Changing with the Times: Alan Roe and JACRO continue to serve cinemas' needs
JACRO (aka Jack Roe Companies) bills itself as a global cinema IT company with a primary focus on managing five sub-sectors: PoS (Point of Sale), digital signage, mobile apps, phone systems and websites.
According to CEO Alan Roe, the “PoS” label is misleading, as it's too narrow a definition for an overall area that is the key driver of the company’s multigenerational success. “It's what the systems started out as, not what they are today,” he notes.
“All the 'PoS companies' have written so much more than a point-of-sale system. Time clock, inventory, gift cards, loyalty system, purchase ordering, payroll…the list goes on.
“Now our Analytics services are becoming so extensive that we're wondering if it's worth offering those also as a bolt-on product. I had no particular appetite to get into the market, but if we get attacked, then we have to react.”
Comprehensive PoS Solutions
For JACRO, its cinema PoS system is the main source of the data that facilitates interoperability and cross-functionality. It is best and most powerful when customers deploy PoS alongside the IT provider’s other products. This is for a couple of reasons.
According to Roe, “The first is convenience. Customers can quickly move between scheduling their performances, then push out a notification to their mobile app users, and finally reschedule the trailers in their lobbies.
“Cinema managers are so busy that we feel it's little time savings like this that help our customers to leave their desks clean and on time—a few minutes saved in not needing to re-enter data and a minute or two saved by not needing to switch between programs adds up, and that's a huge part of our proposition.
“The second reason is data accessibility. If we've written something for ticketing, then the data is immediately available for the other features. It's live too. So there's no API, no integration costs, no integration delay, no one-hour lag, and no confusion of what fields/data mean.”
JACRO also has customers who utilize its bolt-on modules as standalone products, often using them in tandem with one or more products of a competitor, but Roe is fine with that scenario. “I feel that we're competitive, but we're not aggressive. If a cinema is happy with their product, we don't phone them every week trying to catch them on a bad day.
“I'm pleased that they're happy, even if it's with a competitor's product. We see it as a big pie that everyone can enjoy. Just last week I recommended a competitor's product because of the way that the conversation was going. We're a good fit for cinemas that 'get' the complete package that we're able to provide.”
JACRO has an international footprint, with its two strongest markets where they have established offices, in the U.S. (Nashville, TN) and Europe (Ross-on-Wye, U.K.). In some cases, they service just a single location in a country, but that can sometimes be more trouble than it’s worth.
“One country that we recently moved into has a special tax printer that is controlled by the government,” he says. “Although at first it sounded like a small change, it took weeks of development to fulfill all of the government requirements. But now that the work is done, we're the natural choice for any new cinemas in that country.”
Sometimes accessibility to customers can also be a challenge, even in countries where its offices are based. In the U.S., they have one customer that it takes three flights to reach, and in the U.K. the slow roads around some parts of the country can mean that it's quicker to fly to a customer located abroad than to drive to one in the same country.
But, with modern communications and cutting-edge technology, updates and troubleshooting a customer on the other side of the planet can often be done remotely and considerably faster than in-person.
Evolving Family Business
Alan Roe, great-grandson of the company's founder, is at the helm today of this multigenerational organization. “It's not been without its challenges,” he admits. “When my parents, Brian and Juliet, became involved in the family business, they were several years older than I was when I came on full-time. They brought with them much more experience. It was actually my mum's background in computers that led us to starting a computer division, originally unrelated to cinema, in 1982. We still have most of those customers, 35 years later. For me, the timing didn't work like that—the opportunity came much sooner, and it wasn't something that could be postponed. So, it's been a lot of mistakes, a lot of late nights and that's taken its toll on my personal life too.”
There is a constant need to reinvent the company and its products and that can prove tiring, Roe confides. “One point of encouragement for me has been to look back at the change that has happened in the past,” he says. The company has reinvented itself over the decades, and he believes that despite all the changes, things aren't all that different now from how they always have been for the organization.
“For years, reselling carbons was our primary source of income. In the late 1940s/early 1950s we focused on reconditioning spools and other equipment because of metal shortages,” Roe recounts. “I'm told that my grandfather, Ron, was able to take spools and carefully restore them back into pristine condition, using skills similar to a panel beater on a car.”
The company eventually commenced manufacturing splicing tape and this took over as its primary source of income for over a decade. Since Roe does not have any children or heirs to potentially turn the family business over to down the road, he is considering buying subscriptions to various business journals to get his nephews started at any early age. “They're only two and four, though, so maybe there's an audio version.”
Digital Transition and Transformation
“Beyond a doubt, the biggest change that I have seen so far is from 35mm to digital,” Roe says. “At one time, 35mm supplies were not just the bread but the bloodline of our company. There's some left, but it's just as a peripheral business now.”
During the industry’s digital metamorphosis, first the console manufacturers were affected, as things became more competitive because of a slump in projector sales; then the projector manufacturers, as complete machines were stripped for parts, and finally the supplies business was impacted. Cinemas needed supplies right up until their final 35mm show, which kept JACRO in the game.
As Roe came onboard in 2005, it was the start of a chain of analog/35mm market destruction at the core of the exhibition business, and fortunately it was the tail end of that downward trend.
“I guess it was classic good news, bad news,” he recalls. “The death warrant was being signed for our core business, but we were put to the bottom of the pile. We could see it happening from the sidelines, but more like in slow motion. It was a huge amount of work transitioning into purely an IT business, but we had plenty of notice and a strong IT product and PoS installation base to begin with.”
“We are always debuting something new at CinemaCon,” Roe declares. “Sometimes it's a harebrained scheme that amounts to nothing. I remember once (under my misdirection) we spent considerable investment on projectorparts.com, a central repository of parts information from where cinema dealers could easily upload lists of wonderful and weird projector parts.”
Aside from a few really strange inquiries where the team dug parts from the corners of remote warehouses around the U.S. and sent them off to Asia, it all amounted to nothing for the company. “Just a total waste of time and money,” according to Roe. “But that's part of the fun of it. In the same way that a cinema looks at the release schedule, wondering where the box-office gold is hidden in the year ahead, for us it is products and features.”
At CinemaCon last year, JACRO launched internetticketing.com, the online portal for its ticketing system, TaPoS. Says Roe, “I've never launched a product with such a positive response before. It was overwhelming, and that was very encouraging. It's been under rapid development ever since, now incorporating our digital signage, mobile app integration, etc.”
Imitation is often a form of flattery, and JACRO has witnessed major competitors launching their own equivalents, but Roe remains focused on remaining ahead of the pack. At this year’s Caesars Palace tradeshow, they will be launching some major new features for internetticketing.com.
“But that's a horse entering its second derby,” he says, “and with its head already held high.” Roe and team also have a few other new products on tap, with websites being a new race entrant to keep an eye on.
In his view, “lots of cinema websites aren't very good, and they take too long to maintain. That can hurt a cinema's business.” JACRO aims to save them time and money, while also helping increase the flow of customers. “But then I know that my competitors are reading this, so is that really the horse that our money is on, or is it the one that we put in the race as a distraction? Again, that's where the fun is. This isn't business really, it's poker,” he adds coyly.
Looking Forward, Ahead of the Curve…
There's only one guarantee, and that's that it will change. “For this I will refer to my grandfather [Jack's son], or more specifically a radio interview that he did in the 1970s,” says Roe, “about a decade before the first real multiplex.”
He said, "In the next ten years there will be small video cinemas, instead of projected film, the big screen will be operated by video, a fairly big screen in a small cinema. I envisage a rather small plush cinema with perhaps not the normal cinema seats in rows, displays about a hundred feet, displays here there and everywhere and perhaps a small bar at the back where they can have a drink.
“Even television in years to come, the actors will actually be on your carpet. You'll either walk around them or walk through them. The trouble at the moment is the product. We haven't got the product at the moment. When films like Grease and Saturday Night Fever came out, I noticed a big uptake in business."
“That's a nice summary of the current trends and cyclical nature of the cinema industry, recorded over 40 years ago,” says Roe. “It's a reminder also that it's the story and production that sells the event. Everyone knows that the computer-game industry is huge. What have they developed even more than their graphics capabilities over the past decades? The stories behind the games. The plots. I'd much rather see a classic movie in a fleapit than a bad one with great tech. We're seeing much more diversity in cinemas too—small VIP screens and also megalithic PLF screens. Gaming arcades attached to movie theatres and now of course VR. I think that increasingly 'cinema' will become a broader term that encompasses lots more variation of different cinema experiences.”
For a tech company like Jack Roe, this can only mean more opportunities. They will need to remain alert to both their ideas and those of the industry, and to help facilitate operations for cinema owners. “For example, we have already developed and deployed a complete module for play areas and VR so that users can buy blocks of time in a shared experience. (Maybe that's really the horse our money's on at CinemaCon...)
“We feel that we have a responsibility to our customers to see the best way to invest the income from them in our product and company direction, and we take that very seriously when prioritizing products and features.”
We asked Roe if there is anything he would do differently if he had the chance, knowing all he does now and with the benefit of years of cinema industry experience under his belt.
“Yes. Trying to run a business without any experience or formal training might be bold, but not very smart. It turns out that a Physics degree has very little relevance to running a business.
“I looked at starting an MBA around 2008 but decided that I was too busy at the time. Finally, I started it in 2016 and can only say that it should have been ten years sooner. I learned things the long, hard and expensive way—from experience, and I wouldn't do that again or recommend it to others. There's no sense in trying to reinvent 21st-Century Business Management from scratch.
“It's much better to combine knowledge and experience with that of others, from books, teachers and others in the industry, and I was very slow to learn that. I'm less the enthusiastic overachiever now who drinks coffee all night trying to do everything (sometimes not very well…sleep is actually quite useful) and more the guy who takes time out for kombucha and yoga and tries to identify what we shouldn't be doing so that we can do what we do very well.
“Above all, I reach out to others for help more. I have some great colleagues who are as much a part of this company as I am. Certainly, we achieve things together that I could never come close to achieving by myself.”