Despite growing academic interest in the film exhibition sector, detailed scholarship on contemporary cinema programming, targeted at a readership beyond trade insiders, remains sparse. In marked contrast to the wealth of tell-all accounts of various professionals employed in film production, most literature centred on film programming has been written from an outsider’s point of view. Extended commentaries on the range of film and ‘alternative content’ that is, or is not, screened in cinemas are almost universally the product of academic enquiry rather than insights from within the industry. Valuable though such studies can be, they, perhaps inevitably, do relatively little to illuminate the decision-making processes that underlie cinema screening schedules, and the complex range of interlocking financial, logistical, diplomatic, artistic, cultural, and personal factors that shape them.
In this environment, Peter Bosma’s entry-level overview of many of the key issues with which a programmer grapples daily provides a valuable intervention. As a professional cinema programmer who also has teaching experience in the field, he is well suited to the task of illuminating a practice that has long remained arcane to most cinema-goers and film scholars alike.
Bosma’s declared aim is to describe and elucidate ‘essential issues concerning the phenomenon of selecting films and presenting them on the big screen, to a paying audience’. Deftly avoiding getting bogged down in variations between different national industries, he focuses instead on some of the most common challenges facing contemporary programmers. After opening his discussion with some general principles, he goes on to consider some of the more specific requirements of programming for film theatres, film festivals, and film archives – each of which presents its own challenges in terms of selecting programme content and sourcing product.
Despite the apparent breadth of this approach, Bosma also places some unfortunate restrictions on the scope of his study. These centre on his decision to eschew the term ‘programming’ in favour of ‘curating’ – a choice that places the content of his book rather at odds with its main title. This is most evident in the chapter, ‘Curating Film Theatres’. Even the term ‘film theatre’, as opposed to ‘cinema’ has narrow and elitist connotations, which proves a barrier to due recognition of the range of different kinds of cinema that exist, the breadth of product of product they offer, and the widely varying motivations for patrons to attend.
Thus, any programmer of a primarily first- or second-run cinema is roundly dismissed as ‘not a film curator or programmer but a scheduler of screenings’, on the misguided premise that they perform a primarily marketing role of seeking audiences for films that have somehow programmed themselves automatically, rather than working to source and select the most appropriate films for that cinema’s core customer base and to further develop that audience through a diverse and carefully balanced programme. Indeed, the paucity of references to contemporary movies, whether art-house or mainstream, speaks loudly of his near-complete disregard for the challenges of programming titles outside the umbrella of ‘film heritage’ (which he places as 1895-2008, from a 2015 perspective).
Bosma aims to satisfy the curiosities of aspiring film curators, researchers, and ‘critical cinema visitors’ alike. At the same time, he adopts a prescriptive rhetoric based on how he feels film theatres, festivals, and archives should be programmed, as much as (if not more than) on the various ways in which they are. While this approach has inevitable shortcomings in terms of critical survey, his championing of interesting, challenging and risk-taking programming will doubtless find many supporters. Although this is far from the definitive textbook on film programming (as I’m sure Bosma would agree), it is undoubtedly the best book-length study of the topic published thus far.