The joys and perils of Secret Cinema

It transports customers back in time or to a galaxy, far, far away but immersive film screening expert Secret Cinema can also land them in an overpriced apocalypse

Jack Shepherd
Thursday 09 March 2017 17:51 GMT
Wrong note: a track record of amazing events is marred by hiccups such as the oysters at a recent ‘Moulin Rouge!’ event in London – food poisoning was reported
Wrong note: a track record of amazing events is marred by hiccups such as the oysters at a recent ‘Moulin Rouge!’ event in London – food poisoning was reported (Laura Little)

From its beginnings in 2007 as a small, intimate gathering of friends, Secret Cinema has transformed into a series of hugely popular interactive outdoor film screenings and theatrical events.

Thousands of costumed punters turn up to purpose-built sets such as Back to the Future’s Hill Valley – the 1950s of Marty McFly recreated in 2014 east London.

That particular event perhaps marked the moment Secret Cinema went mainstream. While two initial performances were cancelled with only a few hours’ notice – with much dismay vented on social media – reviewers came to rave about the experience. The Independent said it “blurred the line between fiction and reality”.

Realising big projects could make a lot of money, Secret Cinema was changed forever. Previously its productions were mostly “Tell No One” events – attendees would not know what film would be shown. While smaller events continue – such as last year’s 24 screenings of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove which took £1.24m at the box office – its huge ones are on a different scale: 40,000 Back to the Future tickets sold within the first hour of being on sale.

So how did Secret Cinema follow up the unfathomable success of Back to the Future? Why with another classic, of course: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was a phenomenal production that took place in another secret east London location. This set-up was new beast that still marks Secret Cinema’s absolute high point. While participants were able to freely roam Tatooine, actors were on hand to play out the first Star Wars film almost in its entirety. There was even a huge X-wing Starfighter on hand to blow up the Death Star.

Then, of course, attendees sat down to watch the second and best Star Wars film. Actors dressed as Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker played out scenes such as the famous “I am your father” one alongside the projection. It was the perfect evening for any fan, such as myself (how could watching “Han shot first” surrounded by other people dressed in costume not be unbelievably fun?).

Unfortunately, though, despite two hugely successful productions, the follow-up was a dud; 28 Days Later was, by nearly all accounts, a huge letdown. The majority of the production required attendees – whose costumes, by no choice of their own, were unimaginative medical garb – to run through a post-apocalyptic world while actors dressed as zombies, jumped out. However, once participants clocked the actors couldn’t actually touch them for health and safety reasons, with narrow corridors stopping people from running, the event’s punch was lost.

What was perhaps worse was after the light run was over is people were made to wait around in an enclosure where the only entertainment was people shouting at you, a rave where DJs played The Prodigy, and – of course – buying food and drink. This marks the predominant problem many people have with Secret Cinema: the cost.

While tickets have often been priced around the £49 mark, some begin around £79. On top of that, drinks and food are rather excessively priced inside. For the rich, that’s fine, but for many, given Secret Cinema won’t actually tell you beforehand what the event entails, it’s a risk not worth taking. With 28 Days Later, the price wasn’t worth it. Which was unfortunate as the last two major events were so great.

Dirty Dancing, which also took place in last year, was an improvement, capitalising on how Secret Cinema’s musical events have always felt like huge parties that just happen to be themed. (The Independent’s review likened the event to a music festival, if adding that Secret Cinema hadn’t quite fulfilled its true potential.)

Now, though, we have the Moulin Rouge! events, based around the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film and the current pinnacle of Secret Cinema. It has managed to up the ante once more, creating an event almost on a par with its ‘screening’ of Empire Strikes Back all those years ago. This production takes the best bits of every other production and crams them together for something truly awe-striking; a sensory overload, as noted in our review.

The question is, where does Secret Cinema go from here? Another musical, like the almost-winner of the best picture Oscar, La La Land? Or perhaps something truly audacious, like Lord of the Rings? Imagine acting out the entire Fellowship of the Ring, only to watch the Two Towers. It would be phenomenal (and exceedingly long). Whatever the case, just not another overpriced horror, thanks.

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