In Film Programming 1+1+1+1 Can Add Up To More Than 4

One of the insights I’ve had into film programming has come from my many years’ experience accompanying silent films. Literally, it’s the experience of accompanying films during a show, and sensing the vibe in the theater. One thing I’ve learned is that there are times when a 90 or 100 minute show can be too long, and times when a show that’s over 2 hours is just fine.

With a feature, the audience is taking in and going on the ride of just one story. Okay, Griffith’s Intolerance and Keaton’s Three Ages may be exceptions, although both are taking the audience on one overall ride, as does Kurosawa’s  Rashomon. My point is that an audience can pay attention to and be absorbed in one overarching story in that total running time of the show. Even if it’s a 2.5 hour Fairbanks or Griffith or Stroheim picture.

When it comes to a program of comedy shorts, however, it’s different. It’s harder for an audience to watch comedies in a row, whether they’re all two-reelers or if it’s a mix of one and two-reelers.

The Mishaps of Musty Suffer
Yours truly, at the Library of Congress, with the archival master positive prints of the surviving “Mishaps of Musty Suffer” shorts. I’ve Kickstarted, produced and released two DVDs of these films.

Because it’s not the total running time, it’s the number of stories, the number of individual rides the audience is going on.

Anything more than four shorts in a row can feel tiring. What I’ve learned to do on a program like this, and this can only happen when you have a spoken introduction, is to have a second introduction in the middle of the show. It’s like a palate-cleanser, or a moment for the audience of a silent film experience to take a deep breath mentally. Not an intermission, but a lights-up break with a brief intro setting up the rest of the show.

It’s tough, because part of you wants to show people as much film as possible. But you also don’t want to wear them out, and you want the films to make an impression. I find I’ll forget the first short I’ve seen by the time we get to number five.

I’ve been experimenting with shorts shows that have only three 2-reelers on them. While on the surface they may seem short, with a total film running time of 65 to 75 minutes, it’s still plenty. Plus, there’s a spoken intro at the top and an audience Q&A at the end, so the show still winds up being closer to 90 mins anyway. It still feels like a full program. And sometimes it’s good to leave people wanting more.


  • I’ll be presenting a show of 3 restored Charlie Chaplin Mutual 2-reel comedies on June 5th at the historic 1911 Park Theater in Glens Falls NY and on June 6th in NYC at DOROT.
  • We’ll be showing 4 silent two-reelers at the Silent Clowns Film Series on June 8th, as we often do. This program will contain comedies from 1929 starring Laurel & Hardy, and the show features an appearance by L&H impersonators Jonathan M. Smith and Bob Greenberg.
  • I’ve just posted a new podcast episode, which you can listen to here or on most podcast apps.
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Thoughts? Comments?

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