First steps for a community cinema
December 4, 2012 2:43 PM   Subscribe

Can you talk me through the issue of rights and royalties for a small community cinema?

An informal group in my town is looking at the idea of setting up a small community cinema. Ideally, we would show films from new releases to classics, to audiences of 50-250 people. This would take place in a non-cinema type venue. There are no cinemas in our town, the nearest being at least 8 miles away.

My question is how does such a group deal with the rights and royalties for showing films? We want to do everything lawfully and above aboard, and I assume that means receiving official releases from, and then making payments to, the rightsholders. But we have no clue what this really means, how the system might work for a small group, or what kind of amounts we're talking about. We're really just starting out on this idea and looking to lay down some lines to work with, so feel free to speak to us like we're idiots. Pointers to resources elsewhere welcome too.

For information, we are in England. We're not worried at the moment about venue licensing.
posted by Jehan to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are you screening actual films or DVDs?
posted by empath at 2:56 PM on December 4, 2012

A traditional cinema would secure all the rights and contribute to all the necessary royalties etc. at the point of acquiring the film. You pay a distributor a fee, they supply you with the physical reels to show at your cinema.

That said, if you guys are planning to show DVDs, that's a different story.

I would say get in touch with film distributors that cover smaller cinemas, art houses, and the like and see if you can come to some kind of arrangement that pays for all the relevant legal stuff but doesn't include a physical print of the film?

I don't think it will be possible for you to have a first run cinema on this scale, unless you have access to an up-to-date 35mm projector and all the related equipment that cinemas usually have.
posted by Sara C. at 2:57 PM on December 4, 2012

In the UK, I think these are the folks you want to get info from. They say:
You will need to obtain a licence to screen the film from the theatrical distributor of the film.

To find out who the theatrical distributor is go to the BBFC website and search for the title. If it has ever been distributed in the UK it will have a classification and the listing will contain information about the original distributor. Contact details for UK distributors are available from the Distributors page.

There are rare examples of films which have been distributed but are not classified. These are likely to be cultural titles or those which came into temporary distribution. In this case, they are unlikely to still be available.

If you have a query regarding the distributor of a film you can email us at
For future readers, the MPAA is not your friend, but they do have some info you want for contacting American rights holders.
posted by SMPA at 3:00 PM on December 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: To answer, some of the above questions: we're unlikely to have the ability to show actual film, so whatever we show would be in digital format. That may change, but we have to assume not for now. Are films not released in digital? How long does that take usually?
posted by Jehan at 3:06 PM on December 4, 2012

For digital, again, you usually have to have the kinds of digital projection systems cinemas typically have. AFAIK film distribution isn't just them sending you a quicktime file via FTP or whatever you were imagining.

How were you planning on showing the films?
posted by Sara C. at 3:14 PM on December 4, 2012

I live in the U.S., so things might be a little different for you, but my university's film club purchases our license to show a film at the same time we rent the film reels or DVD from our distributor.

Digital projection systems are way out of our price range as a well-funded university student organization, so I think DVD is likely the way you will be heading.
posted by topoisomerase at 3:16 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster:
How were you planning on showing the films?
In the simplest way possible for now, which by the looks of things is DVD. I mean, in my mind's eye, I don't have anything more complicated pictured than a screen and a projector hooked up to a laptop. We don't have any money to invest in technology. We just want to buy a license to make it lawful.
posted by Jehan at 3:19 PM on December 4, 2012

You'd still need a digital projector and other cinema equipment, and licensing and distribution fees still hold true. In addition to teaching someone to run it, and having them be a licensedprojectionist (at least in the US).

It sounds like you're looking to use dvd's and perhaps a dvd projector, which would be much cheaper. This might be what you're looking for.
posted by loriginedumonde at 3:19 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are some companies that rent out movie screens and projectors to show DVDs outdoors. You might want to contact them to see if you could just rent a projector.

You could also contact your local school. In the U.S., some elementary schools show movies from DVD in cafeterias or auditoriums.

And Loriginedumonde, you don't have to be a licensed projectionist in the U.S. anymore. It's sort of a dying trade. There are very few unions left.
posted by topoisomerase at 3:28 PM on December 4, 2012

You might reach out to the people at the Grand Illusion in Seattle. It's a non-profit theater run by volunteers, and someone there might be able to answer some of your questions.
posted by Gorgik at 5:55 PM on December 4, 2012

Would you sell tickets? If not, the local public library may already have a liscencing deal you can piggyback on as a partner. I agree with the contacting schools - as a school librarian I paid an annual liscence fee and was then legally able to show films on a non-profit basis.
posted by saucysault at 9:05 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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