Taking Cinema to the Streets

Stuart Kemp

Keynote Address by Secret’s Cinema Fabien Riggall

Secret Cinema founder and chief creative officer Fabien Riggall, a filmmaker who found himself sidetracked from creating films for more than 10 years while creating and staging immersive cinema events in the U.K., arrived at CONNeXT to explain his unique business and his vision for the future of cinema.

Riggall kicked off his keynote talk by asking everyone in the audience to introduce themselves to someone they didn’t already know before handing over their mobile phone to the stranger. “Apparently people would rather share a toothbrush than exchange their phone with someone else,” he said as the audience murmured with reticence.

THE SECRET OF SECRET CINEMA

Riggall has been working Secret Cinema for 10 years. “It has found a way to get people to watch more movies and create a culture around movies,” Riggall said. Secret Cinema in the U.K. corrals around 140,000 ticket buyers each year. A whopping 30,000 people will buy a ticket for a movie without even knowing what the film is.

Riggall explained when he was a kid the cinema was a place of magic. “The whole concept of Secret Cinema is to create these worlds around the movies, from old movies, cult classic movies to big movies.”

“Rave culture influenced Secret Cinema — the mystery, the secrecy, not knowing what is going to happen,”

As a child, Riggall was living in Morocco and went to the cinema on his own and bought a ticket. He didn’t know what he was going to see, he just went into an old fleapit dusty cinema and sat down. The film was Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon A Time in America.

“I just became the main character, Noodles. From that point on, I loved cinema. It always intrigued me, the relationship between us and the screen. When you see a good movie you enter inside the screen. So really what Secret Cinema is about is taking away the boundaries to that.”

SECRET SUCCESS

From Star Wars and Back to the Future to Battle of Algiers, Paranoid Park and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,Secret Cinema has created event screenings around dozens of different films and genres. First-run releases likeThe Grand Budapest Hotel, Searching for Sugar Man and The Handmaiden have recently had the Secret Cinema treatment, turning preview screenings into part of the distributor’s release strategy.

“The whole concept of Secret Cinema is to create these worlds around the movies, from old movies, cult classic movies to big movies.”

“It works, every single film we’ve done, Victoria, Searching for Sugar Man, The Imposter, Amy, The Handmaiden, Grand Budapest Hotelhave all been massive hits, not all because of us, but mostly,” said Riggall with a laugh. “People have adapted a radical new way of releasing the movie. It’s getting people engaged and excited about film.”

AMBITIONS TO TAKE IT GLOBAL

Once Upon A Time in America is now one of the films Riggall and Secret Cinema want to mount in the U.S. “I want to do it in New York, under the Brooklyn Bridge and get Ennio Morricone to do a live score and turn the whole district into Once Upon A Time in America. It’s probably not going to happen but the idea of that — if Ennio Morricone said yes, if New York said yes and we could take Brooklyn and turn it into a world of prohibition-era New York — then it would be huge and amazing. I really believe that if football can have such an insane cultural place in society, why is it that cinema couldn’t?”

COMING TOGETHER

“How can you reinvent the way people go to the movies so there’s a place communities go to meet their neighbours?” Riggall wondered. “They go to cinema like it’s a church and they meet people from their local area. Because it’s a social thing. And that’s what Secret Cinema came from.”

Riggall likened Secret Cinema to people’s desire to go to music festivals and raves. “Rave culture influenced Secret Cinema — the mystery, the secrecy, not knowing what is going to happen,” Riggall said, pointing to Glastonbury Festival as an example of success based on cultural eventing and secrecy.

Glastonbury, according to Riggall, is just as much about culture around the music as it is the music. “It [Glastonbury 2019] sold out in 30 minutes and not a single artist has been revealed. That’s 200,000 tickets sold out. That’s a testament to the secrecy and the culture that they’ve created around the music and not just the music.”

For Riggall, Secret Cinema harks back to the days to situationists and the 1968 demonstrations in Paris. “I guess what Secret Cinema is about is a sort of revolt, a rebellion against the automated digital culture of today. What I feel passionate about is the sort of randomness of life, the unpredictability and the beauty of stuff you were just not expected to happen.”

INHABITING THE SPACE

Secret Cinema takes over empty buildings, spaces, warehouses, or derelict schools before reinventing those spaces as theatrical spaces around a film. Inspired by the beginning of cinema when people would dress up and come to beautiful picture palaces, Riggall said: “I think one of the opportunities is retail. People are buying less in physical stores so naturally more real estate will become available to create new places to come to. So we’re looking at derelict shopping arcades and transforming them into theatres.”

He mourned the fact that in the UK so many historic old cinemas have become bingo halls, evangelical churches, pubs, or garages.

“How do you get a one-screen cinema to work? It’s difficult. But I think there is something quite symbolic that the greatest theatres of culture are owned by corporations,” Riggall said. “No, it’s not an O2 world [referencing the corporate-badged arena in London], it’s our world. But these guys bring in millions of people a year under this O2 world. I’ve got nothing against O2, I just think there could be another way to create plans of culture.”

Riggall doesn’t think it is a war that will be a fight against robots and algorithms. “We are already fighting them because essentially the biggest buyers of cinema and content are platforms,” said Riggall. “They are algorithms. Do we want to just be creating content for these people or do we want to show them that exhibition and physical experiences, cinema, theatre is incredibly important for people to come together? Therefore the idea of working with them and not being used by them is a good one.”

DREAM BIG

Riggall said events such as The Burning Man Festival in the Californian desert complete with a temporary city build or creating a park in the High Line Tube walkway in NYC inspire a “anything is possible” attitude. 

Riggall himself came from making short films. He quickly grew frustrated that there weren’t many places to watch short films apart from late at night on Channel 4. He started curating short films from around the world under the moniker Future Shorts and then started doing screenings at nightclubs, outdoor venues and music festivals. And so began audience building for what would later morph into Secret Cinema.

The heart of his ambition is to bring people together and reinvent cinema going.

Future Shorts became Future Cinema and Riggall and his small team of cohorts began taking films such as Metropolis and Nosferatu and turning them into immersive evening experiences.

The first Secret Cinema screening in 2007 was with the now-defunct distributor Tartan Films, to create an event cinema moment around Paranoid Park. The distributor paid £2,000 to Secret Cinema to market the movie.

“We created Paranoid Park world with a skatepark and people came to this underground tunnel in London and we showed the movie. 400 people came and paid £5 a ticket,” Riggall said. “Now 120,000 come and pay up to £85 a ticket.”

SOCIAL SCREENS

“I am hugely passionate about cinema that tells social stories and has a social message. I think now more than ever films need to completely shake you and they need to imagine thoughts that could change society,” Riggall said.

With One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest, Secret Cinema turned an old hospital into a mental hospital, the audience were “sectioned,” organisers worked with artists who suffered from mental illness and they created an immersive world of film and brought 20,000 people to this old hospital. Secret Cinema worked in partnership with the British mental health charity Mind. “I am very interested in how creativity and culture could be much more used for attacking mental health issues,” Riggall added.

“I am interested in how the audience can become activists because of cinema”

Secret Cinema also mounted an event around Battle of Algiers during the Arab Spring of 2010. “We took this old series of arches in Waterloo and turned it into a kasbah, and the audience became inflicted into a world of terrorism and French colonialism,” said Riggall. “I was terrified the audience would hate it but they loved it. To have a 40-year-old, black-and-white movie about terrorism and show it to an audience who didn’t know they were coming to it, it was a secret, it was excellent.”

Another Secret Cinema production centred on Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove. The company built the Burpelson airbase, the Pentagon room and the situation room and put up 12 screens surrounding the audience. A stage was built in the middle and the audience would watch the screen on either side of it with the on stage actors bringing it to life during the film. Each night, Secret Cinema would host a debate about whether or not the U.K. should bomb Russia or not. “I am interested in how the audience can become activists because of cinema,” Riggall said.

28 Days Later was unleashed during the junior doctors’ strike in London. “We blamed the zombie apocalypse on [then U.K. government health secretary] Jeremy Hunt’s policy not to support junior doctors. And we worked with junior doctors to support their plight against Jeremy Hunt,” said Riggall. “I’ve always wanted the audience to lie on beds and watch the movie on the platform so we bought some beds and put screens up everywhere and had everyone lie down and watch the film with zombies attacking them from different corners.”

FURTHER BUSINESS

Fox Searchlight was an early believer in the power of Secret Cinema. Riggall said, “Fox Searchlight has been the most forward thinking studio in terms of giving us the opportunity in the beginning and has really believed in our ideas for Grand Budapest Hotel as a marketing vehicle for the movie.”

Secret Cinema started the screening of the film 10 days before its U.K. general release, with the company transforming a derelict old factory into the titular hotel. The audience became characters in the hotel and the film unspooled. “Each night there as a big waltz dance which we’d asked them to learn before they came,” Riggall said.

Riggall couldn’t resist working on Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. An arthouse erotic story set in Korea based on an English book, Riggall thought it was an extraordinary film. Secret Cinema struck a partnership with Curzon Artificial Eye and 20% of the overall box office release accounted for was Secret Cinema.

Secret Cinema transformed an empty venue into the estate of the master. The audience members were asked to wear certain clothes and Secret Cinema sent out rules via email to the audience telling them not to speak until they were granted permission..“People said, ‘You’ll never get them not to speak…everyone thought that would be one step too far,” said Riggall. “But it was the opposite. Everyone brought their pen and paper [to write notes to each other] and they didn’t speak to anyone for two hours until the master let them. It just shows that people want to be a part of a happening and an experience and at the same time they created an amazing marketing vehicle for the film.”

“I think Curzon would agree we were a big part of why that film has been the biggest foreign language film in England for the last five years,” Riggall said. 

Staging The Shawshank Redemption was one of Secret Cinema’s most popular events. “We took over an old school and turned it into a prison and we worked with Amnesty International to come up with real-life cases of people who were currently imprisoned,” Riggall said. “We made it so the audience could really feel, what is it like to be Andy Dufresne, what is it like to be put in prison, and we had an audience of 20,000.”

The audience was asked to come in thermal underwear under their clothes and they were all frog marched into a space, stripped apart from the aforementioned long johns and made to walk through this prison. “It’s kind of insane the idea that we can strip our audience, this sounds weird, but I guess the power this puts in our hands, the trust that we are creating an experience that has integrity, that is thinking about the film in an interesting way. That’s the trust that is so critical about knowing audiences and how to release movies.”

The audience were summoned to a court and tried with a criminal charge, put into blacked out buses so they couldn’t see what part of London they were in, and an actor playing a guard would walk them into “jail.” “People were put in the cells and we had actors integrate into that so they didn’t know who were actors and who were audience. “A big part of Secret Cinema is the blur between the two,” Riggall explained. “Each night there were 450 audience members who became prisoners in the world of The Shawshank Redemption. We had the audience write letters each night to different embassies around the world to demand the release of prisoners. So we actually sent 100 letters a night to embassies to demand the release on behalf of Amnesty.”

BIGGEST PRODUCTION TO DATE

The biggest Secret Cinema event production to date garnered 100,000 attendees. “I’m still amazed to this day we were able to get the rights to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in the year (2015) they were releasing The Force Awakens. Lucas Film’s Kathleen Kennedy gave us this amazing support and she really believed in what we did and gave us the opportunity to do it.”

Secret Cinema created a whole backstory that the audience were rebels who had been stranded on Earth after the clone wars and were going to activated to join the rebellion as Rebel X. Secret Cinema projected Rebel X onto buildings around London and lead people on a treasure hunt to a nightclub where the first 600 people received free tickets to the show. They sent out emails, mobile phone messages and about 3000 physical letters to potential audience members to join the rebellion. A bespoke website helped create 100,000 different identities/characters for audience users.

“We were collecting data just like Facebook but for something much more magical. You could see people in your neighbourhood who were going to the show, creating a social network,” said Riggall. “We really wanted people to meet before the show. Then we created a whole world of blogs and narrative around the whole Star Wars story and we always integrated it into live things that were happening.

Around 300 people worked on the production in 2015 with 100,000 through the doors. It cost around £7 million to mount. “Hopefully we are going to take it out internationally,” Riggall said.

INTERNATIONAL AMBITIONS

After 10 years and 46 productions in the UK, Riggall describes that run as “a long pilot to take it internationally” and help Secret Cinema reach audiences around the world.

“I fundamentally believe that culture has a much bigger part to play in activism and changing people’s minds and I think it is already happening and people are getting much more involved,” Riggall said.

As it plans to expand internationally, Secret Cinema now recruited a new leadership team led by CEO Max Alexander, formerly the MD of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatre company Really Useful Group. Kevin Fitzmaurice, former producer at the Royal Shakespeare Company, has joined as group creative producer.  

Riggall explained, “We have a big team working on developing it in the US, definitely launching in America. Then Europe. We’re looking at various different cities in Europe to launch. That’s the next step.”

MORE EXAMPLES

Riggall led CONNeXT attendees through more Secret Cinema case studies and projects during his session:

•  The company took hard-hitting Kurdish refugee camp drama Turtles Can Fly to the Calais “jungle” refugee camp as well as in10 cities around Europe. “I firmly believe that humanitarian aid has to include hope and the feeling of being a normal human and able to go to the cinema like we all can,” Riggall said.

•   I, Daniel Blake screened with director Ken Loach on hand. Lots of young British grime artists performed and Secret Cinema created a £3.50 ticket for 16 to 25 year olds to encourage young people to come.

•   Moulin Rouge— “a perfect Secret Cinema to do” because Baz Luhrmann’s films are so immersive and colourful. They created a French Belle Epoch world in East London for Secret Cinema’s first musical and gave the audience a choice of “characters” to play.

•  Back to the Future—Secret Cinema took an outdoor piece of tarmac in East London’s Olympic Park and transformed it into the world of Hill Valley with the audience as citizens. 4,000 people a night came with the famed DeLorean driving around the audience during the event.

•   Blade Runner— In 2018, “We felt it was the right time to do Blade Runner again to celebrate 10 years of Secret Cinema but also to connect with our addiction to technology and the prediction of Blade Runner to the environment and risks,” Riggall said. “When we did the show we built this sub brand called Utopia which represented the Tyrell Corporation and I guess was a mixture of Google, Facebook, Amazon and all those companies.”

UPCOMING IDEAS

Riggall has lots of ideas for how and what direction Secret Cinema might take in the future. He wants to work with TV shows, launch Secret Cinema for Kids starting with a golden ticket to Charlie And The Chocolate Factory; bring albums and musical experiences to life via Secret Music (Riggall would love to create an immersive version of Prince’s Purple Rain but the late musician’s estate is notoriously difficult to deal with); further screenings connected to activism and social causes and more affordable and universally reachable youth projects.

“The future of Secret Cinema is also we’re not going to show the movie (at some events). There’s going to be a side when we don’t show the movie and one when we do.”

PERSONAL RETURN

And now that Secret Cinema is in safe hands for its international expansion, Riggall is also planning a return to his filmmaking roots. “I’m also setting up a new company to make films and create films and think about what films can be in this world where everyone is playing Fortnite.”

With more than half a million customers on its mailing list and very big social media presence and proven ability to deploy it to engage with audience, Secret Cinema has become a stalwart cinema event participant in the U.K. and stands on the cusp of launch around the globe.

While the shows are incredibly expensive to put on, Secret Cinema is now in a position to have midweek tickets for £45 which rises to £120 for VIP tickets.

“It is expensive but think of it as a theatre, or a football match. What’s a football match, €75 for a big match? It’s expensive,” Riggall said. “People think we’re a big organisation but we’ve got 25 staff swelling to 200 when we do shows. It was always a battle to make it work but now we’ve created this formula and it is really in a good place.”

Just how much more immersive can it get? “We’re always fighting harder and harder to make it more immersive,” said Riggall. “The actors are getting better and better and the audience more and more engaged. All the pre-narrative, the build-up to the show, is making people come to the show in character. They’re not spectators, they’re participants. We want to grow that.”

Secret Cinema will likely begin its American rollout in New York and Los Angeles followed by potentially touring shows as well as static shows, “like the Cirque du Soleil model,” said Riggall.

And will we see Secret Cinema investing in its own picture palaces? 

“These are all discussions because the real estate thing is always a big part of what we do. Now we have great relationships with developers but it is very hard to find the buildings and get the space,” said Riggall. “I really believe there is always a music venue, there’s a theatre, a cinema, a nightclub, there’s a cafe. It’s already coming together, it’s already happening.

“I’m interested in how cinemas can evolve and what are cinemas for the distracted generation?”

If anyone can figure that out, it might just be Riggall.