How to start a film society in 10 steps

Now that you know what a film society is and you have thought about all the activities involved including an understanding of screening rights (and we have pointed out the benefits that the AFSF can offer)…

You want to start your own film society. So, here is what you do.

1. Get together with others who will help (the Committee)

No one can run a film society by themselves. We recommend that you find at least four others who are willing to work on the organising committee. They must be prepared to take the film society into its first year and help you make the initial decisions on the style of films, source of films, venue and budget. These people will probably go on to form the committee.

The essential committee positions are:

President: The person, who guides meetings, allocates tasks and ensures that everyone is doing their allocated work.

Secretary: This is the person who handles correspondence for the society. Some societies split this post and appoint someone to be responsible for membership (a membership officer) and another for booking films (a booking officer).

Treasurer: This person is responsible for all the financial transactions of the society. The Treasurer is the person responsible for paying the bills. No matter how much you may trust the individual involved, we recommend that the position is monitored closely.

As well as these three officers, a society can create any number of positions, for example:

  • Vice President
  • Projectionist: more than one projectionist is desirable
  • Publicity officer
  • Front of house manager
  • People to help choose films
  • People to help run the screenings
  • People to organise tea, coffee and food
  • People to help with the printing and distribution of program or newsletter

2. Decide on what sort of group you want to be and what sort of films you want to show

Some societies aim for a wide variety of titles and provide a mixture of the classic, the new and the commercial. Other societies specialise in showing only vintage crime films, silent films or films for children. You may already have an idea of the films you want to screen but one tip is to think about your potential audience. What can you offer members that they aren’t getting now? What films would the people in your town or city be interested in?

Check out the different film distributors and the Non-Theatrical Lending Collection at the NFSA known as the NTLC. Make sure they hold the sorts of titles you wish to program at prices you can afford. Make a rough calculation, based on how often you plan to hold screenings, of what your film budget needs to be. There is more information about budgets below.

Prepare a preliminary first year’s program, with suggested titles and dates. Most film societies screen once per week, fortnightly or monthly.

You can order your films from distributors that offer substantial discounts to film societies. If you own DVDs that you want to screen it is important that you understand the copyright issues involved and get permission to screen the film publicly. See more information about that see Screening Rights.

Once you have film screenings organised, and printed copies of the program you have prepared, you can start publicising your society to potential members.

3. Decide on appropriate aims and rules

In a small society rules can be less formal but as the society grows it is important to set up rules of conduct for the society. We recommend a constitution which is a statement of the aims and rules which the members of the society agree to follow.  A constitution is necessary if you ever want to become ‘incorporated’ i.e. become a legal entity.

The NSW Department of Fair Trading supplies a draft constitution. It is worth checking with your state’s version of the department to see if they can supply one.

4. Locate a suitable venue

Film societies operate in schools, church halls, museums, galleries, community centres, libraries, theatres, and even cinemas. It is important to find an appropriate venue. Ideally, try to get a place with raked seating and a projection box, although this is not always possible.

Many cultural institutions have under-utilised cinema spaces of an exceptionally high standard.  They also often have sufficient financial and administrative resources to host a non-profit and/or specialist film group. A quid pro quo relationship can enhance security of tenure for a film society and can operate as part of a ‘Friends of’ type loyalty program.

This can be fee-for-service whereby the film society delivers, in exchange for funds, a culturally valid program of entertainment and/or a swap for free theatre usage, equipment/expertise such as projectors or projectionists, etc

Things to look for include:

  • Capacity
  • Cost of hire of venue
  • Availability when required
  • Acoustics
  • Comfort
  • Black-out against light
  • Accessibility
  • Power points and light switches
  • Catering facilities
  • Big enough for projection
  • Air-conditioning

If membership is free (see below membership fees) then providing ‘free screenings’ at a commercial premises, such as a café, bar or pub is not permitted. A film society may hire a function room in a hotel or café for their screenings providing the area is clearly separated from other public areas and the members-only policy is clearly applied.

5. Get the equipment

 Film projection

If you are planning on screening 35 mm film, and unless you have the knowledge and finance to set up a small cinema yourself, you will need to locate a venue which is already set up to screen 35 mm film. It may be an operating cinema in which case you may be able to come to an arrangement with the operator to support your film society.

If you are using 35 mm or 16 mm film, two projectors are recommended for smooth reel changes, to allow cooling, and as a back-up. With only one projector the audience will have to sit in the dark for a couple of minutes while the projectionist changes the film reel. However, some audiences are happy to do that.

16 mm and 35 mm films are gradually being phased out by film distributors and will become less and less available as they are replaced by digital equivalents. This also makes it harder to find a qualified projectionist. While there are still many 16 mm films available, a beginning society should think twice before investing in equipment that is not ‘future-proof’.

It is a requirement of membership in the NFSF that you follow best practice with your film projection equipment (if you use it). This is not a requirement to be a film society but is a condition of the film insurance that the Federation offers.

Equipment costs

If the projectors and screen are not available at the venue, they will need to be bought. A good place to start looking for cheap equipment is on eBay or at garage sales, but most equipment can be bought new over the internet.

If you are using 16 mm film, you will need one or two 16mm film projectors, a screen and a loudspeaker. If using 2 projectors, a sound change-over switch might also be needed.

If you are using DVDs you will need a DVD player and a video projector, a stereo amplifier or a 5.1 amplifier, a screen and at least two loudspeakers.

16mm projectors can’t be bought new anymore but you can often find second-hand ones on eBay for between $100 and $400. Buying tips can be found here

Video projectors can be bought second-hand on eBay for $200 to $400 or new for $250 to $800.

DVD players can be bought, either old or new, for around $200 to $300.

Projection screens can be bought second-hand on eBay at prices ranging from $100 to $500, they can be bought new from $200 to $900.

Speakers can be bought new or second-hand for anything from $200 to $800 or even $2000 if you want to get some very very good ones.

Stereo amplifiers are sold second-hand for $50 to $100 or new for $600 to $4000.

5.1 amplifers can be bought second had for $200 to $500 and new for $400 to $2000

6. Prepare an approximate budget

The budget for your film society should aim at a modest surplus remaining at the end of the financial year. The major expenditure items to consider would be:

  • Film hire
  • DVD purchases and rights
  • Venue hire
  • Printing and advertising
  • Federation membership
  • Depreciation of equipment
  • Public liability insurance (if required)

The society’s funds can only be used to further the aims set out in the Constitution, if you have one. Membership fees should be set to cover all estimated expenses as well as an allowance for emergencies.


The main source of finance is the membership fees. You will need to decide how much to charge your members based on your budget and what you think they will be willing to pay. Clearly, the more members a society has, the more financially viable it will be. Memberships should be offered on a yearly, six month or three month basis. Memberships must be offered for a minimum period of not less than 3 consecutive screenings.

Guests of members

Members of the society are generally allowed to bring non-members as their guests. Customarily, there is a limitation that any individual can only attend three screenings, after that they will be expected to join. Societies can reduce this number if they choose to. It is a question of balance between enticing new members into the group and discouraging freeloaders. We suggest that you officially decide what your policy is in the film society’s constitution in order to avoid later arguments.

Other sources of finance

Other ways of raising money are grant money from local councils or government, corporate sponsorship, putting advertising in the society program. Do not ask for a gold coin donation for entry as this is essentially the same as charging admission.

A popular way to raise money is to run a café/bar before and after the film. Selling bottomless cups of coffee and tea for $1 and slices of cake for $2 is a good way to raise money and will also help to create a relaxed atmosphere and generate discussion on the films. If your audience prefers a different sort of food,  you can sell them more ‘traditional’ movie food like popcorn, Mars Bars, soft drink etc.

Free Memberships (due to grants or sponsorships)

If the society is suported by another source of income that makes membership fees unessesary it possible for membership to the society to be ‘free’. However, it is important for the society to keep up to date records of all its registered members and meet all the other criteria of what constitutes a film society.

7. First meeting and first screening

When you have a program, budget and you have decided on your membership fees, it is time to have your first screening – but become a member of the Federation first, as this will entitle you to get your first film at a discounted rate and will provide you with film handling insurance.

Attract as large an audience as possible – advertise widely to get people to “come and try” a free screening, show a film typical of the type you intend to screen and have an interesting speaker to open the proceedings.

One tip is to go out and recruit members at events or groups that you know are inclined to be interested. Many film society launches have been announced at film festivals, film courses or other film societies.

At your first screening, do the following things:

  • Make people welcome – officially and informally.
  • Hold a brief AGM prior to the film.
  • Explain the aims of the society, types of films and proposed activities.
  • Present your proposed rules, aims, membership charges.
  • Ask the meeting to approve the initial fees, the program and the constitution.
  • Present the first year’s program. Ask for suggestions or requests
  • Select and vote on official positions on the committee.
  • Sign up new members using membership forms that are printed and ready to be signed.
  • Issue membership card that show name, start date of membership and end date of membership.

8. Publicity

Film societies can advertise their screenings. However, it is important that you advertise the screenings as being not-for-profit and for members only. Nearly all film societies produce a film program that list the films you will be showing over the next 3 or 6 months.  If an advertised film is from the Screening Loans Collection your program/advertisement has to read “Print/DVD courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia” for each individual film. Other distributors don’t have this requirement.

Generally publicity contain phrases such as “exclusively to members and guests” ”memberships available at screenings, “New members always welcome” and it can state the cost of fees for 3 months, 6 months and yearly membership.

9.  Incorporation

Once the film society has started you may wish to in become a legal entity by incorporating the society. This would involve registering it with a state government department. This has the advantage that office bearers are not liable for debts incurred by the society but the disadvantage is that a constitution is mandatory.

 10. Contact us if you have any problems

The website has a FAQ section and if the information isn’t there then contact the AFSF The AFSF Commitee will help any member society with any question they have.

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