Drive-in cinemas in post-lockdown UK

Posted on May 21, 2020 by Sami Abdul-Razzak

Categories: General, Pop-up and Event Cinema

We’re seeing more and more drive-in cinemas popping up around the world, providing a way for audiences to watch films communally during the coronavirus crisis. As UK cinemas remain closed we spoke to a number of organisations about the pros and cons of drive-in screenings, to see if they might be a viable option for a communal viewing experience when it’s safer for us to leave our homes but before cinema buildings are able to reopen.

Our friend Algirdas Ramaška, CEO of Vilnius Film Festival & Kino pavasaris Distribution and our partner on Developing Your Film Festival, recently set up a drive-in cinema at Vilnius International Airport. We sat down with him to find out about the practicalities and challenges involved in running drive-in screenings. 

First of all, congratulations on successfully transitioning your festival to digital in less than a week (!). Coming off the back of that, why did you feel it was important to do drive-in screenings?

The main reason was simply because this is the sort of thing we like to do; we do the festival and we do experiential cinema. We usually do outdoor screenings in the summer, we’re always trying to find something which can be added to enhance a screening. When we realised that we couldn’t do things how we usually would, we needed to find a way to continue to do it safely.

What are the logistical factors you need to take into account when planning a drive-in screening?

The first thing I would recommend you start thinking about is content. There are not a lot of new films being released right now so you need to think about what you’ll have available to play when you do your screening. 

Algirdas Ramaška welcoming the drive-in audience at Vilnius Airport. Photo credit: Robertas Daskevičius

How did you settle on Vilnius International Airport as the location?

You can do it in any parking lot you like (health & safety permitting), but to do it our way we had to find some sort of crazy location to do it in. We spent two weeks going round the city trying to find the best location. We even involved location scouts in Vilnius to help us. In the end we were lucky that there were people at the airport who believed in the idea and wanted to work with us.

Of course, there are some necessary requirements too. It should be clear (without trees etc.) and ideally on an incline, but if you can find a location that nobody else would think about that’s even better. The kind of place it wouldn’t normally be possible to go with your car. For us, the airport is usually an area which is very strictly controlled. We needed to get permission to change the country’s borders so it could be open for the public to get in and out without going through passport control etc. So it was complicated, but worth it.

Did you use a projector or a digital screen?

We used a LED screen, which is what I’d recommend doing. You can screen during the daytime with a LED screen which allows you to do more screenings and screen family films, though the screen requires more power during the day. I’d say families should be one of your main target audiences at the moment because parents will probably be going crazy with their kids at home all the time.

The cars take up a lot of space, so you should try to get as big a screen as you can. We have a 150m² screen and that allows us to play to up to 250 cars. We raised it a few metres above the ground and that makes it about as high as a five-story building.

The orientation is important, you shouldn’t position the screen where the sun will be shining directly onto it, nor directly behind it (as it will shine into the audience’s eyes). So you need to consider the sun’s path and work out where to put the screen based on that.

The LED screen at Vilnius Airport’s Aerocinema. Photo credit: Tautvydas Stukas

How did you get sound to the cars?

The sound should go through the radios in the cars. Different countries may have different rules for FM frequencies, but usually it’s very highly regulated and it’s not easy to get a frequency. In Lithuania it usually takes three months to get permission, but since there was such a huge demand across the country we managed to get a decision much more quickly. But you still need to apply for them, and it was especially sensitive for us as we were at the airport and didn’t want to interfere with their frequencies!

Did you arrange the cars in a specific way?

We used an architectural designer to make floor plans for the car park. We wanted to arrange it so that it’s easy to come and go; no one is allowed out of their cars so if someone needs to go to the toilet then they need to be able to drive out of the event area easily.

The people at the back need to be able to see, and if the film is subtitled then you need to take that even further into account (and subtitles usually have to be much bigger than in a cinema). We have a team of 12-15 staff who manage the line of cars and show each one where to go. They are parked in a specific way to ensure that everybody will be able to see. We split the entrance in half so that the smaller cars go to the right and are led to the front, and the larger cars go to the left and are led to the back.

We also have a space for the staff to sit and relax during the film. After the screening they show the cars the way out to make the process as fast as possible, getting everyone in or out usually takes about 40 minutes.

Managing the line at Vilnius Aiport’s Aerocinema. Photo credit: Robertas Daskevičius

How did you ensure the screening was safe and adhered to social distancing rules?

Each car is parked about two metres apart. There are no physical tickets sold, people purchase tickets online and show them on their phone or on a print-out which is then scanned through the window. So there’s no contact at all.

We provided biological portable toilets which were situated just outside the screening area. There were disinfectant materials in each of these for everyone to apply themselves once they were finished.

We didn’t provide food or drink, but we know some other drive-ins did. Some had food trucks onsite, customers would receive a menu on arrival and then order food to their car by phone. Others allowed people to order food to the site via a delivery service.

It sounds like you’ve done it successfully, but would you recommend other exhibitors consider doing drive-in screenings during this period?

I would suggest you think very carefully about it and make sure you have a good strategy. Because it sounds like a nice idea, it sounds romantic, but it’s not easy to do. Take your time and find the right way to do it. Of course if you’re the first one to open people will show up and it might work, but it’s an expensive project and you need to invest a lot into it. You can’t cheat it, the devil is in the details and if you don’t achieve a high-quality experience then people won’t come back.

It can be sustainable but I think it’s hard to make it profitable. If you can involve sponsors or public funding then it might be more feasible, but otherwise I’d say there are other things you could be doing which are more profitable. But if you want to do something creative and nice, then go for it.

What’s next for you?

Now we’re going to go to the coast of Lithuania and open drive-ins at the airports in cities close to the sea. Since the country is closed, no one can travel abroad for holidays so they’ll be stuck in Lithuania and everybody will go to the seaside.

Happy customers at Vilnius Airport’s Aerocinema. Photo credit: Tautvydas Stukas

The Aerocinema at Vilnius Airport is running until the end of May as part of the Vilnius International Film Festival. For those considering doing drive-in screenings of their own, we’ve listed some of the logistical and ethical factors which you may need to think about below. 

Practicalities to consider

Licensing and insurances

  • You will need to liaise with the local authority’s licensing department to obtain a licence to show films on the site you have identified. They will need to be satisfied that there are adequate health & safety measures, toilet provisions, and that the site is not disruptive to neighbours and the local area. You may also need to apply for change of use of the site.
  • You may also have to speak to the relevant highways authority to assess the consequences for local traffic at show times, ensure there are adequate access and exit routes to and from the site, and that the screen is not distracting for passing drivers.
  • You will require a copyright licence for the film(s) you would like to screen. The source of the licences for particular films will depend on what format you are intending to use. If you are planning to screen from DCP (Digital Cinema Package, the same standard used by professional cinemas) then you will need to obtain a licence from the UK distributor of the film. To find out who the distributor of a film is, visit our FAQs. If you are planning to screen from another format, such as DVD or Blu-Ray, you will need to obtain a non-theatrical licence from one of the companies which handle these. Filmbankmedia are taking provisional bookings from 4 July (subject to government guidelines).
  • If you plan to play music through the PA ahead of the screening, you will need to have a licence agreement with the Performing Rights Society.
  • In addition to the licences, you will need to purchase insurance for the event.

Staffing & operations

  • You will need a detailed plan for cars entering and exiting the site, as well as how the cars will be parked. Entry and exit points will need to be clearly marked and you should arrange the cars so that they can leave quickly and easily if necessary.
  • How will you ensure that the screening is safe for staff and the audience? You should consider what PPE you need for staff and ensure that social distancing is maintained by spacing cars at least two metres apart and implementing rules which prohibit customers from leaving their cars. You should consider whether it’s necessary to hire security for the screenings and what first aid provisions you will have on-site.
  • You will need to think about how to sell tickets safely. One option is to make tickets only purchasable online, and have staff to scan tickets on customers’ phones or print-outs through the (closed) windows of cars on arrival.
  • Will you provide food and beverages? If so you will need to ensure this is done in a safe and hygienic way. You will need additional staff to take orders and deliver food to the cars.
  • Will you be able to provide customer and staff toilet facilities safely? If so you will need to think where these can be positioned (on or off the screening site?) and how they can be cleaned to prevent the spread of infection.

Site & Technical issues 

  • If you are going to use a cinema-grade projector (and play from DCP), you will need to find a site which lends itself physically to position a screen and projector in an appropriate configuration, and consider how to house the projector and make sure it is weather-proof.
  • If you are planning to do day-time screenings (if you are using a LED screen) you will need to orientate the screen so that the sun is not shining directly onto or behind the screen during the screening, as this will reduce visibility for the audience.
  • For night-time screenings, you will need some way of easily controlling the lighting in the site.
  • How is the sound to be delivered? For example, via FM radio, Bluetooth, or external speakers. If you choose to deliver sound to the cars via FM radio you’ll need to obtain a local FM radio licence for the specific frequency you are using. This usually involves a fee and can take time to obtain.
  • Are there good sightlines across the site? The screening area will need to be clear and ideally on an incline to ensure everyone has a good view of the screen.
  • Depending on the size of the car park, you will need to raise the screen to further ensure good sightlines.
  • If the film is subtitled or captioned it is particularly important that you have good sightlines to the bottom of the screen. You should adapt subtitles to the size of your screen and these should be bigger than they would normally be in a cinema. For black and white films, the subtitles should be yellow.
Other considerations

Environment

In this time of climate crisis, what are the impacts of drive-in screenings on the environment? If we’re trying to reduce our energy use and foster new cultural practices of environmental sustainability, should we even be considering doing something which increases and encourages car usage?

What if you don’t own a car?

As we strive to make screenings as inclusive as possible, how can you remove barriers to entry – can you include people who don’t have access to a vehicle? The appeal of drive-in screenings during this period is largely due to the apparent barrier a car provides between its occupants and the outside world, thus reducing the risk of spreading infection between audience members, so it may seem inconsistent and unsafe to allow people without cars to attend. But by restricting the screenings to those with access to a vehicle, you are excluding a large audience.

These are some of the main considerations to bear in mind when planning a drive-in screening. For further information, the Cinema Technology Community have created a comprehensive guide on drive-in screenings. To access the guide, you’ll need to sign up to a free 6-month membership. 

If you are considering drive-in screenings, please continue to check government guidelines on social activities as the COVID-19 situation in the UK develops.

If you have any further questions regarding drive-in screenings which aren’t answered here, you can get in touch with us at: info@independentcinemaoffice.org.uk.

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