Is a free movie theater feasible?

posted by franzshire on April 4, 2008 at 7:53 am

It’s always been a dream of mine to run a movie theater and show older release movies. Last night my desire to do that was heightened after going to a screening of Goodfellas as part of a retro film series at a local theater. I’ve never seen Goodfellas in a cinemaplex before last night though I’ve watched the DVD dozens of times at home. There was nothing like it, it was just as amazing as I expected it to be. The atmosphere was great, there was like a comradery among all the theater patrons, as if we all knew we’d seen this a million times but we were all still seriously digging this.

I want to expand on that. I think it would be so great, as almost a community service, to run a theater that played all the classics and cult favorites. The way that it would feel best for me, is if I didn’t even make it mandatory for people to spend their money at such a place. They can buy something from the concession stand if they’d like (and not 3 dollars for a candy bar I might add) and donations are more than welcome. But if you don’t have the money or don’t want to pay, you still can see the movie. And I think, not everyone, but many will donate. And there would be such a spirit in that.. I really think such a place would really be a staple of the community, a cherished service that people could really care about and take pride in.

I’m not trying to sound like a hippie, but I’m sure such a place is any cinema lovers dream. But, is it feasible on any realistic level? And as an afterthought, a very important afterthought, could attaining exhibition rights be avoided since the service is offered free of charge? If not, does anyone have an idea of the average price of exhibition rights to old release films? What do you guys think?

Comments (16)

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on April 4, 2008 at 7:59 am

If you are a multi millionaire anything can be done….

markp on April 4, 2008 at 8:00 am

I have had the same crazy thought at times. I would LOVE to be able to run some of the old movies I did from the late 60’s and into the 70’s. As a union projectionist now for almost 33 years, I have many fond memories of the days of the “double feature”. The only problem I see, other than getting film, if that was your thinking, is that everything is on DVD, and our culture is so NOW oriented. No one seems to care about yesterday. (except those of us here on CT)

PeterApruzzese on April 4, 2008 at 9:15 am

Generally, the studios do not waive exhibition rights payments even if you do not charge admission. In fact, since they also get a percentage of your box office, they will charge you more in a flat rate if you aren’t selling tickets. Whatever you do, please don’t show anything without clearing it and paying for it – the studios will never service you if they find out that you’ve done so.

Cost to obtain repertory prints can vary anywhere from $150 to $500 or more, plus shipping both ways. And you’ll have to sign a master agreement personally with every studio you want to do business with. I would suggest you contact a local film booker who can advise you better – go to for more info on bookers.

KenLayton on April 4, 2008 at 9:54 am

And don’t forget the city and state will get involved.

DonSolosan on April 4, 2008 at 5:44 pm

During the summer, the city of Ann Arbor used to show free movies on top of a parking structure (bring a pillow!). Santa Monica does something similar down on the pier. Both events draw lots of people. Maybe you could do something like that in your community.

wimovies on April 4, 2008 at 7:33 pm

Its a nice thought, but donations wouldn’t work. You can’t pay for the film, pay heat, air conditioning, phone, accounting, concessions, janitor, employees, cost of goods, advertising, insurance, the list could go on, etc… Those companies won’t take donations… Its hard for some theatres to make it with paying customers, much less relying on a donation.

VinceEmmons on April 4, 2008 at 8:42 pm

Wimovies is correct, you can’t operate a real business and function as a charity/hobby… However, if you were fortunate enough to live in a place with a very community-minded cinema owner already looking for some promotional attention, here’s what you do. Find a radio station (don’t bother too much with the most successful guys, they don’t need you) or a newspaper that will underwrite the cost of the rental for your film(s). In exchange, they act as your exclusive or perhaps shared sponsor for the event, and agree to promote the heck out of it on air/in print to benefit a worthy local cause which you have interest in helping (the charity, of course, must endorse what you’re planning to do…). The theater owner will want to schedule the special event at a time when the building would otherwise have been empty or poorly attended anyway (meaning either a day-time show, or at best, a weeknight). The attendees, presumably the many loyal listeners or readers of your sponsor, get to see the show in exchange for a modest donation (a dollar or two, or canned food drive item, etc depending on your charity). The cinema owner gets the love and adoration of a grateful community, the promotional attention to his business, and of course, the concession sales to help recoup his very real operating costs. The radio or newspaper partner gets a higher-profile value-added event to tout to their clientele, the charity gets the donations, and you get to see your classic film on the big screen, all for a very good cause that hopefully you personally believe in.

kencmcintyre on April 4, 2008 at 11:21 pm

The last free film I saw was “Casablanca”. The Gordon Biersch restaurant in Pasadena used to show classics on a brick wall in the summertime. I guess the expectation was that you would eat at their restaurant after the movie.

Paul Fortini
Paul Fortini on April 6, 2008 at 2:18 pm

Before Loews and AMC merged, the 600 North Michigan Theatre in Chicago used to have a free movie every Thursday night at 8:00pm. Of course, you’re talking about a major chain able to afford to do that every week.

jimpiscitelli on April 6, 2008 at 7:09 pm

In some cases when new movie theatres open they have a charity event (in which can be donating a canned food item or admission being a dollar) they show older movies to get people to check out the new theatre. I went to such event the day before the Kerasotes Showplace 12 at Golf Mill opened.

Roloff on April 7, 2008 at 3:19 pm

I like your idea of running a free cinema. It’s not a new idea, I remember discussing this on a board about 10 years ago. Someone actually ran a 6-plex or so (I think 2nd run) who dedicated an auditorium for just screening trailers in an hour-loop for free, with a customary concession purchase, and people loved it.
As for a repertory house, I think the costs are a lot higher than renting regular films, so you need to recoup a lot more from the concession stand. Perhaps you could do it in a sort of club-form, with a membership and exclusive delecacy concessions. This seems to work fairly well in the UK in some spots (the screenings are not free though). Also note that a lot of films that are restored these days have no releaseprints struck, just D5 tapes or Harddisks made.
THere’s distributor’s specialised in classics, like Criterion and.. what is that other one Jan… something.

Simon Overton
Simon Overton on April 12, 2008 at 10:11 am

How about screen movies for free by using store bought DVD’s?

Roloff on April 12, 2008 at 12:42 pm

As you may have noticed in FBI warnings and such, you can’t show media that were released for home entertainment to large groups. You would still have to pay for rights to show these to groups, so the films will still cost you a fair amount of money for a lesser quality.
There’s an article in the current issue of wired about enterprises that offer things for free, and in it they’re illustrating the thought of free movies at theatres as well. Large premium special film screenings would be quite expensive, regular films free. As serverspace is becoming cheaper and cheaper, as well as bandwith, transportation and storage of digital films may become free, and so film screenings could be, according to the article (it’s a thought really, nothing more). Of course the projectors still cost quite a bit, and so does everything mentioned above, so I don’t see this happening too soon.
Then there was the EasyGroup’s EasyCinema idea: “The cinema was sold to the easyGroup, renaming the cinema as This was regarded as the world’s first budget cinema, with ticket prices starting from as little as 20p. In a bold move, it decided to get rid of the foyer’s built popcorn, drinks and pic ‘n’ mix stands, replacing them with a vast empty space and also allowing visitors to bring their own food. It also showed films that had just recently been taken out of the cinema instead of recent ones and it didn’t rely on fixed showtimes.
Later ventures within the area included an easyInternetCafe and an easyPizza pick up point. The cinema and business model was unsuccessful and in early 2006, the company was evicted from its site.” (from Wikipedia). Just like the airline seats, tickets were cheapest if you booked way ahead.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on April 15, 2008 at 8:45 pm

Easycinema was the most profoundly stupid cinema concept I have ever seen in the last fifty years.

Bad theatre, crap seating, no popcorn, no service. Cheap prices for new movies.

Easycinema operated at a loss for a whole year!

No one showed up.

Fucking Idiots!!!!

byrdone on May 20, 2008 at 8:13 pm

Take some of the money you plan to spend to do this and buy a gun and one bullet, then put the rest in cash into a bucket and set it on fire, while it is burning shoot yourself in the foot, it will be a lot less painful than running an empty theatre till the money runs out and take less time too. You’ll be competing, with several cable channels, DVD rental stores, Netflix, and others.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on May 18, 2010 at 10:52 am

Remember Ted Turner bought a six plex in Atlanta and on one screen “GONE WITH THE WIND” ran everyday and of course you had to pay to see it.It just can’t be done when one can buy a classic for almost under ten dollars and not have to drive. That is what killed the late shows i am sure ,even though i got out of business way before VHS hit no sense in booking a good late show when people probably own it.

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