What can you say about someone who left the circus to pursue his passion for sharing an incredible experience of the immersive cinematic wonder on rooftops? Some would define this British entrepreneur with words like a free spirit, entertaining, and incredibly insightful. What began in 2011 in London’s Shoreditch has now expanded with a global footprint.
Today, you’ll find several Rooftop Cinema Club venues in London, including the prestigious Kensington Roof Gardens, a unique retreat by Richard Branson. In the U.S., there are nine locations and growing. These unique entertainment concepts can be found in Chicago, Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and San Diego. What can you expect? A wireless headset, comfy deckchairs and cozy blankets, innovative street food, and craft cocktails, beers, and wine under the brilliant starry sky. And, of course, popcorn.
Recently Mathew Focht, CEO of EMERGING, had the pleasure of speaking with Gerry Cottle about this incredible venture, including how it started and where it’s headed. Let’s see what he had to say.
Rooftop Cinema Club as an Experience
Mathew Focht: Gerry, it’s so great to have an opportunity to hear a little bit of your story. So, how would you explain and describe Rooftop Cinema Club today?
Gerry Cottle: Rooftop Cinema Club is an open-air film experience, screening classic cult and recent film releases. I think film lovers see it as a different experience from traditional cinema. It’s got this immaculate service, and there are no machines. It’s very, very personable, with delicious food and awesome cocktails.
It’s a real social experience. In fact, we call it social cinema and a film experience. Instead of turning up last minute and watching a movie, you get there early. You play games, socialize, and talk about your favorite movies. You have a really enjoyable evening, and then you sit down and watch your favorite movie on the big screen. It’s sunset, and then the stars begin to sparkle. It really is quite magical.
Mathew Focht: Beautiful. Obviously, you already have a great footprint in the U.S. with some wonderful cities. Where do you see Rooftop Cinema going in the next two to three years?
Gerry Cottle: So, firstly, Rooftop’s mission is to change the way people experience open-air cinema. Surprisingly, it’s been around for over 100 years, since the early 1900s. Sun Picture Theater in Broome, Western Australia, is the oldest open-air cinema in operation.
But for us, it’s about making sure that people come to an open-air cinema and have experiences as good as any traditional cinema, from the quality of the projection to the sound and the overall ambiance and atmosphere we create within a cinema. So, for us, it’s always about how we can do things better. That’s number one. How can we give the best customer experience? While we’re a fun company, we take entertaining people seriously. There’s no product, and they don’t walk away with anything physical. They do, however, walk away with a memory.
We’ve got to make sure that we give them a great memory. They could be on their first date night or a couple that’s just had a baby and got a babysitter so they could go to Rooftop Cinemas. So we need to make sure it’s a great customer experience and film experience.
Regarding the company’s actual trajectory, we have a nice foundation here in the U.S. and plan to keep growing at a steady rate. We’re working with our partners and expect maybe 15 to 20 more venues within a few years. So, there’s lots of exciting growth on the venue front and then lots of exciting growth regarding how we produce our events and create the experience for the consumer.
The Healing Power of Film
Mathew Focht: Well said. So, why are you in this business? What inspires you, and what led you to this great concept?
Gerry Cottle: Well, Mathew, thank you for asking the ‘why.’ That’s great to hear because we tend to talk about our product, our shows, and events. But it’s important to talk about the why because we’ve got to have a purpose. Also, if we have a bigger purpose, that bleeds over into our staff and customers.
At Rooftop, everyone really believes in the healing power of film. Festivals are a part of it, but the film is really the ultimate escapism. You’ve got your boss, who could be annoying you, or maybe you just need to let your hair down at the end of the day. Film allows you to do that. You can switch it off, which is especially helpful in this post-COVID world. Of course, we want to keep our eyes on the future and where we’re heading, but now more than ever, people really need escapism.
So, our job is to give the ultimate escapism. That’s why we do what we do, and we think film has this magic. It really transports people to somewhere, and we believe it’s a necessity. Watching a film is good for mental health, and it’s good for people’s happiness, especially enjoying it surrounded by the outdoors.
The Magic of Outdoor Cinema on a Roof
Mathew Focht: That’s wonderful to hear. I think films definitely have healing power. So, as you know, the film industry has been under a lot of pressure—traditional movie theaters in particular. But what’s the difference? What do you tell a landlord or developer who’s wondering if Rooftop Cinema makes sense for their project or for their roof that’s in an urban environment? They’re hearing all this negative press and how it’s impacting the movie industry, including the downsizing of all these boxes. What do you say to that?
Gerry Cottle: That’s a good question, and we’ve got to talk about it, right? You look at cinema as a medium, something that people have enjoyed for a long time. It’s survived two world wars and the onset of VHS. It’s survived television. Another example is the streaming networks, which we love.
We think they’re fantastic and offer great, great content. It shouldn’t be one for the other. We’ve all got a space here. Sometimes you want to sit at home, and you want to watch something. And sometimes you want that magical in-person experience, where you smell the popcorn and hear the laughter, and that only comes when you get off your sofa.
While cinema is going through some tough times, I think it will be fine. I think what Rooftop really does is offer people a new way to watch movies. I think it’s more than a night out. I think people enjoy that, but also that it’s a celebration of movies. We show classics, some that you may have seen five or ten times, and maybe have them on DVD, hidden away in a cupboard somewhere. Then you go and see them and relive them on the big screen, and that’s what really makes the magic happen. That’s what people really buy into.
Of course, we also do new releases, but to be honest, the thing that’s really worked for us is the nostalgic stuff. It allows people to bring back those memories. And that’s what landlords also see—it’s a unique, new kind of cinema. In fact, we sell out way before we open.
As an example, you’ve got a kitchen in your home where you cook your meals. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to go out to a nice restaurant. It’s the same with cinema. You’ve got a TV at home, but nothing beats going out to the cinema, especially now in this age. Well, we’ve created a social experience around it, making it a whole evening of fun.
The Urban Setting
Mathew Focht: So, in terms of real estate, what is your preference? A traditional movie theater box looks at zones and the competition and density. As an unconventional Rooftop Cinema, what’s the magic spot or the bullseye for you in a location?
Gerry Cottle: Here’s the magic and why I think Rooftop Cinema works. A lot of open-air cinemas go into spaces outside of town, like big fields. For Rooftop Cinemas, firstly, the view is important, right? We are built for the new Instagram generation. You can see it in our followers, who far exceed any other cinema in the country. So, the views in big built-up areas really work for us.
The whole reason why I started Rooftop is because I lived in London, and I wanted to watch outdoor cinema, but I had to go out of my way to go and see it. Part of the magic with Rooftop is that it’s in built-up, urban areas. So at some of our venues, you’ll be sitting there, and you’ll see people going about their day or the cleaners doing their business in the offices. That’s what makes the magic is the surrounding area. And the way we can do that is because it’s more boutique. We’re talking about rooftops between 10,000-15,000 square feet. It’s a real boutique open-air cinema experience. That’s what really, really works for us.
Another big plus for Rooftop is that we use headphones for sound. So again, we can go right into the mix here in the town center and be on a roof late at night, and we’re not disturbing anyone, which really makes a difference. So, we look for great views, and we look for built-up areas.
About 60% of our demographics are 25- to 34-year-olds, people with disposable incomes, and movers and shakers. They are people that want to go and experience new things. Our audience is often the people with the new iPhone or the latest LG TV.
Another thing we get excited about is non-traditional areas. For example, consider parking garages. I live in California, and if you go down to the amazing town of Santa Monica, the parking garages are packed. But, if you go to the roof, no one’s there because they don’t park their cars in the sun. So, if we find the right space and it’s got the right mix, we will take these spaces and transform them, turning them into a cinematic paradise.
First, the turf goes down, and the lights go in. Our theme is bold, colorful designs, with a funky bar, a cocktail serving area, and a giant LED screen. We’ve got cinemas on top of shopping centers, warehouses, and even residential buildings. We’ve had one of our venues for seven years, and you can literally see the neighbors behind us. But once those headphones go on, no one cares.
I feel we’ve created one of the best uses for rooftops, and that’s what we get excited about. There’s really not anywhere we can upset people. All we do is bring additional income, additional exposure, and additional foot traffic to your underutilized rooftop.
From Circus to Cinema
Mathew Focht: I can tell you’re a little bit passionate.
Gerry Cottle: Yes, I’m an entertainer at heart.
Mathew Focht: What is your background, and what were you doing before building this brand?
Gerry Cottle: Thanks for asking. I’ve got a very colorful past. My dear dad was a circus owner. He ran away to the circus and met my mum. They went on to become one of the most well-known circuses in the world, which is quite funny because he was actually running away. Back then, everyone wanted to run away to the circus, and that’s what he did, and I’m very proud of him for that.
So, I grew up in the circus. I had the best of both worlds. I used to go to school, but I also had the circus world. I’ll share a story from when I was about eight that depicts one of the aspects I really love about Dad. I remember walking into a big circus with Dad, and there was, as usual, a lot going on with all these acrobats and a big beautiful production. I remember looking at it all and thinking that Dad would really be enjoying it. But when I looked at him, I noticed he wasn’t looking at the ring, even though he had some of the world’s greatest performers there.
I watched him for about three or four minutes, and he was just looking at the audience. And as he watched them, a smile grew on his face. And I knew at that moment that’s why he did it. Yes, he loved the bombast of the circus, but what he really loved was seeing people smile and entertaining them, and I think that’s what I carried with me.
So, I went from being in the circus to spending a few years in London learning marketing and PR. I love the world of PR, and I was fortunate to create great stories for the likes of Cirque Du Soleil, Amnesty International, and Disney. I was kind of entertaining myself in an office job. And then I just had this moment when I realized I wanted to do something that made people smile, and that’s when I came up with the cinema idea.
It’s the big top on a rooftop. And I still sell popcorn for a living, like my old man. And I really do this because I love to see people being entertained. I love to see people smiling. I’m an entertainer who’s no longer in the ring, but entertaining people through our social experiences.
And here we are, hopefully bringing this amazing concept to as many parts of America as we can.
Mathew Focht: Incredible. So, what aspects of your circus upbringing and your time in PR did you take with you to Rooftop?
Gerry Cottle: I really learned the importance of advertising and selling an event. While the Rooftop is a cinema, we put on events every night. We don’t just turn the screen on, and people go in. It’s an event, and I think the circus taught me the importance of making things interesting. We’re always constantly evolving our programming and doing more than showing new releases. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but we’ll leave that to the great cinemas out there.
Dad always used to say to me, “You can have a kettle that boils in a second, but if no one knows it’s there, it doesn’t matter.” He was an amazing man and an amazing marketer who knew the importance of creating an interesting story. And now, my shows are my circus, and I look for ways to make sure they’re entertaining and interesting. While we show serious films, we also do things like special events where people can bring their dogs—the beautiful little things that mean a lot to people. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and make sure there’s something out there for everyone. In essence, the circus taught me how to promote a show, and I bought that to the cinema world.
The Ultimate Enjoyment: Escapism & Entertainment
Mathew Focht: Incredible. So, what is it that brings people back to Rooftop Cinema, and how do you keep it viable as a long-term trend?
Gerry Cottle: It comes down to what we talked about earlier. It’s two things: escapism and entertainment. We are social animals, and we need to be together. So, we bring people together, and entertainment is the key. When you look back, you see that during the early wars and the toughest times, the last thing people sold were their radios. In fact, they would sell their refrigerators before they would sell their radios. There’s a famous saying, “When times are tough, give people bread and circus.”
Entertainment is the thing that will allow them to forget about all the tough things out there. Life’s not perfect, and there’s always something happening. But it would be boring if it was always perfect! And that’s why, since the beginning of mankind, we’ve always needed entertainment to take us away from our everyday lives. So, for me, the entertainment side of Rooftop is what really makes it special and why I believe people will keep coming back.
What’s really interesting about our business model is it’s changing with the times. For example, when I first started this, 80s films were huge. As we changed generations, the 90s films became our big genre, and I think we’ll keep seeing this progression.
In London, we’re in our 12th season, and we just had our best year yet. And that’s one of the exciting things, that we’re lucky to have found a concept that’s evolving every year. To be in a mega city like London with all that competition and still be going strong shows the power of the concept, but also the power of film and the love of film and that’s why people keep coming back year after year.
Mathew Focht: That’s spectacular, Gerry. It’s a phenomenal concept, and we hope to be a part of your story long into the future.