As Jacro reaches its 90th anniversary in 2019, CT interviewed the company’s CEO, Alan Roe, to discuss his great-grandfather’s legacy and the PoS powerhouse that his family business has become.
Few businesses in the cinema sector can state that they’ve survived more than threequarters of the length of the medium. Jacro is one such company — and one with a great reputation that has weathered many of the changes of the movie-going world over the past 90 years and thrived in multiple areas, whether that’s reconditioning film spools in the 1950s or delivering state-of-the art point of sale (PoS) systems today. CT caught up with current CEO, Alan Roe, to learn more about the company history and modern outlook.
How did it all start?
On my great grandfather Jack’s marriage certificate it states ‘Cinematographic Engineer’, and that is dated 1913, Alan explains. My grandfather (his son) told me that he started his own business in 1929 servicing the studios on Wardour Street. At first, Jack was servicing projectors on the kitchen table, and the business grew from there. That’s how our Jacro logo came about — he wanted something because the studios all had logos on their shirts in the table tennis league then. My grandfather was so young, he was just a runner, getting the beer but apparently not drinking it. Jack once worked for projector maker J. Frank Brockliss — I still see that badge on projectors occasionally, less in booths now, more in lobbies as curiosities. Whenever I see it, I always wonder, “Did my great grandfather install this projector?”
What’s changed over the years?
Every few years the business transforms, so it’s hard to know where to start really. Prior to WWII, we had a contract to represent one of the new US 35mm projectors in the UK, but that fell through when war broke out and Jack’s sons were called up. He started selling supplies because people kept requesting them. They’d ask for things that didn’t exist so he got them made — that’s how we ended up in manufacturing. By the late 1930s, we had an office in Dublin, and we were shipping old cinema equipment to India — even the Exit signs, everything was going.
What does JACRO do now?
We focus on cinema IT systems now — cinema ticketing, digital signage, apps, websites etc. We provide a complete end-to-end IT system so that cinemas can install once and get on with running the venue. If they want to sell tickets online and learn about the demographics of their customer groups, or send a push notification to customers who opened their app in the past 24 hours, or instigate a stock audit on all items over the past 30 days — then they’re all set.
It’s amazing the demands put on the PoS nowadays. Really, cinema PoS systems stopped being ‘PoS’ systems years ago. Each year customers send in more development requests than the previous one. It’s a question of filtering, combining, prioritising and executing those requests. That’s not to say we’ve forgotten our roots — at the peak of film projection, Jacro was producing splicing tape for hundreds of millions of performances per year. We still manufacture film splicing tape and leader — we don’t sell so much now, but we like to support the film industry that remains.
What was it like growing up in Jacro, how did it affect your career decisions?
It was always around us — from the tea chest of nuts, bolts and bearings in the stores to the glowing green screens of the computers. We would pack boxes in the school holidays and manufacture products when an extra pair of hands was needed. There were dark days too — decades ago when my father collapsed from exhaustion, or when we had a major customer refuse to pay over what was probably, at that time, our largest-ever sale. The industry was supportive though. All but one supplier responded to say they understood, and just waited until we were paid before they knocked on our door. That says a lot about our industry and the people in it.
Our parents worked hard, evenings and weekends — so many that it became normal. There are easier ways to make a living than a family firm, but there’s something exciting about being able to have an idea on Monday and see it live by Friday. And celebrating 90 years is fun too. It’s the support of the 25 people that work with me that make it worthwhile. We’ve a great team, including many I’ve known since I was a child. I’ve been impressed by the flexibility of some of my colleagues — how our distribution and purchasing manager Jonathan Worthing, in particular, has transitioned with the company is spectacular. From shipping and receiving to installing projectors, then IT systems and video editing, purchase ordering and trade show management. And he still has more hair on his head than I do.
What about when cinema went digital?
I witnessed most of the transition from our operation in the US — it was brutal. Dealers across the country disappeared, maybe two dozen. And plenty of manufacturers too, I’m not sure if anyone is left from Neumade, Wolk, LaVezzi etc. I was chatting with booth equipment supplier Goldberg Brothers recently — they still manufacture cinema products, but their primary business now is hardware for barn doors.
We required a total transformation to become entirely reliant on our IT business. The good news for us was first that 35mm supplies were the last thing to dry up — projectors could be reconditioned, parted out and so on, but supplies were still needed and, second, we had already diversified into IT systems and writing software back in 1983, owing largely to my mother’s experience with computers. So when the end was in sight for major 35mm distribution, we really focused on the IT products and have been constantly investing in features for several years. So today everything is flipped on its head — the 35mm business is supported by the IT side, which is fitting as we all have a passion for film.
The conversion was more work than any of us could have predicted. It seemed like endless years of long days and weekends. I don’t regret it, but it was certainly a learning experience.
What about the future?
Years ago, my grandfather predicted that we’d see characters step out of the screen without the audience having to wear glasses, so I’d love to see that one day. Peter Ludé was telling me recently about technology that captures photons from all angles and projects them back out from a plane. (Ed: See our focus on holographic projection, March 2018). Theoretically it’s impossible to tell the difference between the screen, and looking through a window, which is a fascinating concept and technology.
With my content hat on, I’m staggered that the studios have still not put together serialised content — something that provides a fresh episode every 4-6 weeks, for example. I feel like we might see that in cinemas from some streaming companies soon. We know that sequels work, and we know the shape of the new release curve and of the heavy investment needed leading up to a new movie. It would be interesting to see a curve with multiple (albeit probably diminishing) peaks from serialised content, and see how the ROI compares to the traditional single picture.
In terms of software, every day we are developing new enhancements and features, so really all that we do now is build and prepare for the future. I wonder what other forms of entertainment might be entering cinemas — we’ve seen huge event cinema ticket sales in recent years, and eSports is selling out in some cinemas, so I’m left wondering what else might compete for screen space in the years to come. It’d be great to see even more forms of content — cinemas are so beautiful and capable, and so loved by those that own, run and attend them, that I’d love to see even more types of content and events available to them. There are some great minds out there, so I feel like there will be more to come that we don’t know of and haven’t thought of yet.