Life in the silver screen

On its 10th anniversary, Secret Cinema’s Fabien Riggal talks to Joanne Frearson about changing the way people watch movies

Secret Cinema started 10 years ago as an idea for a new way of watching films, and it’s grown ever since, changing the way audiences perceive entertainment and creating new forms for artists to work in.

Fabien Riggal, founder of Secret Cinema, tells me that setting up as an entrepreneur first occurred to him when he was “working in telephone sales and doing running on the side.”

“It was an interesting concept I was working on – making my proper first short film, called She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not,” he says. “I was making this film but at the same time I was working in telephone sales, because in telephone sales you have to be hyper-confident – you pretend to be different people.

“So all of a sudden I just told people I was a producer. I would make one call for the telephone sales company and one call trying to get my film made. My confidence would suddenly switch – I realised that is all it is, really. You just say you are something and you are.”

After completing his film, Riggall started thinking about the ways in which people consumed movies. He wanted to see if people would come to see a film if they didn’t even know where it was being screened, or even what the film was in the first place – or even if the secrecy would make them somehow more intrigued. Sure enough, 450 people turned up to watch the first Secret Cinema screening.

Ten years later, the company has grown, with its events attracting upwards of 1,000 people a night.

Riggal believes Secret Cinema’s success comes from creating a new form of entertainment which breaks free from the restrictions many artists face. “If you look at every single area, it is dying to come out of its frame – fashion catwalks, theatre stages, music venues,” he says. “What we are interested in is creating a new way of experiencing culture and freeing artists to get their work seen in new ways.”

He cites the recent film Dancer, a documentary about Ukrainian ballet prodigy Sergei Polunin, the youngest principal dancer of the Royal Ballet, who left after just two years, as an example. “He was the most celebrated dancer, but he quit,” says Riggal. “His explanation was that he just felt trapped. There has to be place for radical change and place where artists can experiment with new forms, film, music, art and theatre.”

“People want to sit in a seat and watch a movie, but they also want to go to the theatre and see a wonderful play at the National. There is growing hunger for more active cultural experiences. Audiences are looking to become participants, not audiences. There is a joy in coming together in big groups of people in this way.”

For Riggal, Secret Cinema is about building a company that empowers artists to create new forms and new ideas while also giving audiences the ability to stop being audiences, at least in the traditional sense. When Secret Cinema screened Blade Runner at Canary Wharf in 2010, attendees were instructed to arrive at the venue dressed in a punk, gothic or neon style, and were told to wear goggles because of “fears of acid rain”.

Says Riggall: “We sent that as a press release to the press, and on ITV and other places they [repeated it] almost as if it was real. I think we invented fake news. That was a special moment, when I realised all 1,000 of the audience came completely dressed up. They looked amazing in goggles and hair extensions. I was like, this is really working.”

The recent Moulin Rouge screening has taken the concept a step further, with the audience being given characters, with biographies and backgrounds that are interconnected. Effectively, every night about 1,000 characters are played by the audience itself.

“It is a film that is very evocative, especially now with the sense of kind of gloom and disillusion with what’s outside, and the power that we have over what’s outside,” Riggal says. “When you come to this world you are allowed to dream – you are allowed to be just whoever you want to be and the rules have changed. People are looking for that.”

The past 10 years has seen Secret Cinema develop a loyal following, and Riggal is planning to launch new secret events in other cities. “We are also looking at moving into producing the films, so we can control a complete world,” he says. “It just boggles the mind, what that can do if we were to write a script. We’re inspired by the world of the film, and we build a world around it. The audience of Moulin Rouge lived in Monmarte in 1899.”