In South Wales, United Kingdom, sits one of the most unusual yet endearing cinemas you’ve ever seen.
The tiny, decades-old caravan, just 16 feet long by 7 feet high, seats about eight to 12 people. Originally it was used to house chickens, then later to store car tires. Yet today, the refurbished interior’s red and yellow striped walls, tasseled curtains, and cloud-painted ceiling exude the vintage style of film palaces of old.
Sol Cinema attempts to re-create the pizzazz of early to mid-20th-century movie theaters — without the pesky real estate prices. The experience comes with usherettes dressed like drum majors from The Music Man, a popcorn booth, and a red carpet that rolls up to the entrance. Bringing it into the 21st century: The whole operation is powered by solar energy.
Sol Cinema is the brainchild of Paul O’Connor, an independent documentary filmmaker who runs the traveling cinema on the side.
“It was 2010 and we were trying to work out how to show short films,” O’Connor recalls of the project’s origins. “Lots of people were starting to look at YouTube videos, but we thought that’s not much of an experience. So we thought, ‘Right, let’s make a cinema.’”
And not just any cinema, but one that hearkens back to the golden age of moviegoing: take the usherettes, who twirl batons and shout at passersby to persuade them to come on in for a few minutes.
“When you go to a cinema now, you sit in a plastic box, really. It’s lacking a lot, when you compare it to a time like the 1940s, when there were film palaces,” O’Connor says. “There was an effort. You had managers at the doors. You had usherettes. It was a performance they were doing, in a way, because it made you feel like [you were having] this proper night out.”
The vehicle is most frequently booked for large events, from art festivals to corporate events to street parties. They’ve even booked a spot for several years at Glastonbury, the legendary annual five-day music festival in England headlined by Paul McCartney in 2022 and Elton John in 2023.
“But we’ve also performed at zoos, farms, factories, fields, city high streets,” O’Connor adds. “You name it, we’ve been everywhere.”
They’ve screened around 300 titles through the years, exclusively independent short films, usually five minutes or less. In particular, they focus on titles with strong environmental, social, or political themes. That gels with O’Connor’s day job as a documentary filmmaker who runs an “alternative news” video production company called Undercurrents.
Yet occasionally, Sol Cinema will screen a short for its entertainment value alone. “These guys called Movie Maniacs made this short film called Chavatar, which was a spoof of Avatar. I don’t know if you’re familiar in America, but ‘chavs’ over here are like your hillbillies.” It was “very clever, very well done,” O’Connor says.
(Asked whether it made as much money as the actual Avatar, O’Connor quips, “I don’t know, we’ve never seen the box office receipts.”)
In the dozen years since the Sol Cinema project started, an estimated 110,000 to 120,000 people have experienced it for themselves. Keep in mind, that cumulative total was achieved in individual showings of a dozen attendees or fewer at a time.
“The best part is the reactions of audiences from outside, when they see people coming out. They can’t believe so many fit in there. It’s like the Tardis,” O’Connor says, referencing the time machine / police booth from “Doctor Who.” He laughs. “People go around the back trying to find out if it’s an optical illusion.”
Considering the theater’s miniscule size, its technical specs are relatively impressive. In addition to surround sound, the cinema uses an LED projector housed in 1920s-style “lighting housing” so patrons don’t see the projector itself, but just see the light coming out of it. The actual projected image is about 8 feet long by 5 feet high.
Sol Cinema is based in the U.K. and Ireland but has traveled all over Europe, from Wales to Croatia. “If the wheels can go, we’ll take it,” O’Connor says, noting that they haven’t yet crossed the pond. “It’s about time we conquered America.”