In a world of Netflix and multiplexes, there remains only one place to truly have a pure, undiluted movie watching experience: an independent cinema.
Crucial to the cinematic ecosystem, independent and arthouse cinemas screen more than just the biggest blockbuster releases of the day; they also showcase new indie talent and make room to highlight foreign films and all time classics.
With the the passion for film and the drive to succeed, anyone can start an independent cinema. Here is our 6-step guide on how to do it.
The first and perhaps most important step in setting up an independent cinema is securing an appropriate venue. One way to do this is to expand or repurpose an existing venue to have a newfound cinematic purpose. Pubs, bars, cafes, libraries and schools can act as great venues for one-off or frequent cinema screenings, but to found a true independent cinema you will need to find something more permanent.
If you already run a successful venue that caters to other events, expanding it to include a cinema is a no brainer for film fans with a keen eye for business opportunities. The entrepreneurs behind Hastings venue The Sussex Exchange, for example, have built on their wedding and conference venue, adding a local independent cinema to their business model. This approach allows the venue to offer a VIP cinema experience by combining the screening with the venue’s existing catering and hospitality facilities.
It is still possible to offer glitz, glamour or even grime when setting up a cinema at a brand new venue. The Electric Cinema in Whitechapel, for instance, offers all the grit of a Shoreditch drinking hall at its bar with a freshly refurbished cinema to boot.
If you do not happen to already own a cinema-style building, contact a few local venues to see if they are interested in working with you on a weekly cinema night and slowly build your business from there.
When you’ve got your venue, you need to make sure you have permission to show films there. As the BFI explains, there are two key laws you need to follow here: the Licensing Act 2003 and the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Getting these licenses is actually much simpler than it sounds. Check the BFI’s guidelines for details, but you will most likely need a Premises License for permission to run a film venue and then you will need a specific license for each film you wish to play. You can get these by joining the Cinema For All booking scheme or by contacting the film’s distributor directly.
Once you have settled on a good venue and looked into licensing, you have to think about your filmic finances. The venue itself could be the biggest drain. Depending on the building’s business rateable value, you will have to pay a monthly sum for it to the local council on top of whatever rent or mortgage you need to pay. As experts Gerald Eve explain, the amount you will have to pay varies greatly by location. Businesses in Wales, for example, are likely to have to pay more business rates in the coming financial year.
Then there are the licenses. These are not free, but they won’t burn too much of a hole in your pocket either, especially if you charge a fair amount for tickets. The Premises License will set you back anything from £100 to £1,100 a year (depending, again, on business rateable value) and the license to display each film is likely to cost around £100 each time.
Independent cinema website Indywood have done the maths, and they think it should be possible to start your own cinema for $15,000 or below. If you go for all the cheaper options, this is not a bad price for an experience so priceless to anyone who truly loves films.
You could run a cinema for even less if you are just doing it for the passion. In fact, if you set up a community cinema in your local area for charity purposes, you could be exempt from many of the costs listed above.
“Lights, camera, action!” might be Hollywood’s own signature catchphrase, but it applies to local cinemas all over the world too. You cannot yell action at the start of your film screening unless you have the proper equipment. In this case, you don’t really need a camera, but rather a screen and a projector.
The easiest way to do this is to buy a digital projector. These are fairly easy to purchase, and most distributors will send their films in digital format anyway, so it will open you up to a wider movie catalogue. If you don’t want to buy one of these, you can also rent them from various internet vendors.
Anyone truly invested in the rich history of cinema, however, may want to invest in an analogue film projector and seek out 33mm versions of movies to play in their cinema. Venues such as the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square or the BFI’s own Southbank cinema have seen great success with this approach.
The promotional aspect of starting an independent cinema is often overlooked in favour of other concerns, but it is by no means less pressing. You may have a venue, licenses, equipment and all your finances in order, but if you don’t find your audience, the entire venture will be fruitless.
The Forest Row Film Society has found that email is a useful tool in promoting a community cinema, citing their own experience as evidence, and offering up an in depth case study to prove it.
BFI has a helpful checklist of information that should be on flyers for your film screenings, and the Independent Cinema Office has this briefing on the hurdles you may face in your promotional quest. Make sure to focus on social media and word of mouth for a more cost effective approach.
With all this in mind, promoting your independent cinema should be fairly straightforward, but the key thing to remember is this: a well-run independent cinema in an accessible area will no doubt attract a large amount of dedicated film fans. Or, as Kevin Costner knows well, “If you build it, they will come.”