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What does a programmer do?
Programmers select the films to be shown in festivals, cinemas and on TV.
Film festivals, like Cannes, are where film professionals see unreleased films and network with their peers in the film world. They also function as markets where sales agents, distributors and cinema programmers go to do deals over the rights of movies they are interested in buying.
Festival programmers select the films that will make their festival buzz. Diversity is key. They create a balance of tone and form and aim to start a conversation with the audience or to draw attention to lesser-known films.
Cinema programmers are concerned with picking the best films for their theatre. They choose a mix of films that most appeal to their regular audience as well as attracting new business. This will include the best time to show them too. All of this is with the aim of maximising box office income.
TV programmers have a similar role to cinema programmers. They choose which shows to broadcast and when to show them. The schedule has to reflect the way that TV audiences change throughout the day, week, and even year.
Programmers can’t just pick the films or TV programmes they like the best. An understanding of the audience is essential so they often carry out audience research. They use box office data, focus groups and surveys for this. For some cinemas, information derived from loyalty schemes (which allows them to track individual customer behaviour) is also important.
Watch and read
- How to become a programmer - Mammoth Lakes Film Festival 2015
- How do I become a film programmer
- What it takes to become a young film programmer
- What does a TV programmer do?
What’s a programmer good at?
- Knowledge of film: have a passionate interest and extensive knowledge of film and extensive knowledge of it, enjoy watching a wide range of content (even the bad stuff) and understand various film formats (digital cinema prints, 35mm, IMAX)
- Audience awareness: know audiences, be able to research audiences to understand how they watch films or TV dramas
- Judgement: spot films or TV dramas that will be popular, be able to create a balanced programme appropriate to the venue or TV channel
- Negotiation: communicate with distributors, other programmers and local or regional organisations to achieve an effective programme, get the best deal, understand contractual obligations
- Finance: manage a budget, know what funding sources are available
Who does a programmer work with?
How do I become a programmer?
Many programmers progress to their role from administrative or technical roles in cinemas or exhibition venues. A passion for cinema and knowledge of the market is the most important thing. Any marketing or business experience will also be useful in this area.
At school or college:
- If you want to go to university, A-levels or Highers in film studies, business studies, economics, English, politics or sociology are useful. Or you might want to take the following Level 3 vocational qualifications:
- OCR Technical Diploma/Extended Diploma in Business
- BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma in Business
- BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma in Enterprise and Entrepreneurship
- If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will equip you:
- AQA Foundation Technical Level Business: Marketing Communications
- AQA Technical Level Business: Marketing
- NCFE Diploma in Skills for Business: Sales and Marketing
Get an apprenticeship:
Apprenticeships are jobs with training. They’re a great opportunity to earn while you learn. If you can’t find a job as an apprentice within film programming, it might be worth looking for one in an industry that uses similar skills, such working in marketing for a company outside of film. This could help you build experience and develop your skills that you can use to find your way into film and TV programming at a later point.
These are the relevant apprenticeships that might be available throughout the UK:
- Digital Content Management (Level 3, 4, England)
- Digital marketer (Level 3, England)
- Marketing executive (Level 4, England)
- Marketing manager (Level 6, England)
- Marketing (Level 3, Northern Ireland)
- Social Media and Digital Marketing (Level 3, Northern Ireland)
- Social Media and Digital Marketing (Level 3, 4, Wales)
- Marketing (Level 3, Northern Ireland)
- Marketing (Level 2, 3, Wales)
- Advertising and Marketing Communications (Level 4, Wales)
You might be able to find degree-level apprenticeship through the following frameworks:
- Digital marketer integrated degree (Level 6, England)
- Digital Marketing (SCQF Level 8, Scotland)
Creative Pioneers is a good source of apprenticeships in these fields. This will not necessarily get you into the film industry but will put you in a stronger position to apply for film marketing roles.
Before taking any apprenticeship, check what you’ll be learning with your prospective employer and college, so you can be sure it will be giving you the skills you want. Go to how to become an apprentice to learn how to find apprenticeships in your region or approach companies directly.
Get a degree:
A degree in film production or film history will demonstrate in-depth knowledge of and commitment to the industry which is helpful for this role. Have a look at Screenskills’ list of recommended courses in film. We recognise courses with our Tick award where they offer relevant training and have strong links with the film industry. A degree in marketing can also be a good way in.
Take a short course:
Start your own channel:
Set up a review, blogging site or content channel. This is the marketing version of having a portfolio and will demonstrate your engagement with the commercial side of the industry and your ability to critically assess films.
See if any film festivals near you need volunteers. This will be a great way to network and understand more about how the exhibition side of the industry works.
Host your own screenings:
Set up your own events locally to screen films. Try to find your own alternative niche and do something different. The film community is a small one and getting well known as tasteful and knowledgeable as well as communicative about film can lead to great opportunities. The BFI and 20bedfordway offer advice on how to host your own screenings.
Look for a job:
Any job in a cinema or exhibition venue will help develop an understanding of how these venues and their audiences work. A job in an admin role is a good route to becoming a programmer. You could look for a junior role or work experience with a distribution company. The Independent Cinema Office has created a list of distributors you could contact. Go to approaching employers for advice on how to do this.
Watch a lot of films:
The most important thing to do if you want to be a programmer is to watch as much as you can. You need to get a sense of what’s out there across a range of genres.
You might also be interested in...
Working as a distribution executive.
- What it takes to be a film programmer
- Programming – advice and support
- How to organise a successful film screening event
- The Film Business Handbook
- Independent Cinema Office
- British Film Institute
- Royal Television Society
- BECTU (the media and entertainment union)
- UK Cinema Association
- Film Distributors’ Association
- Screen Daily
- Box Office Mojo
Some other job roles in sales and distribution
Helps marketing manager, schedules tweets, orders lunch, proof-reads, files images
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