I have been hearing about Secret Cinema for years. It began back in 2007 with Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, which was screened under London Bridge, and it has gone onto to screen classic movies like Lindsay Anderson’s anarchic …If at public school Dulwich College, Blade Runner at Canary Wharf in 2010 and Back To The Future last year — where they built Hill Valley’s town square in the Olympic Park. But nothing could prepare me for walking into a nondescript London warehouse to see The Empire Strikes Back.
The organizers have requested that certain aspects of Secret Cinema remain a secret so we’ll try and be a little coy. Basically, at the core of Secret Cinema is giving people an experience on the way to watching The Empire Strikes Back by recreating certain settings and scenes from both Star Wars: A New Hope and its sequel. All the food concessions are located in “Mos Eisley.” You walk past people channeling the Force in concrete huts, squads of Stormtroopers looking for rebel activity, and there are even a few Luke Skywalkers and Obi Wan Kenobis strolling around — fans are in costume, too, so sometimes it’s hard to work out who are the paid performers and who are just the punters.
There were a few hot Princess Leias, a hot brunette X-Wing Fighter and lots of Jedis. Yes, some of them were attractive but some were literally hot: The temperature was in the 80s so standing around in full cosplay for over an hour to get into somewhere where you had to stand around in full cosplay for another three hours shows true dedication. The warehouse is fairly airless inside so they do manage to recreate that wretched hive of scum and villainy with style.
Esquire UK’s Consulting Editor Andrew Harrison sees the continuing appeal of Secret Cinema as obvious: “In a world where pretty much every entertainment experience takes place on a screen there’s something incredibly exciting about a real-world happening that you experience in real time. Cinema’s masterstroke is to combine a movie we know and love with a surprise factor — what’s going to happen? — and the feeling of immersion in a world you already know. It can’t be digitally duplicated and everyone’s experience is different, similar to participatory theater experiences like The Drowned Man. So people want to go again and again, and consider the high ticket price to be fair. You’d never have predicted that the digital entertainment era would produce real events like this, and yet here we are.”
Secret Cinema has almost 70,000 people following them on Twitter and 270,000 on Facebook. Tickets start at a slightly eye watering £75 ($116) but the thousands of people in the queue proves that you can’t put a price on an experience like this. Secret Cinema’s founder and creative director Fabien Riggall takes this as seriously as the people in the audience, it turns out: “With the empire closing in on Earth, we felt an urgent call to join the rebel alliance and catapult the Rebels into the world of Star Wars, taking them into the heart of the Rebellion in a galaxy far far away. Secret Star Wars is Real and anyone can live inside it. Tell No One.”
The journey to get to see The Empire Strikes Back — which runs until September 27th — is fun and well-realized but once you sit down to watch the film, the act of watching the film itself feels like a little bit of an anti-climax after all the build-up. Still, you can’t argue with box office and despite a few problems last year (Back to The Future was hit by several cancellations early on), with something like Star Wars, they’re onto a winner in terms of putting fans on seats. Attracting around 1,000 people through the doors at more than $100 a pop and, with concession stands paying to sell their wares at Secret Cinema, basic math says they’re doing pretty well. Performances run every day until the end of September. The real question is whether they can continue to build the momentum of Secret Cinema.
Audiences these days do love a bit of nostalgia and Secret Cinema plugs into that love of their past. Former Time Out London editor Dominic Wells finds Secret Cinema a unique experience. “When you turn up to a Secret Cinema event, and I’ve been to three, you know you will be surrounded by like-minded film fans, all happy to chat and get into the spirit of the event,” he says. “And when you really love a film, being given the opportunity to actually live inside that world for an evening is something truly special. At the Star Wars evening, I was passed by a life-size landspeeder containing Obi-Wan Kenobi in a village on Tatooine. For a second I was a kid again.”
Joel Meadows has written about genre for over two decades now, for publications like Time Magazine, Empire, Variety and Esquire and is also the editor-in-chief of long-running comics and genre publication Tripwire.