Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.
– Chinese proverb
Volume 75 | Issue 5
September 2007

Films Programs: A foundation for campus activities

Rick Gardner

The film industry is an ever-growing medium. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the United Stated box office grossed $9.49 billion in 2006, a 5.5 percent increase from 2005, with 1.45 billion tickets sold; and the worldwide box office hit an all-time high of $25.82 billion in 2006, an 11 percent increase from the previous year (Research and Statistics, n.d.). 

With the obvious popularity of movies, programming boards at colleges and universities around the United States have films programs, often allowing students to see movies inexpensively or for free.

But while the collegiate demographic likely wants to see movies, it is not guaranteed that students will choose the campus theater venue over many other media options. To engage students in the movies featured, programming boards must design a program around its student population. If properly executed, a films program can be a foundation for campus activities.

Building a films program

According to Jenny Hoffman, Swank Motion Pictures, a films program is a smart idea for a college. "Out of all activities (concerts, comedians, speakers, etc.), a movie program provides the most affordable option for campus entertainment and cultural value," she said (personal communication, July 25, 2007).

Whether starting fresh or renovating an existing program, the audience is the most important key to building a successful films program. A school needs to find out what sort of films interest the majority of their students. Hoffman said:

For a college or university looking to improve their movie program, they have to determine what works for their campus. Some schools have the greatest turnout with the big blockbusters, and for other schools students are more interested in the independent and art house titles. (personal communication, July 25, 2007)

Hoffman also believes that the day and time of the show have a great impact on the audience size. She suggests assessing attendance figures to determine whether daytime or evening programs are better for the students; and don’t forget to not program during other activities that may effect turnout.

It is important to realize the cost of a films program as well. Brian Vita, president of Cinema Service and Supply, says that the average 35mm projector with sound and screen costs anywhere from $45,000 to $65,000. And according to Cary Haber, Criterion Pictures, the cost of purchasing film rights from a distributor can be anywhere from $150 to $1,500 (personal communication, June 21, 2007). Some factors that affect price include: admission cost (if any); format desired (35mm, 16mm, DVD, or VHS); size of venue; private versus public event; and popularity of the movie (personal communication, June 21, 2007).

Another option for campus films programs is to show sneak previews. Many colleges and universities are working closely with film companies and their agents to show sneak previews for the college audience.

Tom Leach, campus center film coordinator at Michigan State University, enjoys that sneak previews help to draw a different audience:

[Sneak previews] draw people that don’t normally come to our movies. They help legitimize our program. It puts us closer to the mainstream; our film series is showing movies three or four months after the regular theaters. The students look forward to the sneaks and it helps us promote our series. (personal communication, June 25, 2007)

However, not every school is able to show sneak previews. Film companies often have requirements when it comes to selecting schools. According to Ray Bianco, vice president of promotion with Alloy Media and Marketing, the companies look for:

  • Enrollment of at least 7,000 students in a big city or more if in a smaller city
  • Large residential population on or near campus
  • 35mm screening facility of at least 200 seats on or adjacent to the campus and available at a reasonable cost
  • Ongoing successful campus films program
  • Demonstrated abilities in promoting the campus series via calendars, campus newspaper publicity and ads, e-mail/listserves, fliering, etc.
  • Activities board consisting of at least five to 10 members ready to "go to work" to promote and work the sneak preview
  • Person responsible for sneak previews to serve as an ongoing point of contact
  • Willingness to "get the word out" using the studio provided materials—posters, passes, fliers
  • Campus culture of openness to sponsors providing the event and the sponsors needs

If a college is able to provide sneak previews for its students, the event will often raise awareness about the film program. But no matter what a film program can afford to bring to campus or what its student population enjoys the most, Haber believes that the program is important for college campuses:

Film is the major art form of the 20th century and into the 21st. There is no time when a films program can show too many films, be they classics, independents, gross-out comedies, or action-packed blockbusters. Colleges have the opportunity of exposing their students to the wide variety of genres that films offer. (personal communication, June 21, 2007)

Sometimes the challenge is just selecting films for the program from the ever-growing list of titles.

Successful programs

From commuter campuses to large universities, many campuses have developed successful films programs by getting to know their audience.

Florida State University

At Florida State University, films are shown six nights a week throughout the school year. In 2000, the university built a 380-seat theater with design help from Florida State University film professors. And according to Laurie Vaughn, program coordinator, the theater is well used. During the 2006–07 school year, attendance for movies totaled more than 85,000 on a campus of about 40,000 students.

From blockbusters to art house films, the programming board includes a broad range of genres. "We program cult classics to nostalgia films, bizarre and ‘out there’ films to ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’ We keep it diverse and interesting so there is something for everyone," Vaughn said (personal communication, July 24, 2007). "In midweek, we show foreign and independent films. We do midnight movies on
Friday nights. Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays, we show blockbusters."

The programming board tries to show classic films two to three times a semester, "especially when we can show restored 35 mm prints of the films, [such as] ‘Casablanca,’ ‘Modern Times,’ ‘Some Like It Hot,’ ‘The Seventh Seal,’ and ‘The Third Man,’" Vaughn said.

Also, a successful Martin Scorsese festival was held, sampling his work from each decade and ending with showings of "The Departed."

To catch students’ attention, some universities do more than just show a movie. At Florida State University, the programming board spiced up a showing of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ "We did a ‘Pirate’s Night’," Vaughn said (personal communication, July 2, 2007). "We showed the [movie] with a performance by our local pirate band between showings. We also did a costume contest and games around the pirate theme."

Another promotion, the programming board started a Facebook group that has about 200 members. Through this medium, it sends out announcements about special events, sneak previews, and schedule updates.

With films being free to students (and $4 for the general public), Florida State’s film series is funded by a combination of student government fees, revenues from concessions and sneak previews, and co-sponsorships with other student organizations. According to Vaughn, being free is the easiest way to draw students (personal communication, July 2, 2007).

Other marketing tools include playing previews for upcoming movies before each show, distributing schedules in all campus mailboxes, and relying on word of mouth.

University of Georgia

Before 2006, the films program at the University of Georgia was suffering. The programming board showed films Wednesday through Sunday, charging $3 for student admission.

"We were seeing a big decline in attendance; for the most part, this decline was because they had raised ticket prices," said Jill Coursin, program advisor (personal communication, April 10, 2007). "We cut back on the number of films, started showing older films on Thursday nights, on Friday and Saturday we show a newer film, and we dropped ticket prices to $1 for students."

The program has benefitted from these changes, with attendance to movies nearly doubling. Also, the programming board started doing more marketing for the films.

"We took it for granted that people knew about us," Coursin said (personal
communication, April 10, 2007). "Now we are doing ads, fliers, a Web site, and making better use of promotion materials."

University of New Mexico

Primarily a commuter campus, the University of New Mexico starts promoting its film series from Day 1 at orientation.

"We target orientation to sell semester movie passes and let students know about the program," said Andrea Hart, student activities specialist (personal communication, June 21, 2007). "We then send out e-mails about special sneak previews. That way if you purchase a movie pass, you get a first shot to see sneak previews before other students."

Also according to Hart, some orientation leaders will make a stop on the campus tour to show students the theater building and promote the films program.

Hart suggests knowing the audience before choosing a movie. Because UNM’s film attendance includes a lot of families, "Kids movies tend to do well here," she said (personal communication, June 21, 2007). "‘Shrek 3,’ ‘Surfs Up,’ and ‘Ratatouille’ will be very popular this [year] because they fit the market."

The programming board shows one movie per week at different times for three days. But students at the University of New Mexico also have the opportunity to see movies on weekends put on by the student-run South West Films Center which shows art house, documentaries, classics, and independent movies.

Films at the University of New Mexico draw around 200 students per week.

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College–Green Bay

To service its all-commuter campus, the programming board at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College–Green Bay has set up an area where students can catch movies all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, at their convenience.

"We have a movie lounge in the commons area with a large screen projector and comfortable [seating] for up to 50 people," said Megan Popkey, student life coordinator (personal communication, July 19, 2007). "We do a combination of blockbuster films and more educational-type films."

The college has around 6,000 full-time students with an average student age of 27, many of whom have families. To cater to these students, the film group also offers family movie nights, providing free popcorn, pizza, and hotdogs.

"The family movie night is not just a movie, but an opportunity for a free dinner and easy way for students and their families to participate in campus activities and not spend a dime," Popkey said (personal communication, July 19, 2007).

Additionally, the college offers free drive-in movie nights in conjunction with Entertainment Concepts, a company that provides a 65-foot movie screen and sound system that transmits over a FM frequency.

"We typically do a double feature in a parking lot near our student center," Popkey said (personal communication, July 19, 2007). "Last year, we showed ‘Over the Hedge’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.’ It was a great turnout. We had over 350 people attend."

To promote the films program, the group advertises through screen savers on campus computers and has a Web site. Also, at the beginning of the school year, "we give away bags of microwave popcorn with a label with our movies schedule for the first couple of weeks of school," Popkey said (personal communication, July 19, 2007).

University of Northwestern Ohio–Lima

With 3,500 students, the University of Northwestern Ohio–Lima is a smaller college that in the past has not offered many opportunities for students to be engaged on campus outside of the classroom.

However, Dino Gerdeman, consultant, said the films program changed that:

The university has a theater in the student commons that seats 30 people. The films program operates using the campus’ cable network to regularly show films, a local weekly racing show, and other content that fits the school’s specialized studies in high-performance motor sports. (personal communication, July 18, 2007)

Different than other colleges’, the video system at the school is automated, needing no student or staff labor.

"We provide automated playback of video content," Gerdeman said (personal communication, July 18, 2007). "From an execution standpoint, automation solution is a great choice. You can have a permanent installation that runs itself."

Outside of showing local cable around the college union and in the theater, the university also holds "premiere" events for movies that are not released on DVD. The school often provides pizza, popcorn, and other food for the event as well as has prize giveaways of iPods and gift certificates to local restaurants.

"Our premiere nights are typically Wednesday or Thursday nights because many of our students live within a few hours of our campus, and they go home or have weekend work obligations," Gerdeman said (personal communication, July
18, 2007).

North Carolina State University

At North Carolina State University, the films committee prides itself on variety.

"Our love for movies makes a big difference at the Campus Cinema," said Sonora Bostian, films committee chair (personal communication, March 13, 2007). "We aim to make sure we have an eclectic offering of films—big box office versus independent and different topics. There is no way we can cater to everyone, but there is a good chance that there is something for everyone."

To attain this diversity, Bostian suggests making sure all movies are approved by the student films committee or programming board; "that way there is less of a chance that one person is dictating the schedule" (personal communication, March 13, 2007).

Along with showing movies in the college union theater, North Carolina State University offers outdoor movies as well.

"Our outdoor films are the most successful like ‘Scream on the Green’ and ‘Screens on the Green,’" Bostian said (personal communication, March 13, 2007). "We try to make the event fun. We offer prizes, food and goodie bags. Students enjoy free items and
especially free food."

For the past four years, the films program also has featured the Pinwheel Film Festival, a showcase for local and student filmmakers. And the group has successfully collaborated with the university’s film studies program and a regional Latin American Film Festival.

Overall, weekend films draw from 200 to 500 attendees, with the most popular movie showed being Wedding Crashers in 2005.

Michigan State University

With no large theaters in East Lansing, Michigan State University’s films program is popular on campus, showing four films each weekend that draw between 1,500 and 3,000, and an annual attendance of nearly 50,000.

The university films program is part of the Residence Hall Association. An extra fee of $5 per term is added to residence hall fees allowing all on-campus students to see movies for free. Those living off campus pay $2.

According to Leach, the university’s program is a unique collaboration between the Residence Hall Association and Union Activities Board. "The Residence Hall Association pays for the film rights for all of the movies and some staffing, while Union Activities Board pays for upkeep on projectors, room rentals, technical staffing, and equipment purchases," he said (personal communication, June 25, 2007).

University of South Carolina–Columbia

The University of South Carolina–Columbia shows movies Thursday through Sunday at both 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., mainly featuring blockbusters. According to George Micalone, program advisor, the movies shown should be 2003 or newer.

"People don’t want to see ‘Bad Boys’ or ‘Ocean’s 11’ when you can see it any night of the week on TBS," he said (personal communication, June 21, 2007). "And you can still show diverse movies through current movies. We’ve showed ‘Blood Diamond’ and ‘The Color Purple.’"

Marketing to draw students to the theater includes distributing schedules, movies posters in front of the theater, a Web site, weekly ads in the student paper, and announcements before movies promoting upcoming events.

And there are always incentives. The newest promotion, according to Micalone, is free popcorn, candy, and soft drinks on Thursday nights, which has increased attendance.

Also, students receive cards that are punched each time they attend a movie; when the student’s card has five punches, it can be turned in for an entry to win a $500 Best Buy gift card. And movies are free to students, so it costs them nothing to have a chance at the prize.

University of Toronto

The University of Toronto Cinema Studies Student Union was founded in 1989 (About CINSSU, n.d.). The films for this program are selected by members of the Cinema Studies Student Union and sponsored by the Student Administrative Council. Among other things, the group has shown Free Friday Films. According to the group’s Web site, "Admission is free to students, people who look like students, those who wish they were students, and everyone else" (About CINSSU, n.d.). Also, on Tuesday evenings, the group shows cult classics (About CINSSU, n.d.).

Along with the regular film showings, the Cinema Studies Student Union provides sneak previews to students and the Majestic Nights Films of Excellence, where films by locals and students are presented (About CINSSU, n.d.).

What’s next?

It is always important to keep the future in mind. As the film industry grows, so does the technology. While 35mm is the choice of most films programs, digital projectors are the wave of the future. About this, Hoffman said:

The film industry is going digital. At this time, the first-run theaters are trading out their 35mm equipment for digital equipment. Five years ago, there were 50 theaters with digital equipment; today there are over 1,000. In another decade, we will find that most theaters will solely be operating with digital equipment. (personal communication, June
25, 2007)

Hoffman explained that a benefit of digital equipment, beside the basic enhancements of the movie-going experience, is that "there is no longer a need to manage tapes, discs, or 35mm prints, since [right now] all movie content is digital, it can be shipped on a hard drive" (personal communication, June 25, 2007).

Although Vita agrees with Hoffman, he believes that colleges and universities shouldn’t worry quite yet about upgrading and the costs that come with it.

Right now the industry is in flux. It is very much like the early days when there were several competing video formats. You will see more and more digital installations, but it will be at least five years for the specifications to mature and 10 years before it becomes practical for a school or smaller theater to adopt. (personal communication, July 30, 2007)

Vita added that over the next few years, the price of the equipment will drop, making it cheaper for colleges to purchase.

Building digital equipment into a capital plan is important, but it will be a while before film distributors refuse to ship prints to campuses. Perhaps more important to the immediate future is to remember that the films program is a service to students; the program can often bring students on campus who then decide to explore other programming options at the union or through the student activities department.

"Colleges and universities today strive to place emphasis on the importance of community and building relationships," Hoffman said (personal communication, June 25, 2007). And as community builders, college union and student activities departments can offer a films program that is unique to their audience, thereby bringing an array of constituents together—the foundation of all successful campus activities.


Research and statistics. (n.d.) Retrieved August 20, 2007, from the Motion Picture Association of America Web site: http://www.mpaa.org/researchStatistics.asp