Business Technology

30 Digital Champions: The pop-up cinema brand that started in the founder’s garden

11 min read

05 February 2016

Former deputy editor

From showing films to friends in his garden, Dominic Davies has grown his personal pastime into pop-up movie business Backyard Cinema, counting Camden Market among regular residencies. Using tools like messaging apps instead of email across the enterprise has secured its place as one of our 30 Microsoft Digital Champions.

Real Business continues its work with Microsoft for the Digital Champions campaign, a project designed to find the forward-thinking British companies using digital methods to strengthen operations.

We’ve discovered a shoe manufacturer with celebrated musicians as customers, a beverage brewer backed by Richard Branson, and more – all businesses in traditional sectors, but using digital as a way of standing out from the rest.

Backyard Cinema is the newest Digital Champion on our list, and Dominic Davies, founder and creative director, explained how the company has fused new and innovative tools into the operation to challenge huge and expensive cinema chains.

(1) Please give us a brief introduction to the business?

It started off as something in my back garden. Now, Backyard Cinema has become a roaming pop-up and theatrical cinema that screens a range of films in interesting
settings.

The shows are designed to be captivating and somewhere relaxed you can watch a movie with great food, great drinks and all your mates. All delivered to you in a variety of, unusual and interesting locations both in and outdoors around London.

(2) What have the significant growth milestones been in the last few years?

Our first outdoor event set on the cobbles of Camden Market three years ago saw 740 customers across six weeks and six shows. It was our first event of this kind and a huge success that really put us on the map. We took advantage of the timing and good press and repeated the event the following year, increasing total sales to 4,500 with 21 shows over six weeks. It was literally huge, the screen and sign could be seen from the main road and the crowds of people watching from behind the chairs was really special, and a realisation that this was no longer a “backyard” cinema.

Everything from Facebook to email subscriptions went through the roof and suddenly the email I spent hours, if not days, crafting to send to 300-400 people were now going out to 10,000, and people were asking where they could get tickets for next year. It was our first boom.

Less about numbers and more about production, our “Apocalypse” event shifted a gear for us. Inspired by the other things we enjoy and the rise of promenade and immersive theatre in London, we created a four-hour “Zombie Apocalypse” experience where customers got chased before and after the film by zombies whilst exploring a multi-room set with bar, food, 12 actors and a detailed storyline – the whole works. It nearly killed us but helped put us on the map for the more theatrical side of our business.

The hospitality service that started with the arrival of Airbnb

(3) What inspires you as an entrepreneur, and how does that come across with your company?

Initially the freedom to “do what you want” is the first draw to a project. Quickly followed by the need and desire for everyone to say “wow, that was cool”, or clap or cheer at an event. We are in the entertainment industry so if it doesn’t entertain, what’s the point?

Also for us it’s the service and not being afraid to go the extra mile. For too long we have just given into these huge companies that charge for a dash of coke, or won’t let you move seats, monopolise a market and dictate the prices. We want to provide a service you don’t mind paying for because you feel looked after and valued.

And we still want it to feel like you have been invited to my back garden, and if that means changing seats because you have a bad back or changing your drink because the wine you just chose was not to your liking then we can do that. It’s ours and we want everyone to be happy when they come.

(4) What kind of obstacles are you encountering as you grow your enterprise?

Cash is king! It seems so simple but you have to make sure you have enough cash to put on your next gig, even if the last event was a huge success. Standing out from the rest can be tough especially in a market where when we started we were one of four and now we are one of 28. But by staying true to your original belief, you can reconfirm this to anyone questioning what you do.

Also getting out of the day to day – there comes a time where you don’t need to be the one on the ladder hanging fake foliage or lights. It’s tough because it is yours but have faith in the people you appoint to do the small things so you can look at the big game-changing decisions.

(5) For a company that isn’t technology based, how has a digital approach helped you to carve out a bigger market and acquire new customers?

The digital approach for us has literally doubled, if not tripled, our reach and customer base. Whether it is Facebook campaigns, digital mail-outs, digital data capture during events, it is our lifeline. It has enabled us to target a much more specific customer and monitor the outcome.

With tracking and coding now you really can see what your pound is worth. We would by no means exclude printed or paper advertising, but during a growth cycle where cash is so important you need to justify every single spend and digital helps us do that. It also keeps shareholders very, very happy.

The Dutch twin sisters building a British beverage business

(6) How is technology helping you to overcome hurdles, and what are the challenges of implementation?

This comes back to knowing your bang for you buck. You need to know for every pound spent how many tickets and products you can sell through a particular channel. This is the main hurdle you face when spending on marketing – what do you choose? How do you know it is working?

The challenges are getting these things in place properly, it has taken quite a while to finally get to the heart of it and follow the journey the whole way. We have had multiple people try – some websites clash, ticket providers, code, Facebook – it is all tough to get there, especially once you are already up and running, moving away from a time when none of this stuff mattered. It is now so vital for us we would have made some changes a long time ago if we had known.

(7) Do you employ any kind of flexible working, and how does technology fit into this?

Not a huge amount of flexible work, however, we are often not with each other so communication is key. During event time we move almost completely away from email internally and use WhatsApp, which is fast becoming a preferred form of communication with the group chats – 28 members of temp staff can all be informed about extra shifts and so on.

(8) What kind of technology tools can you not work without?

Cloud storage. That is the big one for us. As well as, of course, all our projection software with back-ups and the ability to play short movies and have faith in our pop-up set up not being low quality.

(9) What kind of technology would help you better compete with larger rivals?

Booking software, which we are currently looking into as we have outgrown our current process.

The small business creating creamy bundles of gooey deliciousness

(10) Where do you want to take your business in the future?

More of the same really. We are already creating some yearly permanent homes where people will expect us to be each year – with a new twist. Constantly coming up with new ideas and ways to wow the audience as well as a possible full-time permanent home in London where people can enjoy a year-round alternative cinema every day of the week.

We also do a lot of bespoke work for private companies and stuff that doesn’t even have a cinema in it. In a nutshell, we want to keep pushing the boat and if someone says we can’t possibly put a film in a venue and make it cool, we want to prove them wrong.