With cinema venues currently closed until further notice, a steady wave of drive-in and outdoor cinema events have popped up across the UK leaving many exhibitors wondering, is outdoors the new indoors?

Whilst audiences are pining for the collective big screen experience, drive-in and outdoor cinemas can be a great way of bringing people together in a socially distanced world. But before you go scouting for locations it’s worth noting that outdoor cinema can be expensive.

It’s not as simple as putting up a big screen, chucking on a DVD and flogging a bunch of tickets. Thought must be given to proper equipment, licensing, health and safety (in accordance with government guidelines), marketing, concessions, toilets and much more. And that’s without even considering the environmental impact of this type of event.

Drive in and outdoor cinema events can be a great way to reach new audiences and provide a unique film-going experience but for event organisers who think it could be a ‘nice little earner’ they may need to think again.

The UK has seen a rise in outdoor cinema in recent years (Midlands based Flatpack has been running its own successful al fresco horror night at Dudley Castle since 2016) but they’re not the cash cow you might think they are with many hidden costs to bear in mind. If you’re considering venturing into the outdoor film business, let us walk you through how the finances might work...

Let’s say we’re going to host an outdoor screening in the garden of a national trust property, the capacity of the space is around 1000 and tickets are priced at £15. Let’s assume for the purpose of this exercise that you sell out (which is never a guarantee) - 1000 x £15 is £15,000 - that’s pretty good, right?

Now let’s start factoring in costs. The first one is VAT at 20% so straight away you’re down to £12,500 but that’s still a tidy sum. Let’s move on to licensing. When you screen a film in public you are legally obliged to obtain a licence which would need to be approved by the film studio or distributor. As an example, in the case of Frozen 2 the studio would be Disney and they take 40% of your gross ticket income (sometimes more) but we’ll take 40% as the best case scenario. Now we’re down to £6,500.

Next we have to factor in screening equipment costs and high quality set ups don’t come cheap. For an audience of more than 500 people you’d need a big screen so for a 24ft plus inflatable screen, projection, sound system and technical staffing you’re probably looking at a minimum of around £2,750 to £3,500. Knock that off and we’re at £3,750.

How about venue hire? You might be lucky and have access to a space free of charge but if not you can expect to pay anywhere from £700 to £1800 depending on the location. Let’s assume the lower end, which takes us to £3,050.

After all that hard work and effort we’re only left with £3,050? Well no, there’s a few more costs still to consider:

Staffing - to keep costs low you could go down the volunteer route but you’d still need a project manager to ensure all of the appropriate H&S and RAMS paperwork is in order. As a conservative estimate for a large scale event, if we pay 8 staff for 6 hours even at minimum wage (currently £8.72) it comes to £419. On top of that you may need on site SIA security staff which could set you back a further £200.

Marketing - unless you have a ready made audience you’ll need to do some targeted promotion: flyers, distro, paid ads etc. That’ll cost around £250.

Equipment rental - depending on the location you may need to hire seating, crowd barriers or even portaloos and if you’re hosting a drive-in then probably a FM Broadcast licence at around £400 per application. Add to that all of the sundry costs that go hand in hand with organising events like insurance (£50) and/or a Temporary Event Notice (£21 available via your local council) and it’s not long before you’re in the red!

Best case scenario: if we take the lower end of each estimate given above with no additional equipment rental you will have made around £1,710.

That’s not to say it’s not worth doing; with the right venue and partners a drive-in or outdoor film screening can be a spectacular event. It allows you to be creative with locations and film choices and you can create something really special for audiences.

Here's a few examples to get your creative programming juices flowing;


Flatpack Beware the Moon

The Birmingham based festival’s annual al fresco horror night in the grounds of a 9th century Midlands castle.

Read more

Bollywood Outdoor Cinema

Inspirate's An Indian Summer presents the UK's first Bollywood Outdoor Cinema tour, with KUCH KUCH HOTA HAI alongside the finest array street food & drinks.

Read more

Nomad Cinema

A pop-up cinema with a difference, Nomad give 100% of their profits to The Sustainability Institute charity; and have screened films in a range of quirky locations from Queen’s Park to Brompton Cemetery.

Read more

As you can see there’s a lot to consider when planning open-air events, so we've pulled together some links and resources to help organisations who are thinking of dipping their toe in the outdoor film business.

The Independent Cinema Office has put together this handy guide to putting on outdoor films, helpfully detailing all the dos and don’ts.
This comprehensive guide to drive ins has been prepared by The Cinema Technology Community (you have to sign up for a free membership to access it, but it’s worth it)
Licensing - contact your local council to find out what type of licence is best suited to your event. Here’s Nottingham City Council’s details on licensing as an example.
Booking films - all public film showings require a screening license, Filmbankmedia are one of the leading distributors for non-theatrical film screenings and they have put together a step by step guide to booking titles.

If your organisation is thinking about putting on an outdoor screening and you want to talk through any of the above then please do get in touch hello@filmhubmidlands.org