Entertaining the troops: 75 years of Forces Cinemas

Screening films worldwide is a major undertaking — especially if the cinema is in a tent in the desert.
British Forces Cinemas ops manager Jennifer Holdford explains the work of a 75-year-old institution.

How do you get the latest blockbusters out to British Forces stationed overseas on the same day as their UK release?  Who do you call when you want movies for a ship’s company or for 50 squaddies in a tent in Afghanistan or Somalia? It’s all in a day’s work for Forces Cinemas, the organisation that runs
14 fully digital cinemas, an 80-seat mobile cinema, and specialises in screening movies in unusual places around the world. Forces Cinemas has been showing films to the British Military since the Second World War.  It forms part of Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC), a not-for-profit charitable trust previously known as Services Kinema Corporation (SKC) which grew out of the privatisation of the Army Kinema Corporation (AKC) and the RAF Cinema Corporation (RAFCC).

We have been raising the morale of troops and families all over the world for 75 years. What started with 16mm films projected onto a bedsheet attached to the side of an army truck grew into a military organisation based in Buckinghamshire. From there, 35mm prints were processed and sent around the world to fixed and mobile cinemas serving hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women and their families. Although British Armed Forces have reduced in number and their presence in other countries is much less than at its height immediately after WW2, the need for cinemas and up-to-date movies is no less. What has changed is the technology, from projection to ticketing, and innovative new ideas such as Cinelink.

The Forces Cinema team has eight digital cinemas in the UK on military bases, overseas there are a further six — two in Germany, three in Cyprus and one down in the Falkland Islands. All the facilities are run in partnership with the local military who provide staff and buildings. The cinemas are all ‘behind the wire’ which means only military personnel and their families posted to that base can see the films. That way, Forces Cinemas don’t compete with commercial cinemas, although in most locations there isn’t an alternative.  We offer the latest releases and deliver a range of titles to support the welfare needs of our military communities.  This includes working with Nepali distributors to offer content to Gurkhas and their families in the UK and overseas. We are also running specialist screenings this year in support of the RAF’s 100th anniversary ­— and are always looking for opportunities to encourage fancy-dress events or celebrity visits.

An “army green” screen…

Our auditoriums with their stage and screen often double as briefing rooms, but the cinemas are run by volunteer military personnel and dependents in Projectionist and Front of House roles. One of the consequences of relying
on military personnel is that staff are often ‘volunteered’ for roles regardless of experience or interest. The only time projectionists have experience is if they have worked in another Forces Cinema location.

Due to the nature of postings and deployments, we sometimes retain them for only a few months, so there are handovers between personnel are regular, as is constant training. All this means a much higher turnover of staff than normal cinemas, but their reward is getting to see all the new films first, and helping their local community.    

The business model is a revenue share with each of the local cinemas, with Forces Cinemas reporting ticket sales back to distributors. The ticketing system is Admit One which we’ve used for three years and replaced our in-house software. The remoteness of our sites, the time zones and lack of reliable internet meant many ticketing systems we looked at simply didn’t work for us. Admit One understood our requirements and made the necessary changes, but also provided features we previously didn’t have which has made scheduling and posting local show times easy. Our volunteer staff found the EPOS system easy to learn and quick to issue tickets.    

Go digital, they said… It’ll be a doddle

Our digital projection journey started 10 years ago when increasing difficulty in obtaining and delivering 35mm prints meant we had to convert. This was a challenge, not least raising the sums to buy projectors and train volunteer staff to run them, but also devising new logistics to deliver the media. We established early on that uploading movie files or using satellite distribution was not an option that would work for us. Most places we serve have little or no internet — and that applies to some of our UK cinemas!     

Our first upgrade couldn’t have been more remote. We chose the Falkland Islands — it’s difficult to reach and spares can take weeks to arrive. We were concerned the audience should not risk any downtime and decided to run a dual 35mm and digital system side-by-side. That proved more complicated than we imagined but gave us confidence to go ahead with straightforward digital upgrades elsewhere, ripping out 35mm projectors and installing new digital kit across the circuit. All 14 cinemas have Barco projectors and Dolby/Doremi servers which are maintained under a service contract with Sound Associates. We can monitor and control systems from our head office in Chalfont St Peter.  Remote access helps us diagnose problems quickly and assists local staff in fixing the more common problems. We also train our engineers (whose main job is to keep our radio and TV services running) to do lamp changes and projector or server fault-finding. Given it’s a five-day round trip to the Falklands, having local expertise on hand is essential. Film distribution would seem an easy task considering that other parts of our organisation broadcast live TV globally via satellite, but the economics of distributing cinema files by satellite doesn’t work because the number of sites is too small. Our bandwidth to remote places is still modest and insufficient to transfer complete files, although up-linking promos or music is possible.

Hard disks are more reliable and only require a good supply chain. We send films to the Falklands and Cyprus via military flights out of RAF Brize Norton. One would imagine ­— thanks to the RAF — that these are reliable. However, flights to the South Atlantic are limited and can be turned back due to bad weather anywhere en route or delayed at the mid-way refuelling stop. RAF flights get prioritised for essential freight like food — it’s not uncommon for our precious cargo of hard disks to be bumped because fuel and weight calculations for a flight mean they need to save a few kilos. With a bit of guile, (and the odd box of chocolates) we get DCPs to the Falklands in time for the release date so audiences see new content within days of UK release.

Supporting cinemas in remote locations where you can’t jump in a car or send a spare part by courier does occasionally result in dark screens. Inevitably it happens at the worst moment. Our projector in the Falklands went down just before HRH Prince William was due to arrive for his tour as a search-and-rescue pilot in 2012. Luckily, we got it fixed and he enjoyed his popcorn like any other cinemagoer. A lamp explosion at one cinema in Germany coincided with a WW2 bomb being found near the base. It caused some worry until it was clear what ihad actually gone bang.

The modern deployment

In recent years, the way British Forces are deployed has changed with an emphasis on smaller contingents of perhaps 50-100 deployed overseas for short periods, often in basic accommodation. An important aspect of military morale is sharing downtime together, and a movie night is a perfect way to do this. We began to receive requests for cinema content which couldn’t be delivered via our mobile cinema or a permanent and expensive DCI cinema setup.  This led to the introduction of a new Cinelink service, a pop-up cinema experience consisting of a media player the size of a router and a simple easy-to-use playback interface.  For operational deployments and remote locations, it has meant we are able to deliver films just six weeks after cinema release with a Cinelink box connected via HDMI to a TV or projector including 5.1 sound.

The technology, developed by US company Swank in partnership with Filmbank, was originally intended for internet connection. Swank soon realised it wouldn’t work for us and developed a USB option to push films into the Cinelink box whilst still meeting security encryption requirements demanded by Hollywood. A new film is released to the Cinelink box every week whilst the previous five weeks’ releases remain available with unlimited viewing. The Cinelink box takes care of release dates automatically, allowing new films to be deployed several weeks in advance and deleting films at the end of their exhibition window. This growing part of Forces Cinemas now provides a cinema-like experience to our armed forces in 22 countries including Afghanistan, Ascension, Belize, Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Somalia and South Sudan. It is also ideal for Royal Navy ships and submarines, or any remote location where a cinema experience will boost morale. Film screenings via our Cinelink service are non-commercial with no ticket sales but are administered with a flat fee annual contract. Support to the service at each location comes from a variety of welfare funds and military charities.  Forces Cinema maintains the Cinelink systems, duplicates and distributes new USB content and sends out movie posters to help to make the experience as real as possible.

With one eye on the future

Our proud history of providing films to the Armed Forces has seen many changes over the past 75 years. It is a constant challenge to secure funding to keep our cinemas operating and screening the latest films. We work closely with distributors and studios — their support has been essential in maintaining this service, as is the enthusiasm of our local cinema volunteers and technical staff. However, with our digital projectors nearing end of life, the work to find funds for replacements is underway. We aim to provide the latest movies to a deserving audience for years to come.

As well as Forces Cinemas, SSVC delivers a range of entertainment and welfare services for personnel and veterans around the world. This includes: more than 20 Forces Radio BFBS stations; a BFBS TV service; Forces Live Events (CSE) who organise shows for military and civilian events; the Forces TV channel, available to everyone in the UK; a 24-hour Forces News service, and the new Forces Media Academy to train service leavers and veterans in creative digital media skills.

Rolling out the Movie Machine

Forces Cinemas don’t just operate standard digital cinemas. We also run a mobile cinema — our Movie Machine, a 44-ton articulated HGV with hydraulic sides which expand to double the space, creating an 80-seater cinema. This has entertained military on deployment since 2001, first in Bosnia and Kosovo then Cyprus where it was  a vital element of ‘decompression’ activities for personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. 

After Operation Herrick ended in Afghanistan, it returned to the UK,was refurbished and is now operated in partnership with Sky Cinema. We manage delivery of promo events for Sky all over the UK as well as events for armed forces, bringing a movie experience to garrisons across the British Isles. As part of the event we are bring our famous Ice Cream Ops van which gives out free cones to all!