BLOG: The rise of outdoor cinema in Saffron Walden

Hana Mallett, Marketing Manager

As a child I remember watching the drive-thru scene in Grease, wishing that we had had an outdoor cinema in Saffron Walden – the thought of watching a film under the stars with my friends, the smell of freshly mown grass, the rustle of trees and popcorn, it all made for a heady dream. Little did I know that one day, I might help to make that dream a reality!

In 2016 Saffron Screen turned 10 and I was tasked with organizing our birthday celebrations. Headlining the festivities would be a huge outdoor film screening of Grease on Saffron Walden Common. It was an opportunity to bring the whole community together for a shared viewing experience and party at the heart of the district.

We wanted to say thank you to the community for supporting the cinema over the past decade so decided to make it a free event. We raised over £11,000 in grants, donations and sponsorship from local businesses which helped towards the cost of a huge inflatable screen, tech team, security, marketing and, as most importantly – toilets (you can never have too many)!

Uttlesford District Council, St John’s Ambulance, Essex Police and Fire Brigade were all involved from the outset and we worked with a brilliant team to ensure the event was safe and fun for everyone.

It was pretty nerve wracking at times – what if some one was taken ill, what if the film didn’t play, what if it RAINED!!?? We tried our best to mitigate against any risks and plan for the worst-case scenario. Something that will really resonate with many event organisers at the moment.

And guess what? It DID rain on the day!! But the film worked and a whopping 4000 people came along to watch and enjoy the film with their friends and family!

It took months of hard work, sleepless nights and the good will of so many brilliant Saffron Screen supporters but we were thrilled to see so many people arrive; many in fancy dress, armed with picnics, umbrellas and big smiles. The rain actually made the night even more electric and the air fizzed with excitement and anticipation. We wanted to do it all again the next day!

We have since worked with Saffron Walden Round Table to host a free tented screening of E.T, Saffron Walden Town Council for multiple free Cinema in the Square screenings and most recently, we collaborated with Saffron Walden Museum for an extra special screening of The Princess Bride in the grounds of Saffron Walden’s Medieval Castle.

It’s our 15th anniversary next year and we’re looking forward to being open again and planning more outdoor screenings. That will definitely be something worth celebrating.

With the popularity of Saffron Screen’s outdoor screenings, it made me wonder what it is about outdoor cinema that we love so much?

It’s free! Or very low cost which makes it accessible. Both of our screenings on the Common have been free thanks to grants, sponsorships and donations (Saffron Screen is a registered charity) and tickets for last year’s screening in the ground of Saffron Walden Museum and Castle were just £5.

Street-food! The rise of street food has been a godsend for outdoor event organisers wanting to offer a varied menu and increase their income a little at the same time. Be it Bao Buns from Guerilla Kitchen, sweet treats from Planet of the Crepes or burgers from Steak and Honour, it all helps to attract a more varied audience and spread the word (they are very active on social media). N.B. Saffron Screen staff are always first in line for anything to do with food!

The Big Outdoors – OK, you won’t always be lucky enough to catch a film on a warm night under a big sky filled with stars but there’s something incredibly liberating about watching a film outside, whatever the weather. Our outdoor audiences often make an afternoon of it, arriving early with their friends to chat, drink, eat and soak up atmosphere and location (it feels very European!).

Community – Everyone is welcome; families, couples, dogs! It’s fun, it’s romantic, it experiential and it’s an opportunity to engage with others and connect with your local community.

The Future – No one knows what the future holds for cinema post COVID-19 but I hope outdoor (and indoor) cinema will continue to thrive as we ease out of lockdown and social distancing.  Do keep in touch to help us reopen when the time is right.

Follow us on social media @saffronscreen.

Thank you for your support and we look forward to seeing you soon.