Film Programming:
Curating for Cinemas, Festivals, Archives

by Peter Bosma. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2015. 142 pp. Paperback: $22.00

Reviewed by Troy Bordun

When I began programming for Trent Film Society (TFS) in 2012, I thought I knew one thing fairly well: film. I also thought I was relatively adept at event organization. I quickly learned that there was more to programming than selecting a film and projecting it onto a wall or screen. An accessible book on the subject of programming would have improved my work during the first year with TFS. Luckily Peter Bosma’s short volume has arrived for current and future programmers. Film Programming: Curating for Theatres, Film Festival, Archives, part of the exceptional Short Cuts series published by Wallflower, is the inexperienced film programmer’s guidebook as well as the burgeoning film scholar’s foundational text on the subject. Bosma introduces readers to an otherwise underresearched and underappreciated aspect of film culture and, more specifically, intervenes in a debate about what exactly a curator does and how they go about doing it.

The simplest way to approach the art of programming is to differentiate between a “scheduler of films” and a film curator. The former is responsible for first or second runs of new releases and I would add to Bosma’s definition an audience-centered event organizer, e.g., screening Rocky Horror Picture Show on Halloween or an audience-selected film based on an online poll. The task for the film scheduler is to attract a large audience with appropriate selections. This is the bums-in-seats approach. On the other hand, the film curator spends most their time researching socially, culturally, and artistically worthwhile films. Bosma prefers the term curator to programmer because it designates “a more sophisticated level of cinematic knowledge than simply ‘programming’ specific screenings.” The curator is a “custodian of cinema culture” or “cultural intermediary,” which means presenting “a diverse selection of the most recent releases…[while] simultaneously keeping the varied and complex past of cinema alive through screenings of all sorts of film heritage.”  

Bosma tackles the art of curation through the three subjects of his book’s subtitle. In the introduction Bosma suggests a reading plan for the film student, film enthusiast, film scholar, and film professional. The latter two types of readers may find the initial chapters on film terms, definitions, and history underwhelming, but keeping in mind that Bosma is writing for the burgeoning scholar or film enthusiast, these chapters serve their purpose of quickly introducing practices and concepts that are essential for his discussions about the subtopics. Regardless of the chapter, Bosma will use plenty of programming examples to bolster his claims about the artistry of curation. His method is to sketch the details of his subtopics—gleaned from his own practices of curation and university teaching in the Netherlands—with the occasional use of essays and books of film scholarship.

The film student should begin with chapters one and three. The first sets out the terms of the debate, i.e., mapping the artistry of film curation. Curators are part of the “economy of ideas” and are a salaried professional whose ingenuity and creativity are part of their skill set. More importantly, curators assemble an artistically or culturally valuable program of films for a theater audience. A curator should therefore have a “passion and curiosity” for film heritage while maintaining a high level of business sense. The third chapter then untangles the curator’s “network of intermediaries:” distributors, copyright and licensing, and film critics. While the first two intermediaries are discussed in broad strokes, the parallel Bosma draws between the curator and the critic is one of the finest moments of the book. It fully situates the curator and critic as cultural “gatekeepers” and provides validation for both practices.  

I believe film criticism and curation are personalized collections and assemblages of films in their whole or in their parts. Stanley Cavell writes, “the idea that what holds a collection together, specifically perhaps in the aspect of its exhibition, is a narrative of some kind,” and when a “[genuine collector] is speaking to you,” Walter Benjamin could perhaps add, “on closer scrutiny he proves to be speaking only about himself.” Curation is a collected personal narrative; a program is assembled by an individual (or group of individuals) to produce a multiplicity of associations, interpretations, and conflicts for the spectator. Curatorial work and its status as a skill set and art can be best articulated as collection and narrative and Bosma approaches this sort of theoretical angle in his chapter on cinephilia.

The general film enthusiast is advised to read the chapter on cinephilia and the book’s conclusion. Bosma’s argument about the relevance of cinephilia for curatorship is straightforward. Following my above description of the curator as collector, the cinephile is likewise a collector. Bosma is able to make this loose connection; however, he does so without the rigor of scholars such as Marijke de Valck and Christian Keathley, although there is some discussion of both. In the spirit of cinephiliac writing, Bosma takes a journey through some films in an effort to demonstrate a cinephiliac curatorial strategy. Yet, this is a rather weak chapter as the discussion and implications of cinephilia do not do justice to the wonderful area of study.

Since Bosma provides many programming examples in the chapter on cinephilia, I suggest the film enthusiast turn to chapter seven’s curatorial case studies prior to the book’s conclusion. Bosma’s conclusion is a short essay on the justification of film art and of curation. He writes against an economic rationalization of film and articulates the inherent value of film for its spectators. The author rehearses familiar arguments about the ontology of cinema and spectatorship, i.e., the former offers the latter cognitive engagement.

For the scholar and professional, the core chapters of the book discuss curating theaters, festivals, and archives. The chapter on theatrical programming is composed of two parts: on the possible choices of films and making those choices attractive to audiences. One of the major skills of the curator is assessing “Critical Success Factors” (CSFs) such as popularity, social engagement, diversity, and uniqueness, and weighing each when developing a program. Based on CSFs, a curator can choose a film oriented towards the public or can be artistically motivated to select particular films of high value. While I lacked the jargon of CSFs, I can attest to the countless hours of brainstorming and discussion about such factors. Luckily for my organization’s funding structure, I was able to be artistically motivated in my programming.

For an artistically motivated selection process, Bosma provides several options for the curator along the axes of selection and combination, the former relating to the individual unit and the latter referring to the chain of connections amongst units. He applies Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage as one curatorial strategy. A dialectic curatorial strategy has two films collide to produce a new meaning; a strategy of attractions mixes various films and may expand the cinema to include music, food, etc.; and the intellectual strategy links films conceptually. The less exciting portion of the chapter assesses how curators consider and expand their audiences.

In the next chapter, Bosma outlines the complex creation of a festival. Festival curation differs immensely from theater curation. A film festival usually employs a panel of judges that select the films. Much of what Bosma discusses is really about the tasks of the festival organizers: branding, cooperation with other festivals, censorship, customer service, and the phenomenology of festival participants. Thus the chapter is better read as a resource for burgeoning festival researchers; to study a festival one must study the programmed films within their temporal, cultural, and political frame to be sure, but also the organization of the festival itself and access to film archives. 

I encountered the problem of film archiving during my curation of an exhibition on the history of moving-image pornography. Unfortunately for this low-budget exhibition, I had to make due with DVDs as the primary objects of interest. The history of pornography has not quite broached the cultural necessity of proper archiving, so I had less material to work with than I anticipated. While addressing the facets of film archiving, Bosma focuses on celluloid films and neglects VHS, DVD, and online archiving, three significant mediums for the genre of pornography. This is a weak point in the chapter—we know that as formats change, not every film will see a new release.

The archivist is tasked with collecting, preserving, and restoring significant films from cinema’s history. Bosma’s explanation of the archiving process and the difficulties of storage, celluloid deterioration, and identifying the “original” film are worth some praise. Further, in anticipation of his conclusion on the ontology of film, Bosma’s passion for film preservation and presentation fills the pages of this chapter. Indeed, as I discovered with my preparations for the pornography exhibition, curators are nothing without the careful work of the archivists and production teams responsible for restoration.     

As noted, there are a few shortcomings with Bosma’s Film Programming. Periodically Bosma will note the challenges for curatorial work posed by digital filmmaking, digital projection, and digital distribution, but without an extensive engagement with the newest area of film business, there is a giant hole in an otherwise thorough and concise study. New VOD platforms are emerging yearly, bringing new curatorial jobs with it. In my searches for curatorial and programming work, I discovered more programming and curatorial positions related to the digital distribution of films than I did with theatres, festivals, or archives. Unfortunately then, Bosma’s 2015 text is already dated.

Troy Bordun is an instructor in the cultural studies department and continuing education program at Trent University.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 2