One Night Only – Film nights

Drinks: Drinks
Other: Business

Want to attract punters to your pub on a quiet Tuesday night? Then film nights could be the answer. James Wilmore looks at the benefits of serving up the silver screen

Coughlin’s diet: cocktails and dreams.’ How often will this line from classic 1988 feel-good movie Cocktail have reverberated around living rooms? Well, these days, increasing numbers of pubs and bars have discovered that ‘film plus drinks’ is a successful cocktail of its own.

Hit by the recession and the simple fact of fewer folk being tempted away from their sofa, some venues are turning their function room, or even the whole bar, into makeshift cinemas. And, for the pubs that get it right, the punters are flocking in.

On the face of it, it makes a whole lot of sense. Cinema attendance in the UK has remained healthy in the face of the recession, and pubs have been able to capitalise on this with relative ease. With equipment becoming increasingly affordable, old movies more easily available and customers revelling in the relaxed atmosphere of a bar, it has added up to a success story.

Furthermore, this boom is set to continue as the Government is currently proposing to deregulate film screenings in pubs and bars, in line with a wider red tape-slashing exercise around licensed entertainment.


But how are venues already running film nights managing to make a go of it? And what can operators considering a film night learn from them?

The Counting House, in Eastbourne, East Sussex, has been running a successful movie night every Monday since late last year. ‘We actually started running it on a Wednesday as we thought it would be a good way to get people in mid-week,’ explains general manager Emma Loch. ‘But we’ve now changed to a Monday, so it’s something for people to look forward to after the weekend.’

‘Film nights are a really good way to bring the community together, especially in villages’ Rachelle Peterson

The pub also had a re-think initially on the type of films it was going to show. ‘We were considering showing up-to-date films at first, but then decided it would probably be better to screen some classic films, that people might not have in their collection anymore,’ says Loch.


The Wilson Arms, Cumbria

Tuesday night is film night at The Wilson Arms, Torver, in the Lake District. Locals hunker down for a regular fix of movie action, while the original Pearl & Dean theme tune blasts out of the PA system.

‘We thought that screening a film was something different to do on cold winter nights,’ explains Kathy Edmondson, who runs the film night. At the end of each film, audiences are asked to give their vote on a slip of a paper which offers a choice of three movies to be shown the following week. Recent showings have included box office hits Bridesmaids, Bad Boys II and Casino Royale.

Before the film starts, customers can also order fresh popcorn for the interval. Two regular screens are used to show the films, which are played through the pub’s karaoke machine. ‘It’s just great having a funny film on and getting everyone laughing together,’ says Edmondson.

Cocktail, Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show are just a few of the golden oldies that have been lapped up by punters. These kinds of movies have also given Loch the idea of introducing fancy dress nights to go with each film’s theme.

‘There’s a good following among our locals for fancy dress, so it’s definitely something we’re thinking about,’ she says. The pub also makes use of Facebook to allow customers to vote for the films they most want to see.

For example, in the week of Valentine’s Day, Romeo + Juliet was the choice. As part of the build-up, a message on the pub’s Facebook page read: ‘For all the lovers out there, tonight’s film is Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio. Girls, if you haven’t got a fella, here’s your chance to catch a glimpse of a handsome chap. Guys, if you’ve haven’t organised anything yet we still have a couple of tables free for our Valentine’s dinner tomorrow night.’ Overall, a neat piece of marketing.

There’s no fee to watch the film, but to begin with the pub charged for popcorn. Now this has changed as well. ‘We were selling popcorn, but it wasn’t shifting,’ says Loch. ‘So we decided to start making it ourselves and giving it away for free. People really appreciate it and it’s nice to be able to give something back to loyal customers.’


It’s not all about classic movies, however. Some pubs get hold of the latest releases, often before they are released on DVD. One company that allows licensees to do this is Filmbank Distributors. It represents many major Hollywood and independent film studios, licensing films to ‘out of home’ venues, such as pubs.

Filmbank Distributors says it can source a new film around 10 to 12 weeks after it’s been in the cinema and before it’s on DVD. Rachelle Peterson, the company’s director of commercial sales, explains that these types of new release films are often a particularly big attraction for rural village pubs, where the nearest cinema can be 15 miles away.
‘We’ve seen enormous growth in the pub and bar market in the last few years, and it can really create a new revenue stream for licensees,’ she says.

Peterson’s advice is not to charge for screenings, as it is bound to bring new customers into the pub. She adds: ‘It’s a really good way to bring the community together, especially in villages. If you have a function room on a Monday night that’s not doing anything, it really makes sense.’

Her other piece of advice for licensees is to begin small and build, as a night becomes more popular. While, for more ambitious licensees, Peterson suggests screening a film in a pub car park – if a spare white wall is available – creating an instant drive-in cinema. As Peterson quite rightly says: ‘How much fun is that?’


Know your audience

Establish what kind of movies your locals will want to watch, be it classic films, latest releases or a mix of both. Speak to them, or ask them to vote.

Work out your offer

Do the maths. Will it be worth charging for screenings, if you’re legally allowed to? How much will your initial outlay be? Showing films for free is a great way of giving something back to your customers and could encourage new trade.

Food and drink

Free popcorn or ice cream is a great way of rewarding customer loyalty and can really help to foster that cinema-like atmosphere.


Are your customers the type that like a bit of fancy dress? Think about films that would inspire people to dress up. 

Grease could mean 1950s fashions, or a Bond film could inspire the men to dress in tuxedos and the women as famous Bond girls.

Get the right licences

An annual Public Video Screening Licence (PVSL) allows holders to screen unlimited films from Filmbank’s participating studios to a non-paying audience. The annual fee is dependent on the average weekly footfall of the pub – a business that sees 250 to 749 weekly customers would pay £145. With this type of licence, pubs and bars are not allowed to advertise externally.

An alternative option is a Single Title Screening Licence (STSL). Issued on a film-by-film basis, it allows licence holders to screen films – many of which are available 10 to 12 weeks after cinema release – either free of charge or to a paying audience. Prices for the STSL start from £83 for indoor screenings and are dependent on audience size, number of screenings, and whether you charge for tickets or not. A PRS licence is also required.


The Thatchers Arms in Mount Bures, Essex, uses Filmbank and has made a real success of its film night. In general, latest releases are screened once a fortnight. However, if a movie
is particularly popular, licensee Mitchel Adams will show the same film the following week. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was one recent example. Adams got a significant helping hand with the launch of his film night after winning £10,000 through a Pilsner Urquell competition, allowing him to purchase a 78’’ screen and HD projector. ‘We thought if we were going to do it, we wanted to do it properly, so it fits in with the quality of the rest of our offering,’ he says.

Films are screened on a Thursday, in a 45-capacity function room, and film watchers can choose from a simple finger food menu. The website sternly notes: ‘We do not offer noisy popcorn or rustling crisp packets during performances.’ Music to the ears, no doubt, to anyone who has had a film ruined by such unwanted sound effects in the past.

Another nice touch is an interval during each film when punters can buy locally-made Alder Tree Ice Cream. So why Thursdays? Adams explains: ‘We didn’t want to compete with Orange Wednesdays, and the function room is already used on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. We are closed on Mondays.’

The website sternly notes: ‘We do not offer noisy popcorn or rustling crisp packets during performances’

He’s also noticed that the Thatcher Arms’ regulars seem to enjoy more biographical and documentary-style films. ‘The King’s Speech, Senna… these movies work for our slightly older demographic,’ says Adams. ‘We don’t tend to get younger people coming to watch the films.’

Although Adams invested heavily in the best screening equipment, Filmbank’s Peterson argues that licensees should not be put off by initial cost. Many pubs and bars will already have at least some of the necessary hardware. ‘These days you can pick up a DVD player for £20 and if you already have TV screens, then you’re ready to go,’ she says. ‘Publicans have to be creative these days.’

So, if you can take some time to get the ingredients right, a film night can be the perfect way to leave your customers shaken, not stirred. Or, as Doug Coughlin might say: ‘Anything else is always something better.’

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