Whether it’s democratisation of the cinema as in the use Airscreen’s equipment for public performances in Latin America, or the creation of a whole themed “world” as in the Secret Cinema concept, increasingly cinema is leaving behind the shackles of the auditorium. What does it take to put on a credible outdoor show beyond the cinema?
Never has there been as much choice and opportunity to view a film anywhere as we can today. In the last five years, it has become as much a summer tradition as ice cream and day trips to the beach – the annual outdoor cinema visits. Every year there are more and more news stories about the latest outdoor screening which is happening in a number of different locations. There are as many different outdoor screenings as there are types of films to show at them.
It is also noticeable that in the last few years that there has become an increasing romanticism for outdoor or open air screenings, despite the unpredictable British weather. In other countries where the climate is a little more predictable outdoor screenings have been happening for many decades.
This is not meant to be a complete guide to putting on an outdoor screening and is meant to be an introduction only. I would like to thank Neville Demon from ProScreens with his assistance.
With the flexibility of modern projection equipment, there are very few locations which are now no longer unsuitable for showing a film, it is only limited by somebody’s imagination. From the grounds of Castles and Stately homes, through to clearings in woods or an old industrial area, the only real limit is now creativity, and the owner’s permissions.
Whatever the location that is selected there are some key things to be remembered – access for both the public and the organisers. It is no good having an amazing location for a screening, if there is no way that an audience can get to it or if it is impossible to get all the equipment in. And there will be all the ancillary things which are required to – power (whether this is a three phase cable or a generator), toilets and parking, lighting for the audience to safely leave at the end.
And of course there are other things to think about such as noise (is the location on a flight path, where does the sunset?), are there close by residents who are likely to be disturbed by both the film and by the audience living late at night.
Sometimes the location will dictate the film to be shown for instance Jaws being shown at a beach.
The Great British weather is one of the biggest challenges, whether it is the issues caused due to rain or the wind, both of these can cause problems. Apart from the risk of water getting into the electrics or the equipment, it can cause issues with mud, and just simply drying out the screen for the next event. On top of issues for the equipment, it will cause challenges for the audience and any extras such as caterers, beer tents and side stalls.
Equally as bad as rain is the wind. The biggest challenge with windy conditions will be about stopping the screening for acting like an enormous sail. Although screens are anchored down there is an upper limit at which point they are not safe to operate. The wind will, therefore, cause issues with the movement of the screen, causing the picture to constantly be moving in and out of focus. Along with that, it will cause the sound from the speakers as the dialogue is blown off course.
Even if the weather is kind and it is a sunny evening there will be issues relating to damp as the evening draws on, especially towards the end of the summer.
Moths especially are an issue as by nature they head towards the light of the projector, as that will be the biggest and the brightest light in the area.
As CT is a primarily a technical journal this should be the longest section, but it is actually one of the most complex to write about. This is where things get really quite complicated, as there is not one type of technology which is used for Outdoor Cinemas.
While the majority of the companies use either DVD, Blu-ray or computer for playback, there are some who use DCP or previously 35mm. There are as many variations as there are locations. In fact, the location is more likely to dictate the equipment in use than anything else. The bigger the location the bigger the projector which will be required.
More professional setups or the big locations, such as Somerset House will use a full DCP kit, but other outdoor cinemas have simply used a small high-end business laptop and DVD player. Others will use a media server and a large AV projector.
Companies will pick a projector based on their own requirements and preferences. They need to be bright, robust and reliable. They also need to be easy to setup. In an ideal world, the equipment would be setup the night before where a proper technical line up can take place and then left in place until the show has happened.
However, many of the outdoor cinema companies are moving from venue to venue every night. At this point, it will be about having known specifics, such as location and distance of the projector from the screen. Projectors can be located in everything from purpose built projection rooms made out of scaffolding or porta cabins, through to the back of trailers or cars, flight cases to a table. The important thing is that it is stable, higher than the audience, and protected from the elements.
Nearly every company will use an inflatable screen, this in part because they are specifically designed to be used outdoors, they can cope with the wet and a reasonable amount of wind. Inflatable screens are also very quick at setting up and taking down, both of which are the key things. There are a variety of different size inflatable screens available to allow for the different size venues and locations.
The other, although these days less frequent option is to build a screen, often using scaffolding and then hanging a screen from it. This works in venues where there is going to be more than one or two evenings of films and there is time (and money) available to construct such a structure.
Like the projection element, the sound is both important but also dependent on the location and the budget. Very few outdoor cinemas do 5.1 or 7.1 as it is just too complicated to achieve. As a rule, it will be a combination of stereo or stereo with a centre speaker to help with the dialogue. For larger venues, it is quite common for additional speakers to be added along the length of the audience so that no matter how far back they are from the screen they can hear the film. This will often mean having to add delay into the system. For the majority of the time, the sound will go through a mixing desk to help with controlling the sound for the location. Audio is always a challenge outside as the weather will affect it, but also just adding volume will not help with clarity.
There are companies who will sell you the complete kit in a box for a fee, depending on the number of people you would like to entertain.
There are many things to think about apart from the equipment mentioned above – managing the audience, toilets, power, first aid along with:
How and where are the audience going to sit? Is there a plan for them to have picnics? Is the ground solid, or grass? How are you going to manage members of the audience with additional needs such as wheelchairs?
How much time is there going to be to setup in advance and how much time is there to clear up afterwards? The bigger the event the more time which is going to be needed.
It is important to note that the licensing around films is different for an outdoor screening than for an indoor seated event.
Below are two case studies of outdoor cinema screenings I have personally been involved with:
May 2011 Flix – Loughborough Student Run Cinema put on a three-day outdoor film event. They used a Victoria 4 projector, borrowed from the Projected Picture Trust, along with a cut-down Westrex tower.
They built the screen frame out of scaffolding and attached an old screen to it and the ‘Projection Room’ was 3m x 5m with 3m clearance and 2m above ground all made out of scaffolding and then covered over. The equipment was put into place using a forklift truck.
The sound then went through a mixing desk and then sent to stereo speakers and the seats were deck chairs.
These days they would use their DCP projector and just take that outdoors instead, which would mean needing to build a smaller projection space.
Films on Fridges was an event which was an outdoor cinema which took place in the summer of 2011 in the run up to the London 2012 Olympics. The location was a yard of a demolished building in Hackney which was directly across the canal from the Olympic stadium which was being constructed at the time. Before the Olympic Park was constructed the area was famous for its mountains of abandoned old fridges, hence the reason for the idea of projecting films on to fridges. As it happens you are not actually allowed to do much with old fridges for environmental reasons, so it was not actually possible to really project the films on to the fridges. Instead, a wall of fridge doors was constructed around an inflatable screen.
Unusually rather than make the audience sit on the ground on blankets or similar raked seating was hired – this allowed for an audience of around 100. This then allowed for a bar to be constructed underneath. The projection was a small digital projector and DVD which sat at the back of the raked seating, with two speakers at the front on either side of the screen.
The film programme was all sport related (Rocky, Chariots of Fire etc.) and over the three weeks the majority of the screenings were sold out and the event received very good reviews in the media. (If you want to know any more then simply google “Film on Fridges”.
There are however a number of companies who have been doing this for years, who can manage and guide you through the process completely. Companies such as ProScreens, Lunar Cinema, Nomad Cinema and Skylight Cinema to name just a few.
Often an outdoor cinema will try and have that ‘added extra’ which will involve food, drink, entertainment, side stalls, actors or any number of created elements. It is all about creating an ‘experience’ for the audience. It does not always have to be the big theatrics such as Secret Cinema, but can be a smaller themed event. It is about imagination, innovation, and finding that unique selling point.
My thanks to Neville Demon from ProScreens for his help on providing some extra thoughts on this article.