Peter Knight hits the road and investigates the modern-day showmen and women of cinema who carry on the traditions of the early pioneers of mobile cinema.
Question – what do you do if you live in a remote location with a tiny population but still want to present the latest movie releases on the big screen? What if your festival doesn’t have sufficient space to show all the content in your existing cinema? Or you want to promote your movie, your brand or your products and you want to go to the audience, rather than have them come to you?
The answer, of course, is a travelling mobile cinema. Before we get stuck in, a note on definitions. While there is always an overlap between the definition of different types of cinema, including pop-ups and outdoor screenings, in this context the modern-day travelling cinema show is taken to be either a cinema that is completely portable (i.e. the kit turns up and it becomes a cinema) or is one that is regularly scheduled to appear outdoors thanks to the environment it operates in (i.e. warmer countries where the climate permits outdoor screenings).
Travelling mobile cinemas have been around as long as the art form itself. The first to exploit the potential of moving pictures after they were demonstrated to the public were often the showpeople at the fun fairs. They were the ones that created the travelling bioscope shows that would travel from town to town presenting the latest flicks to the public who found wonder in these awe-inspiring technologies.
Later, some of these same showpeople would go on to be the earliest filmmakers. Initially these shows would simply see a tent erected with a hand-cranked projector installed in the back and benches up front for the audience to sit on. Soon the showpeople tried to outdo each other until they ended up creating the more famous bioscope shows, with grand exteriors, stages, musical organs and traction engines to power and transport the rigs. In fact, these were some of the earliest venues to use electricity.
While static cinemas really took root in the post-Edwardian era, the travelling cinema continues to play an important part in cinema-going today. Indeed, they formed a fundamental element of both the WWI and WWII in terms of providing information, propaganda and, of course, vital entertainment to the troops, a role still performed today.
Beyond the early days of the bioscope shows, there were other travelling cinema shows that existed on such a grand scale that their like has rarely been seen again since. As projection enthusiasts know, back in the 1950s Cinerama was one of the first premium large formats to come into existence. Using three 35mm projectors synced together to create a massive 120-degree screen, with 6 channels of sound, in 1956 it was ground-breaking. What many may not realise was that there was also a travelling version that went around Europe. The only (really major) problem was that it required multiple vehicles and multiple staff to set it up and take it down. In fact it ended up requiring something in the order of 40 vehicles. No small logistical feat. The first version was set up at the International Horticultural Exhibition (IGA) in Hamburg, Germany. Originally housed inside a massive tent, it accommodated around 1,000 seats initially, and showed “Windjammer” twice daily on a 29 x 11m screen. Later there was a 3,000 seat version with a 30m-wide screen erected inside a huge “Balloon Theatre” (an inflatable auditorium).
Catch a film with Audrey
Of all mobile cinemas, Audrey is one of the most famous — and she has been around for over 50 years. In 1964, paid for by The Ministry of Technology and operated by PERA (the Production Engineering Research Association, seven custom mobile cinema bus units were built to tour the country, promoting modern production techniques to British industry. The surviving vehicle, Audrey, is different to the modern mobile cinemas mentioned, because it is actually a specially built Bedford bus. The original seven vehicles, complete with trailers, visited factories acting as training rooms, equipped with 16mm projectors. In 1974, the Government sold these off and now Audrey is the sole survivor, travelling around and showing archive footage. Despite her retro roots, Audrey has kept up with the modern world. She no longer uses film projection, and instead, like the vast majority of the industry, made the digital switchover. A similar concept, Movie Mobil started in 2014 and is converted from a single-decker London bus. It uses standard bus seating (recovered) for an auditorium with a projector and pull-down screen at the front. MovieMobil is designed to make the cinema more accessible and affordable to young people, particularly in disadvantaged communities, offering a mobile cinema experience that visits schools and colleges, housing estates and community centres.
No wheels on my wagon…
Not every mobile cinema is road-based. Launched in 2018, the Barge Fiodra — a wide-beam barge built in Poland — is a fully off-grid 20 seat micro-cinema that operates on the UK’s southern waterways. The Fiodra’s projector, sound and safety systems are powered by batteries charged by solar panels, with heating from a wood-burning stove! Locations vary from new developments to pubs and wharfs and the programme includes waterway- and canal-related films. Screenings include a pre-show talk on the film and its relation to canal history — and staying for a post-show chat and drink is actively encouraged!
The future is mobile?
As with projection kit in booths and auditoria, there are often huge challenges in fitting complicated equipment into small spaces that travel about. The way that the trailers mechanically work continues to improve, new versions outperform the old and, of course, the use of LED screens presents a considerable potential advantage. In this modern age where we all feel we know what “cinema” means, it is sometimes difficult to get a ‘wow’ from the audience. All of these travelling cinemas, without question create that wow, from the moment they turn up on site, to the excitement of children when they reach the top step and walk completely out of their environment into a proper cinema auditorium.
A fully hands-on experience…?
“For the past two years, writes Peter Knight, I have been lucky to be involved with two mobile cinemas operating in the UK. It allows me to see a range of interesting places in a role that combines hands-on practicality and self-sufficiency. You end up as front of house manager, alongside being responsible for the technical setup and breakdown of the cinema.
Wherever the cinema arrives there is always an astonished reaction, and often slight panic as people realise just how big an articulated lorry is! You also have to explain that this is indeed a proper cinema.
There is showmanship in making a whole venue appear at a push of a button, but there are moving mechanical parts that can be up to two decades old. These sometimes need to be coaxed into operation.
Fortunately, head engineer at Toutenkamion, Francis Durand, knows each of his machines in detail, and is happy to answer queries — often that mean a detailed technical call whilst lying under the back of the trailer.
Once the cinema is set up, the operation is no different to a normal booth, though from a projection point of view, mobile internet is still a challenge, meaning hard drives are really the order of the day given the rural locations these cinemas often visit.
Mobile Cinema around the globe
USA: a bigger market altogether: In the US, everything is that much bigger — from a practical perspective this includes roads. Here cinema lorries can be made from larger units, complete with refreshment space and built-in toilets. With operations in Florida, Brazil and Mexico, Cinetransformer provides a 91-seat option with a 14ft 3D-capable screen.
UK & Ireland: A BAFTA-award winning service to rural communities: A number of different companies have built mobile cinemas over the years, but one of the main players is Toutenkamion, from France. Their range includes 80- and 100-seat vehicles, four of which are in operation in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The Scottish Screen Machine (pictured, top) is perhaps the most widely known. It runs throughout the year and is in its 21st year of operation, with 2018 having been its most successful to date. Touring to more than 40 communities in the Highlands and Islands, it spends up to four days in each location, taking 10-12 weeks to complete one full tour. Screen Machine is funded by Creative Scotland and Highlands and Islands Enterprise and is supported by the ferry company, Caledonian MacBrayne. The cinema is staffed by two operators working a two-week rotation who manage everything with the support of a locally sourced usher. As a mark of the Screen Machine’s significance, last month BAFTA honoured Iain MacColl, its senior operator and driver for the past 21 years, with its inaugural “For the Love of Film award.
Other modern-day travelling shows built by Toutenkamion are The Movie Machine, operated by SSVC, Forces Cinema, The Incredible Moving Cinema (CineTruck), owned and operated by Lyn Goleby and Road House, owned and operated by Element Pictures Ireland. These three tend to operate on a more part-time basis. Now digital, all started their lives operating with 35mm Cinemeccanica Victoria 5 projectors installed in them.
Macedonia: origins of FilmAid: The origins of the outreach charity Film Aid are rooted in the Kosovo conflict in the Balkans. Back in 1999, independent producer Caroline Baron tuned into a radio story covering the crisis. The report explained how key necessities — food, medicine, shelter —were handled by humanitarian aid agencies, but major unresolved problems facing hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees were boredom and hopelessness. As Caroline explained, “I had an idea; I would rally the entertainment industry to bring films to the camps. We would hold outdoor screenings and feed the soul while providing life-saving messages on the big screen.” Within 48hrs, the film industry had responded and the success of the initial project in Macedonia prompted the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and UNHCR to invite FilmAid to extend and expand its activities globally.
France: as seen at Cannes: The travelling cinemas is anything but a UK-centric phenomenon. In France, the very newest Cinemobile started work on 29 September last year in Orleans, near Paris, serving the Centre-Val de Loire region. It continues a tradition of mobile theatre in the area that has existed for more than 35 years and serves an area of 46 rural communities, generating over 55,000 admissions per year. As a traveling cinema, the Cinémobile is part of France’s National Association of Traveling Cinemas, ANCI. This association helps co-ordinate the network of itinerant circuits. Mobile cinemas make nearly a million admissions every year in France, in often isolated or remote areas. Those in the film business may well also have seen these lorries in service at the MIPCOM Exhibition in Cannes. MIPCOM is a leading market for multi-platform audiovisual content, targeting the creators, producers, buyers and financiers who flock to the Promenade de la Croissette each October.
Thailand: an educational remit: Toutenkamion has also provided a Cinemobile to Thailand, the first of its kind in Asia, that is operated by the national film archive with the support of the Ministry of Culture. Though Thailand is well-served by cinemas, they tend to be in main provincial towns.
With distances between villages and towns often 100km or more, rural people rarely bother to see a film on the big screen. The vehicle, which seats 100, features Dolby 7.1 and can screen 2D and 3D. It was shipped to Bangkok late last year and started running last month, after HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn bestowed it with the name “Chalerm Tasana”.
Chalerm Tasana operates with an educational remit and such community outreach is mirrored in the work of FilmAid (see panel, left) a charity with perhaps the largest global audience for its mobile cinemas. Recognising that communities in crisis are crying out for information and empowerment, FilmAid provides these to millions suffering the effects of war, poverty, displacement, and disaster. Projects the charity has operated have reached communities in places as far apart as Kenya, Jordan, Uganda, Tanzania and Colombia.
Inside a modern mobile cinema
More than 100 years after the first travelling bioscope shows, there are still a few travelling showpeople left, albeit they use lorries, buses or other commercial vehicles instead of traction engines to haul kit.
These cinemas are more or less self-contained, coming with all the seating, heating and projection equipment included. Some of the larger articulated lorries have their own generators included, but the real magic is in the way that the trailers open and close. They can go from being a standard articulated trailer to one that accommodates an audience of 80 to 100 (depending on the model) with all the same equipment as in a cinema, all in a couple of hours. Hydraulics, steel cables and rams move the sides, roof and floor in and out. The same principles are used in vehicles such as broadcast trucks, notably for Formula 1. Within a short period a lorry can transform into a fully functional cinema, with 5.1/7.1 surround sound, DCP-compliant projector, a/c and heating. There is even a box office space available onboard that doubles as the door to the projection room.