Dan Ellis

Dan Ellis, the founder of Jam Jar Cinema

Film is about spreading joy and providing an escape from the trappings of modern living. A couple of hours away from phone calls, emails, text messages and social media to just sit back, relax and unwind. Creating that experience for people and running a successful cinema is no easy task, as Dan Ellis will readily attest to. The man who founded Jam Jar Cinema in 2012 has had more than his fair share of setbacks. Here, he tells his story and gives some sage advice for getting through tough times.

Jam Jar Cinema took centre stage in 2019 when it was presented with the For the Love of Film award at the BAFTAs.

The company then won the Heart of Gold award at Small Business Britain’s The Small Awards and was declared Small Business of the Year for 2020.  

For all the prestigious plaudits, it has not always been red carpets and national recognition for Jam Jar Cinema founder and managing director Dan Ellis.

The man who launched the company with a group of volunteers back in 2012 did not pay himself a wage for three years and regularly had to clock up 80+ hour weeks just to keep his dreams of bringing a cinema to the seaside town of Whitley Bay, in Tyne and Wear, alive.

“We were the first business to invest in the nighttime economy of Whitley Bay ten years ago,” says Dan.

“We kind of set the tone for having small, quirky, independent businesses in the town, which has then fed into the blossoming of micropubs, restaurants and bars, and it’s a completely different type of nighttime economy now.”

From stage to screen

Before setting up Jam Jar, Dan spent his time training as an actor in London before returning to North East England to do a master’s in business.

It was while working for a local theatre which had stopped showing films that he realised there was an opportunity to launch an independent cinema in the area and immediately, Dan set about thinking how he could do it.

He came across a derelict old building just off Whitley Bay’s main street that was available for rent and then managed to secure some local authority funding and a business loan to start the project.

“What we didn’t realise, is just how much building a cinema really costs,” adds Dan.

Expensive projectors and renovation work quickly gobbled up the fledging cinema’s diminutive resources and meant that Dan would spend the next three years working all hours for next to nothing.

He says: “I moved back in with my parents, didn’t go to the dentist for three years, and even had to borrow £20 out of the till on a Friday just so I could go to the pub.”

Around 2015, the business finally started to make some serious money and Dan was able to pay himself and his team of volunteers a wage.

Jam Jar did around 40,000 admissions that year and turned over close to £400,000.

“This gave us the confidence to expand,” adds Dan.

Eyeing a million pound turnover 

Over the next five years, the cinema added new titles, new screens and expanded its food and drink offering to become one of the most successful independent cinemas in the UK.

In the first two months of 2020, Dan and the team saw record admissions and they were eyeing turnover in excess of £1 million for the year.

“Then March hit,” says Dan.

“We had our record ever sales day for the James Bond film going on sale and then three days later, they pulled it. Within ten days we were closed, and we thought we were going to go bust.”

Like many leisure businesses across the UK, the coronavirus pandemic has meant a battle for survival for Jam Jar Cinema, with Dan having spent many sleepless nights worrying about the business and the difficult decisions he would have to make about its future.

The timing of the first lockdown was particularly bad because the team had just invested all of its cash reserves into opening a third screen at Christmas 2019.

Hell on earth

Dan says: “We gambled because there was no other way of expanding the business, so the money we had in reserve was basically the profits from January and February, and we reckoned if we made everyone redundant and paid their redundancy, we could afford to pay the rent and bills through until September.

“Fortunately, we were able to bring a lot of the staff back through the furlough scheme, but it was hell on earth.”

The pressure of having the livelihoods of Jam Jar’s 14 staff in his hands was particularly difficult for Dan, as was the prospect of seeing his life’s work hanging in the balance.

After securing emergency funding from the British Film Institute (BFI) and the Culture Recovery Fund, and taking advantage of the Government’s various coronavirus support schemes, the future of Jam Jar Cinema looks far brighter today than it did 12 months ago.

The company now expects to return to pre-pandemic levels of income by Q4 2021. 

“We’ve been very lucky in the support we’ve had,” says Dan, who reopened the cinema last Friday (21 May) for the first time in six months. 

Shy bairns get nowt 

As a business owner who has really been through the gauntlet, not just during the pandemic but throughout his entire entrepreneurial journey, Dan’s number one piece of advice is, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Using the North East of England idiom, the cinema owner says: “shy bairns get nowt.”

“Sometimes you just need some help and what I’ve learned is, if you ask someone for help, it’s really hard for them to say no.

“As human beings, for the most part we’re all mental, but we’re also hardwired to help other people.”

Dan continues: “The other thing is, manage your risk.

“While I was quite blasé when I first set up the business, there are a lot of people who might have something to lose, who are married with kids, who’ve got other responsibilities to look after.

“It’s about following your dreams and following your passions but also making sure you’re protecting yourself as best as you can.”


Key takeaways...

When starting a business, it's all about managing risk - you may not be able to pay yourself a wage at the start so think about how you'll manage in the interim. 

Local grants and funding may be available depending on where you're setting up your business. Visit https://www.weareumi.co.uk/webapp/finding-money/finance-funding-and-grants-what-national-and-local-support-is-available/ to see what's available in your area.

Richard Dawson
Article by Richard Dawson
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