The Rise Of Outdoor Cinema

Ed Gibbs talks Picturehouse pop-up.

Ed Gibbs

26 Apr 19

WE ALL LOOK FORWARD TO A BIT OF BALMY WEATHER – and when the long, hot days do roll around, it's tough to keep us from staying outdoors, no matter what's playing. Recognising this, cinemas have worked overtime to bring the best movies to audiences outside of the usual spaces. Whether it's in a grand old park, in a disused public space, or on a rooftop, the phenomenon of the outdoor cinema has become a much-loved staple of the British summer. 

"It's a great day out, great fun for families, and all at lovely locations," says Jon Perry, Picturehouse's head of operations, of its hugely popular outdoor series, now in its sixth year. "We've been at it for a while now, and the market's grown. If you've never been to one, you'll be pleasantly surprised."

Each of Picturehouse's outdoor pop-up venues is located close to one of its established cinemas, making it easy to keep each location fully workable and technically sound. All serve food and drink in comfortable, picnic-style surrounds. Even if the weather turns bad, which it did on a couple of occasions last year, that too can be handled with minimal fuss. 

"We're a neighbourhood cinema," Perry explains, "where you can come and eat, drink and watch a great movie. The pop-up lets people know that shared experience exists. Accessing it is made as simple as possible – and the ticketing is online, so we can refund quickly if we have to."

Favourites like The Greatest Showman Singalong, Bohemian Rhapsody, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Jurassic Park play well outdoors, Perry says, because of their universal appeal. 

"We could have shown The Greatest Showman Singalong every night," he says, of Hugh Jackman's musical tour de force, which makes a welcome return this summer. "It's the quintessential feelgood pop-up movie. Everyone clocked on quickly, and before we knew it, families were coming in droves. Everyone wanted to see it. It's like an outdoor concert. He's a proper showman; he carries himself well; there's just something about him. He's got a bit of everything – and my wife loves him!"

The rule of thumb with programming the summer pop-ups, which last year attracted more than 7,000 filmgoers, is that each film is at least six to seven months old, to avoid any clash with the regular Picturehouse programming. Some are a few years old and others are timeless classics, like Back To The Future and Stand By Me. Then there are cult classics, like Dazed And Confused and Withnail & I, a perennial hit with students. 

This year, Picturehouse is spreading its wings still further, with plans to screen outdoors at new pop-up sites in Edinburgh, York and Chester, as well as returning to ones in Bath, Henley, Norwich and Southampton. A new site in Bromley will also be trialled. 

There's a good reason for keeping these summer pop-ups focused out of London, where audiences are well catered for. The team also keep a close eye on what works and what doesn't. Some big movies like Ghostbusters didn't resonate as strongly as expected last year, while others, like Stand By Me, did. Picking a winner, says programmer Codie Entwistle, isn't always as obvious as it seems.

"My highlight from last year was watching Stand By Me in Brighton. Dazed And Confused in Norwich also went down really well," Entwistle says. One of several on the Picturehouse programming team, he spends a lot of time refining the outdoor line-up, which is still evolving right up to the big launch in May. All films are treated equally, although inevitably there are personal favourites. "Stand By Me is actually my all-time favourite movie," he admits, "so I'm stoked it plays so well."