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- Author: Helen W. Kennedy x
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The book presents a never-before-written case study of the UK-based organisation Secret Cinema – widely considered the leading provider of large-scale immersive experiences in the UK. They are used as a lens through which to understand the wider experiential economy. The book provides a comprehensive and encyclopaedic history of the organisation and its productions. It defines and examines the Secret Cinema format. It critically interrogates the work and operations of Secret Cinema as an organisation and analyses the many layers of audience experience. It combines rigorous academic study with practical industry insight that has been informed by more than fifty in-depth interviews with Secret Cinema practitioners and sector professionals who have worked on immersive productions in areas including performance direction, acting, video design, sound design and composition, lighting design, special effects, stage management, operations and merchandising. Framed within the context of the UK in late-2019, at which point the immersive sector had grown significantly, both through its increasing contribution to UK GDP and its widespread and global recognition as a legitimate cultural offering, we have captured an organisation and a sector that is in transition from marginal and sub-cultural roots to a commodifiable and commercial form, now with recognisable professional roles and practices, which has contributed to the establishment of an immersive experience industry of national importance and global reach. This book will appeal to scholars, students, film fans, immersive experience professionals and their audiences. It is written in an accessible style with rich case study materials and illustrative examples.
Encyclopaedic in its approach, this chapter traces the history of SC through its first six years and forty-five productions from 2006 to 2012. We describe a highly experimental and exploratory period in which different approaches, working practices and collaborations are tested, which build on the key historical antecedents of itinerant cinema, festival and fairground. We show how a particular format begins to emerge as a result of an iterative and experimental process. The chapter presents the key transitional periods which we argue are defined by a number of binary tensions. We have identified these as: Festivals to Financing (2006–2009) where we see the introduction of corporate sponsorship; Ephemerality to Replicability (2009–2010) where there is a move away from one-off screenings; Movements to Markets (2011) where narratives of resistance and disruption are introduced through the creation of parallel, online, fictional worlds to augment engagement with the event, but which also act as key marketing and promotional tools; and Spatialisation to Stratification (2012–2013) where the combined use of institutionalised spaces and narratives exerts control over audiences, while delivering highly stratified experiences bound up in class-based ideologies – richly epitomised by the final SC production of this period – The Shawshank Redemption.
This chapter captures a second turning point in the evolution of SC and its productions for three key, inter-related reasons. Firstly, the move into large, semi-permanent warehouse spaces increased the range of specialists who were required to design and manage the scale of these productions. Secondly, these new creatives brought considerable advancement to the narrative worldbuilding techniques and the sophisticated expansion of the now characteristic SC prequel narrative. Thirdly, SC founder Fabien Riggall’s increasing volubility in public and press accounts narrativised these experiences as responding to contemporaneous, real-world, socio-political issues. These three factors were instrumental in shaping the very real elaboration and evolution of the professional requirements and expectations of the SC format on one hand, and an attempt to shape the public corporate identity or ‘brand’ through which to communicate the value of their offer on the other. We combine an analysis of the five major warehouse-based productions of this period, the two outdoor events, numerous smaller-scale ‘X’ events, with a consideration of the many public interviews, appearances and presentations made by Riggall. Through this examination, we draw out the tensions that exist in the organisation’s communication of its corporate identity.
This chapter tracks the continued evolution of the SC format across thirteen productions over the five years from 2013 to 2018. The development of both the productions and the organisation are shaped by two further tensions which we identify as: Participation to Passivity; and Covert and Clandestine to Commercial and Commodified. These are epitomised by the largest production of this period – Back to the Future – which marked a significant turning point in SC’s evolution so far where the impact of the shift from the organisation’s clandestine roots to a more commercialised operation led to significant challenges, disruptions and discomfort for both the producers and audiences alike. Through an examination of all thirteen productions, we show how the format has evolved to cater for much larger audience numbers, and much longer runs. We lay out a set of experience design principles and their associated experiential aesthetics as they are encountered by the audiences, covering pre-ticket promotion; pre-narrative experience; and engagement. We take an in-depth look into the in-world microsites, social media accounts, flash mobs and pop-ups; the different places, sites and spaces of the productions; the pre-screening show and the screening itself.
This introductory chapter presents SC as an organisation of considerable national significance for the UK and demonstrates their global reach and influence. Situating SC as central to the immersive sector in the UK and the experience economy more broadly, we present our immersive experience industry ecosystem model – a model of the cultural and industrial ecosystem which supports the creation of immersive experiences. We evidence a rapid evolution of immersive organisations, experiences and formats in the UK in 2019. We argue that these are hybrid forms, crossing over nine key areas: cinema, festivals, theme parks and attractions, games, immersive technologies, brand agencies, television, theatre and performing arts, and hospitality. This model traces the influential moments and the key industrial practices that have both shaped the emergence of our case study example and influenced the formation of a definable and describable immersive ‘sector’. We outline the histories and trajectories of immersive experiences, our approach and method, outline the six chapters that follow and provide an important contextual note on SC and secrecy.
We examine the two landmark productions of 2019 – Casino Royale and Stranger Things – through the professionals who developed, designed and delivered them. SC’s productions involve the temporary coming together of a collaborative troupe of talented professionals that combine a cross-sectoral expertise comprising film, theatre, live and event management, service industry and theme park experience. We draw on thirty-eight in-depth interviews with SC collaborators who provide extensive insight into their working practices, logistical processes and creative techniques, including experience design and spatialised game design. We present an immersive experience production model showing the division of labour and the various inter-sector collaborations that are unique to this form. We reveal the dynamic emergence of increasingly specialised divisions of labour practice and craft, focussing on the particular strategies and challenges that building immersive experiences around established intellectual property brings. We reveal new, sector-specific terminology and the unique roles that have emerged, which span the performative and the logistical. We show how these collaborations are pushing the boundaries of creative, technical and logistical problem-solving within highly hybridised spaces where the engagement with thousands of audience members is central – to innovate a model of experience design which unites the contradictory principles of massification and individualisation.
In this chapter, we turn our attention to the central element of the SC experience design and business model – the audience. We track the changing nature of this audience, from an early-adopter, cinephiliac, hipster elite, via a broader and more mainstream fan community, to the emergence of a group of super-fans. We identify the playful and performative nature of the audience participation within these events, establishing a typology of engagements and an aesthetics of engagement including elements of ‘cosplay’ and social media identity display. We consider the ways in which audiences form experiencing communities around their participation in SC events. We also trace the emergence of a community of elite fans of SC who have dubbed themselves the Positive People of Secret Cinema (PPSC) – a group formed from a shared love of the SC experiences – who have evolved their own mores, values, rules, tastes and shared cultural practices. We conclude this chapter with a consideration of how the complex audience participation can be understood as forms of labour that contribute to the commercialisation and industrialisation of SC as an organisation.
In this concluding chapter, we re-contextualise SC within the wider immersive experience industry of 2021 through the themes of pivoting, pipelines and poaching – reaffirming and building on the ‘immersive experience industry ecosystem’ model established in the first chapter. Here we present the rich experiences and collaborations within the immersive experience industry of 2021 against the backdrop of the major transitions being wrought by the convergence of the creative production of film, theatre, games and screen media. We examine how the use of digital technologies in the production of creative outputs accelerated significantly and how innovative new applications were developed in response to the challenges brought by the pandemic from 2020. When physical and hybridised productions returned, creative advances continued apace as the same technologies, tools and software used to produce screen-based media were brought together with established stagecraft and emerging immersive performance talents and techniques. Our ecosystem model of 2021 is characterised by the emergence of super-hybrid experiences that are increasingly influenced by gaming and new technologies. We show how the picture that we painted of 2019, with mass-immersive events at their zenith, looked very different in 2021, following the rapid change, adaptation and evolution engendered by the global pandemic.