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Seven steps to starting a community cinema

Thinking about setting up a community cinema? Get ready for a little work – and a lot of fun! Follow our seven key steps, narrated by Edith Bowman, to help make your cinema’s launch a success.

  • Step 1: Get inspired

    One of the first things to do is to put your cinema team together. Try and include a range of people with different skills, and ask everyone to take responsibility for a main task – such as film booking, equipment, finances or marketing.

    Next, take your team out to have a look at some potential venues – everywhere from community centres to pubs with function rooms. Once you’ve found the right one, run a test screening with a few local people to get some feedback if you can. If you get a good response, book your screening dates in with your venue. On average, community cinemas screen films once a month, but it's up to you how frequently you run your cinema events.

    Find out if there are any other community cinemas in nearby towns or villages. You could ask the organiser if they would mentor you and share their expertise and advice while you get set up.

  • Step 2: Work out the financials

    It doesn’t sound like much fun, but doing some budgeting to make sure you know how much cash you'll need to get started is essential. You may find out that it’s less than you thought!

    Set up a simple spreadsheet or Google Sheet and complete it as a team.

    Get started with the main costs, which will probably include:

    And then enter the ways you might make money, such as:

    • Ticket or membership sales
    • Food and drink sales

    Maybe you could organise a fundraiser or sponsored event to raise money for your start up costs. This would also be a good way to let people in your community know about your cinema.

    Once you’re comfortable with your budget, you can start projecting your figures for the future too. And if you want to apply for funding, having budgets to hand will make the application process much easier.

  • Step 3: Source your equipment

    Films can be screened using some quite basic kit – all you need is a DVD or Blu-ray player, a projector, a screen and a sound system.

    When you’re getting started, test whatever equipment your team can source to work out which items you need to buy or upgrade. If you're using a larger venue, you might need slightly higher quality equipment to achieve the clarity of sound and vision that you and your audience will want. If you need new equipment, you may be able to apply to the BFI Neighbourhood Cinema Equipment Fund although you will need to have been up and running for six months to be eligible for the fund. In the meantime, you might be able to borrow equipment from another community cinema near you or from Cinema For All.

    Along with your audiovisual equipment, don’t forget to ensure you have everything else you need for your venue, like blackout blinds and enough chairs (and plenty of cushions!).

  • Step 4: Get your licences in place

    Making sure your licences are organised is very important to make sure you can operate legally, and they can be quick and simple to arrange. Your cinema will probably need two key types of licence:

    • A licence for your venue, which quite often lasts for a full year and can be organised through your local council
    • A licence for each film you screen, which you can usually book with the distributor

    If you plan to sell hot food or alcoholic drinks as a way to increase your takings, you may need to get an extra licence in place for that too.

  • Step 5: Choose your first film

    Now for the really enjoyable part – choosing which films you’ll screen.

    How you decide on your films is up to you – you could ask people in your community to vote for what they’d like to see, or your cinema team could decide your programme for the first season.

    Once you’ve picked your titles, contact a booking service or the distributor of each film to arrange the licences for your film screenings. You can usually pay for the booking fee and licence at the same time. There are a few main film distributors out there, plus lots of smaller ones. Make sure you book your films well in advance of your screening dates to give yourself plenty of time to advertise them.

  • Step 6: Promote your screening

    Speaking of advertising…

    Building awareness and excitement about your new cinema can be really satisfying. There are lots of ways you can market your screenings, many of which are completely free. Start getting the word out using printed material like posters or flyers, use social media or even set up a website.

    And of course, one of the best forms of advertising is word of mouth, so ask your friends to tell their friends about your cinema’s launch and upcoming screenings.

  • Step 7: Screen your first film

    The day has arrived!

    After a final test of your equipment before the screening, transform your venue into a cinema – draw the blinds, set up your seats and prepare any drinks and snacks. You could also dress your venue to match the theme of your film.

    Then all you need to do is get ready to welcome your new audience for a great film experience that will bring your whole community together.

  • Are you interested in running a cinema in your community? For help and advice contact Holly, our BFI Neighbourhood Cinema Coordinator, who is based at Cinema for All in Sheffield.