From the Big Top to the Rooftop: AFI Member Gerry Cottle Talks Growing up in the Circus and Founding Rooftop Cinema Club – American Film Institute


From the Big Top to the Rooftop: AFI Member Gerry Cottle Talks Growing up in the Circus and Founding Rooftop Cinema Club

Performing and entertaining is undoubtedly in Gerry Cottle Jr.’s blood. He is the son of not one, but two circus performers. His father ran away from home at 15 to join the circus where he eventually married Betty Fossett, the daughter of another circus showman. He grew up in the circus, but rather than get into the family business like all of his three sisters, following college Cottle struck out on his own, working in public relations and event management.

After overseeing successful launches for Selfridges, Virgin and others at a large PR firm, he founded Rooftop Cinema Club in 2011 in one of the most unlikely locations for an outdoor venue — rainy London. With a successful run in the UK, Rooftop Cinema has since expanded to LA, New York, San Diego and Houston. This month’s lineup is an eclectic showcase, ranging from MIDSOMMAR — directed by AFI alum Ari Aster (Class of 2010) — to family favorites CASPAR and HOCUS POCUS to a live recording of the popular Screen Drafts podcast featuring a discussion on John Carpenter films.

AFI spoke with Cottle about growing up in the circus, founding Rooftop Cinema Club and how, in the Golden Age of television, he’s managed not only to preserve the communal aspect of moviegoing, but also elevate the experience.

AFI: Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing? What was it like growing up as the son of a circus showman, and do you have a first memory of being introduced to that world?

GC: I definitely had a colorful upbringing surrounded by showgirls and elephants and all of these amazing characters. The circus is a family for a lot of people, but it can be very difficult because you’re constantly on the move. Every two weeks you’re in a different part of the country. I was brought up in that environment. My father ran away to the circus and married my mum, who is also part of a circus dynasty. She’s from about 100 years of circus tradition.

My first memory was as a small child walking along a piece of hose pipe — pretending that I was a high-wire walker — and people standing around clapping and cheering for me. One of my first memories of being in the ring was when, at the end of an act, these clowns would blow open a safe, and I would run out and chase them. That was my first time performing, and, after that, I was involved with training the animals. I used to train the elephants in the ring and my sisters would ride them — all bizarre when you think about it, but, at the time, it was completely normal.

AFI: Your father rebelled by fleeing the rigid 9-5 career path set before him as the son of a well-to-do London stockbroker. When you’re the child of circus performers, how do you rebel?

GC: It’s funny, out of all my family, I ran away from the circus. I loved my upbringing, but I knew from a very young age that I wasn’t as passionate about it as the rest of my family. All of my sisters went into the circus immediately after finishing school, whereas I went to college and then moved to London to work in Events and PR. I don’t know if I rebelled, but I certainly rebelled from being in the circus. I loved it, but I just wanted a bit more of a normal life without having to pull down a big tent every Sunday and travel to a new part of the country.

Gerry and his sisters at the circus.

AFI: Was it a difficult transition from working in the circus to working in Events and PR?

GC: After I graduated from college, my dad said, “I need help in the press office. Do you mind giving me a hand?” So I started promoting all these stories and stunts for the circus, which I really enjoyed, and that ended up being the catalyst for doing public relations in London.

I enjoyed it because of the social aspect of it. You’d be working all day and have to be at a launch at night, and then the next morning you’d have to be straight back in the office. I was able to hone the marketing skills that I’d learned from early on, which prepared me for my next venture of dreaming up Rooftop Cinema.

AFI: How did you think up the concept for Rooftop Cinema Club?

GC: I couldn’t imagine myself working for someone else for the rest of my life, so I ended up combining my passion for events and film. I’d seen these open-air cinemas in the country and thought that it would be great to do something a bit more urban in the city. I still had my day job in PR, and then on my lunch break I’d wander off to the local café to make calls and eventually I found this rooftop in East London.

I convinced the bank to loan me 10,000 pounds, and I basically started playing my DVD collection with films like TOP GUN, BACK TO THE FUTURE and other films I loved growing up. I also realized that although I could easily watch these films at home, they’d come out when I was young, and I’d never been able to see the theatrical release. I wondered whether I could get other people to come watch these films on a big screen with nice cocktails and good food, and that’s how the idea was born. Since then, we’ve just grown that initial concept, which is that a great location plus a great film equals a great experience.

AFI: Rooftop Cinema’s launch was a screening of STAND BY ME in June 2011. What was your experience like leading up to that initial event?

GC: I did STAND BY ME because it’s 89 minutes, so, if anything went wrong, I only had to survive 89 minutes. A couple of weeks before the launch, the Queen of Hoxton venue called and told me that we couldn’t use amplified sound because they would risk losing their license with any noise complaints from neighbors. So I searched and ended up finding these Silent Disco headphones in London. I was dreading it because I thought people were going to want amplified sound. But after the first screening, I stood at the door asking people if they had a good time, and they said, “We loved it. We loved the film and the views and, you know, we really loved these headphones.”

From this experience, I realized that with crisis comes opportunity, and the headphones are now one of our unique selling points. It keeps the neighbors happy — we never get complaints — and, above all, it’s great for outdoor cinema. If you have a windy night, the sound’s not going to be an issue. Or when you’re in major cities, it prevents audiences from hearing all of the traffic noise as well. My reaction was one of relief and joy that we’d discovered something quite special.

Gerry with his dad and several circus performers.

AFI: Why do you think “social cinema” and the “experience economy” has really taken off, particularly among younger generations? 

GC: I read the other day that around 78% of millennials would rather spend money on an experience than a physical item. That’s phenomenal and shows how the world is changing. I think people want and expect more nowadays. We encourage people to get to the venue nice and early. They’ll take in the views and have really good cocktails and street food. We have games onsite at our venues, and then they’ll sit down and watch their favorite movie.

Whereas traditional cinema is just about the film, for us it’s about the whole night out, which I think is what drives people. They’re getting to share on their social channels a great sunset, and, most importantly, they’re getting the community element. When my parents went to the theater growing up, they used to catch up beforehand, eat some fish and chips —very British, watch the film and then talk about it. I think that kind of got lost at some point. When I started Rooftop Cinema, I really tried to speak to that idea and bring together a community.

AFI: What were some of the challenges of expanding Rooftop Cinema globally?

GC: We expanded to New York in 2015, but I knocked on doors for two years before that. I went to New York thinking I’m going to sign up two or three venues. It’s the home of the skyscraper, so I’ll have plenty of options. But what I discovered was that even when I found good venues, they didn’t always have the availability to let us use the space for five or six nights a week, which was what we needed to pay the bills. Quite often we’d also find these great rooftops that didn’t have public facilities, so we’d have the venue, but it wouldn’t be utilized for public access. Now we’re taking parking garages — these amazing underutilized spaces in the center of town — and turning them into rooftop entertainment complexes.

AFI: Any plans to expand to other countries or territories?

GC: We’re 10 seasons old next year, and in the next three years we have plans to build 20 new venues in the States, specifically in California, Texas and Florida. We love it here because the climate is great, and California is the home of film. And then we’ll see what happens. We’d love to go to Asia and other parts of Europe as well in the future.

Rooftop Cinema Club Screening of LA LA LAND.

AFI: Living in the era of “peak TV” and with movie attendance down, how do you entice people to leave the house and go see films?

GC: With film, I truly believe that as much as I love being at home, you can’t replace the cinema experience. Film is about escapism. You’re always going to want to get off your sofa and go out and see a film at the cinema, but people do especially when it’s outdoors and it’s different than a multiplex. We’re creating an experience that people can’t replicate at home.

AFI: Can you talk a little about your programming team and how you choose what to play each month? 

GC: The one thing that we’re constantly evolving is our programming. Because we don’t depend on programming new releases every night, we have the luxury to be able to screen what we want. We take a look at our favorite films and ask how we can make it more exciting or build a theme around the event and turn it into a great experience. The programming’s constantly changing. We’re celebrating Women in Film and Black Cinema this year. We’re excited to do lots of variations on our Q & As after screenings.

The final factor is that we also reach out to our audience. We ask our community what they want to see. That determines a lot. You can’t tell people what to watch anymore. People want to feel like they’ve chosen their experience, and I think we cater to that. We have a great programming team who love film as well, but it’s about talking to the audience, understanding their needs and coming up with the most interesting, exciting and different programming that we can.

AFI: How did AFI first get on your radar and why did you decide to become a member?

GC: Although I’ve known about AFI for a long time, my mate told me that I could join as a member when I relocated. AFI is the authentic voice of cinema. It was important for me to be a part of that and also be informed about the American film market. What I love about LA and an institution like AFI is that there’s so much knowledge here. Even before I set up my business in LA, I’d come visit and realize that the guy behind the counter at Starbucks knew just as much about film as I did. I think that is what’s wonderful about this city. Film is in its blood, in its veins. Being a part of AFI means that I’m a part of a community, and that was important for me since I love film and I love my company.

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