Secret Cinema’s plans for 2020 involved a much-anticipated show for Dirty Dancing, breaking the American market and bringing its first slate of Disney films to life following a mega tie-up with the movie giant. But amid Covid-19, the year ahead looks very different.
“It’s like winter has arrived, there’s a slowing down for three months, six months… I’m not sure,” says chief executive Max Alexander, who was facing a different kind of pressure just a few months ago when he revealed his ambitious plans to expand the experiential company.
After receiving private equity backing from Active Partners' $131m fund and attracting industry heavyweights like Alexander, IMG veteran Alex Ward and The Mill and Copa90 exec Damien Macaulay, it inked tie-ups with Netflix and Disney to act as a pseudo ‘experiential creative agency’ to plan events around their most popular titles.
A stroke of luck meant that it had wrapped up its successful showing of Stranger Things just weeks before the coronavirus outbreak in London. Meanwhile, as the situation improves in China, Alexander is hopeful that the Casino Royale show in Shanghai will re-open. The plan to bring Dirty Dancing to life this summer has not been cancelled, though he is anticipating that dates will change.
“But in America the brakes were pulled hard,” he continues. “We were so ready to go and now it’s hard to get people to return calls about property we can’t possibly visit in LA and Las Vegas.”
The partnerships with Netflix and Disney are still holding strong, but events are likely to take place deep into next year, even if circumstances on both sides of the Atlantic improve.
Perhaps surprisingly for an experimental company that can’t put on any experiences, Secret Cinema has not been forced to make redundancies to its team of over 40. And that’s largely thanks to a quick pivot to bring “congregational storytelling” into the digital world.
Last week, it held its first Zoom party. 80s themed, hosted by actor Jackson and two DJs, it sold over 1,000 tickets at £5 a pop to raise money for the Trussell Trust, a nationwide poverty charity and food bank network.
“It was wonderful. We had 600 browsers open at any one-time. People were playing games, we had a dance-off and we encouraged people to dress up. It was amazing.”
Since then, it’s forged a deal with ice-cream giant Häagen-Dazs for an eight-week run of virtual screening experiences. Dubbed ‘Secret Sofa’, it will take place at 7.30pm every Friday and feature bespoke content, character narratives and interactive elements inspired by the evening’s film.
The first screening will be for Wes Anderson opus The Grand Budapest Hotel. Much like its live-action experience, Secret Cinema will issue those that have signed up with an email containing instructions on what kind of costume to wear, the sing-a-long and music playlists to rehearse, dance routines and prop making advice.
Finally, a Secret Sofa Facebook group will host audience discussions about the film and encourage people to share their pictures from the night.
“What we’re trying to do is, firstly, not to overstate our own importance in people’s lives,” says Alexander. “What we’re doing is kind of silly right? It’s not serious, but it is important to add some kind of structure and appointment to people’s lives; come, dress up and have a dance. We’ll get better at it, embellish it and add more as we get up and running. But right now, it’s put a hat on, grab an ice-cream and watch a movie.”
Though born from necessity amid the coronavirus chaos, Alexander has every intention of keeping the format when life inevitably returns to normal. Having a digital extension of the brand was always on its agenda, it just hadn’t figured out exactly how to execute it.
“It’s the kind of thing we’ve wanted to do this over the past few years and have never had the time to get our act together because we’re always on the treadmill of the next show. But we have a loyal base and we’ve wanted to offer more than just a couple of shows a year,” he says.
“We’ll keep going after. Why wouldn’t we? If this does appeal to people, it’s not a huge overhead for us to deliver and for people to consume.”