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MY BIZ: Outdoor movies

Aug 07, 2023

Cedar Rapids man launches Pop-up Cinema

May. 30, 2023 5:00 am

CEDAR RAPIDS — Joe Nelson wasn't looking to test a new business idea back in 2020's COVID summer.

"I didn't look at it that way at the time, but that's what it ended up being," said Nelson, 42, of Cedar Rapids, who had designed and installed home theater systems for a Marion dealer.

"When the pandemic hit, I thought, ‘Let's do an outdoor setup for myself.’"

Every other Friday during the pandemic, he showed a movie outside his house on his big front yard.

"We had socially distanced movie night," he said. "We had little pods of people, and we’d watch movies."

As the pandemic's grip eased, Nelson thought he’d found a niche. He launched Pop-Up Cinema in late 2021, bringing backyard screenings to others’ homes.

Going pro meant upgrading his gear.

"The initial idea was that I could use what I had for my yard and apply that to other people's yards," he said.

"I quickly learned how not-versatile residential consumer-level electronics are if you’re trying to make a business out of it," he said. "My original investment, within six weeks I quadrupled."

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Nelson supplies a laser projector, screen and speakers, all tailored to the expected audience size. The screens are inflated by a blower in a soundproof enclosure and then staked down.

"You need a lot of brightness if you want to start before it's super dark out," said Nelson, who advises customers to schedule their showings 15 to 30 minutes after sunset.

"Right after sunset, it's still pretty light," he said. "You need a lot more power than when you’re in a room and can control the light."

Nelson also had to become familiar with trademark and copyright law.

"I had to learn a lot about the legalities of what we can show where and when," he said. "Even if it's not public, even if you’re not making money, if you’re outside of your house and there are people who aren't your family members coming to see it, you need a license."

So Nelson's fee includes licensing to download the film to his MacBook Pro hard drive.

He also can livestream sports and customers’ own videos — "for weddings and things like that where you’d want to show slides."

Most of Nelson's screenings are for publicly sponsored events, such as family movie nights in a city park and "a lot of football fields and town-center parks in the surrounding towns," he said.

"We can draw a couple hundred people. I don't know that I like one more than the other. The city ones use the bigger gear, so they pay more, but the birthday parties are pretty chill, a lot less stress. Almost the perfect trade-off."

Nelson charges a mileage fee, "and I’ll drive anywhere for that price. The farthest I’ve gone so far was up in to northern Iowa, 150 miles or so. That was on a farm, one of those educational farms, big crowd."

Spring and fall have proved to be his busy seasons.

"Summers are tricky, because it gets dark so darn late," he said. "Last fall was great. Spring and fall are the best for the light."

Family fare dominates Nelson's screenings.

"Last Halloween, we did show the actual ‘Halloween’ movie, the only adult-centered thing I’ve shown,’ he said. "If you’re going to have it on a giant screen outside, you really can't have any nudity or anything like that. PG's about as much as it's going to get."

Owner: Joe Nelson

Phone: (319) 423-9687


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