Business

The high-flyer who swapped the circus for the cinema

Gerry Cottle Jr Image copyright Gerry Cottle Jr
Image caption Gerry Cottle Jr is the founder and owner of Rooftop Film Club

A teenage trapeze artist, Gerry Cottle Jr was used to working high up.

The son of a UK circus owner, he spent his school holidays wowing large crowds with his daredevil aerial shows.

And when he wasn't flying through the air under the big top, he was breathing fire, showing off his juggling skills, or performing as a clown.

But while his siblings joined his father's business - Gerry Cottle's Circus - full-time when they left school, Gerry Jr ultimately decided it was not for him.

"Something didn't feel quite right, I wasn't obsessive about it," says Gerry Jr, now 34. "I wanted something different."

So hanging up his circus costumes, he spent his 20s working in public relations (PR) and event management in London.

Image copyright Gerry Cottle Jr
Image caption Gerry Jr spent his teenage years as a circus performer

But with an overwhelming desire to run his own company like his dad, a novel idea for a business projected itself in his mind.

And while it didn't include trapezes, it did involve going way above ground level, and putting on a good show.

"I always loved films and had a passion for events because of the circus background," he says.

"I'd noticed pop-up cinema events, and I'd seen a rooftop with not much happening on it in east London, and I thought, 'Why not have a rooftop cinema?' No-one else was doing it."

And so he had the idea for his business - Rooftop Film Club - which he launched in 2011. Today the London-based company runs regular screenings in the UK capital, as well as in New York and Los Angeles.

'Immerses them'

To get Rooftop Film Club off the ground, Gerry Jr was able to persuade a bank to lend him £10,000 while he still worked in PR.

"I'd get home from work at 8pm, and then work on Rooftop Film Club," he says. "Before I knew it, it would be 2am. It was hard work but I loved it."

Image copyright Nicholas Goodden
Image caption The company uses Google Maps to hunt for potential new rooftop locations

However, a week before the company's first event - a screening of the coming-of-age film Stand by Me, on top of the Queen of Hoxton bar in Shoreditch, east London - a spanner was thrown into the works.

Gerry Jr, who had just quit his day job at the time, says: "The owners said, 'We can't have amplified sounds, we don't want to upset the neighbours.'

"I thought 'this will finish me'."

But determined to go ahead, his solution was to provide everyone who attended with a large pair of headphones.

He was unsure whether people would be happy with this, but says the headphones were a big success.

Image copyright Rooftop Film Club
Image caption The company now provides headphones as a matter of course

"Headphones have been our USP (unique selling point), and we now use them even if the venue does offer amplified sound.

"People love it, it immerses them in the film, and blocks out the urban noise of being in the middle of a city."

Over the past five years Rooftop Film Club has become a staple on the London summer calendar, with screenings expanding to five venues including the Bussey Building in Peckham and Kensington Roof Gardens.

Tickets cost £15 plus booking fee, and events seat up to 130 people.

Gerry Jr says the deals with the venues vary. "Some are set fees for the hire of the venue, and others are a percentage of sales."

Films are diverse, with the 800 screenings this summer including Spice World, Muriel's Wedding and Casablanca.

Rain or shine

Gerry Jr says that he always had global ambitions for the business, and expansion into the US came last summer.

"For us, it's about keeping the experience the same whilst growing the quality of the brand and moving into markets across the world."

Image copyright Rooftop Film Club
Image caption The business has expanded to Los Angeles and New York

The business is now looking at opening in two other US cities - Chicago and Austin - while also planning to expand into Hong Kong and Singapore.

To fund this growth, Gerry Jr says he is now seeking outside investors.

"We want smart money," he says. "We know our brand, we want someone who has expanded into a global market with, say, bars or shops, and we can use that experience."

To earn additional revenues, the business has also extended beyond rooftop film showings.

"We were a seasonal business running five months a year," says Gerry Jr. "For the other seven months we were twiddling our thumbs and losing money. We wanted to create a brand that runs all year through and keep our customers happy."

Image copyright Gerry Cottle Jr
Image caption Gerry Jr had a number of roles at the circus, including just clowning around

To move to a more year-long operation, the company now organises underground cinemas during the winter - in a cellar underneath London's Waterloo Station.

It also has a roof-top crazy golf course - Birdies, in east London.

But how much of a challenge is the British weather?

"The weather is a difficulty in one sense," says Gerry Jr. "It doesn't make it easy in terms of creating the right experience.

"But we've been lucky - we still screen come rain or shine and people still come along."

Now with nine full-time members of staff, and 80 or so freelancers, Rooftop Film Club enjoyed revenues of £1.2m last year, and expects this to rise to £1.6m for 2016.

Image copyright Gerry Cottle Jr
Image caption Gerry Jr says his dad is proud of what he is doing with Rooftop Film Club

Karsten Grummitt, managing director of cinema analysis group Dodona Research, says Rooftop Film Club has benefited from the upswing in consumers looking for something different from their cinema experience.

He says: "Rooftop Film Club [currently] operates in London in a limited number of well-chosen locations with limited seat capacity.

"At the same time it has a huge potential market as more young people participate in the experience economy."

Despite not joining the family circus, Gerry Jr says his dad is proud of him.

"He laughs about the fact that we both get bums on seats, and sell popcorn to make a living."


Follow The Boss editor Will Smale on Twitter @WillSmale1

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