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