"We lock up our customers and take their phones"

Secret Cinema CEO Max Alexander explains the marketing challenges of the immersive film business.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 02 Dec 2019

 Max Alexander is bleary eyed when he speaks to us. The CEO of Secret Cinema has just returned from Shanghai, where the live theatre-come-film company has just launched its first international preview. 

By all accounts the production of Casino Royale, the first of Daniel Craig’s 007 films, was well received by the Chinese public. As part of the extensive set, viewers experienced recreations of several locations within the film including Madagascar and Miami, and they were even given the chance to take a flutter in a Montenegrin casino. But there was a slight problem. 

"After the final preview we were out for dinner with our partners when all of sudden some of our Chinese colleagues stood up and left. We thought they’d just gone out for a cigarette, but then quite some time passed," explains Alexander. 

The partners had actually received a call from the cultural bureau which had analysed the social media posts from the event. Viewers had especially enjoyed the opportunity to gamble - something that hadn’t gone down too well with the Chinese authorities and their strict gambling laws. 

"It was 11 o'clock at night and we were a couple of bottles of whiskey down, the show was due to open at 11 o'clock the next morning and they said you're going to have to take the gambling out.

"We’ve had to get quite good at accepting red lines."

Such last minute changes are a common occurrence for Alexander and his team. 

Secret Cinema essentially merges live, immersive experiences with watching films. It was founded in 2007 by Fabien Riggall and has grown largely through word of mouth marketing.

Shows are hosted at undisclosed locations - often in sprawling warehouses - and the audience is expected to play an active part. They need to dress up, their phones are confiscated upon arrival and scenes from the movie (or prequels) are recreated around them by actors before the screening begins.

It now has 40 full-time staff (although several hundred may be employed in helping to create a production) and sells an average of 100,000 tickets to each of its two UK shows a year.

"Our competitors are everything else you can spend money on," says Alexander, who adds that a night at one of Secret Cinema’s two annual shows is not cheap, usually around £80 a ticket.

"At some level the company is competing with special occasions, be that going to the theatre, a festival, escape rooms or the theatre events company Punch Drunk. Nobody does what we do." 

It was that "ability to take someone else's IP and build a world around it" that attracted Alexander to the business in 2017. Affable and distinctly uncorporate, he started as an analyst at McKinsey, followed by roles in business development with Sky and spells with Charles Dunstone’s Carphone Warehouse and TalkTalk Group. In 2016 he left the latter to become managing director of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. 

While Riggall is still deeply involved in the business, Alexander was brought in as CEO by principal investors Active Partners in order to bring greater process, capability and calm to "what was essentially a cultural endeavour with a business wrapped around". 

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He’s also been tasked with helping to spur Secret Cinema’s international expansion, which will be no easy feat.

"There’s a lot to get right,''says Alexander. Every production could be a business in itself; encompassing planning permission, casting, production and viability, all before the company can consider selling any tickets. 

As each show can differ radically - Alexander’s four productions to date have been Blade Runner, Romeo & Juliet, Casino Royale and Netflix’s Stranger Things - he says that he is still trying to work out who the average customer is.

"In the olden days this was very much an advocacy business. If you want to sell 30,000 tickets advocacy will get you a long way, if you want to sell 100,000 tickets you need to talk to more people. So we have had to build a capability [to understand those customers] that didn’t really exist in the business at all." 

Licensing is another major hurdle. Old musical titles are particularly complicated and sometimes the licensing rights to an individual film or franchise may be owned by multiple holders. 

Pick your battles

A more recent challenge as the company has grown has been ensuring that is still able to appeal to both old and new customers. 

"Bond was a really surprising one for me - 125,000 people came to Dagenham dressed as secret agents, the show received good reviews but a non-negligible number of people didn’t enjoy the show," says Alexander. 

He reveals that while some established customers - used to fake rain and being caged up in shows like Blade Runner - thought the casino and the recreated Miami airport of Casino Royale were too simple, a lot of new customers thought they were too complicated.  

The answer is this conundrum has been to focus on films "that give people a reason to come." 

On this logic, early noughties spy thriller Jason Bourne - with a world not enormously dissimilar to our own - would be a no. Richly-imagined films like Avatar would be a yes, although Alexander admits he doesn't think the company quite has the resources to pull off a jungle planet inhabited by 10 foot tall blue aliens just yet. 

"The biggest thing that I've learned over the last two years is that you've got to give people the ability to pretend."

Having successfully launched in China the aim is now to build momentum. The US is the next target and Alexander is also not ruling out the possibility of one day soon creating their own productions. 

There’s still lots of work to be done, but Alexander is clear that he intends Secret Cinema to learn continually as it goes along. 

"You wouldn’t fly a helicopter like that, but in the end we’re not trying to cure cancer, we’re putting on shows that are as remarkable as we can. If sometimes we fall short of that vaulting ambition for some customers then we’ll pick ourselves up and move on to the next one."

Image credit: Secret Cinema


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