EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Irish co-founder of award-winning cinema app UsherU

In conversation about technology in Ireland, the app game and taking inspiration from Ben Dunne

Having just launched in Ireland, usheru is a new cinema app that has been backed by the British Film Industry, but has some very Irish roots. We sat down with the app's co-founder Oliver Fegan to talk about technology in Ireland, the app business and the future of cinema in the face of competition like Netflix.

Newstalk: Since your app is very movie related, can you sell us the app in a very movie­ pitch kinda way?

Oliver Fegan: So picture the scene... the world has become a vast wasteland of streaming content. People have become boxed in with new technology. They have become docile and content with watching films online at home or on their phones. They've lost connection with others and the communal experience of watching a movie on the big screen at the cinema. There are some out there though that want to bring back the magic of cinema and share that experience with others. usheru are on a mission to entice and lure audiences back to the cinema by catering to their tastes and making it easier and cheaper for them to book tickets. They will team up with exhibitors and work out a way that can increase cinema attendance and make a night at the pictures an event again.

Newstalk: Your company is Irish based, but the app picked up steam in the UK before here. Is it particularly difficult to get financial backing for this type of technology in Ireland?

Oliver Fegan: It's not that it's more easy or difficult than any other type of technology to get financial backing ­we were lucky enough to win a competition that was backed by the British Film Institute, so it was a natural first step for us to start in the UK. Our involvement with the BFI meant we made great industry connections quickly, and the ex­-Head of Distribution at the BFI, Alex Stolz, had decided to join our team. Whilst London is a huge market, Ireland has almost double the per capita cinema-­going habit that British people do - 4.3 times a year, to UK's 2.6 times - so both countries have different benefits. We're glad to have launched here now, our hometown.

Newstalk: The app business can appear to be quite daunting from the outside­ in; for every app that succeeds, there must be several dozen that fail. Was working with apps always something you had wanted to do?

Oliver Fegan: As a kid, I always wanted to be a train driver but then again, apps weren’t out then! Somewhere around 2008/2009 the app ecosystem started to pick up a lot of steam and it was obvious that if you wanted to be on the next wave of engaging with consumers, you had to do that through their smartphone. In 2016, people touch their phones 300 times a day on average ­that is a serious of love connection that each person has with their device ­ it's all about making things easy and quick when it comes to apps. With so much interaction with their phones and apps, we were all excited by the potential to connect with each film lover based on their film interactions. If you love horror films and use usheru to watch the latest trailers or book tickets for the opening night, we will start to alert you when great horror film events are on around Dublin. If you love alternative or pop up cinema events, we will alert you to these. If you love, French cinema, we will recommend upcoming films to go to. Apps open up new possibilities which were not possible before and we all love to push the boundaries to see what’s possible.

Newstalk: Some of the best apps are those "Duh, why did I think of that?!" levels were genius and obvious meet. For UsherU, was it something that arrived fully formed, or was it something that took a lot of finessing and fine­tuning?

Oliver Fegan: Before developing anything, we sat down with cinema owners, film distributors and film lovers and found out what was important to them. It was clear then, what was important. Easy payments, a beautiful interface and intelligent recommendations. So we had a strong and pretty well ­formed idea of what we wanted our end goal to be from this point. Once the founding team got together, we went to Lahinch for 3 days together in the depths of winter to talk about all the possibilities ­our vision, our goals, the industry - for filmmakers, cinemas and distributors). During those days together, it was pretty obvious we were all on the same page about what we wanted to achieve and how we wanted to go about it. To this day, the high level goals and principles agreed together stand, but the way to get there is under constant flux. Getting an app - and business - off the ground requires you to try new things constantly ­the advantage is that you can do this fast because you are a small company with quick turnaround. Finessing and fine­-tuning to get to your vision is what it's all about, you've hit the nail on the head.

Newstalk: One of the major selling points for Usher­U is the minimizing of clicks. With other apps, it can take up to ten clicks to buy a movie ticket, but with yours, it's just three. What are those three clicks?

Oliver Fegan: It's simple, 3 clicks which are 1) Book Now 2) Make Payment 3) Pay with Stripe... and it's done.

Newstalk: Do you have any advice for people who are looking to get into the app developing world?

Oliver Fegan: Three things - 1) Talk to peopleto see if they agree that your idea has legs. A lot of people go into stealth mode with their idea, but the  reality is that it's a lot more work than you think to build your tech, get the app live, get an audience and grow it. No­-one is going to throw their current life away to steal and work on your idea overnight. The idea is one thing, execution is what’s most important. So get opinions, new ideas and new angles from people who are experienced and knowledgeable. 2) Find good partners and team members. We have a wonderful gang of film lovers who are passionate about improving the film industry. Everyone comes to work with a smile on their face. 3) Be Brave: Ben Dunne Snr. was once asked why he was so successful in setting up Dunne Stores. His retort was “Anyone could have done it but they didn’t." Life is short and if you have a dream, go for it. Even if you fail, your experiences will help you get a better job as you will learn so much through the endeavor.

Newstalk: What's next for the Usher­U gang? Has the success of this app helped spur on the creative process for others?

Oliver Fegan: I think for us, it’s all about making it faster, easier and more convenient to go to the cinema. Film and going to the cinema is about entertainment and we are adding features to make film selection more fun. Once you start creating something, new ideas start to flow! And once you get deeply into an industry, even more ideas come to you. We definitely have lots more up our sleeve, but we are focusing on Dublin and Dublin users right now  that's our main priority! 

Newstalk: Finally, something that has to be asked during every movie ­related. What's your favourite scary movie?

Oliver Fegan: It’s got to be Carrie (1976; De Palma).