Sky’s the limit

How The Rooftop Film Club is us­ing selfie cul­ture to ex­pand al fresco cin­ema across the world

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page - MATTHEW CAINES Tele­graph Small Busi­ness Con­nect is a spe­cial­ist com­mu­nity ded­i­cated to help­ing small busi­ness own­ers and di­rec­tors – find out more at tgr.ph/sme­con­nect

Gerry Cot­tle Jr wants to take cin­ema to new heights – and quite lit­er­ally, with his al fresco film com­pany spe­cial­is­ing in screen­ing flicks at high al­ti­tude. From East Lon­don pub roofs to ho­tel ter­races in Times Square, his busi­ness, Rooftop Film Club, is about of­fer­ing an al­ter­na­tive to the stale mul­ti­plex ex­pe­ri­ence.

The founder even has a name for it: so­cial cin­ema. “Peo­ple come to us for a whole night out,” he ex­plains, de­scrib­ing how groups of mates, or cou­ples on dates, will turn up to screen­ings early, chat over cock­tails and street food, be­fore settling down with some pros­ecco and pop­corn to watch Star Wars be­neath the stars.

What re­ally sets the busi­ness apart, says Cot­tle, is the lofty views (its tallest rooftop is 100ft high). “We’re made for the In­sta­gram gen­er­a­tion – peo­ple who want to doc­u­ment their life and share their ex­pe­ri­ences with friends,” he says.

Peo­ple would not take a pic­ture in a dark cin­ema, he adds, but at a Rooftop Film Club event, au­di­ences can snap a group selfie in front of the big screen, with a set­ting sun be­hind them.

Cot­tle is used to heights; grow­ing up, he worked as a trapeze artist with his fa­ther’s cir­cus be­fore mov­ing to Lon­don to work in mar­ket­ing. “I loved the part of the job where I was or­gan­is­ing events, but just couldn’t see my­self do­ing it for 10 years,” he says. With a pas­sion for film, and hav­ing seen a hand­ful of out­door cin­ema com­pa­nies host suc­cess­ful screen­ings in parks, he turned his mind to other un­used spa­ces. He dis­cov­ered an old rooftop in Shored­itch, at the Queen of Hox­ton bar, think­ing that it could work as a des­ti­na­tion for screen­ing cult, classic and new releases.

He met with the own­ers, who were keen on the con­cept. At the time, Cot­tle was still hold­ing down a full-time job in mar­ket­ing. “Ev­ery lunchtime, I would make my ex­cuses, head off to make calls to banks [about fund­ing], or­der deck chairs and in­quire about film rights,” says Cot­tle, who would toil through 11-hour days, be­fore head­ing home to work on his film club con­cept. “Ex­hausted, I would re­turn home, get to work, and the next minute it would be 2am.” Yet he was so en­er­gised by his ven­ture that he found a sec­ond wind each night. “It com­pletely con­sumed me from day one,” he says.

The com­pany’s launch event was a rooftop screen­ing of Stand By Me at the Queen of Hox­ton in June 2011, but cri­sis nearly struck two weeks be­fore doors opened. “We didn’t want to up­set the neigh­bours, so had to avoid us­ing am­pli­fied sound,” ex­plains Cot­tle. “I re­mem­ber think­ing: God, what are we go­ing to do?”

With no other choice, he or­dered a batch of wire­less head­phones. “It worked so well,” he says. “Peo­ple loved the con­cept – that it was dif­fer­ent to a nor­mal cin­ema, but they could also chat to friends with­out dis­turb­ing oth­ers, and rustling pack­ets didn’t be­come a dis­trac­tion.”

The head­phones have be­come a call­ing card of the Rooftop Film Club, which em­ploys 65 peo­ple, de­spite many of its venues now able to host am­pli­fied sound. “It was a hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion that turned into one of the best things that hap­pened to us,” says Cot­tle. There were other mo­ments that he looks back on as key to the suc­cess of the busi­ness. One was invit­ing his old school friend and ex-City banker, Nick Frow, to be­come his busi­ness part­ner. The other was adding a sec­ond venue (it now has four in Lon­don) in 2012: the Kens­ing­ton Roof Gar­dens, 6,000 sq m (64,500 sq ft) of Spanish, wood­land and Tu­dor-themed grounds, seven floors up.

“I walked into its re­cep­tion one day, in­tro­duced my­self, and sold them the con­cept,” says Cot­tle. Adding such a top-tier venue to the ros­ter gave the busi­ness a lot of le­git­i­macy early on, he says, and urges small busi­ness own­ers to live by the “don’t ask, don’t get” adage as much as they can. A key chal­lenge that the com­pany faces is the Great Bri­tish weather. “It’s our great­est foe and when we started, I would can­cel at the first drop of rain,” says Cot­tle, who found it tricky to in­vite back those who missed screen­ings dur­ing a sold-out first sea­son. “We sent an email out to say that from then on, we were go­ing to screen rain or shine.”

When it’s par­tic­u­larly heavy rain, the team will still resched­ule, but a bit of driz­zle doesn’t put pun­ters off.

“Peo­ple love a rainy fes­ti­val,” he jokes, and his team tries to keep peo­ple as warm and dry as pos­si­ble by giv­ing out free pon­chos and blan­kets.

It’s the same for US film­go­ers, where Rooftop Film Club hosts screen­ings in New York and Los An­ge­les. It means a reg­is­tered turnover of £3.2m last year (in­clud­ing turnover for sis­ter com­pany, The So­cial Fun & Games Club, which hosts rooftop sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties).

The team have been par­tic­u­larly care­ful about film pro­gram­ming when ex­pand­ing into new ter­ri­to­ries. “Most peo­ple will like the same films – Top

Gun and Back to the Fu­ture,” he says. “It’s about nos­tal­gia and es­capism, but we never go into a new re­gion with any ego; you have to find out how to be cul­tur­ally rel­e­vant to the peo­ple who use the venue and live lo­cally.”

A screen­ing of Pulp Fic­tion on the roof of the Bussey Build­ing in Peck­ham. The com­pany now has four Lon­don sites in op­er­a­tion

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