How Secret Cinema won me over

Lessons from Secret Cinema’s Back to the Future

Source: Hill Valley California, Secret Cinema

Several months ago, experiential film company Secret Cinema cancelled the opening weekend for its highly anticipated rendition of Back to the Future, a last-minute move that caused an uproar among ticket holders who’d spent £50 apiece to attend.

Would-be attendees, some who flew in from far-flung parts of the world just to watch Marty McFly face off with Biff Tannen, flooded social media with expletives and berated Secret Cinema for letting them down. Secret Cinema gave few details on why it cancelled, further fuelling the social media ire:

Source: Hill Valley California, Facebook

As a Secret Cinema newbie who’d been among those looking forward to the show, I wondered: how are they going to fix this mess?

And yet they did, with style. The company swiftly rebooked me for a later show and delivered an experience so new, different and memorable that I was compelled to forgive them for the earlier cancellation.

It’s no secret

Secret Cinema built its reputation almost exclusively through word-of-mouth recommendations and the less-is-more marketing technique. What’s no secret, however, is their mission: to delight and awe.

The Secret Cinema formula succeeds by transforming what we habitually appreciate through watching on a flat-screen into a real-life experience. It basically takes what we already enjoy and makes it even better.

I’ve seen Back to the Future about 50 times, know the script inside out and occasionally recite lines from the movie in casual chats with friends or colleagues. Great Scott! We are late for a meeting! As a kid, I rode the Back to the Future Delorean ride at Universal Studios and even plastered my bedroom wall with the movie poster. What I never experienced, however, was the chance to take part in the movie (or at least feel like I’m in it).

Secret Cinema delivers on this aspiration, adding a new dimension to how we typically enjoy movies. The Guardian cleverly called it “a user-generated live event”.

Disrupting the space time continuum

The moment we left Hackney Wick station — the meeting point for the show — we ‘entered the stage’. We followed a long queue of fans decked in 50s attire into a beautifully recreated version of Hill Valley California, set in Olympic Park.

The iconic clock tower stood prominently on the opposite end. Mini establishments from Ruth’s Frock Shop to Lou’s Diner and the Hill Valley High School surrounded the large patch of faux grass in the middle. I could already hear Go Johnny Go blasting from inside the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.

More than 1,000 including actors and fans (at one point people got so into character I couldn’t tell the difference) dipped in and out of stores and restaurants, with burgers and milkshakes in hand, and speaking in fake American accents.

I saw Mr Strickland discipline misbehaved teens. George McFly greet attendees. Classic 50s cars swerve down Hill Valley. In true Back to the Future form, Doc Brown and his crazy white fluffy hair sauntered up and down the street.

Secret Cinema got even the tiniest details right. The John Lewis sign, which hovered behind the massive Hill Valley set, lit up once the sky turned dark, similar to the scene where Doc Brown introduces the Delorean to Marty for the first time. Unless this was an eerie coincidence…

But the highlight for me was the movie itself and — this bit I really didn’t expect — the accompanying real-life reenactments of our favourite scenes as the movie played in the background.

I did not expect to see a real-life Marty McFly ride a Delorean round Hill Valley. Biff Tannen and his gang really did chase Marty as he skateboarded his way out of trouble. And, towards the end, Doc Brown actually strapped himself to a cable at the top of the clock tower and glided Tarzan-style down to street as we all watched in awe at the somewhat dangerous stunt.

The bonus of all this: the venue banned us from taking photos and using our phones, a rule that preserved the vibe of the event. I happily ditched for my mobile for the evening and soaked in every aspect of my favourite movie of all time.

The experience taught me a very valuable lesson in managing community and customer relations. Try not to screw up the first time, but if you do then fix it immediately. Then wow your customers’ socks off.

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