the data nirvana of the internet right after their premieres or a brief round of festival appearances. A copy directory would benefit both the producers of short films and interested cinemas.
Finally, it would also be nice to see an acknowledgement of the curatorial efforts involved in the cultural mediation and presentation of short films in cinemas. These efforts have to be promoted too – as a matter of course, just as it is the case in all other sectors of the art world. Knowledgeable mediators are not only preferable here: they are absolutely necessary in order not to leave audiences to fend for themselves against market forces. The potential in the short film sector is especially high in this regard and shouldn’t be left uncultivated!