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Film programming, the most underrated job in the industry

Reza Mardian
Reza Mardian

Film enthusiast

Jakarta  /  Tue, October 8, 2019  /  05:18 pm
Film programming, the most underrated job in the industry

Film programmers are rarely acknowledged in the Indonesian film industry for their role in curating films for movie theaters as well as domestic film festivals, which help create buzz for international film awards like the Oscars. (Shutterstock/File)

When we talk about the film industry, what generally comes to mind is how a film is funded, produced, and distributed. We often take it for granted that mainstream cinemas are the only distribution channel for films. We often forget that there are many, many great films in this world that reflect and resonate with our culture, and that these films may not always fit in with mainstream cinema, which is grounded in capitalism.

This is where film programming comes in to save our film ecosystem. Every film festival, community film screening and alternative cinema run specific programs that are vessels filled with hidden gems, most of which we know nothing about. These films are carefully selected by film curators, also called film programmers, who evaluate and research each film for screening.

Kineforum, which claims to be the first alternative movie theater in Indonesia and screens films curated from around the world, held its first two-day film programming course for film activists and film communities. The course was held on Oct. 5-6 and dissected how programming films is not just random and spontaneous. Rather, it’s a carefully planned curation of films according to a particular vision.

Film programmers are responsible not only for partnering with the filmmakers whose films will be screened, but also for determining the curatorial theme and background, working with the private sector for funding the program and publicizing the event to attract moviegoers.

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In the United States, films are usually screened at festivals that each has its own audience. The Sundance Film Festival is primarily for indie filmmakers, whose films could be acquired by major distributors. Some of the movies released this summer, like The Farewell and Late Night, premiered at Sundance.

The Cannes Film Festival is relatively more exclusive and chic and attended by prominent filmmakers, while the Toronto International Film Festival is a public festival that is open to ordinary moviegoers and film enthusiasts.

The programming at these film festivals have even raised the buzz around certain films that could potentially land them Oscar nominations. This is exactly what happened in 2017 with Call Me by Your Name and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which became sensations at their respective premieres at Sundance and Toronto.

Movies that gain Oscar nominations have a huge chance at making more revenue. Even though the only options available to moviegoers will be Blu-ray, DVD, digital downloads or streaming services by the time the Oscars roll around, the Academy Awards still affects the economy at the end of the day. Indonesia does not have such film festivals that promote homegrown movies domestically. At least, not enough.

In terms of film programming, for example, the Indonesian Film Festival (FFI) is held annually in December, and it is important to curate certain films so they can generate buzz from January onwards the following year. Some Indonesian programs and festivals have managed to do just this for 2019.

In the last quarter of 2018, Festival Film Tempo (FFT) awarded three major films: Memories of My Body, 27 Steps of May and Ave Maryam. These films have yet to be released commercially. But the fact that these films won awards in multiple categories only generated interest among potential moviegoers over what these films were all about.

Moviegoers did not have to wait that long, as the Plaza Indonesia Film Festival (PIFF) screened these three films in February, which only increased their momentum. Through the hands of film curator Sugar Nadia, these three films that Leila Chudori and the FFT had awarded earlier gained traction toward their domestic release in April.

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Regardless of all the buzz, these feature films were still seen as art house films, resulting in a low audience turnout – not to mention how Memories of My Body was forcibly removed from mainstream cinemas. Even so, the Indonesian Film Selection Committee (KSFI) carefully considered these three films for the country's official submission to the Academy Awards.

This narrative will continue to this year's FFI. And even though the Bandung Film Festival (FFB) 2019 did not celebrate these three films in the best picture category at its award ceremony in September, they still gained recognition in several categories. Besides, the FFB tends to highlight mainstream films that have been overlooked but are worthy of consideration by the FFI committee, such as Cek Toko Sebelah at the FFB 2017 and Dua Garis Biru this year.

Film programmers at this year's film festivals have consistently highlighted films that were screened at major international film festivals. The role of film programmers is just as important as those of film critics in helping to convey a filmmaker's message to the audience.

It is increasingly important to have more film programmers these days, not only to screen movies that they think matter, but also in allowing these movies contribute to the economy, which is one of the major aims of the Creative Economy Agency (Bekraf). At the same time, Bekraf should also evaluate the film ecosystem, which has contributed to box office ticket sales that skyrocketed in 2018 and 2019.

Although Bekraf has done a marvelous job in facilitating the Akatara Indonesia Film Business & Market, developing more human resources through the Laboratorium Olah Cerita & Kisah (LOCK) and other initiatives, film programming is still being overlooked.

There are not enough initiatives that synchronize screening communities and festival directors. At the moment, film programmers like Nauval Yazid, former film programmer and film archivist Lisabona Rahman and even film critic Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu could be included as consultants in planning Indonesia’s Oscar campaign strategy.

It is possible that Bekraf and Memories of My Body producer Ifa Ifansyah may already have a campaign strategy. Whatever that is, I just hope that film programming is part of it.


The writer is a selected participant of Kineforum’s film programming course, and a self-proclaimed campaigner for Indonesia’s international feature film submission to the Oscars. He is an alumnus of the inaugural graduating class of the Period Film Criticism course, founded by Intan Paramadhita and Lily Yulianti. Catch him on Instagram @mardian.reza.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.