Fade In (Part 2): What is a “Film Society”?

Posted by Luke Boyce on Sep 19, 2011 in Blog | Comments Off

So what is a “Film Society” exactly and what do we plan on doing with it? Well, to be technical about it, a film society is a membership-based organization that presents screening events of what is usually classic and important films that most mainstream theaters don’t or can’t show. Film societies started to spring up sometime between World War I and World War II, when Hollywood had managed to have a few decades behind it and the “study” of the art form started to emerge. ¬†Champaign-Urbana itself is not foreign to the film society concept. The University of Illinois has had it’s fair share of societies, managed by film studies professors who used them to introduce students to classic and important cinema. Nate Kohn, the festival director for Roger Ebert’s Film Festival was one professor who ran a film society on the UofI campus years ago and was there to witness their decline. ¬†You see, there was a time not that long ago when movies weren’t widely available for anybody to pick up at their local Redbox or download on their computer (cause they didn’t actually have one). For most people the only way you could see a classic film was if it was being shown again at a theater, in a film society screening, or on TV when it was scheduled to play on a certain network channel at a certain time. But then the advent of “home video” came around in the 80′s and it forever changed the landscape of film literacy. Many film societies on campus’ died off, and only the societies of big cities like San Francisco and New York City were able to keep their societies alive with more unique programming, premieres, etc.

Today, however, Film Societies are making a comeback. After dipping our feet in the home video idea pool for the past few decades…and don’t get me wrong, I LOOOVVVEEE home video. It has been my entire film education…many film-lovers in many communities around the country still yearn for the experience of watching a GREAT movie in a real theater with a crowd of other film lovers. There’s a very important social aspect to films that is integral to how we enjoy them. In many cases, a comedy is not all that funny when it’s watched alone, but when you watch it with a crowd of people in a theater, it suddenly takes on an amazing new level of hilarity. Watching movies is often called “SHARED DREAMING.” It’s what some of us even think “Inception” was actually about, but that’s another blog altogether. So what Film Societies can do is they can create carefully planned screening events of great classic and important films, and the members of the society, who are all film-lovers and want to interact with other film-lovers, can experience these great films, either for the first time or maybe their 5th or 6th time, but their first on the big screen with an appreciative audience around. Sometimes, when I’m watching Charlie Chaplin films in my home, I can get caught up in the mechanics. I tend to not laugh even though I do think they’re hilarious, but all in all, the solitary experience of watching these films on my small screen by myself takes on a much more intellectual sense. However, I’ll never forget the time I saw a series of Chaplin films at the Art Theater with a group of kids sitting right in front of me. Their enjoyment, as well as the other patrons of the theater, and their laughter made these films seem laugh-out-loud hilarious, which they really are, and completely fresh and new. It was altogether transformative and it is that kind of experience that the Film Society strives to give it’s members the entire year-round.

But there’s another facet to Film Societies that has begun to occur in just the past 10-15 years. You see, the introduction of digital video and affordable computing into the film arena has allowed for a massive boom in amateur filmmmaking. Before this decade, if you wanted to make a professional film, you were going to need AT LEAST $40,000 to $50,000 roughly to pay for a 35mm film camera, the film itself to shoot on and then the development costs. Of course, unless you had access to a moviola to do actual physical editing of the filmstrips on you were out of luck in the editing stage. Today, however, it costs no more than a couple thousand dollars to purchase a decent digital camera that shoots High Definition video at 24 frames per second and then the software to edit it on. Unfortunately, there are two downsides to this. The first is that having a camera and software doesn’t make you a filmmaker. It takes all kinds of knowledge of the craft itself, a good story to tell and the skills to tell it well and an understanding of how to utilize the technology in a way that can become pleasing to an audience. These are things that normally were taught in expensive film schools, but many Film Societies in many cities have begun incorporating classes and workshops as major parts of their programming. Societies like the Austin Film Society and the San Francisco Film Society both incorporate major classes by industry professionals the year round. Unfortunately, many smaller cities are still unable to provide this, but at the CU Film Society we are beyond ecstatic that we are able to offer filmmaking workshops as a PROMINENT feature of our organization throughout the entire year.

The way it will work is that different workshops will be different sizes and difficulty levels. Most of them will be taught by industry professionals working in the film markets around Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis and eventually from Los Angeles and New York City. They will be priced based on the size of the class and/or the person teaching it. The classes will be available to everybody in the community, but Film Society members will not only get big discounts on the classes (and in some cases, FREE access), but they will also get early access when spots are limited. To give you an example, a class we will be presenting in 2012 will be a cinematography class taught by Pete Biagi. That name might not sound immediately familiar, but Pete is one of the most sought after cinematographers in the entire Midwest. He’s worked with Robert Altman on two films (“The Company” and “Prairie Home Companion”) as well as being the Director of Photography for the film “Stolen Summer” which was produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and documented as the first season of HBO’s “Project Greenlight”. This is just one example of the extremely high quality classes we’ll be able to offer to members and people of the community to expand the filmmaking culture of our amazing city.

Most importantly though, the CU Film Society will offer the opportunity to be part of an organized system of cinephiles. People who LOVE movies and want to share that love with other movie lovers. It seems so simple, and if all we could really manage was nothing more than a group of “members” getting together at someone’s house to watch great movies, then we would still gladly do it if for nothing more than the chance to be a COMMUNITY of cinephiles. There’s a reason that most of us always end up talking about movies with our friends or at work. It’s a SOCIAL ART FORM and it’s meant to be enjoyed with other people. Fortunately, we’re working with groups of supportive people that are going to allow the CU Film Society to be much more than just a group of people watching movies at someone’s house. We’re going to offer year-round special events, screenings, workshops and even exciting networking events that will offer the film-lovers of Champaign-Urbana that chance to be in “cinema fellowship” as I like to call it. And even more-so, be able to foster NEW film-lovers by offering people the chance to discover classic film in more immersive form, but also foster a community of creative film-MAKERS who can develop new stories for us to enjoy. And then, instead of all of us scattering after Ebertfest rolls out of town, we can remain strong the year through, watching, shooting, editing, learning and networking until Ebertfest comes back, when, as a united community of cinephiles, we’ll flock to it as our annual Mecca of film-obsession.

This is our dream for this organization. If you’re reading this and haven’t decided to become a member yet, please consider clicking on the member page and joining our dream. The more people that join us, the more realized we can become. Your membership not only supports the Film Society, but it supports the economic development of Champaign-Urbana as a leader in the arts and cultural cultivation.

Thank you,
Luke Boyce