Shaper: George Wood

Show aired on 7th July 2018

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shaper’s Podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Hello this is Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Jazz Shapers is where the shapers of Jazz, soul and blues meet the Shapers of Business and our Business Shaper is usually someone who has built their empire their way. My Business Shaper today is George Wood, the creator of the Luna Cinema. George was a TV presenter and actor but ten years ago at the age of twenty seven founded the Luna Cinema which now celebrates its tenth anniversary. It is the country’s leading producer of open cinema events whose screenings follow one simple formula, classic film on a big screen in a beautiful or prestigious setting. George and the Luna story follows for the next fifty minutes or so here on Jazz Shapers. It’s a real pleasure to have you’re here, thank you for coming George.

George Wood
Not at all thanks for having me.

Elliot Moss
What’s a lunatic idea like that popping out of your head, how did it happen? Tell me a little bit about where this notion of doing outdoor cinema for a living, because in the past many of us have done things outdoors and it is a one off little thing, but you have created a business. Why?

George Wood
This is true and it is a lunatic idea, there have been countless times when I have been stood in a wet field showing a film to twelve people thinking “Whose idea was this? How did I get here?” But you know what, it really was like all these idea that turn out to be I suppose you would say great ideas, it was only ever meant to be a hobby, it was only ever meant to be something that would fill a bit of time in the Summer. I was an actor and there was never any work in the Summer, I would always think “I’ll get work again in September or October”, but July and August was always quiet, every actor knows that. I had seen an open air cinema in Australia, I had been over to Sydney. For the first time ever I had been sat in this incredible setting, watching a film under the stars and I said to all my Aussie mates “This is incredible, why don’t we have this in England?” and of course they all said “’Cos your weather’s rubbish mate”, they didn’t say the word rubbish. And I turned round and said, “Fair point” I can’t argue with the fact that our summers are known for being hit and miss, however, I sat there and I kept thinking why don’t we do this actually, this is a brilliant way to watch a film; so sociable, so communal, everyone was having a beer and everyone was having a picnic, everything about it was so different to what was the cinema experience that I was used to, which was the multiplex, we are going back ten years, that was all there really was. These great little boutique cinemas that we have these days with great wine lists and comfortable seating, didn’t really exist back then. So, it was always there in the back of my head. I never did anything about it as we always do, you have these ideas, you never get round to making them happen. Two years later I’m back in London acting, I was knocked off my scooter going in to do a show in the West End. I was only going ten miles an hour and it was one of those things, when you think how on earth have I broken my leg, but I did and the doctor said it’s a really bad break you are going to be off work for five or six months. And I remember lying in my hospital bed in Camberwell in South London, thinking “Well this is the time, this is the opportunity, this is now I am going to do my open air cinema idea”. So from my hospital bed with my leg up in the air, probably far too much Morphine going round my system, I picked up the phone and I rang my local park which was Dulwich Park in South London, and I said “Have you ever had open air cinema?” They said “We do open air theatre but we’ve never done open air cinema before, is that what you do then?” and I said “Yep that is what I do”. Never done it before in my life, but I had seen it, so I had an idea and so to cut a long story short that Summer we started, and I rented a screen and we showed a film in the local park and I knew instantly. It wasn’t one of those ideas that I thought, well there is something in this, I wonder if I can make this work. I knew instantly that that was it, this is what I was going to do. It was so popular, it sold out, it was a fantastic night, we got lucky with the weather, we were showing “Some Like It Hot”, the greatest comedy ever I still think, so everything about it was right and I thought this is now what I am going to do, and I have never acted since thank goodness, because I was useless actor. So that actually is, you’re right it was a lunatic idea but ten years on I still love it just as much as I did the first time I experienced it myself.

Elliot Moss
It is one thing pulling it off once though, and I want to go back to that, you know you said from your hospital bed, yes that is what I do, and it’s brilliant it’s the presumed close, I am the man, my name is George, you must know me or if you don’t know me, watch this happen. Brilliant first night and I remember when I ran my first nightclub night at University, I got it right once and that was it, I did get it right once, hundreds of people come. After you did it once, how did you then go about doing what people have to in a business, the nuts and bolts, work out what work, what didn’t work operationally, how many times did it take before you went, yes this is going to work. Apart from the passionate feel that you had on night one.

George Wood
Yeah, countless times is the honest answer. It was not something that was, there was no guidebook, there was no rule book, we didn’t know what we were doing because nobody had ever done it. This country was so far behind other countries when it came to open air cinema that I didn’t feel that there was a model that I was going to follow. I didn’t feel that there was a cultural wave that I had to ride, it felt like we should develop this event, get it as good as we can and learn as we go and we really did learn as we go, because the next year, so after that first screening the next year I had invested my limited life savings in an inflatable screen, I only found out afterwards that the guy who invented the inflatable screen had only actually patented it and created this thing, just before I was ringing him up saying, “I hear you have got inflatable screens?”, he said “Yeah.”

Elliot Moss
Yeah, that’s what I do I’m the inflatable screen guy.

George Wood
That’s it.

Elliot Moss
He did what you do.

George Wood
He literally did, he probably did blag it actually yeah. But no this guy in Germany, he said “Oh funnily enough you’re the first person from the UK to ring me up. I have sold these screens to other countries but yeah I can sort you out an inflatable screen.” I said “Great, I’ll buy one”, and it gave us the edge because before that open air cinema had always been scaffolding frames and big old installs, whereas an inflatable screen was low impact on the site, you could get a huge screen surface within forty five minutes, it takes us to put these screens up. So, it was quickly evident to me that actually we could develop a model that others were bound to be able to follow, I was aware that that was going to happen, but that if we got in quick, we could develop this event, and I thought there was a commercial aspect to it. As it turned out of course, what you alluded to is completely correct. The next year we were trying to sell tickets at these events, not always easy to sell tickets when you are from a complete standing start, we had no database, we had no marketing background, we were working with venues who occasionally had a few letters, we were going to mail drop kind of days, where they would say “Yeah give us a leaflet and we’ll…” and I used to stand out on street corners giving out leaflets, that is how it started. I would go up the High Street and see if any local shop would want to take an ad on the big screen, it was really was starting from scratch in that respect. And then the weather became a factor, of course, the first year we did it we had a couple where I used to say to people should we be cancelling, should we actually, is this is a really bad experience when it is raining, and I very quickly thought, this is a decision that I am going to have to stick with for ever, and I can get this wrong, if I make us weather dependent where every time it rains we say, “Sorry guys that’s it you get your money back, or come another night”, there is no business, that is…

Elliot Moss
So, I’m hoping you have got Luna umbrellas that you just hand out with a big bit of branding. And if not, why not, and if you do them I want a cut.

George Wood
Better than that, because the problem with umbrellas is that it knocks the view out for the people behind.

Elliott Moss
Of course it does.

George Wood
Yeah, and so we quickly, and again we only learnt by doing it, and realising that okay here is a mistake, how do we get this better. And so actually ponchos in the secret, we give out free ponchos on arrival, we tell the audience in advance that it will always go ahead, they can rely on us that when they book this ticket regardless of the weather it will happen, it’s only if it were to be unsafe for them to be there that we would cancel.

Elliot Moss
And let me ask you, we are going to come back to a bunch of stuff, but let me ask you right now, turnover of three million pounds plus, how many people work in the business?

George Wood
A team of twelve people are fully employed. The team expands during the season obviously, with up to about sixty.

Elliot Moss
Up to about sixty, and that is not bad considering you had that standing start, and there is lots more coming up from my Business Shaper, George Wood in a few minutes but in the meantime and this pertinent to the point that George just touched on about part-time staff and so on, in the meantime it is time to hear a little excerpt from the second in the occasional series that we have of our Podcast called the News Sessions and on this occasion Paddy O’Connell talks to a Mishcon de Reya Partner on an incredibly hot topic, not just for the Luna Cinema but generally, and that is called the Gig Economy.

I hope you are enjoying today’s programme, there are many more ways to hear this very programme plus hundreds of former guests on the show, you can ask Alexa to play Jazz Shapers that is all you have to say, literally play Jazz Shapers, I found that out myself, personally and you can do the same, and there you can hear many of the recent programmes including today’s after 10.00am, or if you pop Jazz Shapers into iTunes you will get the full archive of programmes there as well. But back to my guest today and that is George Wood, the man behind Luna Cinema. We were talking about the weather, and you made a big and important decision, I think, to say listen we are in Britain we can’t be weather dependent, that has enabled you to put on how many shows in the last ten years, if you actually counted, could you do it? Is it thousands?

George Wood
It’s thousands yeah because we are up to a hundred and seventy five screenings that we produce each summer, of course we do a lot of private hires around that, but the actual Luna Cinema produced events a hundred and seventy five, and we have been doing it ten years, so it probably is somewhere around twelve hundred, something like that.

Elliot Moss
And if you are iterating each time, at some point you have obviously got the equation right, you know how long it takes to put the inflatable thing up, you know how where people need to sit, you know the ponchos, all that is done, what then becomes the gig, the game for you, is it about finding more locations and more opportunities to see versus the event itself?

George Wood
A bit of that yeah, I believe that it is about, if we can, if we can evolve this event, usually with the film choice, equally with the venue – those are the levers that I have really to pull and to shape what we are offering the public – it really is a case of what film would you like to see in this space and I spend most of the year when we are not active when the weather is not good enough, looking at the next great space, where would you want to watch a film and then monitoring the films and saying, “Oh god wouldn’t it be amazing if we watched, if we saw, I don’t know Dunkirk on a beach” or yeah whatever it is that we are imaging would be a good idea and then obviously its then going through the logistics of it, because I am, basically my role as the business has developed is that I’m the ideas person, I come up with these ludicrous ideas, then there is then a very sane production team, who say just a minute, have you thought this through.

Elliot Moss
And who goes, if you wanted to film Dunkirk on a beach, who goes to the people that in that part of England where you are going to have to get permission, is it you, or is it someone else?

George Wood
Yeah, it tends to me initially, so I’ll contact the Council, or the Management Company of the venue or whatever it is, the Trustees of a particular site, and say to them look this is what we do. Often these days, surprisingly, they come to us, most people have heard about open air cinema they Google it or whatever, they say would you consider this, and actually the danger is, is that there are some incredible venues that we don’t get to because we are just so busy. If it is an idea like that one, I’ll approach the Authority and say can we do this, we’ll end up with a meeting and very quickly I have learnt that we get the Production Team involved just to check the logistics of this, to make sure this event actually works, because the scale of the event means that if you get it wrong, you know you can do damage, you know reputationally and you know, we have got to make sure that this event is run so smoothly that we do an awful lot of homework before we actually press play on the film.

Elliot Moss
The creativity you talk about, what would the – and your own, I can already tell in a few minutes, I admit you have great energy and great passion for what you do, and belief – what do the team say about George, what do you think they say?

George Wood
Do you want the truth?

Elliot Moss
I want the truth.

George Wood
Oh God, the number of times that I know and I love it, that they say “Oh what’s he come up with now”, you know, its that, but you know, and I do have some ridiculous ideas that for whatever reason don’t work but actually, this is why it works this business, and whenever I’m talking about the Luna Cinema, I am always imagining that actually I am just one small cog of this big machine because actually it’s the other team around me that have made this successful really, you know, and actually I came up with the original idea and I am still the mouthpiece and the front man of it, but actually it’s the team that make it happen you know, and they are the ones who actually every night of the week are out there, putting the screens up, and making it happen. They probably do say exactly that, they roll their eyes and go “What’s the next hair brain idea that is going to come out of his mouth”.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my brilliant Business Shaper, that is George Wood, Founder and Managing Director at the Luna Cinema. Time for some more music, this is Tenorio Jr with Nebulosa.

That was Tenorio Jr with Nebulosa, I hope I said that correctly. George Wood is my Business Shaper, he is the man behind Luna Cinema as I said, and George I mentioned this to you before we started chatting here on Jazz FM, that you know when you become aware of a brand it is something like you see it everywhere, and I was on the Tube the other day and there is a big poster with Hugh Jackman popping out of The Greatest Show on Earth, the Greatest Showman and all that, is there a buzz that you get from film, because having been an actor I imagine you are not acting now but there must still be that sense of what wonderful theatre makes, and what wonderful film is about. Does it touch you in a way that, other things don’t?

George Wood
I suppose in a way.

Elliot Moss
Or have you left that behind?

George Wood
Funnily enough I am one of those, most actors who stop acting often end up being frustrated actors for the rest of their lives, you know always sat in the theatre, that’s the part I would have played and….

Elliot Moss
Not you though.

George Wood
Do you know what, I genuinely and I know it is easy to say, but I genuinely don’t have that feeling, and over the years I have thought to myself, well it must be that I made the right decision to stop, because I’m far more passionate about what I do with the Luna Cinema than I ever was about acting. I’ve got friends who were actors at the same time as me, and they can’t go and see certain films because I see them going “I was in drama school with that guy, that Orlando he’s gone on to do alright”, you know all of that, and actually I never feel like that, I genuinely don’t. I think that the only way I can really quantify it in my head is that, when I put these events on I get a real buzz out of it and I stand at the back of the audience, and I think they are having a great time, I can see it’s not like going to the cinema, where, a traditional cinema, fixed location cinema, where you can’t really gauge the audience enjoyment of the event, until the end when they are walking out. They don’t clap at the end, at our events I really can feel that this atmosphere is brilliant, you know and The Greatest Showman is a brilliant example of that, because they are singing along, they are joining in, they are expressing how much they love this film and at the end they clap, and when they clap, I think I get the same appreciation for what I used to do as an actor from running the Luna Cinema, and I never feel for one second, that I am missing out on the adulation of the crowd or all that rubbish. I get a bigger buzz out of this.

Elliot Moss
And was it easy for you to make the transition from a very creative expressive industry which is theatre, and I always think that actors are incredibly talented, clever people, in a very specific kind of way, because it is very hard to jump in to someone’s head and body and all that and that is why there are so few brilliant actors and lots of pretty average ones.

George Wood
So true.

Elliot Moss
But did you find it, okay you have all that training and then you become a business guy. Are you, have you learnt a lot along the way, have you had to learn a lot or is this all about your team, or is it a bit of all of those things?

George Wood
A bit of all of that. I have had to learn an awful lot. I often look back on it thinking I should have done a Business Degree really, that probably would have been really useful for what I do these days, which is far more about running a business than really about being creative. Most of the job now is day-to-day running of the business, so it is a mixture of those things. With a great team you can obviously achieve far more, but yeah – does that answer your question, I think it’s a combination of all of those things.

Elliot Moss
Yeah.

George Wood
The main answer really is that I’ve learnt on the go, I have had ten years now and we are still, every day you come across obstacles where you think, I wonder if I could have done that slightly differently, but it is only by making these mistakes. I know that sounds like a cliché but it is only by making mistakes that we do learn, and I think we are now in a position where it runs relatively smoothly. When I was watching England play on Brighton beach recently at one of our events, I genuinely stood at the back and thought “Yeah this is a great event” I would want to be part of this if I was a member of the public. So yeah, I think that we have got better, and we are now in a position where it runs relatively smoothly most of the time, fingers crossed.

Elliot Moss
We will have our final chat with my fabulous guest, George Wood, and plus we will be playing a track from Bill Withers, that is coming up next.

That was Bill Withers with Kissing My Love. George Wood is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes. George is Luna is one part of your business, you have grown it, you’ve got Luna for Kids which I am going to take my kids to this summer, you’ve got Luna on the Beach, yes, and then there is a third bit, or a different part of the business which is the Friends Fest, which is essentially bringing to life my third child, my daughter loves which is to be in the Friends World, you do all those things?

George Wood
It’s true, yeah, I still say open air cinema is the day job, and that, yeah Luna Cinema is the main business that I work on, but actually you are right, this year is the launch of two new brands Luna Kids which I have been planning for three years always with a view to, an awareness that we are not able to cater for a family audience with the Luna Cinema, the sole reason being we show the film at dusk because we are projecting, even with the most powerful projectors on the market, you can’t start the film in the afternoon, everyone always forgets that, and says can you do a Kids Matinee, and I would love to have been able to say yes over the last ten years, countless times.

Elliot Moss
So what time will the Kids stuff be at then?

George Wood
Well that’s the great thing, is that the technology has evolved, and the LED screens are now suitable for watching films. When I first was looking into it, they were suitable for the odd horse race replay at Ascot, but you wouldn’t want to watch a two hour film on them, it would hurt your eyes. Nowadays, the technology has improved so far that these LED screens are incredibly, it is like watching a TV. So, I have been waiting for us to be able to afford one, but also for the technology to move to the point where I felt that we can present films in this environment, and that is now the case. So we have invested in the highest definition LED screen in the country for outdoor use, and so I was always planning this brand Luna Kids, and the idea is that it would be an environment where parents could take their kids to watch a film, whether its an old classic like The Lion King, or Aladdin, you know a film that the parents are remembering from their youth, or bang up to date, this year Paddington 2, Coco, these great films that are released that we all go and see as adults and as kids and get and they work on all these levels. I had this vision that I wanted to present these films in an environment that mimicked the open air experience from the Luna Cinema, but with all of the safety, security and other elements that you look for when you are a parent, and I am a new parent, got a fifteen month old little boy, and the thing I found that I missed the most when we first had this little baby, was going to the cinema. And when we would go my partner Beck, would say to me, what if he cries, what if he, you know, and obviously we are at a baby screening so it doesn’t really matter, but that whole thing about feeling totally relaxed with the concept that you can breastfeed at any time and it’s not an issue, you can take your baby out for a nappy change, the baby can cry and run around if it’s a toddler, anything goes at these screenings and that’s how I want Luna Kids to be. It should be a really relaxed environment.

Elliot Moss
Brilliant, that sounds a fabulous idea and as I said I am going to try it out and then I’ll come back and tell you.

George Wood
Oh sorry yeah.

Elliot Moss
No, no it’s good, I’m sure it’s brilliant and then just very briefly because we are going to run out of time. The Friends Fest is, was it your idea or did someone come and say help me make this happen?

George Wood
The second one, it was never my idea, this was Comedy Central the TV channel Comedy Central who screens Friends, came to me with this idea saying look we are celebrating the shows, back then it was the 21st Anniversary, by re-building Monica’s apartment, I said what a brilliant idea, I loved Friends in the 1990’s but obviously it’s found a new audience, so they said yep and to celebrate that and to give the fans a focus for their affection for the show which is clearly so evident, we are going to do it as a marketing stunt, could you turn this into a commercial venture, and of course my reaction was “You do know what I do” I run an open air cinema, do you want to just hire a screen is that what you mean, and actually as we started talking I realised that no they wanted us to co-produce it with them, so it was the Luna Cinema’s first foray into something else. And it really is something else, this is the ultimate immersive experience if you are a fan of Friends, you get to go and have a coffee at Central Perk, you get to recreate the titles with the umbrellas, dancing round the fountain, it’s for any fan of Friends, this is the ultimate experience.

Elliot Moss
It is so dangerous for my daughter, Marilyn, this is going to be a problem once we take her once. We are running out of time, it’s been absolutely fabulous talking to you, I just love the passion, and I love the fact that you have gone and done something about the idea that you had in your hospital bed, fabulous stuff, thank you so much. Just before I let you go, what is your song choice and why have you chosen it?

George Wood
My song choice is Aretha Franklin’s version of Let It Be. I am not quite sure why I’ve chosen it, I just love this song and I love this version of this song, it is obviously a song that everyone knows, everyone always refers to The Beatles version, but I love Aretha’s version. I love Aretha’s voice anyway but on this version it just makes, every time I hear it, it sounds just the right level of gospel and soul and yeah it’s just brilliant. I play this record a lot so I hope everyone enjoys it.

Elliot Moss
Here it is just for you.

That was Aretha Franklin with Let It Be, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, George Wood. A totally engaging figure, someone who said from the beginning “That’s what I do, you better believe it.” Someone with bags of enthusiasm and someone also who openly admitted he said, ”You know, from a business point of view I learnt on the go.” Really, really good stuff.

George Wood

George Wood grew up in a family of theatrical producers.  His parents were responsible for musicals and plays but specialised in pantomime. Unsurprisingly, George started his career as an actor, appearing in West End musicals, films and in children’s television series.  It was whilst appearing in a play in London and commuting in on a scooter that he was knocked off and broke his leg. Upon hearing that he would be out of action for five or six months, he decided to set up an open-air cinema screening in his local park, Dulwich Park in South London, calling the council from his hospital bed. The Luna Cinema has gone on to become the largest producer of open air cinema in the UK, producing over 175 screenings each year at sites right across the country from Edinburgh to Brighton and everywhere in between.  The Luna team have come to specialise in bringing cinema events to heritage sites ort those of particular historical sensitivity, from medieval castles to Royal Palaces, via botanic gardens and even an open-air lido. 2018 is an exciting year for George with the launch of two new brands, “Luna Kids”, the country’s first open air cinema specifically for children, and “Luna Beach”, a big screen on Brighton Beach showing the World Cup and Wimbledon.

“I remember lying in my hospital bed, thinking, “Well this is the time, this is the opportunity, I am going to do my open air cinema idea.”

“It wasn’t one of those ideas that I thought, well there is something in this, I wonder if I can make this work?  I knew instantly that was it, this is what I was going to do.”

“It was a lunatic idea but ten years on I still love it just as much as I did the first time I experienced it myself.”

“Our country was so far behind other countries when it came to open air cinema that I didn’t feel that there was a model that I was going to follow.”

“I get a real buzz. I stand at the back of the audience, and I think they are having a great time, I can see it’s not like going a traditional cinema, a fixed location cinema, where you can’t gauge the audience enjoyment of the event, until the end when they are walking out.”

“I often look back on it thinking I should have done a Business Degree really, that probably would have been really useful for what I do these days, which is far more about running a business than really about being creative.”

“I’ve learnt on the go, I have had ten years now and every day you come across obstacles where you think, I wonder if I could have done that slightly differently, but it is only by making these mistakes.”