Secret Cinema has ironically been making headlines all weekend. The company, who specialise in immersive cinema events staged at secret locations around London, have found themselves at the wrong end of an almighty media backlash after cancelling all their July screenings of Back to the Future, their most ambitious (and expensive) project yet.
So where did it all go wrong for an indie phenomenon that has gone from strength to strength over the last couple of years? Secret Cinema themselves are keeping very mum on the issues that forced them to cancel their opening dates at very short notice.
What can be said is that Secret Cinema as a concept is no longer something for the niche enjoyment of East London hip elite. Back to the Future is by no means a cult film in the same way that Nosferatu or Paranoid Park are. However, Secret Cinema have previously curated screenings of Ghostbusters and The Shawkshank Redemption. A change in the company’s target audience cannot fully explain how Secret Cinema were able to shift 85,000 tickets for this summer’s run.
The reason for Secret Cinema’s surge in popularity and this weekend’s stark fall from grace is that their motto, ‘tell no one’ has largely gone ignored. Secret Cinema have put on some fantastic events, wowed people with the unexpected, and those same people have gone home and raved about it to their friends. I went to see a Secret Cinema production of Laura Marling’s latest album last June, which was held in The Grand Eagle; a 1920s hotel converted from a disused Hackney schoolhouse. I had no idea what I was doing, turned up in my black tie and was amazed by one of the most incredible pieces of performance art I have ever seen. Through repeatedly coming up trumps with a variety of different films and events, Secret Cinema had built up a bond of trust with their fans. People turned up, risked looking a little silly, but ultimately enjoyed themselves. Wandering through Bethnal Green in a tuxedo was not a comfortable experience, but that risk was outweighed by how spectacular the Grand Eagle Hotel project was.
Laura Marling provided an ideal niche for Secret Cinema’s ambition. She is a popular enough singer for them to draw a crowd and make headlines off the back of the performance, but she remains independent enough for the company to not be overwhelmed by demand. Though the reasons for the failure of Back to the Future remain secret, curating a similarly immersive experience for such a large number of people cannot be logistically easy. Secret Cinema’s organisational travails have not been treated sympathetically, but this is perhaps to be expected when you cancel at short notice an experience that requires the customer to leave their phone at home.
The Secret Cinema is no longer a secret. It is no longer a movement lurking under the radar. Selling 85,000 tickets at 50 quid each suggests that most people know what they are buying into. It will be interesting to see how Secret Cinema rebound from this summer. The concept clearly has legs and when they pull it off, it is beautiful. It will be intriguing (as well as a grand irony) if Back to the Future returns the company to a kind of indie ground-zero; that by losing enough popularity this summer, their fanbase might decrease to its hip-core and the concept will become more easily workable. For now, Secret Cinema have a PR mountain to climb and nine August screenings of Back to the Future to deliver.