In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Gerry Cottle, founder of Rooftop Cinema Club, spoke with business editor Bob Francis about how he founded the company, his background in the circus world and how he found his way to Fort Worth. Cottle spoke to Francis during opening night of the Rooftop Cinema on Nov. 1 at The Worthington Renaissance Downtown Fort Worth Hotel. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Francis: What’s your biggest surprise film that’s worked well or one that didn’t work well? 

Cottle: So we’re very lucky. In the early days, “Dirty Dancing,” “Back To The Future,” “Top Gun,” all those great movies. “Goonies,” “Breakfast Club,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” they are still strong to this day. We’re playing “Grease” in two days. People just love it.

In the early days, I still do now, I’d go out and ask people what they want to see and watch. This has always been a cinema for the people as well. You can go on our social channels and start shouting about a film. And if enough people start saying, yes, we’ll play it for you. We call ourselves the people’s cinema.

But there’s films like “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Flight of the Navigator,” there’s another one. What was another? Those two were the biggest, those films I grew up watching and loved. Oh, and “Life of Brian,” the Monty Python film. And those three films, I couldn’t get the rights for. So “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Life of Brian” and also what did I say, “Flight of the Navigator.” It took ages to get the rights. People are going to love it, I thought. Didn’t go well.

No idea why. And this is the funny thing about this business, is I love those films. Lots of people told me they loved those films. You just don’t sell them. But the thing is now, obviously sometimes we’re going into places, like “Ghostbusters” used to sell really well and doesn’t sell most of the time. But then recently it started doing really well in Chicago. And then it did well in Houston. But it didn’t do well around the rest of the country.

Francis: So you never know …

Cottle: It’s weird. It’s just like you’re constantly guessing. But it’s kind of the fun of what we do. It’s kind of like the formula is always moving. You have to keep just testing things and asking people what they like. And, like I said, we’re lucky with social media. It really helps us to get the right stuff on. We listen to people’s opinions.

But you’ve got to remember our business model. It’s completely different from a normal cinema. We’re not told what to program. So if you’ve got a normal cinema, you have to play “Jurassic World” and “Fast and Furious,” whatever eight, nine, or 10. And with us, we are not dictated to other studios. We work with them, we love them, and we work well. But we take their great content and we create something new with it. So it’s very different in that sense.
But we don’t get to guess what’s going to work. We have to work out what’s going to work.

Francis: So what’s the biggest difference from when you started to how this looks now? 

Cottle: The basic principles are there. So when we first started, for me it was all about a great movie plus a great location equals a great experience. That was my formula, and that’s what I wanted to stick to.

One thing I also wanted to do very, very well, so my father was a circus owner. He was absolutely passionate about the circus. But what happened was he kind of rescued the last good years in England. It’s gone now. That’s moved on and not very big anymore. But what killed the circus for him was that there were lots of circuses out touring that were very bad. And so what had happened when a circus would come to town, people wouldn’t necessarily remember the name. They’d just go, oh, there’s a circus there.

So they go to a circus one time and then they think, “Oh, it’s rubbish. I’m not going to go again.” So he was all about protecting the word circus and making sure that he was quality with what he did with the circus.

I took that into film, because I went to a lot of open-air cinemas and a lot of them just weren’t great. And the screening was OK and the sound was OK. But everyone was like, ‘Oh, it’s great.’ We’re outdoors. But we probably won’t come again. And I know from day one I had the best projectors and (other equipment.) So that’s all really changed. So what we have improved is the seating we’ve improved. We used to have beach chairs, but now we’ve got more comfy chairs. Even though the beach chairs were OK, we just want to elevate the experience. Our mission has always been to change the way people experience open-air cinema. This is over a hundred years old, open-air cinema. That dates back to the early 1900s. I think the Lumin brothers were about 1890 or something.

So that’s the introduction of it with the Lumins and projectors and cinemas. Because not long after that in Australia they started open-air cinema. But for us it’s about taking this beautiful, beautiful experience of open-air cinema and taking it up a level. So you can come here and this will be as good as any cinema. You’ve got the best LEDs you can buy. We’ve always had that process, but I suppose, in answer to your question, what’s changed is we’ve always just, every year, how can we make it a little bit better? What can we learn? How can we improve technology? And so that’s really what’s changed. And, to be honest, it’s just a bigger sector.

If You Go

What: Rooftop Cinema Club Downtown Fort Worth

Where: The Worthington Renaissance Downtown Fort Worth Hotel, 200 Main St, Fort Worth 76102

Located on The Terrace on the Mezzanine Level 
Tickets are available here.

November Full Program Schedule link here   

Francis: The design looks very cool. 

Cottle: It’s my job to entertain people. And I want people to come here and smile. It seems like, “I don’t care if you’ve had a bad day at work.” I do care. But leave that at the door. Leave your troubles at the door. Post COVID, even better, because everyone’s going through absolute madness, aren’t they?

So for us, like I said, our job is to really look after people. And so the service is excellent. The food and the options are excellent. And it’s about people having a great date night, or out with loved ones, or whatever. Whatever you want to do.

People come in groups of 10 or 15 or 20. You don’t normally get that at the cinema. We’re a film experience. We’re more than a movie. And that’s what we cater to.

Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at bob.francis@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Bob Francis

Bob Francis is business editor for fortworthreport.org. He has been covering business news locally and nationally for many years. He can be reached at bob.francis@fortworthreport.org