How can I play videos and charge admission?
October 18, 2008 2:01 AM   Subscribe

Can I get some kind of license to be a motion picture theatrical exhibitor, which would allow me to dust off my VHS copy of "E.T." and show it to kids downtown for 25c each? ((For free??))

At the beginning of every Macrovision-protected movie on my shelf, there's usually a bunch of words about "intended for home viewing only" and how many FBI fines I am about to be charged and how many laws I am about to break... ... ...

I know there is legal fine-print hidden somewhere in my BLOCKBUSTER rental agreement and on my BEST-BUY-purchased DVDs, and even in my stack of old VHS videotapes --- --- laws that prevent me from getting a projector and a big screen and showing movies to people and charging $$ per person.

When cities have "Free Movies In The Park" nights, how do they get around such laws?

Does anyone have relevant anecdotes or stories about modern "entrepeneurs" who have tried to charge admission for playing DVDs out loud?

Finally, if I do decide to "go for it" and start up my own little rogue movie theater, how soon should I expect to see Sigourney Weaver from "BE KIND REWIND" show up with her steamroller to flatten me?
posted by shipbreaker to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
While the RIAA and MPAA are overzealous assholes, they don't have keyhole satellites spying on every square inch of good old american soil.

Unless there's an MPAA exec in your neighborhood, no one would ever know or care. And if they knew enough about copyright, they would assume you had cleared it, because why wouldn't they think that?

Short answer: this is one of those things that at the VERY, VERY, VERY, most remotest-worst: you would receive a cease and desist letter. And that will probably never happen.

Don't take out massive ads in the paper or run commercials about it, but if you're just kicking it... no big deal.
posted by disillusioned at 2:22 AM on October 18, 2008

Why would anyone inflict a VHS copy of any film on anybody? Think of the children!

disillusioned is right - no one from the MPAA would notice on such a small scale. My question would be, why charge them kids to see ET anyway? Why not just show them the film?
posted by crossoverman at 4:22 AM on October 18, 2008

Interesting question. From some googling it looks like you should buy a license from a company such as Swank or MPLC. They're both very vague about pricing, but it seems Swank charges $75 or $100 for a single show.
posted by reynaert at 5:16 AM on October 18, 2008

"intended for home viewing only"

What's a home? My whole city is my home, including downtown.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 5:25 AM on October 18, 2008

if I do decide to "go for it" and start up my own little rogue movie theater, how soon should I expect to see Sigourney Weaver from "BE KIND REWIND" show up with her steamroller to flatten me?

Fairly soon I'd have thought. The moment any of your local bricks and mortar screens realised what was going on they would shop you to the MPAA/local licensing authority. But please don't let me dissuade you, I like rogue cinema. It may be easier either to attach yourself to an existing institution with all the relevant paperwork or to go underground and work on a no names no packdrill/ set up, show and go basis.
posted by Dr.Pill at 5:41 AM on October 18, 2008

I have been involved in a few projects that screened movies to the general public - done it in big cities and small towns - never had a single problem

one factor that helps is keeping what most folks consider a low profile - e.g., most advertising we did was local: occasional ad in a free daily, flyers & handouts, email lists, announcements at other community events - plus, if you do a good job of it all, give people a positive & memorable experience, word of mouth alone will do wonders

never charged anyone anything either - that might be another factor - if you're seen as making money off this (even if only a little) then some folks might have cause to question what you're doing - if it's free, I think it often passes by unnoticed, either because people dismiss free things as unimportant, or that they equate free with charitable/educational & like the idea of such social generosity

have fun! watching movies with a local crowd that you've gathered, even if they're all strangers, is much different & more interesting than just catching the latest at the multiplex
posted by jammy at 6:23 AM on October 18, 2008

I'm a technical director of a theatre in Canada that also shows second-run movies on a weekly basis, and I can tell you that up here that our presentation license requires us to pay a royalty to the distribution service for any movie that we show that has a fee attached to it. Now, if we were to show a movie for free, no royalty would have to be paid since there would be no revenue stream attached to the direct viewing of the presentation.

The CMPDA (Canadian MPAA) apparently has no problem with us showing second run films and commercial DVD's without a licensing or royalty agreement as long as no direct revenue stream is attributable to the viewing. If there is a fee for viewing, well, they want their piece of the pie.
posted by Isosceles at 6:24 AM on October 18, 2008

If you're wanting to do this on the up-and-up, reynaert has the right direction. You need to go through a distributor like Swank.

For pricing, if you get a 35mm copy, and show it 5 times in a "theatre" for about 300 in a market of about 10,000, you would expect to pay anywhere between $500 (Kindergarten Cop 7) and $1200 (LOTR). Classic movies are much less, never higher than $500 in my experience. So, the $75-100 for one-time non-35mm copy seems like a reasonable guess. (I used to choose movies for an on-campus theatre type dealie, so the 35mm numbers are from real experience, not thin air.) For a one-time, non-profit, feel-good event, maybe you could get a break on the price, but I've never tried (though it would not seem unreasonable to get sponsorship from local companies to cover the distributor fees).

As far as charging: I can't speak for activities like this, but there's a philosophy in sales and even in international development that people consider "free" less than a good thing. More people will come, more people will value your service, if there is a nominal charge, than if it is free. YMMV. If you think even the 25c would be a hardship, you could consider having the movie free, and offering 25c popcorn and soda.
posted by whatzit at 6:26 AM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you get any sort of exposure, I'm sure the lawbots will be upon you very soon.

The laws you're going to break, whether you charge or not (unless you are showing a movie old enough to be in the public domain or that has otherwise fallen out of copyright):

The right "in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;" (17 USC 106(4)) is one of those reserved to the owner of copyright and licensees.

That is to say, you'd have this problem even if you didn't have warnings on the videos / in your rental agreements, and skipping around a definition of "home" won't do anything for you. What matters is the definition of "public performance" in section 101.

The cities have obtained (probably paid for, perhaps solicited the donation of) public performance licenses.

Section 110 includes a few exceptions, none of which seems to apply here.

posted by deeaytch at 6:37 AM on October 18, 2008

"intended for home viewing only"

What's a home? My whole city is my home, including downtown.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 5:25 AM on October 18 [+] [!]

Don't rely on a bogus argument like that one.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:54 AM on October 18, 2008

I was part of a group that did this and we showed the movie for Free and then sold food to go along with the movie. Popcorn, sodas, hot dogs, ect.

I think because the movie was free and we made the money off the food no worries. I would agree with the people who said keep the ads local this will help keep you off the radar.

Good luck
posted by CollegeNelson at 11:20 AM on October 18, 2008

Frequently Asked Questions About Movie Copyright Compliance in Public Libraries (from Movie LIcensing USA, an outfit that sells blanket performance licenses).

What the Law Says About Showing Movies in Public
-- Exhibit Licenses, another such

Video and Copyright -- a fact sheet from the American Library Association
posted by dhartung at 1:48 PM on October 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think whatzit has the answer to your implicit question. Pay the royalties so you are in the clear, and find a nice local company to sponsor the cost.
posted by radioamy at 11:08 AM on October 19, 2008

agreed with the above. Some friends of mine did a charity free showing of Star Wars (the showing was free, but there were auctions and donations to a charity were encouraged). They did internet advertising and Lucasfilm swooped down and put a stop to it.

So that having been said, d it the right way and pay the royalties so you are in the clear.
posted by arniec at 6:28 AM on October 20, 2008

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