After inking a deal with Disney, British success story Secret Cinema has its sights set on propelling the business into the competitive American market. Confident, but not cocky, in its grand ambitions, its chief executive has already begun hunting ad agencies and plotting a major campaign that will tell the brand’s story for the first time.
The decision to take Secret Cinema into the US market follows a three-year focus on making the brand a business. It was set up in 2007 by Fabian Riggall simply as a fun way to get his friends watching the obscure movies he loved. As chief executive Max Alexander tells The Drum, the appeal of that original idea has never been in doubt, but how to make serious cash from it has been a challenge.
In a few short years it transformed from Riggall’s small screening parties into an interactive company that puts on events bringing popular films and TV shows to life through an interactive experience involving actors, musicians and elaborate sets in a 'secret' location near London. Each show, running anywhere from a few nights to several weeks, can attract up to 120,000 people and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to produce. It requires Secret Cinema to quickly scale from 45 people in its Old Street head office to over 500 working around the clock to deliver the high-quality experiences attendees have come to expect. In the past, this has meant that it is breaking even on some shows rather than bringing in any profit.
“It was an amazing cultural phenomenon, but not really a business,” recalls Alexander, the former managing director at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, and before that managing director of TalkTalk TV and Blinkbox, who joined in 2017.
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But that’s changed.
It’s received private equity backing from Active Partners' $131m fund, subsequently attracting industry heavyweights like Alexander, IMG veteran Alex Ward and The Mill and Copa90 exec Damien Macaulay to help steer the company into a profitable future. The investment round has also seen the marketing approach mature to pave the way for substantial deals with the likes of Disney.
Until recently, it relied on word of mouth to promote events. Its Shawshank Redemption show in 2013, for example, saw it transport a handful of people who had no knowledge of what they would be viewing on a prison bus to an abandoned school. They were escorted by ‘prison guards’, searched, and asked to wear jumpsuits before being put in ‘cells’ before the evening’s screening was revealed.
“There was no real money spent on marketing back then, everything was invested in the quality of the show and the content was the marketing,” says Alexander.
“After the private equity round, Moulin Rouge [2017, main picture] was the first time we did any kind of marketing investment. We had a tiny budget in the tens of thousands of pounds which went on Google Search. And it was at that point that we hired our first marketing professional.”
It now has a formal marketing team of five people and a considerable budget that goes into radio, cinema, outdoor and digital.
But the biggest shift in strategy over the past 18 months has been the pivot to securing IP from production studios to put on events around TV shows and movies that are current. Among them, Stranger Things, which it created an experience around after striking a deal with Netflix at the height of its popularity.
“We’ve gone from, in the old days, doing [shows] on older titles like Blade Runner, Moulin Rouge, and Back to the Future, to things which are very live franchises like James Bond and Stranger Things. So, we’re trying to have at least one eye on how many fans a particular title brings with it,” Alexander explains.
“Back in the olden days, we might have done a show that sold 20,000 tickets. Now we sell 120,000.”
Partnerships with advertisers keen to get a slice of the action followed, with Coca-Cola, make-up brand Mac and O2 listed among its current sponsors.
This has paved the way for the landmark deal with Disney which will see Secret Cinema enter the US market for the first time. But as the model in the UK has matured, so too has the approach it’s planning to take with major movie studios. Instead of the “transactional” relationship of Alexander securing content IP and a show then being produced, it’s working as a pseudo ‘experiential creative agency’ for Disney, whereby it will plan events around titles that have yet to be released.
“We’ve been talking to Disney for a long while, and historically the relationship has been very positive but transactional. That made us interesting but more of a curiosity than a partner. And we've worked really hard with Disney over the last year to find a model where we can become more important to them,” he explains.
“We are now talking in detail with technical people at Disney and Disney Labs years before a title’s released about how to bring these worlds to life in an even more rich and creative way than we had done before.”
But that’s not to say it won’t produce shows from classic films in the Disney archive. Alexander predicts it will be a 50/50 split between “old and new”.
“We are getting new audiences to interact with them in a way that, even in a park setting, is really hard. Some people think that what we do is sort of the next generation of parks,” he adds.
In preparation for the Disney work, it is planning to open an office in Los Angeles in the immediate future with a potential New York office also in consideration.
“I anticipate America to be ludicrously challenging. Some days I wake up on the balls of my feet like a theatrical panther. And some days I wake up and find myself in the corner weeping,” Alexander jokes.
“But we're really good at what we do. 46 shows in, we have muscle memory and have made so many mistakes that we’ve learned from that we have modest confidence in our ability to deliver.”
But he doesn’t want it to be sucked into the Disney machine. Its American ambition will only come to fruition If it can convince other movie and TV studios to license their IP. So building Secret Cinema into a recognisable consumer brand in its own right, as it has done in the UK, is a priority.
The cost of doing this in a country where “there are so many brands shouting at you” is something that Alexander admits makes him “nervous”. So he has begun the hunt for an advertising agency that can help.
“In the UK we’ve never done any brand work. We’ve built a brand through advocacy and the joy people have in the shows. So, we are going to have to invest ahead of opening in developing a brand and getting audience interest so that when we announce the titles we’re developing people will have some sense of who’s talking to them,” he says. “We're talking to various agencies now.”
And the marketing budgets will follow. While word-of-mouth mixed with a smattering of digital and out of home advertising have given Secret Cinema credibility among British audiences, Alexander knows that stateside it will have to go bigger and that means a heavy above-the-line investment into TV is potentially on the horizon.
Of course, as Alexander pushes forward with his plan for Secret Cinema’s global domination, he is mindful of maintaining the balance of making people that come to the shows feel as if they’re at something exclusive and, well, secret.
“We haven't compromised the production values of the shows at all,” he says, highlighting that to keep the ‘in the know’ feeling it will limit the number of attendees at each show, even if the runs are longer, and up the production values to make them feel more impressive.
“I grew up in the 90s when I first started going to rave and parties they were underground. Five years later, three million people were jumping around at them at the weekend. But it was still really fun and lots of people were still going," he adds.
“So making this change is not an impossible transition from going underground to more mainstream. But still with the same integrity in the product and with the same joy and intrigue and mystery at the heart of it.”