Chris TK: Curating an Experience—Film Exhibition Case Study

Film Exhibition Case Study: 2012 Cinema MFA First Year Film Screening, Fall 2010

MFA student Nao Nakazawa poses with a prop from his film "Bolon" at the Fall MFA show

There’s more to presenting films than pressing play. Public screenings of any scale involve several elements: finding an audience, arranging the technical details of presenting the actual media, and finding a structure/method of guiding your audience through the experience.

Here is a 1:45 trailer-like sample of one of the films screened at the show.

Our class (Cinema MFA Class of 2012) put on two screenings for our first year films: one at the end of the year, immediately after completing them, and one at the beginning of the next school year. There was a drastic difference between the two: the first was poorly attended, had technical glitches, and left us the filmmakers feeling uneasy about their work. The second felt like a tremendous success and had us all riding a wave of euphoria, for many of us, it’s been the pinnacle of our filmmaking careers. What made such a big difference?

Planning & Marketing

Black & white, low resolution, and clip art graphics.

The original screening had been marketed only with generic-looking flyers (left) printed on astro-brite paper and taped up around the Fine Arts building. The quality of your marketing material imparts a sense of the production values of your event as a whole, so having professionally designed and printed high-quality color flyers (click the thumbnails below) the second time around almost certainly made a more compelling case for the quality of the films we were presenting. Since the screening functions as a meet & greet between generations of MFA students, the program features photos of each filmmaker. Also, we carefully planned the second screening well in advance so that as many of the filmmakers’ friends and family could attend as possible, we conflicted with no other major events, and we announced the date far enough in advance to allow plenty of time for the audience to make advance plans to attend.

View from the projection booth during the pre-show audience entry phase

File Trafficking & Projection

While the position may still be called print trafficking, the job really has to do with files. The second screening used a similar workflow to the first, but we had more opportunity to work out the kinks in the process. I collected files from my classmates in advance of the screening, but didn’t combine them down to one projection file before presentation, instead relying on software that presents a playlist of QuickTime movies. I had planned to control volume using a WiFi-connected iPod and remote control software. Unfortunately, several problems surfaced:

  • The projector lamp was near the end of its life, resulting in a dim projection which lost shadow detail. We stopped the show to attempt to recalibrate, but compensating with settings only resulted in a washed-out image.
  • The projector lens was set up (as is default) for 4:3 media. Filling the screen in the Coppola requires manually zooming the lens out to fit the screen, a procedure which had not been developed until the second screening—so the Spring show left large empty pillars of screen on the left and right.
  • The iPod control system didn’t reliably stay connected to the computer in the booth, and inadvertently stalled the software from advancing to the next film because a stray click left a menu open.

For the spring screening, I used an infrared remote, to adjust volume a simpler and more reliable technology. I prepped a single consolidated movie file containing all the films in the program, so that there could be no software errors in switching from one file to the next. The projector lamp was replaced immediately before the screening, and the lens was zoomed to fill the entire screen. The projection quality was much better, and there were no hiccups or pauses—and no behind-the-scenes windows, controllers, on screen displays or other non-program content on the screen at any time.

The audience mills about the lobby awaiting the screening

Audience Experience

For the Fall show, we had food set up in the Fine Arts hallway. While the food in itself may be a draw for some students, its primary purpose is to signify that the screening is a full fledged event. It also gave the audience a chance to socialize, meet the filmmakers (who all came dressed to kill) and build excitement before the show. The theater entrance was carefully coordinated, with pre-show music and the event poster filling the screen. This functioned like a Disneyland pre-show (Twilight Zone Tower of Terror example), building an atmosphere of anticipation and entertaining guests as they wait for the event to start. After a brief announcement from Pat Jackson, the lights dimmed, the poster faded to black, and films started. Often a problem with short compilations is that the end of the show can feel abrupt, because there’s no way to tell when the program is ending unless the audience constantly consults their programs—so to end the show, I added a zooming still photo of the filmmakers with the text “Thanks for Attending,” and closed on  Josh Joplin Group’s apropos song “Camera One*.”

After the event, we held an afterparty at El Rio in the Mission—a great opportunity for community building, but also a great way to enjoy the high of a successful screening. You can see more photos from the event on my Mobile Me Gallery.

Lessons for CINE 506

There are several takeaways from the experience of the MFA First Year Film show that I believe will be useful for CINE 506.

  • Plan well enough in advance to build buzz and give your audience time to plan to see your show.
  • The quality of your marketing imparts a sense of the quality of your programming, so don’t skimp.
  • Get media presentation technologies in line well in advance, check with the venue to make sure your needs are accommodated.
  • Plan your audience’s experience from the moment they show up to the moment they leave for home. Build an entire event, not just a screening. Build excitement for the show, keep them constantly entertained, and keep momentum going after.

On a final side note, in some years, the MFA students don’t get their films to 100% polished completion at the end of the semester—they continue to work on post production over summer. It will heavily depend on the current cohort’s post production schedules as to whether their films will be in public-ready condition, sometimes the spring screening is considered a preview. It will be interesting to see how high-profile the MFAs want the spring screening to be considering that the big-production show has traditionally been in Fall.

*Per Kirthi’s request for viewer instructions, I recommend that now is a great opportunity to click through the Mobile Me gallery while you listen to the song. Copyright 1999 Josh Joplin/Lifting Lomax Songs, Universal Music.

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