Most Emerson students see the Bright Lights Series newsletters in their email inboxes every week, but many do not know about the time, effort, and care that goes into curating and showing these films. The Bright Lights Film Series is a weekly screening series at the Bright Family Screening Room, run by ArtsEmerson and sponsored by the Visual Media Arts department. Emerson’s Head of Film Exhibition and Festival Programs, Anna Feder, is the mastermind behind the screening series and serves as its curator and exhibitor.
Feder helped build the Bright Lights Film Series from the ground up. With a focus on diversity, education, and community-building, she selects films that will not only entertain viewers but keep them informed about current world issues. In addition to her work as a curator and exhibitor, Feder teaches a film exhibition class at Emerson, where students learn what it takes to run an art house cinema.
Feder sat down with The Independent’s Kathleen Nolan to talk about the importance of independent theaters as spaces of community engagement and conversation.
Nolan: How would you describe your job as a film curator and exhibitor to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?
Feder: There are some ways in which my job is universal for all film curators, and in some ways, it’s very specific to what I do running an academic film series. I call myself a curator, and the term is really meant to be someone who’s tied to a collection. Kind of like a museum curator, a film curator is someone who programs a film collection. It’s a term that a lot of folks use to describe people who put films on the screen. So, at a very basic level, it is choosing the films for the series and choosing what goes together. And then there’s everything else involved in getting that film from the filmmaker and distributor, licensing the film, and building an audience.
Where someone is situated can also dictate how much of those other things they do. For me, the series is really run by me, and there are always two students working with me on that. And then there’s Jim Delaney, who’s the budget operations manager and manages getting everyone paid. There’s now a Bright Screening Room manager, and that’s the person who’s in charge of the print traffic, testing the films, and they hire the projectionists who are actually there on-site running the film. I do everything from watching the films, deciding what we screen, arranging with distributors to license the films, making sure the film comes in in a format we can use, and then choosing who’s going to be part of the conversation.
We’re an academic series, so every screening has a conversation afterwards. I’m also the person moderating those conversations, and sort of mapping out how they’ll go, and involving the audience. The one job that’s sort of never done is audience building— audience building for this series as a whole, and then audience building for each screening. There’s no real budget for marketing or promotion, so everything we can do is through partnerships or social media. For us, we promote the series on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. We have an email blast that reaches, at this point, almost 10,000 people. And then I partner with many of the film festivals in the area and other organizations where there might be an overlap of interest in the subject of a film that we’re showing. So it’s always sort of keeping those collaborations going, promoting what they’re doing, and they’ll promote what we’re doing.
That’s pretty much the job the way it is for me. Like I said, you talk to a curator for anything else, and what they do is, at the base, choosing the films. But beyond that, how much of the other work they’re involved with depends on the size of their organization.
Nolan: When you’re going through films and selecting what you want to show, is there anything, in particular, you look for? Do you follow certain directors or focus on specific topics?
Feder: The only official parameter for this series is that we show films released in the last two years, and they’re feature-length. That’s always a sort of debatable thing, but usually, it’s films that are 70 minutes or above. Every once in a while, I’ll show something a little shorter, but that’s what we usually stick to.
Aside from that, there’s all sorts of the values that I have sort of brought to the series, which is that we show at least 50% films by female filmmakers. And then there’s the rating system, a way to indicate sort of a programming philosophy, which is to show films dealing with disability, films about BIPOC communities, films that deal with the environment and social justice themes, and queer cinema. I indicate those films, and that sort of helps me to ensure that I have a balanced program.
When I was showing 44 films a year pre-pandemic, there was a lot more room for a really eclectic program. It’s a little more challenging now that I’m showing 24 films in an academic year. But you can see that it changes from semester to semester. This semester is a strong queer focus. Half of the films have queer content. And then, in another semester, it might be a very strong environmental focus. It just depends on what I’m seeing and what I like.
I’m watching a lot of films at film festivals. I go to the Camden International Film Festival, which is a documentary festival in Maine, and run a student trip there. I show about half documentaries at the [Bright Lights] series and half narrative. I go to Sundance every year, but obviously not the last two years when it wasn’t happening in person. I go to South by Southwest, I go to regional festivals. I went to Woodstock and Independent Film Festival Boston. I also try to make sure I’m including films by alums, which has been easier than ever before. There are so many good alumni films. We’ve shown two so far in person, and we have one more on Nov. 3 called “God’s Country,” and the director, Julian Higgins, is coming in person.
It’s a public series, so I’m trying to balance the interests of students, especially film students, with the moviegoing public. I’m trying to make sure I’m having conversations in the cinema that everyone can join, and that it’s not just conversations about the mechanics of filmmaking. It’s about something that anybody who’s an appreciator of film can join in on. That’s kind of how I program. I try to cover the conversations that we’re having out in the wider world, and that we can have in the cinema through film screenings.
Nolan: You mentioned earlier that you taught a class here at Emerson about film exhibition. What kind of projects did you have students work on, and what do you think is important for students to learn about film exhibition?
Feder: The class was sort of meant to be an experiential learning class. So students would come to the cinema once a week, and they had to go to 10 screenings over the course of the semester to observe how everything comes together with the series. In the class, it was a lot of coming up with your own film program. The final project was to create a cinema and imagine where it would be, and who it would serve, and what kinds of films you would program. We spent the whole semester looking at art house cinemas across the globe, and then, in the end, they would figure out their vision for a cinema.
It’s a little bit about the financial aspects and logistics of running a cinema, and more about thinking of the function that art house cinemas serve in society and in a community. Like, how do you put a program together? How do you license a film? How do you promote a film? How do you build an audience? How do you make connections in a community? That’s kind of what the class was. I haven’t run it in a little bit because things were sort of difficult with the pandemic, but I think I might be ready to teach it again.
Nolan: Running an art house cinema seems very different than running a big theater like an AMC. What makes seeing an indie movie at an art house theater so special? Why is that viewing experience important?
Feder: It used to be talked about like it’s art house cinemas versus multiplexes. Certainly, there are art house cinemas that have multiple screens, but in a multiplex, you’re talking about these corporate, for-profit cinemas. There’s always these gray areas because there are places like the Alamo Drafthouse, which is for-profit and corporate, but primarily shows art house films and runs like an art house cinema. And then you have chains like the AMC, which will only show a foreign film if it brings in an audience.
Generally, it’s just a different proposition, and a different business model entirely. Multiplexes are making money on the food and drink. Really, showing movies is a means to making profit off of this other thing, and it informs how they run. They’ve got one projectionist for however many screens, and nobody is sitting there making sure that the film is playing properly. And then if someone complains, they just get a free ticket for another movie. So cinema isn’t the main focus. They’re not doing it so that people have a good viewing experience.
At an art house cinema, they’re generally non-profits, so they run as a service to the community in a way. They’re a place for people to gather. They’re a place where there’s more of a thought to what’s being put on screen. At AMC, there’s somebody booking titles from some faraway office, and it’s really just about numbers. Like, “We’ll put the Marvel movie there for three weeks, and if it does well, it stays.” With an art house cinema, it’s like “Who’s our general audience?” And they know because they serve their audience, and they’re listening to their audience. The curators, and projectionists, and the people that take tickets are all sitting there talking to the people that come in. They’re thinking, “I think this film will play well because our audience is around this age range,” or, “This film might do well because we can reach this part of our audience.”
It’s hard to talk about [art house cinemas and multiplexes] because they’re both showing movies on a screen, and that’s kind of where the similarities end. It’s really how they do that, and for what ends, and in what way that really is so vastly different.
Nolan: Do you have a favorite memory or special experience in an art house theater, either at Bright Lights or somewhere else?
Feder: There are so many. Most of the Bright Lights screenings have had an impact on me in some way or another. The one that sticks out most recently at Bright Lights is when I showed a film called “Bulletproof” last semester. We returned in person for the first time in almost two years, and the filmmaker [Todd Chandler] was able to come, which is always a treat because there’s just no budget for bringing in filmmakers. If they come, it usually has to be on their own dime, or someone else funds it.
I don’t know if you know the film, but it’s a meditation on the theater around school safety. And by school safety, I mean preparing for active shooters. It’s a difficult film. It’s a really intense film, but it’s mostly observational. You’re sort of watching these things take place, and there aren’t many talking heads or people sitting down for interviews. It’s just such a brilliant film because you watch it and you think of the absurdity of all of this. As somebody who graduated high school in 1995, I missed all of this. That all was after my time. I don’t have children, so I know intellectually this stuff is happening, but it’s a very different thing for me to see it. The filmmaker has children, along with our other guest, [Chana Sacks], who runs [Massachusetts General Hospital’s] department for violence prevention. She had a cousin who passed away at Sandy Hook, so there was a personal angle for her in this work. Chana had just seen the film, and loved it, and was really excited to be part of the conversation. It was this kind of love-fest—I always say that there are these kinds of love-fests that happen in the cinema—where she was so articulate about how brilliant this film was, and what it meant to her to be able to show it and have these conversations. [Chandler] was, of course, just so moved by the work that she does too, so it was a really lovely conversation.
We had a great conversation between the three of us, we had a good turnout, lots of audience engagement. That’s, for me, the most successful screening. It’s not about the number of people in the seats. It’s what kind of conversation we’re having, and knowing that those conversations continue, those relationships that form in the cinema continue. That’s what’s most meaningful for me about the work that I do.
Nolan: What advice would you give to people who are interested in film curation and exhibition as a career? What are some of the challenges and benefits that come with it?
Feder: It’s really just to start doing it. There are so many places that you can just start doing this kind of work. Festivals are often run by all volunteers. There are the Tribecas and the Sundances that have a year-round staff, and those are very different. But even the Independent Film Festival Boston, which is very well-respected, is a regional festival, so there are ways to just start getting yourself involved.
For me, my first job at a festival was from an ad about selling advertising, and that was the only paying job in the festival. You got a commission of what you sold. And then, eventually, they were like, “Hey, do you want to put together a shorts program?” And I was like, “Yeah!” So that was how I started curating, and it was a while before it was a full-time job. It’s not easy to get the full-time jobs, but they do exist, and you can always create them. Like, this series didn’t exist when I was hired at Bright Lights. The cinema hadn’t even opened. They just hired me to be involved in the space and manage it. So I sort of created this job and this series.
I would love to see more film series run by students on campus. I know it involves getting together a budget, which is a really good skill for a student to learn, and I think a student could find the money to run a monthly series at the Bright. Mondays are actually held for student use. [They should] just start doing it and building up a reputation as somebody who has a vision, a perspective for curating, and can build relationships with distributors and filmmakers and an audience. And then that can turn into a paid job.
Nolan: Is there anything else you want to add about film curation and exhibition that you think our readers should know?
Feder: The importance of watching films together and communal moviegoing. There are some good things that came out of watching films virtually in terms of accessibility, but there’s a lot that we lose by not gathering in a space and watching films with other people, and having those conversations in real time. I really want to remind people of what’s important about seeing films together, and what’s important about exhibition to the film ecosystem.
Almost half of the students at Emerson are studying film in some way, shape, or form. They learn a lot about film production and a little bit about distribution and business, but they learn nothing about exhibition other than hearing from film professors who have been to this festival or that festival. You can make films and sell them and put them out there, but where do they go? For film students, they’re not making films thinking, “Wow, it would be really great if people watched this film on their phone!” They’re thinking of people watching it in a cinema. You have to be part of this community that you want to be there for you. If you want there to be a filmgoing audience for your film, you need to be in the audience for other people’s films.
I think [moviegoing] is incredibly important. There’s no way to understate it. This is an important part of our culture. It’s important for us to gather in community with people of diverse backgrounds and have conversations, not just about movies, but about what we’re seeing in real life. Roger Ebert called it “the empathy machine,” this idea that films are a way to build empathy with other people who have other perspectives and lived experiences. I mean, that has the potential to change narratives, and mend fences, and make us a better and closer society.