Most Friday and Saturday nights, the Griffith Film Theater fills with students eager to watch a new movie. DUU’s Freewater Presentations screens these films, which are often some of the most popular recent releases, with this semester’s lineup including “Thor: Ragnarok,” “The Post” and “Star Wars: the Last Jedi.”

While attendees see the end product — the screened movies — they don’t see what happens behind the scenes. Freewater Presentations is entirely student-run and does more than staff the screenings; the group takes care of the whole process, including dealing with the legal barriers to public screenings.

These restrictions mainly deal with copyright and licensing for public showings. At the beginning of every DVD, viewers have to watch the FBI Anti-Piracy Warning. While the typical viewer ignores the text, impatient for the film to start, groups like Freewater Presentations who want to show films to a public audience have to take heed.

Junior Juliana Zhang, chair of Freewater Presentations, wrote in an email that the group pays for public showing licensing through film distribution companies like Swank Motion Pictures and Criterion Pictures USA. Freewater Presentations then receives films in encrypted Digital Cinema Packages or as Blu-Ray/DVDs.

According to Twilight Zone Cinema Services, a movie event company, the cost of licensing typically ranges from $250 to $600, depending on the date and studio. On occasion, the films will be available for screening before release to DVD. The licensing agreements, though, limit the showings to the date or dates specified in the order. Swank Motion Pictures’ FAQ also indicates advertising restrictions that intend to limit potential for competition with theaters.

Freewater Presentations meets every week to plan the screenings, first compiling trailers of movies in the right time frame. They watch the trailers and vote on which movies will be included in the survey sent out each semester to the general student body. The results of the survey will then determine the final list of films.

The screenings are always free. Zhang wrote that she values this accessibility when showing films.

“Films can connect people, start necessary dialogues, and express all facets of life — and that requires opening such access to all people,” Zhang wrote.

The screenings fall into a few groups: “quad flix” on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 and 10 p.m., “indie flix” on Thursdays at 7 and 10 p.m., midnight singalongs on Fridays at midnight and collaborations with other organizations. Some of these collaborations have included screenings with Nasher MUSE, DSG and the Pratt School of Engineering.

Groups at other universities fill a similar role in providing free movie screenings. For instance, the NCSU Union Activities Board has a film committee that “selects and promotes the films shown at the NCSU Campus Cinema” and aims to “satisfy every type of moviegoer,” according to their website. Some of their upcoming screenings include “Blade Runner 2049,” “My Life as a Zucchini” and “Fatima.” 

The NCSU UAB allots $50,000 for movie rights per year, which is still less than 10 percent of the total UAB budget. UNC-Chapel Hill has the Carolina Union Activities Board, which deals with programming and events including films and other entertainment.

Zhang said Freewater Presentations is always open to new members, and members receive pay for their time. She joined the group after seeing the semester movie poster at the First Big Week activities fair in her first year at Duke, and has grown more involved since.

“I've been a part of it ever since because I wanted to improve the Freewater Presentations experience for Duke students,” Zhang said. “I like that the organization gives me opportunities to engage in my love for film and all types of media in a way that I would have never considered before coming to Duke.”