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With Secret Cinema, the future of film stars you

Why just watch a movie when you can star in one? Meet Secret Cinema, Punchdrunk and the companies ready to cast you in a “live experience.”

Secret Cinema's Shawshank production. Credit: Secret Cinema Secret Cinema's Shawshank production.
Credit: Secret Cinema

You’re walking down a dark metallic corridor, the disorienting sounds of machinery, attack alarms and soldiers in lockstep blaring from the room ahead. A minute ago, you were just some dude after work, three beers in. But now you’re wearing a jumpsuit on what appears to be, as you turn the corner, a massive spaceship. You see marines in zero-G gear, a decontamination room and a massive recon vehicle 20 feet tall, surrounded by dry ice. It’s like something out of “Alien.” No, wait, this IS “Alien!” Or, more specifically, the “Alien” spinoff “Prometheus.” And you’re starring in it. Your living movie has just begun.

The above describes an event last year thrown by Secret Cinema, a group run by Future Cinema, the British company that calls itself a “live cinema.” It’s part of a trend of immersive experiences around the world. The goal is participation, and Hollywood is listening: Anything that peels you away from Netflix — and gets you to pay more — tends to do that.

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“I see it as riding the edge of culture,” Future Cinema founder Fabien Riggall told Wired last year. He has since declined interview requests, for fear he’s revealed too much —Secret Cinema generates buzz by keeping the films themselves secret, hence the name.

But we’ve been! After buying a ticket online ($60 and up), you’re sent mysterious instructions about where to go and what costume to wear, but nothing more. You roam the spaces, touching, drinking, playing games and interacting with actors, who might send you on missions (or devour you, if it’s “Prometheus”). Then, finally, you watch the movie.

“Prometheus” earned the company $1.1 million and had the blessing of director Ridley Scott, who introduced the film (via video) and donated props. The company’s “Shawshank Redemption” experience reportedly raked in $2.7 million. Yeah, people paid to pretend to be in jail.

Despite its cool cred, Future Cinema wasn’t the first to be so bold. That honor goes to Punchdrunk, a British theater company around since 2000. Their current productions include “Sleep No More,” an interactive adaptation of “Macbeth,” which has played in Boston and New York, and “The Drowned Man” in London, in which you wander through several warehouse floors of a noir-ish Los Angeles — a living, breathing, sepia-toned “Grand Theft Auto,” where every fairground, movie studio and bedroom has been constructed to the finest detail, right down to old bottles in the medicine cabinets.

“We want to almost place the audience in an atmosphere where they’re witnessing living films,” says Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk’s artistic director. “When we’re directing it we talk about wide shots and close-ups, and we encourage each of the performers to imagine that they’re heroes of their own movie.”

The result is a choose-your-own adventure: You could end up following the town drunk for an hour as he gets kicked out of the local diner; or watch the narrative, an adaptation of Georg Buchner’s “Woyzeck,” that trails from room to room; or end up at the bar, enjoying a burlesque performance and happily missing the “real show.”
“We want to make theater dangerous again so that you’re out of your comfort zone,” Barrett says.

Think globally
Future Cinema is planning a worldwide expansion, having just attempted events in New York, London and Greece. And Barrett plans to take his fake world experience into the real one. Imagine this: “You book a holiday. You get a date, a locker and a key for the airport, and you open your locker and you find out where you’re flying to. You’re given one instruction — say, a cafe to go to — and then the show has begun and it’s a completely surreal world.”

 
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