Volume 80 | Issue 3
May 2012

Film programming on a shoestring budget

Rick Gardner

As budgets continue to decline, programming suffers from cuts. Films programs are often casualties; however, programming and films boards are now saving money and energizing programs through a variety of ways. 

Collaborating with the campus and community

Collaborating with other campus departments not only saves money, but also allows for creativity. The Sarratt Student Center at Vanderbilt University joined forces with the Dean of Students Department for a series called I-Lens (International Lens). According to Program Coordinator Carrie Johnson, the Dean of Students pays for this film; similarly, the Vanderbilt Student Government pays for a blockbuster to be shown each month.

Partnerships between organizations are bringing films to Davidson College as well. In February, the Union Board Films Committee and the Black History Month Committee worked together to combine movies and discussion.

“They show[ed] a film by Spike Lee and a film by Tyler Perry followed by a discussion in response to Spike Lee’s criticism of Tyler Perry promoting racial stereotypes of the black community,” said Ashley Owen, program coordinator. “[It also] include[d] guest speakers from several academic departments on campus.”

Documentaries offer an opportunity to collaborate with academic departments. Northwestern University has purchased numerous educational documentaries. Judith Cooper, assistant director, Center for Student Involvement, reported that the one-time cost is usually between $250–300; more successful documentaries may cost up to $500.

“The program can include panel discussions or be included as class projects,” Cooper said. “With international or documentary films, it is typically cheaper to go directly to the distributor to get film rights rather than going through the larger distributors. When they find out you’re not charging admission or you’re at a smaller school and trying to raise awareness of an issue or culture, they will often give you reduced rates.”Tickets 

The University of Chicago has a volunteer-run program called Doc Films. The program has been run continuously since 1940 by students; today, community members also volunteer.

“It aims to provide a low-cost, high-quality venue for artistic, relevant, and socially important domestic and international movies,” said Ravi Randhava, advisor. “Volunteers are critical to the organization’s mission, and both students and community members select programming, sell tickets, and are responsible for every aspect of the nightly show, including projection.”

Institutions that do not have a films program or a cinema can still incorporate movies into a regular programming feature. The College of Wooster provides transportation for students to a local theater.

“The theater charges a discounted price,” said Julia Zimmer, assistant director of student activities. “We tend to get more students to attend this than showing a movie on campus.”

Not focusing only on new films

While it may be tempting, showing new films is not a must. Older films draw crowds as well. Northwestern University’s Summer Cinema focuses on older classics.

“The film rental cost is not as high as the new releases,” said Cooper. “Pick classics that are on American Film Institute’s Top 100 list and promote them as a ‘Bucket List’ of films one must see before you die.”

One annual Summer Cinema event is “The Dark Side of Oz,” where the “Wizard of Oz” is shown simultaneously with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon playing, according to Cooper.

Older movies such as this are often popular. Last year, Indiana University showed “Space Jam.” Disney movies are also a hit.

“It’s not always the brand new, yet-to-be released films that are the most appealing,” Owen said. “Have a Disney movie night where everyone can sing along to their favorite tunes, or show ‘Jaws’ at the school’s pool. Switching up location or thinking of fun themes can make up for a lack of funds for new releases.”

Whether the focus is new or older films, consider package pricing. Account Executive for Criterion Pictures Cary Haber said, “One method of being thrifty is package pricing—a guaranteed number of films over a certain amount of time, usually a year. It controls the price, and you are able to keep within your budgetary guidelines. Quantity pricing allows for a lower rate.”

Public domain films are an option for those looking for free movies to show. In the July 1987 Bulletin, Duke Divine wrote: “The existence of public domain material means there is a legal alternative to renting films and video from the major film suppliers. Armed with a list of public domain video titles, anyone can supplement a films program with classics at very little cost.”

Public domain works are those not protected by a copyright. Reasons for this include copyright expiration, the decision of the creator to make the work public domain, or a work created by the U.S. government, according to Public Domain and Creative Commons: A Guide to Works You Can Use Freely, published by the University of Montana Mansfield Library.

As copyright laws have changed over the years, keeping track of whether a work is public domain is more difficult. Concerning movies, works published prior to 1977 that were either published without notice or published with notice and not renewed are now considered public domain. Those published with notice and renewed are under copyright until 95 years after the publication date. The general rule for works published after 1978 is the author’s life plus 70 years, according to Public Domain and Creative Commons: A Guide to Works You Can Use Freely. To help navigate the process of determining public domain, the website offers a copyright term calculator.

However, Haber suggests verifying the film’s status.

“You still want to double check with various licensing agencies such as Swank, Criterion, Janus, Kino, and New Yorker Films,” he said. “It can be an arduous task to check through, but it is better than finding out that you have violated copyright.”

Those looking for a public domain horror movie may consider Night of the Living Dead. According to the Internet Movie Database, the filmmakers did not attach a copyright notice when distributing the film, which resulted in the 1968 thriller being deemed public domain. This movie could provide a cheap option for Halloween or Friday the 13th programming.

Documentaries and films made by the U.S. government often fall into public domain. Why We Fight is a series of propaganda films commissioned by the U.S. government to explain why the country was involved in World War II. Invite a guest speaker to discuss the war and the country’s involvement. Host a discussion forum and allow students to engage in conversation about modern day wars. The series could even be linked to a military celebration, such as Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day. 


No matter if it is a new or old movie, attendance is key to maintaining a films program. According to an article in Box Office Magazine, there are many creative, low-cost methods available to college and universities that can be used to increase attendance: “‘The studios “eventize” things by making things louder, bigger, spending more money, turning it into something that’s in the zeitgeist,’ said Ira Deutchman, managing partner at Emerging Pictures. ‘As people who are trying to create events out of smaller niches, you can’t afford to compete with that and so you have to depend on grassroots marketing.’”

Suggestions include having a contest or a question and answer session with a special guest, perhaps the director.

Jeremy Devine, vice president of marketing at Rave Cinemas, believes in using every marketing resource available, including directory ads, web promotions, newsletter announcements, email blasts, postings, computer desktop ads, movie posters, box office signage, building signage screens, and radio and cable partners. And, of course, don’t forget Facebook.

“Targeted Facebook ads are second to none,” said Jill Newhouse Calcaterra, Cinedigm’s chief marketing officer.

Films programs don’t have to drain budgets. Creative planning strategies—whether it be a Disney movie sing-a-long or having a professor lead a discussion at the conclusion of a movie—along with a marketing strategy can bring students as well as community members in the doors. Start thinking of inventive ways to help your films program thrive. 

Contributor biography

GardnerRick Gardner is associate director for campus activities at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He also is ACUI’s Region 5 director. Gardner’s interests include cycling, movies, and dogs. He received his bachelor’s degree in journalism and master’s degree in higher education from The Ohio State University. His professional interests include marketing, sustainability, and special event management.