It's no secret that Hollywood have been running scared the last few years. Falling admissions, the ever-present threat of piracy, a collapse in the DVD market…these are dark times for the major studios. But there has been a glimmer of hope, thanks to certain exhibition techniques with both large-screen IMAX and 3D becoming virtually requirements when it comes to major tentpoles, with the subsidies on ticket prices as a result helping to boost grosses for many major movies, and giving others — like "Titanic" and "Star Wars" — a new lease of life through rereleases. Hell, theaters are even trying to make an extra dollar or two with D-Box vibrating seats, of all things.
But a regular event in London that's been growing and growing over time looks to have established another possible way for studios to boost their income. Secret Cinema, part of the Future Shorts brand (who do excellent work in getting audiences to see short films and music videos) has been running since 2007, with events of some form or another every few months. Tipped off mostly through mailing lists and social networks, guests can buy a ticket in advance (ordinarily north of £20, or about $30) with a few very cryptic hints as to what they will be seeing, and are usually asked to abide by some kind of dress code, and to report to a location somewhere in London.
Normally taking place in a disused warehouse or something similar, ticket-holders are then escorted in by actors in costume and character, and find the world of a film (past selections have included "Blade Runner," "The Battle Of Algiers," "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," "Wings Of Desire," "The Red Shoes," "The Warriors" and "The Third Man") recreated, with themed food and drink available, as well. Often actors also recreate elements of the plot, somtimes during the screening — the conclusion of "Blade Runner" saw Deckard and Roy Batty lookalikes dangling from a rooftop, and the end of "Bugsy Malone" saw a splurge gun and custard pie fight break out in the audience (that screening also included a mini-casino, a boxing ring, and pre-show songs by Fat Sam & co.). Watch some of the videos at the end of this article to get a better idea of what to expect.
The reason that it's in the headlines at the moment is that for the latest extravaganza — the company's 18th — the film was "Prometheus," put together with the full cooperation of the studio and filmmakers (including an introduction by Ridley Scott), and opening for business on June 1st, the same day as the film hit theaters in the U.K. And across its month-long run, it sold over $1.1 million worth of tickets to 25,000 people (each paying a hefty £35, over $50), making it the highest-grossing engagement of the film, and representing just under 5% of the total British gross of "Prometheus" to date.
It's not the first time a new release has been part of Secret Cinema — one-off events were held for "RockNRolla," "Watchmen" and "Anvil! The Story Of Anvil" back in the day. But it's certainly the longest, and the most ambitious — the event included original props and costumes from the film, original digital imagery from Oscar-winning effects house Framestore, a "soundscape" by Radiohead, and specially-built 3D theaters for projection of the movie. And with the brand apparently heading to the U.S., with a New York event of some kind expected in the fall (and Alamo Drafthouse's Rolling Roadshow already doing something similar, albeit stripped down), it certainly makes you think.
Because if audiences who pay $15 and upwards for an IMAX ticket are also willing to pay $50 for a new movie they don't even know the name of, some studio executive has to be salivating out there. For one, Secret Cinema managed to sell $1 million worth of tickets to people without them knowing what they were going to see. But certainly, special road-show presentations of major movies in larger markets (even with the name known) must be circulating. Think about it — "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" with Civil-War re-enactors embellishing the experience. "Brave" with medieval hog roasts and real-life archery contests. "Rock Of Ages" at the Hollywood Bowl, with live performances before and after. It has the potential to make moviegoing into an event again, which is something that's become a holy grail for studios.
Of course, it's not quite as simple as that. This is never really going to be something that can be rolled out on a wider scale. The profit margins are going to be much lower — the events are not cheap, and even if you're not installing 3D equipment, you're still employing dozens of actors and staff. And we wonder how much the "secret" aspect is part of the selling point; the events in London have built a loyal and ever-increasing following who'll turn up to anything, but if you tried to sell an event specifically branded to the "Total Recall" remake (for example), you're only ever going to get audiences who wanted to see that in the first place (although the company recently reprised their "Bugsy Malone" event for a month, to sold-out houses, so maybe not).
Perhaps more importantly, we know from personal experience that the evenings can be frustrating and disappointing. We've been to a few of the London evenings, and they can be great fun; being a bit drunk and wandering around the streets of futuristic, "Blade Runner" styled L.A with a bunch of friends is good fun. The atmosphere is invariably great, with an impressive attention to detail in the production design and choice of location, and the actors are generally committed and enjoyable as well. As a party, they're impressive, and especially for kids; we took some young relatives to the recent "Bugsy Malone" event and they had an absolute blast.
But as a filmgoing experience, it can leave a lot to be desired. The projection and sound is generally shitty: more often than not, the films have been shown from a DVD (or a Blu-Ray if you're lucky), and the sound is frequently inaudible thanks to the party atmosphere. And if you haven't seen the film they're screening already, stuff like a custard pie fight or actors re-enacting the film's ending aren't immersive, they're actively distracting.
To be fair, it would seem that Secret Cinema have anticipated this. We didn't go ourselves (again, $50…), but we're told that the sound and projection quality for "Prometheus" was pretty good, and that the film itself was unencumbered by interruptions. And there's part of us that finds the idea of William Castle-like roadshow embellishments to new releases hugely appealing — think of "Magic Mike" with live male strippers before the film, as happened at some press screenings.
But ultimately, any difference it could make to wide releases in terms of box office in the U.S. is likely to be minimal, and probably not worth it, given the expense that would be involved. The boost to the indie world might be more intriguing, though, especially as the target audience for this kind of thing is pretty much well-off, metropolitan types — could a month-long run of "The Deep Blue Sea" where the audience first gather in a reconstruction of a Blitz-era London pub have improved the films grosses? Or a reconstruction of the Bathtub from "Beasts Of The Southern Wild?" The raft of publicity to the Secret Cinema version of "Prometheus" is likely to make some enterprising U.S. distributor or start-up try at some point, but time will show if it comes off. But what about you? Would your showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" be improved if it took place in a reconstruction of Gotham City? Or would you rather just watch the damn film? Let us know your thoughts below.