Open Air Cinema

Open Air Business investigates the outdoor cinema scene and asks what a venue owner needs to run an event themselves

As we look forward to longer days and warmer evenings, why not take advantage of the growing demand for alfresco film screenings? Increasingly, they are attracting a crowd looking for a different experience that includes the opportunity to take in atmospheric surroundings as well as a movie.

Skylight Cinema
Pic: Skylight Cinema

It’s not all about California sunsets and convertible Cadillacs – Britain has so much more to offer the outdoor movie-goer than that. For many, escaping to the cinema is the ideal treat for a cold and rainy afternoon or evening. Despite the unpredictable British weather, enjoying a movie outdoors is an increasingly popular pastime in the UK. With a wide variety of beautiful as well as historic settings already hosting events, there is certainly an air of romanticism about the concept.

The growing popularity of the alfresco film experience may be due to advances in screening technology, or simply the desire for an alternative to the standard multiplex cinema. Of course, advances in digital technology have made it possible to provide the highest quality images and surround sound to suit settings that would previously have been considered unsuitable. There are also a growing number of companies that can provide hire of the equipment required as the demand increases for the ‘pop up’ cinema experience.

Warwick Royden, owner of Skylight Cinema, a company specialising in the hire of mobile outdoor cinema equipment, agrees: “There has never been a better time to organise an outdoor cinema screening. With increasing awareness and demand on the up, events can be very profitable, whether it is a commercial affair, or one raising money for charity, a community group, or a school PTA.”

There are more screenings taking place in unusual temporary venues all the time, from palaces and manor houses to themed locations. So, what makes a suitable venue for an open-air cinema screening? As Roydon explains: “The list is endless. However, the main factors are whether there is enough space for your audience and whether the site is sheltered from the wind. Personally, I think that the venue can sell itself. For example, a cliff top location in Cornwall always sells well because of the view and the atmosphere it creates.”

Karen Pitman, director, Future Projections and, agrees: “Anywhere with a flat area for the screen and enough room for the projector image to hit the screen, although we did have a client hire our set up for a hen night in the woods and it looked great.”

While Future Projections provides design, procurement, project management and installation services to the cinema and theatre industry, sister company manufactures, supplies and rents custom and standard portable cinema packages for use indoors and out.

If you’re looking for inspiration, there are plenty of high profile mobile cinema venues that have become a resounding success and a regular fixture. These include Film4 Somerset House screenings, which take place every July/August. Secret Cinema is also a name that many Londoners, as well as those within commuting distance, will be aware of and its reputation is spreading. Launched in 2007, Secret Cinema describes what it offers as “immersive experiences” that include anything “from grassroots film screenings in abandoned London buildings to large scale productions in some of the most spectacular spaces worldwide”.

Luna Cinema operates in locations that range from stately homes to botanical gardens and medieval castles, while roaming pop-up Nomad Cinema has screened The Lost Boys in Coram Secret Garden and Jaws in Hyde Park Lido, as well as The Jungle Book in Bushy Park and Psycho and The Birds in Brompton Cemetery.

Choosing a film that suits the venue can make it a unique cinematic experience. Other examples include Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure, which have been screened on a ferry, a screening of The Blair Witch Project in the woods, Monty Python’s Holy Grail at a castle and Top Gun in an aircraft hanger.

The weather
In countries where the climate is a little more predictable, outdoor screenings have been popular for many years. Spanning New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and now London, the Rooftop Film Club screens films – you guessed it – on a roof, so viewers can make the most of the city skyline, popcorn in hand.

But, what if it rains? For the Rooftop Film Club screenings go ahead come rain or shine – free ponchos are even available if it pours, according to the company website. “The simple answer is, be prepared,” says Roydon. “Last year, I think it rained on us four or five times. All the equipment is fully weatherproof, so the show goes on.”

A little light rain is usually fine, but heavy rain, wind or snow can of course result in the cancellation of an event, which is a good reason to stick to times of year when the weather is warmer and more settled. “We are busiest from June to October,” says Roydon. “September tends to be the best month because sunset is earlier, giving a more reasonable start time, plus the weather is normally alright!”

When planning an event, Pitman recommends checking the sunset times online and then looking at your dates. “You cannot screen in daylight; the sun needs to have set and usually a start time would be 10 to 15 minutes later for it to be nice and dark,” she says. “Technically, you cannot line up the projector on screen until there is a certain level of darkness. The most popular months are June, late August and September, so hopefully it’s warm enough but not too late starting. However, Halloween is also always booked as is Singalong Frozen at Christmas.”

What do you need?
In order to show a film publically, you need a licence, and you may also need a Temporary Event Notice from the local council. A Single Title Screening Licence (STSL) allows the screening of films on a title by title basis to audiences in a range of venues and establishments across the UK.

As Pitman explains: “You need a licence to show the film, although any DVD or bluray can be used. There are three providers – Filmbank, BFI and MPLC – all of which are contactable online, but we are happy to book them for clients.”

Whether you require staff, stewards or security for your event of course depends on your audience size and the requirements of your local council. “If you are running a drive-in you will need stewards to ensure the cars are parked correctly,” says Roydon.

“Informed staff are essential,” agrees Pitman. “As these events are purposefully dark, pay attention to the safety of cabling and have a lit means of escape no matter what size of the event. Solar garden lights staked in the ground are a possible option for small screenings,” she says.

Other health and safety considerations depend on the space you have available, but anything that obstructs the view of the audience, such as tents, should be avoided as well as barbecues. “Some places say no glass, while others don’t mind,” says Roydon. “It really does come down to the individual event.”

Of course, you also need the right equipment for your event and to know what it is that you require. Purchasing everything would mean a significant outlay, so it makes sense to hire, at least at the beginning. “I always advise those interested in buying to hire once first, especially if they are setting up a business,” says Pitman. “If it goes well then it makes sense to buy and not be dependent on hire companies and their availability. If you choose a reputable company, there will be good after sales help and training. You could even rent out the equipment locally yourself to recoup some of your outlay,” she adds.

Skylight Cinema
Pic: Skylight Cinema

Skylight Cinema provides a turnkey solution, which includes an inflatable 8x4m screen, which is suitable for an audience of up to 500, plus a six kilowatt PA system, powerful 6,000 lumens projection and back up projector, as well as event support equipment including flood lights, usher torches, jackets, radios and spare chairs. “We provide the screen, all projection and sound kit and two technicians for every event,” says Roydon. “We offer a full package that leaves only the licence down to the customer; everything else is covered by us.”

Pitman also recommends an inflatable screen for outdoor use. “Fast folds look amateurish and small and are more likely to blow over,” she says. “Some providers use built scaffold screens, but they can ruin the grass underneath so certain venues will only use inflatable. You will also need a projector, mixer, amp, speakers and stands and all the cabling, and possibly microphones and an FM transmitter if your event is a drive in,” she adds. Of course, you also need to consider all the other facilities required at an outdoor event, such as toilets, disabled access and so on.

The audience
Key to the success of any event has to be the number of people it attracts. “We have had over 2,000 people in front of our large screen and the atmosphere was incredible,” says Roydon. “On average, I would say the audience sizes are around 500, which is a good size,” he adds.

“Just make sure, especially if you have a paying audience, that they stand a chance of actually seeing the film,” advises Pitman. It is also worth considering what size screen you might need to suit your venue to ensure everyone has a good view. “This is why we put advisory numbers of different screen sizes,” she adds.
Pic: can supply a variety of screen and kit sizes to match the audience size. The smaller kits are for up to 200, so ideal for birthday parties, village green community screenings, weddings, campsites, pub gardens and so on, while the larger screens, which are for up to 1,500, tend to be used for larger festivals, drive-ins, etc. “Our smaller kit can be self-operated by the hirer, which means they can pick it up on a Friday and hold events for the whole weekend for one fee before returning it on Monday. We are available on the phone to assist,” says Pitman.

Making money
Covering your costs and hopefully making a large profit is obviously the reason for holding an event in the first place, but what can you hope to achieve? Of course, this depends where you are, what film you are showing and what else you have on offer. “Down here in Cornwall, we cannot charge much more than £7 to £8 for a ticket, whereas in London people don’t blink an eyelid at £20,” says Roydon.

Whether you are looking to make a profit or just to cover your costs, you must take into account not only the equipment hire but the film hire costs. “A paying event could see 35 per cent of your ticket sales go to the licensee,” warns Pitman. “Always check the rate cards – a good hire company will send you this or point you in the right direction.

Other advice is to look for revenue outside of ticket sales. Outdoor screenings also offer the opportunity to promote a festival vibe, with gourmet food and cocktails on offer. “Just like in cinemas, the money is made on concessions – either provide your own or sell pitches – and ‘on screen’ sponsorship can be a great revenue strand as many local companies like to be associated with film,” Pitman suggests.

In order to attract the audience that you want and need to make your event a success, effective marketing is key. “Some smaller screening companies use online ticketing companies such as Eventbrite. If you are hiring a venue, it may be keen to handle ticket sales as many like to keep the concessions to themselves – it depends on our relationship with them,” says Pitman.

You can also make use of all the usual social media options, such as Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter. “I often recommend that clients try and get the audience to choose the film to be screened –  it drums up interest. You can even do this through a local radio station – many are keen on this sort of thing and often become sponsors,” she adds.

Advertising fancy dress, singalongs and even screenings to which dogs are welcome, are all tried and tested ways to attract interest, but according to Pitman, the best thing you can do is get your location and the film right.

“The top audience figures last year were for all the old favourites, such as Dirty Dancing, Top Gun, Back to the Future and Grease, which were all held in creative locations such as castles, on the beach (Jaws in Selsey went down very well with all the local shops selling blow up sharks for the event) and creepy films that were screened in the woods.” Ultimately, it’s up to you – the possibilities really are endless.

Useful Links – 020 8766 7100
Future Projections – 020 8766 7100
Skylight Cinema – 07739 710272

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