Silent Cinema: Broadcasting Your Movie to a Headphone-Wearing Audience

Outdoor movie screenings and drive-in cinemas often use wireless headphones to broadcast that all-important audio to their open-air audience. By Paul Cherry, Saturday, 25th July 2020
Outdoor cinemas are can be held at large venues and even at home in your garden (weather permitting!).

Outdoor cinemas are can be held at large venues and even at home in your garden (weather permitting!).

You can immerse your audience in the soundtrack of your movie by using an easy-to-setup, wireless headphone system. Cable-free headphones that are light and comfortable to wear for lengthy screenings are specially designed for the job and they are often used at outdoor movies, by silent screening theatres and at drive-in cinemas to deliver that all-important audio.

This style of audio setup is primarily used in the summer months and early autumn (here in the UK) and it is easy-to-use, often licence-free broadcasting system which has been specially designed to deliver one or multiple soundtracks to an audience. Many systems like this operate in clear and dry weather conditions and broadcasting to film fans within a 500 metre radius. And of course, being an alternative to a public-address or loudspeaker system, movie headphones can help navigate local authority noise restrictions.

Outdoor Cinema and Headphones

Screening headphones can be hired from a variety of suppliers, including ourselves at Place Over Ears.

We prefer event headphones that are light-to-wear and which are powered by 2 x AAA batteries so that they can offer up to 20 hours of playback. Importantly, these silent cinema earphones can receive multiple-channels of audio, which means you can simultaneously broadcast up to three soundtracks to your movie-goers at once, whether it’s the film soundtrack, a directors commentary or a language translation.

An audience enjoying an outdoor movie event

Outdoor cinema screenings are suited to dry and warm summer evenings.

For listening comfort audience headphones should have long battery life, be light-to-wear and feature volume and channel controls.Here in the UK, broadcast systems for silent cinema headphones tend to arrive in two flavours;

  1. Open, public-frequency systems that can broadcast on 3 channels (863 – 865 MHz) – no broadcast licence is required, often ideal for small and medium-sized audiences
  2. Programme-making and special events (PMSE) frequencies (470 – 790 MHz) – non-public-use, paid-for frequencies designed for large film screenings

Depending on the type of system that you are seeking will dictate the headphone supplier who can help you. Many rental stockists offer the public, licence free headphone systems and some can also cater for licenced PMSE systems.

Audience Headphones at Silent Cinema Events

Headphones should arrive at your silent cinema event pre-tuned to all the channels they can receive. When your audience arrives, ensure that the headphones are fitted with their batteries (or are fully recharged) and hand them out at your reception / under-the-stars foyer with some basic instructions. Before or during the screening, your audience can select the correct channel and adjust the volume to their liking.

For audience comfort, silent cinema headphones should be light-to-wear and feature on-board volume and channel controls

For audience comfort cinema headphones should be light-to-wear and feature on-board volume and channel controls

When bringing drive-in cinema or outdoor movie fans and headphones together, consider;

  • A novel experience – for many, a silent screening may be a new experience. At your outdoor movie event, simple instructions on printed tickets, around the venue and in the receiving area will go a long way
  • Not for home Hi-Fi – a very small percentage of film-fans could think that their headphones would make a great addition to their home hi-fi collection (which without a transmitter, they won’t). How will you safely collect your hired headphones once the show is over? This can be particularly tricky to manage at outdoor movie events if no perimeter, entry and exit points are being actively monitored. Can you incorporate a return deposit for the headphones in the price of admission?
  • Not for small children – outdoor cinema headphones are designed with adults and older children in mind. As earphone misuse can cause hearing loss, you shouldn’t plan headphone screenings for very young children
  • Many nights, many batteries – while popular models offer 20 hours of audio reception, back-to-back drive-in cinema events should plan ahead for battery use over a number of days to prevent supply issues
  • Promote, promote, promote – you can use the novelty angle of the ‘outdoor movie with headphones’ audio in publicity and advertising to ensure a packed open-air audience
  • Shine brightly (but not too much) – audience headphones can be classified as either ‘event’ or ‘silent disco’ headphones. Both styles will work with your transmitter, but silent disco headphones often feature big LED illuminations designed for the dancefloor. In the darkness of an drive-in cinema or the expanse of the great outdoors, bombastic LEDs could distract some movie fans. Our advice is to opt for the more discrete event headphones if you can.

With you audience now headphone-ready, your UHF transmitters become the beating heart of your audio delivery.

If you are broadcasting just one film soundtrack, one transmitter will do the job and this can broadcast to an infinite number of audience headphones tuned to receive it.

Transmitters

Popular outdoor headphone transmitters broadcast using UHF, FM signals.

These FM transmitters are often favoured by outdoor movie teams as they are easy to setup, they offer a crisp audio and they are simple to manage mid-performance. Transmitters can be hired that run on mains power – these tend to be higher-powered units and can broadcast up to 500 metres away in optimal conditions.

Silent disco headphone transmitter

To broadcast your outdoor movie soundtrack you will need a headphone transmitter like this one.

Public-rented headphone transmitters often output their respective channels on 863, 864, and 865 MHz here in the UK and across the EU. These channels are free for public-use and do not require a license. However, such ease does come with a small compromise. There are no public restrictions on broadcasting in that 863 to 865 MHz frequency range, so it’s not a secure method of broadcast and there is a very slim possibility of channel crossover (interference) in urban areas or at busy open-air events.

However, interference is rare and as an added precaution, prior to a silent cinema event, production teams can use a RF spectrum analyser such as RF Explorer to evaluate the signal usage in their locale.

If you rent your transmitters from a reputable AV hire company (like us) they will arrive with a variety of connectors such as RCA phono or 3.5mm headphone adaptors so that you can connect them to your professional mixing desk or movie playback devices.

Outdoor Cinema, Bad Weather

Sadly, rain will stop headphone play at the cinema. There is a good reason why silent movie events tends to run in the summer.

Keep your outdoor audience and crew safe; event headphones shouldn't run in the rain (unless your headphone supplier says otherwise).

Keep your outdoor audience and crew safe; event headphones shouldn’t run in the rain (unless your headphone supplier says otherwise).

In the main, the wireless event headphones are not splash or water proof, so headphones can’t operate in damp conditions – we would also urge you to consider this even if you are running a drive-in cinema, as car interiors can get humid during downpours. Moisture poses a risk to your audience’s safety and headphone equipment you’ve hired (which you’re likely to be on the hook for to replace if it returns water-damaged).

If you are planning an open-air movie screening it’s sensible check the future weather forecasts and consider having a back-up loudspeaker setup in case of damp conditions. It is particular dangerous to expose mains-powered headphone transmitters to conditions that are not dry and covered. Please don’t ever be tempted to try this.

If you hired from a reputable headphone hire company, and you kept their kit dry and safe, in the event of bad weather, you maybe able to renegotiate a repeat hire or price-reduction, goodwill gesture from them. Again, this is a maybe but it is worthy of a conversation.

Image credit: this post features a rather lovely image by Rhendi Rukmana on Unsplash.


A profile photo of Paul Cherry

About Paul Cherry

Paul is the founder of Place Over Ears and came up with the idea of hiring headphones door-to-door after a train ride to London with his mum in 2007. Launched in 2015 with just 6 pairs of headphones, Place Over Ears' hire service now supplies audio kit to UK and international customers.