James Tutton on starting Moonlight Cinema

November 3, 2016 platoproject

James Tutton on starting Moonlight Cinema

In this edition of Business Boosters, Plato Project co-founder James Tutton remembers the raw enthusiasm he took into his first startup, Moonlight Cinema.

An “over the top” presentation to the managers of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens helped get Moonlight Cinema off the ground. James Tutton, co-founder of the Plato Project, talks about his first startup.

Take yourself back to 1995 and Melbourne was a very different place. The Gas and Fuel Corporation buildings were still standing where Federation Square is today. The city’s now famous food culture was still in its infancy. People went to the movies, they went to a café or they went for a walk in a park. Which, to be fair, they still do.

But no-one had thought to combine those three recreational activities. Enter Moonlight Cinema. Founder James Tutton proposed to project films after dusk in the idyllic Royal Botanic Gardens. Guests could bring their own picnic hamper, complete with a bottle of wine or bubbles, or avail themselves of food and beverages at the bar.

The idea seems self-evident now that Melbourne has at least three main outdoor cinemas operating during summer, but in 1995 it was revolutionary.

“I think people had seen film as a standalone thing, seen food as a standalone thing and seen outdoor recreation as a standalone thing. Moonlight Cinema repackaged those things right at a time when Australia was getting interested in food, getting a lot more outdoorsy and film culture was shifting,” says Tutton.

“There was a growth of interest in independent cinema, not that Moonlight was strictly showing indie films, but people were getting a bit quirkier in their film tastes.”

Of course, there had been earlier outdoor cinemas, notably drive-ins. In fact, the Sun Cinema in Broome, Western Australia, has the honour of being the world’s oldest outdoor cinema, being founded in 1916. But the idea of catering to an urban audience, reflected in an eclectic choice of films, in a relaxed setting with the mood of a picnic was innovative.

Innovative enough that the idea took some selling to the custodians of the historic Royal Botanic Gardens. Tutton, who is now one of the co-founders of the Plato Project and a director at Neometro,  was still in university, studying philosophy.

“I gave them this very over the top outdoor presentation, with smoked salmon and so forth. I think that gave them confidence that I was serious and would make it happen.” – James Tutton

“I was 23 or 24 and I had this idea. I approached Botanic Gardens and they kind of didn’t take me seriously. So I went in there for a meeting with them and they came outside and I had set up an elaborate, outdoor dining experience for them, when they thought they were just going to be having a meeting,” James says.

“I gave them this very over the top outdoor presentation, with smoked salmon and so forth. I think that gave them confidence that I was serious and passionate and would make it happen.”

Tutton says naivety and raw enthusiasm were important assets for the startup founders.

“The success of that presentation spurred us on to do all the things to actually make it happen, and we kind of fumbled our way through it to be honest. We had some hilarious times doing that.”guests attend Maltesers Moonlight Cinema - Anchor Man 2 screening

This was still the era of celluloid film and a third of the way into a screening of Koyaanisqatsi they realised they were missing one of the reels later in the picture. James had to call the distributors to open their offices and raced across town and back to get the reel on screen in time. In another incident, Pulp Fiction was accidentally fed into the projector upside down, and Samuel L. Jackson’s hitman threatened to “strike down upon thee with great vengeance” from a somewhat less menacing position, with his legs in the air.  

Moonlight Cinema debuted not only before digital cinema but also before digital marketing. “The marketing was pre-internet and very street orientated, so it was huge numbers of postcards, about 300,000 post cards, plus rock posters all over the city,” James says. 

“We took the view that we would start with a group of our friends and then it would go to a broader social circle, to friends of friends, and ultimately end up as something that was very broad and had big numbers.”

It was a success from the start. “By the third night we were sold out, and though it wasn’t sold out every night from then on it was definitely extremely popular right from the get-go.”

The business only grew from there. James and his business partner Mark McCoach sold Moonlight Cinema to entertainment group Becker for $8.5 million in late 2004. For James, this set him in on a continued path of entrepreneurialism, becoming a director with design-focused and socially led property developers Neometro, co-founding the hugely successful Smiling Mind meditation app and, now, launching the Plato Project.

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