How to Host a Screening

Audience members view a panel discussion after a screening of a film.

Few events offer the immediate connection between a story and an issue of a movie screening. Not to mention how fun and exclusive they feel for the attendees. Screenings can spark important conversations and drive real change.

Consider this example. In 2015, the National Center for Lesbian Rights co-hosted a screening of the drama Freeheld starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page with the San Francisco Film Society. The movie is the true story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree and their fight to protect their domestic partnership and pension benefits after Laurel is diagnosed with terminal cancer. SFFS distributed 100 free tickets to teachers and students in the Bay Area to celebrate inclusive classrooms and show support for LGBTQ youth and families. Students and teachers saw the film and learned more about the issues facing gay couples by participating in the discussion with the filmmakers and activists after the screening. SFFS then arranged a classroom visit several weeks later to continue the discussion and watch the short documentary on which Freeheld was based. Students were inspired to become storytellers in their own right!

If you’d like to consider a screening for your organization, this guide will help you to set off in the right direction.


Getting Started

Why are we doing this?

First, ask yourself why you are you hosting a screening. “Because it seems super fun!” isn’t a great reason. Screenings offer a shared movie-going experience and the opportunity to engage the audience in a thoughtful panel or Q&A following the show. Think through what you need to achieve in order to feel that the time and money are worth the investment. A few things to consider:

  • How does this event fit within your broader campaign or project work? Are there goals for your campaign that you could achieve or advance through this event?
  • How many people do you want to attend? Which people (press, partners, public)?
  • Do you want people to sign up to join your mailing list or organization? How many?
  • What action do you want attendees to take? Is there a petition for them to sign? How many attendees need to act for you to feel successful?
  • Do you want to raise money with this screening? How much?

What are we showing?

You know that a screening is a great way to draw people in, but you need to find the right story. If you are still looking for the right film, try searching our story database. Think about the tie-ins with your existing work and your particular angle on the story.

Also, don’t forget to check out the website for the film or TV show to learn more about how its creators might support organizations conducting screenings. Many filmmakers offer resources like making-of featurettes or discussion guides to help you have a rich event.

When & where?

The decision of when and where to host your screening will be driven by a variety of factors – some strategic and some logistical. So, before you begin checking for availability, think about what you really want so you can aim to get as close to it as possible. Things to think about:

  • Your audience. If you are planning a screening for local community members, 4 p.m. on a weekday may not be a great time. Similarly, you want to think about the location accessibility of the venue.
  • The rest of the world. What else is happening out in the world that you could coordinate around or need to avoid overlapping? Think about things like holidays, official days of recognition, local activities and events, elections and more.
  • Know your budget and planning resources before you choose your location and timing. Consider the cost of the venue, catering, materials, the film itself and any speakers that might participate. Don’t book yourself into a venue that is so expensive you can’t afford the rest of your wish list.

Planning

Now that you know what you are doing and why, it’s time to get started. Here are some key planning steps.

  • Book your location and vendors: Once you know when and where you want to host the event, lock it down. Make sure the date is available and sign a contract with your venue before you start promotion. Think about any other vendors you will need. If the venue isn’t ordinarily used for screenings, you may need to rent equipment, seating, or microphones for post-screening speakers.
  • Secure rights to the film: You have to secure rights for the film before you can screen it. You can do this directly with the studio or through a clearinghouse such as Swank, Criterion Pictures USA or Motion Picture Licensing Corporation.
  • Plan the program: To really maximize the value of the event, organizing a panel discussion after the screening is the way to go. Give your audience an opportunity to think through the themes, ask questions and hear different perspectives on the issue.

To construct a strong panel:

  • Be sure an effective moderator is prepared to run the panel.
  • Look for representatives from different industries and backgrounds.
  • Make sure you’re include a diverse set of perspectives on the panel.
  • Prepare your panelists in advance so they know what you’d like them to discuss and what other panelists will be covering.
  • Ensure that you have strong, meaningful questions ready for the discussion.

Prep your materials

To really drive home the themes and insights raised by the film, you’ll need a series of great materials to set the tone for the event. Each event is different, so brainstorm material needs with your team. At the very least you’ll need:

  • Promotional materials (electronic or hard copy)
  • An event program (highlighting panelists, basic information about the film, information about your organization and a call-to-action message)
  • A sign-up sheet to capture email addresses
  • Signage to direct the way

You may also need one-pagers, fundraising appeals, and materials about your speakers.

Promote the event

The quality of your promotional work can make or break the event. A screening is not worth the effort if no one shows up. So, make sure you are promoting your event early and often. Once you know who your audience is, figure out the best ways to reach them. If you are actively engaged in campaign or communications work, you probably already know this. If not, check out Spitfire Strategies’ SmartScan tool for guidance on planning communications that will reach your audience.

Platforms like Eventbrite can help manage your outreach, registration (and ticket sales, if desired), and more. And, of course, don’t forget about your social media channels, e-newsletters and other communication channels.

Create a promotional calendar so you are sure to get messages out at the right moments. Announce the date a month or two out, then post regular updates each week with new information about the event (like new speakers you’ve added to the panel). Do a special push the week before the screening, including reminders to anyone who has registered.

Confirm logistics

In the final week or two before the screening make sure that everything is on track.

  • Will you have enough staff at the event? Do they know what their roles are?
  • Are your materials printed?
  • Does your venue have everything it needs?
  • Have you secured the rights to the film? Do you have a copy to show?
  • Are your panelists or speakers all set?
  • Do you have a clear call to action for the audience?

The Big Event

You’ve put a lot of work in, now just sit back and watch it all come together. Wait, no. You aren’t done yet! The day of the big event will be a heavy lift. Be sure your team is ready to go. Arrive at your venue early to set up and avert any last minute challenges. Bring a supply box with back-up items such as small signs, name cards for speakers and tape. And don’t forget your event-specific materials! You’ll want to be sure that different team members are responsible for working with the venue, supporting the speakers, sharing programs, facilitating the panel, engaging on social media and troubleshooting logistics.


Follow Up

Don’t forget to debrief the event with your team. How did it go? What could be done better next time? Capture all of your lessons learned now, so you’ll have a lighter lift for the next screening event.

Here are a few more things to do once your event is over:

  • Follow up with reporters who attended your event.
  • Send thank you notes to your speakers and any other helpful folks.
  • Process all of the actions, donations and sign-ups. Make sure anyone who signed up to join your organization gets a welcome email right away!
  • Post a blog about the event with some pictures to spread the word.
  • Invite speakers and other partners to blog, and be sure to share their content (via your blog and/or social media).

Tools & Resources

Depending on your specific screening, there may be other things you need to work on. We’ve included links to some additional planning guides to make sure you don’t miss anything. Some of these are for specific films and give you a sense of different planning options.

United to End Genocide

Little Town of Bethlehem

Transition United States

Blood Brother Film

Another tool worth investigating is Tugg. This platform connects organizations with films and helps with ticket sales, logistics and more.

You use all kinds of events to advance your organization’s goals – think about adding a screening to the mix. Whether you rent the fanciest theatre in town for a big event or add a mini-screening to a meeting, you’ll find that it’s another great way to use pop culture to capture your audience’s attention.