By Aleksandra Smirnova and Sun Kyu Lee
What is it? In 2007, Secret Cinema pioneered the form ‘Live Cinema’ by introducing site-specific, immersive cultural experiences. Breaking films – and recently music albums – into their constituent parts and marrying narratives with play-along action, Secret Cinema is a unique participatory social experience.
Who did create it? What was his first impression? Fabien Riggall - "One day, I went to this old cinema in Casablanca on my own," Riggall remembers. "I left on this really hot day and headed for a cinema called Dawliz, but didn't know anything about the film. There was quite a small audience. I sat there and watched this film, which was incredibly violent, incredibly epic, a beautiful film. The protagonist, at the beginning, was this 11-year-old, Noodles. It's such an immersive film -- I thought I was the kid and lived that film." The movie was Sergio Leone's Once upon a Time in America and was, for Riggall, "a turning point. It was this feeling of a journey, and an event. I always remember that."
After failing to get into drama school he did odd jobs until, aged 20, he went to New York for a three-month film-making course, paid for by his father. There, he shot a short film on 16mm, based on The Collector, the novel by John Fowles.
On his return to London in 1997, Riggall spent three years working as a runner on film sets. "I wanted to be a producer but wasn't sure how to get there." He left to work at a telephone sales company where he met film-maker Jamie Rafn. Riggall offered to produce a short film of his called She Loves Me She Loves Me Not. He watched more shorts and eventually hosted a night at the Ginglik cinema in Shepherd's Bush in 2003. "A hundred and twenty people came, film-makers presented their films. It was social and fun, like a mixtape, curated." Riggall had spent months compiling the master DVD for what he eventually called Future Shorts.
The DVD went to six cinemas around the UK and Riggall struck a partnership with Picturehouse cinemas to license the mixtape, then found partners in Belgium and Paris. He took the format to music festivals such as Glastonbury, with 24-hour screenings. Future Shorts now shows in 90 countries and has a web TV channel; for Riggall, it's not a format so much as a network: "You connect everyone through lots of different areas. Someone finds out about Future Shorts, they hear about it through Secret Cinema, they connect online -- it's all the same."
Future Shorts challenged the traditional notion of the film festival. Riggall wanted to find out how to turn it into something more social and reach audiences beyond the film-festival circuit, but he wanted to go further than just screenings. "How can we create a film experience that's more like a nightclub? There's music and there's performance and there's art and you dress up." He launched Future Cinema in 2005 as "live cinema"; 1,000 people attended a screening of Dreams Money Can Buy, an experimental film from 1947. Riggall put on gypsy and flamenco bands; audio-visual group The Light Surgeons created an installation.
By 2007, Riggall had created two formats that relied on the power of online networks to spread (today, Future Cinema says it has an online community of 2.8 million). His next project, though, would modify that digital approach. He thought back to the Casablanca cinema and connected it to the secret areas of Glastonbury and raves in the late 80s, where people would set off in cars and find out their destination along the way. "The idea of discovery and becoming part of a secret group of people. What if we could do what we did with Future Cinema, but tell people absolutely nothing?"
In December that year, in a disused railway tunnel in London Bridge, Riggall and his team of six sprayed graffiti on walls, filled bins with fire and built skate ramps, retelling Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, a film about a skater who accidentally kills a security guard, in real life. Four hundred people bought tickets without knowing a thing about the evening ahead.
2) Works and Achievements
How it works "secretly"?
Secret Cinema depends on social media, according to Tryon: "This kind of event is much easier planned using social and viral media technologies." Riggall, despite his avowed wariness of technology, is a savvy operator of it. For one recent production, audience members were assigned characters, which each had a Facebook profile. They were encouraged to take photos of themselves in transit to the event, publish them online, and interact with other characters on the site, some of whom were Future Cinema actors playing a part. - Now the Facebook page of Secret Cinema is “liked” by 247,545 people.
- Trailers of the actual events Secret Cinema did
Companies House records show that in 2010, the company lost £624,481; in 2011, the most recent records available, this had fallen to £574,167. Although the operation has expanded since then, each project is still very capital intensive. Riggall claims that Future Cinema and Secret Cinema took a total of £3.5 million in ticket sales in 2012, although he won't reveal operating costs. Indeed, the finances seem in fine balance - the website Screen Daily claimed that The Third Man event made £600,000 and cost £460,000 to mount.
What are the main sources of income?
Tickets, Foods, and Drinks; Secret Cinema has convinced thousands of people to pay nearly £50 to see a film, and usually an old one at that. A six-week run of The Third Man in 2011 attracted 19,000 audience members; in 2012 Secret Cinema's Shawshank Redemption took, including drinks and food sales, £1.7 million.
3) Lessons from Secret Cinema
What is the biggest challenge?
Location - The process is opportunistic. The location is the starting point because, according to Ed Williams, Future Cinema's head of locations, "films are easier to find than buildings."
Once the building was secured, Riggall could start planning. "It's about looking at the building, the capacity, the flow," he says. "How do you build a flow? How do you build a truthful world? It's imagining how 400 audience members would react to a world, and giving them an experience in which every single moment there's a beat." These beats are drawn on to a whiteboard, which eventually becomes a huge, detailed visualisation of the layout. At the same time, Riggall auditions the actors, all of whom will be paid. "We have a network of actors -- it's a very specific skill. It's amazing to do, but hugely tiring. We cast specifically for every production."
What are the secrets of their success? (“How do you get 25,000 people to pay £50 for a ticket to see a film without telling them what the film is?)
It is to promise, and deliver, an immersive experience that builds the world of the film around its audience, elevating them from spectators to enthralled participants. Then, word of mouth, frustration at the passivity and instant gratification offered by contemporary culture do the rest. The air of secrecy and complicity makes the experience more precious to the audience: the first rule of Secret Cinema is that you don’t talk about Secret Cinema. – In short, Realistic Set, Hired Actors, and SECRETIVELY shared experience of participants.
4) A Major Glitch in the Phenomenal Success Story
The series of screenings of Back to the Future was due to begin on 24 July 2014, but the first four nights were cancelled just hours before they were due to start, with people turning up to the pick-up area in 1950s outfits, ready to party down in the replica of the film’s Hill Valley set. They had been told not to take their phones along, and some had spent time and money in the “swap shop” on Hackney Road, getting the right clothes or having their hair done.
Riggall has remained tight-lipped on the exact reasons behind the decision to cancel the show, which he says is for the benefit of the near 65,000 still due to attend throughout August, as the “challenges” are directly related to the material and performances that people have paid £53 each to see.
Angry/frustrated/annoyed customers who took to twitter and Facebook to complain why the organisers cancelled on short notice, considering the tickets were certainly not cheap and people were travelling from around the country (and in some cases outside the UK) to attend.
Secret Cinema has overturned its no-refunds policy to offer disappointed fans their money back, or the chance to reschedule for another performance. Those who spent money on train tickets, hotel rooms and even ferries to get to the capital for the show are being reviewed “case by case”.
4) Questions for Discussion
(1) Considering the case of Secret Cinema, what would be the most important key resources for the success in cultural enterprise?
(2) What would be the most serious challenges to run cultural enterprises?
(3) If you think about the success of Secret Cinema, the institutional education is really essential or necessary? Can you learn most of things you need to know by doing it like Fabien Riggall?
(4) How will you manage the balance between commercial success and artistic faith? Will you change your arts products for money?
5) External Links for More Information
- Another interview with Fabien Riggall: http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/film/the-battle-to-get-back-to-the-future-secret-cinema-founder-fabien-riggall-on-getting-the-show-back-on-the-road-9639613.html
- Slides about Secret Cinema’s Prometheus event: http://www.slideshare.net/brideyrae/secret-cinema-case-study-project-Prometheus