This is an edited version of an article I posted on Sunday. You can read the reasons for the edit over here.
Since our decision to cease the CFN screenings as of the new year, we’ve been really enjoying getting out and about to attend events as patrons for a change. Although our screenings were only once a month, there was a heck of a lot of work involved: liaising with guest speakers, doing PR, researching films, programming films, preparing films, producing programmes – and that’s all aside from actually presenting the evenings themselves. So it’s nice to not have to worry about all those jobs right now, and to spend some time getting out and about seeing what everyone else is up to.
We’ve been to some good events so far this year, my favourite being the first short film evening at Lanternhouse, which I hope is going to become a regular fixture in Ulverston’s cultural scene.
This weekend we’ve been to some of the screenings and talks as part of the Film Insiders Talent Festival in Barrow, hosted by Signal Films. I couldn’t make it to this last year, so was doubly keen to make it along this time.
I went with an open mind, hoping that I was going to enjoy myself. Ultimately though, I was left disappointed. Not so much with the programming – the events themselves had good content, with some interesting people speaking – but the organisation and running of things seemed a bit slap-dash. Easily-avoidable technical problems spoiled proceedings at both of the evening events I attended, and seemed that there was no one person in charge of proceedings.
I know it’s a horrible cliche to say “I could do better than that”. But the fact is that I could, and more importantly, have repeatedly done better than what I experienced over this weekend.
Rather than just ranting about it, I thought it’d be worth posting up some constructive advice for anyone planning to organise a film screening event. We’ve been organising and hosting them regularly for quite a few years, and have learned a lot along the way. Here’s my bullet-proof list of how to run a successful film event.
1. Test everything
It really isn’t good enough rolling up an hour or two before your event, setting things up and hoping that everything will work. You’ll inevitably have some technical gremlins appear, and the only way you can iron them out is to prepare and test everything well ahead of time, and then when you’re happy with things: test it all again. We spent at least three solid days getting things checked and in place when we hosted Rule of Thirds last year, making sure that everything was water-tight, with plan B’s in place to cope with any unforeseen hiccups.
Don’t just hope for the best, because something will go wrong. Even if you’ve tested everything off-site, test it all again in situ at your venue. Technical glitches can seem like small hiccups to you, but can be a real annoyance to your audience, particularly if they’re persistent.
2. Sound is everything
You can just about get away with a slightly under-par picture, but your sound quality is of utmost importance. If your sound is bad, then everything else falls apart. It can create an awful experience for your audience, and can render films completely unwatchable.
This is relevant to both screening films, a Q&A session, or any other kind of presentation activity. Microphones need to be of a decent quality, and tested to make sure they’re working properly before proceedings begin: fiddling with things during the event really isn’t an option.
If you’re going to use a PA system, get someone who knows what they’re doing, and have them concentrate solely on running the sound throughout your event. It’ll save you so many headaches, and give you one less, very important thing to worry about. But, if you hire someone in, get them on recommendation: there are some rubbish sound technicians operating out there in the wild.
3. Respect your contributors
If you have a filmmaker in attendance to talk about their work, then you owe it to them to make doubly sure that everything runs smoothly. They will have invariably gone to quite some effort to join you, and quite often they’ll be a little nervous about speaking. If your event runs smoothly, and your audience are enjoying themselves, then it creates a comfortable atmosphere: you’re contributors will relax, feel more comfortable and ultimately give your audience a much better experience.
When your contributors arrive, make time to have a sit down and a short chat with them, even if you have a 101 other things to do. Make them feel at home, and explain the itinerary so they know when and where they need to be, and what to expect when they’re plunged in front of an audience. Technical or logistical hitches with a guest speaker is not only embarrassing for you and for them, it makes your audience squirm.
4. Don’t cause distractions
Once an event is underway, everyone should be seated or in position to do whatever they need to do. And that includes organisers. It can feel tempting to hover around at the back, or wander in and out looking busy. Once proceedings are underway, you should find yourself a seat closest to where you need to be, and stay there. Noise travels, particularly in a room full of seated, attentive people, so if people are moving around, or fiddling with things, it causes a terrible distraction for your audience.
If something needs fixing, it’s really best not to try to fix it until you have a natural break. This is particularly important while people are speaking: any kind of technical tinkering can be a horrible distraction, and can throw your speakers off their stride. If you do have something to sort out, don’t try to do it while your event is still running: wait, call a break, then fix it – you’ll get things sorted much more quickly, and you won’t look like such a shambles.
5. Have a master of ceremonies
I can’t stress how important this one is. Have one person in charge, curating the event and acting as host. They should be in charge of making sure the evening runs smoothly, dealing with any problems and generally keeping everything in check. Your event is destined to fail if you don’t have some kind of hierarchy and allocation of responsibilities.
I’ve witnessed far too many badly run events due to a simple lack of communication and planning. If nobody is in charge, then there is no focus for any crew or volunteers helping with your event, and problems are compounded.
And just hoping that people will be where you think they should be doesn’t work. People aren’t always under your jurisdiction, so you need to double-check they know where and when things are happening, and if you need to have someone with them, to give them guidance and support. It has the added advantage of helping you to deal with the running of things at lightening speed.
6. Don’t cause yourself problems
Always make sure you know where your assets are (without them, there is no screening), and always, always have a backup. Loosing a disc is unforgivable, and a coherent running order is a must.
And whatever you do, if you have lost a disc or something show-stopping has happened: never, ever announce it to your audience from your seat. Get up, stand at the front, apologise, and tell everyone you have a technical problem which you’re sorting out as quickly as you can – your audience need to be kept informed.
And one last, easily-avoidable headache: don’t swear. People haven’t come to your event to be sworn at, unless it’s during the course of open conversation with a contributor – but the use of bad language is entirely unnecessary, and a lot of people really don’t appreciate it.
7. Have a good presenter
If you’re running a Q&A session, it’s really worth trying to find someone who has a good presentation style – preferably someone who is personable and knowledgeable, someone who can connect with an audience. It’ll help your whole event to “gel” and is the best way to present an air of professionalism – and is a sure-fire way of getting people to return in the future. They should be well-dressed – not too formal, but at least make a bit of an effort – and should be full of energy, attentive and alert, with good posture (no slouching!)
8. Run things to schedule
Wherever possible, make sure that you run a tight schedule. Sometimes it’s necessary to delay things a little if you’re still waiting for audience members to arrive or iron out final logistics, but you need to weigh up the pros and cons of keeping everyone else waiting, at the expense of a couple of people having to shuffle in late. Some people don’t like to be kept waiting, so if you do have a serious delay (and I consider serious to be anything more than 5 minutes) you need to make an announcement.
Probably more important than starting on time, is finishing on time. It can be very inconsiderate to keep people around for longer than they expect, because they generally have places to be: a train to catch, a childminder to relieve, friends to meet, a parking ticket about to expire. Running everything to time puts across the impression that you’re running a tight ship, and keeps everything feeling sharp and dynamic, not lazy and lacklustre.
9. Thank everybody
Thank your contributors, thank your venue, thank your hosts, and most importantly thank your audience. But don’t let it turn into a lengthy oscar speech, you should keep it brief. By wrapping up with a round of “thanks” you nicely bookend your event, and prompt a hearty round of applause from your audience. There’s nothing worse than going to an event which isn’t concluded properly, and where things just dwindle.
The most emphasise should go to anybody who has contributed their time or resources for free – those are the people who have really made your event a success, and if you don’t thank them, they’ll be really cheesed off – and rightly so! I make a list before I present any kind of event, to make sure I’ve got everyone covered, and that gives me the rest of the time to figure out if I’ve forgotten anyone. It’s that mantra again: check, and then check again.
I wish I could round all these points up with a tenth, but right now, I can’t think of anything else. Those are the key areas I think: follow those words of advice, and I don’t think you can go far wrong.