CJ Opinion: Questioning Secret Cinema’s £1 million Arts Council of England Bail-Out

By Tim Concannon | November 25, 2020 2:28 pm PST
Secret Cinema - Moulin Rouge!

Tim Concannon is an investigative journalist and film blogger. He recently exposed evidence of over half a billion US dollars unaccounted for in the UN-endorsed clean-up of oil pollution in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

“I see secrecy as a form of truth that allows you to do what you want”

Secret Cinema founder Fabien Riggall

The Arts Council of England’s Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) in the United Kingdom has awarded almost GBP £1 million (USD $1,304,605) of COVID-19 relief money to a business partner of Netflix and the Chinese government, Secret Cinema, which stages an immersive “Stranger Things” drive-in in L.A and a James Bond cosplay event in Shanghai. This award has become the focus of growing anger at what some see as the UK government’s upside-down priorities for arts funding in a pandemic. While there’s heat, there’s also light: the controversy has also drawn attention to the importance of physical cinemas to the public in a global crisis.

The most used hashtag on Twitter by British Members of Parliament from the governing Conservative party on October 12th and 13th was #HereforCulture. Much as Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s “Eat Out To Help Out” half-price meal deal went down well with the hospitality industry over the summer, £333 million (USD $432) dispensed in October from a GBP £1.57 billion (USD $2.04) culture recovery fund was supposed to boost both the morale of the public, and – more specifically – the government’s reputation with the arts sector.

The pandemic and rolling lockdowns are forcing galleries, independent cinemas and live performance venues across the UK to shutter their businesses. Many will never return. In the live music sector alone, an 81% fall in revenue and a GBP £3.6 billion (USD $4.7 billion) downturn means that 170,000 jobs are at risk. Research shows that without further financial stimulus, 26,000 permanent jobs in music venues are on the line by the end of 2020.

No Time to Die
While many prominent independent cinemas remain open, Cineworld – the world’s second biggest cinema operator – has temporarily shut its UK theatres, leaving 5,500 staff out of work and causing a 60% dive in the global chain’s share value. Cineworld’s UK theatres include the largest cinema in the UK, Glasgow’s 18-screens in Renfrew Street, and – in its boutique independent Picturehouse group – jewels such as the Ritzy in Brixton and the Duke of York’s, Brighton, the country’s oldest continually operating cinema. Cineworld blames the temporary closure, in part, on MGM Universal’s decision to hold off releasing the latest Bond film, the poignantly titled ‘No Time To Die’, until 2nd April 2021. Meanwhile, in the absence of blockbusters, AMC – the owners of Odeon, the UK’s other major cinema chain – may run out of cash before the end of the year.

Instead of helping Boris Johnson’s reputation as a cultural custodian, the UK government’s #HereforCulture hashtag campaign backfired, prompting derision and fury at some of the recipients.

The 1,973 arts venues chosen for bail-out money so far were selected by a panel chaired by multi-millionaire management consultant Sir Damon Buffini. The other members of the Arts Council of England’s Culture Recovery Fund Board are the publisher Baron Mendoza; Arts Council England Chair, Sir Nicholas Serota; Historic England Chair, Sir Laurie Magnus; Chair of Historic England National Lottery Heritage Fund, Rene Olivieri; and British Film Institute Governor Jay Hunt, a former Chief Creative Officer of Channel 4 television who’s now working for Apple Inc.

The requirement that recipients respond to the awards with obsequious tweets and Facebook posts was likened to tacit censorship, quelling any possible dissent in the ranks of arts professionals. Stand-up comedian Freddy Quinne remarked on Facebook: ‘If that was your partner acting like that you’d be in an abusive relationship.’

The headline awards in the first tranche of funding, of around GBP £1 million (USD $1.3 million) each, created some confusion about the choices, and also the aims, of the fund.

It included Manchester-based Mission Mars, a pizza and hospitality chain which also has some live entertainment. Another was London-based Ministry of Sound, which runs nightclubs but also has a gym franchise and a shared workspace. The business was founded by Lord James Palumbo, Baron of Southwark, a former City of London financier who worked for Merrill Lynch and Morgan Grenfell. Educated at the elite Eton College where the Prime Minister was also a student, James is the eldest son of Peter Polumbo, the former head of the Arts Council of Great Britain (as it was). From 1993 to 2001, Ministry of Sound’s Managing Director was another peer, Lord Bethell, who is now Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation at the Department of Health and Social Care in Boris Johnson’s government.

Fabien Riggall of the Secret Cinema Group
Fabien Riggall is the founder of the Secret Cinema screening series, produced by the Secret Cinema Group, as well as a member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

The Quantum of Malice
The loudest wails of dissent about the CRF awards seemed to be directed at the GBP £977,000 (USD $1.27 million) given to Secret Cinema. Run by the Secret Group, it was founded by Fabien Riggall, with the slogan ‘Secret Cinema: Tell No One’. Riggal, who has an estimated net worth of GBP £5 million (USD $6.5 million), runs a number of companies including the short film festival Future Shorts. He’s also a member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

Secret Cinema grew out of the trend in the early Norties for “immersive” theatre in London, pioneered by companies such as Punchdrunk (whose first hit was, ominously, a walk through experience based on Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death“) and subscription-based private members’ “arts” clubs. (A source of revenue for these clubs was that City workers would, as with gym membership, subscribe but then forget to cancel, even when they had stopped going regularly).

Usually featuring bespoke late-night drinking “environments” combined with theatre and cabaret, venues such as Shunt Vaults – which was under London Bridge station, accessible through a tiny door like the cupboard in “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe till the site was redeveloped for retail spaces in 2009 – these clubs catered to media professionals, bankers and financiers who wanted a more intimate and bohemian environment for their out-of-hours deals than the increasingly gentrified Soho and the soulless glass and steel bars around Liverpool Street, London’s main trading centre.

Popular for about a decade, the immersive theatre trend eventually led to accusations that it was part-and-parcel of the gentrification of East London, and a Petri dish for middle class artists’ patronising attitudes towards working class communities.

Working from an office in Hackney, East London, Riggal’s first ventures in 2007 captured the initial excitement of this theatre trend and the economic advantages to arts promoters of using temporary spaces rather than permanent venues. Secret Cinema built up a membership list rapidly, who’d receive SMS messages instructing them to go to the venue only a few hours before the screening. Added to this formula, in short order, were “extras” in costume, doing short performance routines and interacting with the audience. Secret Cinema’s events have become increasingly more ambitious, such as a full-size replica of Hill Town in its “Back To The Future” show. The company has expanded internationally to have partnerships which include one with Netflix in running a “Stranger Things” drive-in experience in L.A..

Along with Secret Cinema’s success has come criticism that it doesn’t pay actors, relies on volunteers, and that its tickets have become too pricey. (Riggall has responded to this by saying his productions are more like West End shows than cinema events, which is reflected in the average ticket price at Secret Cinema events). Criticism of these policies on Secret Cinema’s Wikipedia page has been removed systematically since the CRF award was announced.

Furloughed along with most of England’s cinema and theatre industry, tickets for Secret Cinema’s July 2021 “Dirty Dancing” show in the UK start at GBP £53, equivalent to USD $69 (this has been scaled back from the GBP £75, or the equivalent USD $97, for its 2015 “Empire Strikes Back” event.) On that basis, CRF awarding Secret Group almost GBP £1 million (USD $1.3 million) can’t be reconciled easily with its stated aim to “enable people to have access to great creative and cultural opportunities, no matter what their background or where they live.”

The announcement of a million pounds of COVID relief going to a company called Secret Cinema, which doesn’t run a physical cinema and which isn’t a secret, led to many people getting things off their chest on social media:

“My mate described her boyfriends trip to secret cinema as ‘a 40 yr old man spending a hundred pounds from our joint account to stand in a warehouse dressed as an alien’’ wrote Alistair Green.

Responding to a tweet about Secret Cinema’s 2017 “Blade Runner” show, firstshowing.net’s Alex Billington tweeted that he “paid full price and… the rain wasn’t working the day I went. They said nothing, no notices, no explanation, just pretended like everything worked fine. Still annoyed.”

“I went to Secret Cinema last year” wrote podcaster and haberdasher Rosie Fletcher “they had no contingency for it raining during an outdoor event, started the movie two hours late after we’d left because they wouldn’t tell us when they’d start the movie, they are scammers.”

In researching this article, numerous film, TV and theatre workers have got in touch with similar stories about Secret Cinema’s intensely relaxed attitude both to paying its employees and to customer care.

License to Grift
Further down the CRF list, as first reported by Private Eye magazine and then recycled by the Daily Mail, Conservative party donor and Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross picked up a GBP £100,000 (USD $130,000) CRF bail-out for his Nevill Holt Opera — founded at Ross’s Leicestershire estate – of which his 17-year old son Carl has recently been made a patron. Ross has a personal fortune estimated at around GBP £650 million (USD $845 million).

There are two “pop-up” developments in London in receipt of CRF support. POP Brixton – shipping-containers up-cycled as offices, shops and food stalls, covered by palette-wood facings with butcher’s grass stapled to them – received GBP £220,385 (USD $286,500). Peckham Levels, a multi-story car park converted to similar use, was awarded GBP £131,998 (USD $171,597). Both are run by Make Shift, majority-owned by London and New York-based luxury co-living company The Collective which has a property portfolio worth GBP £2.7 billion (USD $3.51).

The theme connecting many of the English culture recovery awards, if there is one, seems to be the government of Boris Johnson propping up hospitality, nightclub, and property development businesses, many of which are run by people with links to the City, the Conservative party and the current government. Another theme is business models which are based on the fads and fancies of the last decade or so, particularly those that were popular with people from the financial, media and technology innovation sectors (the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is a former Goldman Sachs banker).

“Pop-ups” in particular are a 21st Century phenomenon which can produce marvels through the temporary use of urban spaces, such as roof-top cinema, utilising the surrounding scenery, weather and ambient light to augment audience’s experience of watching a film. As first advertised, pop-ups were “a cheap, easy boost to innovative young inventors, artists and creatives” which in practice have been linked to the containerisation of young immigrant families and other vulnerable people by London local authorities working closely with property developers.

“Art” seemed to be being interpreted by the CRF Board in a very broad sense in the first two rounds of grant allocations. One Arts Council of England employee remarked on social media that “CRF is DCMS funds and criteria [the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sports], not Let’s Create. The remit was much wider than ACE’s usual footprint and the ask included many applications from those we don’t normally connect with. We were the distributor rather than the creator on this occasion.” Or the bagmen, would be another way to put it.

What this means is that the process by which recipients were selected wasn’t the Arts Council of England’s usual one, which includes the statements “excellence can be found in village halls and concert halls,” that “we will expect cultural organisations […] to invest in their workforces” and that the Arts Council of England wants organisations it funds to “build closer connections with their communities, particularly those that they are currently underserving. We want them to mean more, to more people: to strengthen their relevance to the communities, partners and practitioners with whom they work.”

To confuse matters, a 30-page guidance document to the Culture Recovery Fund mentions the Let’s Create framework (on page 7), which could lead some readers to think that these more specifically inclusive criteria were being used. On page 6 of the CRF document it states that awards will be to “organisations that are the bedrock of the global reputation of England’s cultural sector […] that enable people to have access to great creative and cultural opportunities, no matter what their background or where they live.”

Thirty four percent of the CRF money in the first two rounds went to institutions based in London. Another 12 percent went to the South East. Less than half of the money went to the rest of England.

For Your Eyes Only
Inevitably, there were accusations of cronyism underlying the CRF’s decision to make its award to Secret Cinema. It was pointed out that Secret Group’s CEO Max Alexander used to work at TalkTalk for Dido Harding, Baroness Harding of Winscombe, and an old friend of the Prime Minister. Harding’s tenure running the NHS Track and Trace system, a job for which she was the only candidate considered, has led to calls for her resignation.

Examining the Secret Group’s financial statements reveals – in the “persons with significant control” – a collection of shell companies behind it, trading shares in Leon, the restaurant chain co-founded by Henry Dimbleby. The son of broadcaster David Dimbleby, Henry is a friend of Michael Gove, the Minister for the Cabinet Office. Henry Dimbleby voted for Brexit. This is where the cronyism hypothesis starts to break down, though. Fabien Riggall actively supported the Remain side in the Brexit imbroglio.

Far less easy to explain away, though, is other information revealed by Secret Group’s financial statements. The CRF’s funding criteria states that:

“Organisations must have been financially sustainable before COVID-19 but are now at imminent risk of failure and have exhausted all other options for increasing their resilience.”

Then, again, on page 10 of the longer guidelines document:

What we cannot fund:

– significant historic debt (prior to 1 March 2020)

In other words, the relief money isn’t meant to service existing debts. Secret Group lost GBP £2.9 million (USD $3.77 MILLION) in 2019, and GBP £1.4 million (USD $1.82) before that in 2018. One of its directors received GBP £231,000, equivalent to USD $300,300 (it can be safely assumed these funds went to Fabien Riggall) while the other two shared GBP £190,000 (USD $247,000). Secret Group spent GBP £4348 (USD $5652) on administrative costs in the 2019 tax year and had no staff costs. The CRF guidelines talk about the need to safeguard jobs and venues in the pandemic (from page 9) but the Secret Group doesn’t own any cinemas.

In a response on its website to the criticism of the CRF award, Secret Cinema’s CEO Max Alexander said:

“we currently employ 32 full time staff and two fixed term contractors. Each show will employ hundreds of staff during the months of design.”

Its financial reports say something different in 2019, though, so either there’s been a dramatic change in circumstances or these details are buried in further layers of shell companies and accounting which the CRF Board can see but the public can’t.

Alexander goes on to state:

“Instead of opening a permanent venue, we’ve chosen to rescue and revitalise abandoned and derelict spaces for the past 13 years.”

The CRF funding criteria don’t mention “rescuing” abandoned spaces. The UK tax-payer, whose money the fund is dispensing, may ask why that’s being treated as a priority, effectively – with nearly a million pounds of COVID bail-out money – when cinemas and other arts venues in England that aren’t derelict or abandoned, and which publish financial information transparently – including about their staff – are facing imminent closure.

Whether your feelings for Secret Cinema are of love, hate or a sublime indifference, on this basis alone it’s hard to see how the CRF Board, aided by Arts Council England, are applying their own funding rules in this case. Secret Group, it would appear, wasn’t financially sustainable before COVID-19. It was losing millions of pounds.

The World Is Not Enough
The CRF may have a stronger case for making this award in furthering its stated intention of supporting “organisations that are the bedrock of the global reputation of England’s cultural sector.” Secret Group’s financial statement for the last tax year specifically mentions room for growth in its “Casino Royale” cosplay event which has transferred from London to Shanghai. It was less than rapturously received by all reviewers on its launch in China:

“I could take or leave the screening, honestly, but I do hope this does well enough that we eventually get a Blade Runner or a Star Wars or a Moulin Rouge, something where the setting is the main character. Somewhere I don’t feel so acutely that the onus is on me, the ticket-holder, to make my own fun.”

There could be further problems for Riggall, a philanthropist who’s organised solidarity actions with refugees and junior doctors, in that his main business partner in the “Casino Royale” venture is the wholly Chinese state-owned Shanghai Media Group.

Historic criticism of the Chinese government’s human rights record, going back decades, has increasingly been directed at the non-Chinese movie industry too. Co-productions in China have become more common, and theatrical exhibition in China is now a key component of the profitability of Hollywood blockbusters. In filming “Mulan” recently, Disney – another Secret Cinema partner – found itself drawn into Beijing’s nationalist narratives about East Turkestan. A series of investigations published in 2020 has revealed China’s own secret group, of “re-education” camps in which ethnic Uyghurs are detained without trial, and Chinese spies in London monitoring its growing Uyghur community.

This presents the film industry with a dilemma of either limiting its global audience for films in a pandemic crisis, or of being drawn in to what many observers see as propaganda being used by the Chinese state to justify its authoritarian policies. This dilemma isn’t new but the rise of streaming media and the pandemic have made it a central, rather than peripheral, headache for the industry.

According to its publically-available financial reports, Secret Cinema’s future depends on people in Shanghai, LARPing in the fictional world of a British public school assassin and torturer, while Fabien Riggall makes profits by doing business with the government of China, whose historic use of torture is well documented. No one would seriously accuse the Secret Group of witting, direct complicity in human rights abuses. It’s more that the dissonance between fantasy and reality in this case is – to put it very politely in questionable taste. This is compounded by the fact that the CRF appears to have broken its own rules, because Secret Group is losing money, and that Secret Group says its room for growth is working with a Chinese state company.

The anger caused by the CRF award to Secret Group is further complicated and confused by other factors which include the fact that the awards only cover England (Scotland has its own policy on safeguarding performance venues, for example) and that the CRF isn’t meant to be about saving cinemas. The British Film Institute has its own fund for that.

You Only Live Twice
What the controversy has revealed is the public’s love for cinemas in a time of a crisis; a yearning for escapism, to experience life through other people’s eyes, to see in the dark once again, safe in the company of strangers. (This sentiment is starkly at odds with comments from Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance to The Times that, “If cinemas all close up I won’t be that upset.”)

In England’s capital, two independent South London cinema institutions have received the lion’s share of support in reaction to almost GBP £1 million (USD $1.3 million) going to Secret Group.

Peckhamplex – the GBP £5 cinema (USD $6.50) in the lower tier of a multi-story car park – temporarily closed in September. Before the pandemic, the Cinema Museum – the former workhouse near the Oval cricket ground where local boy Charles Chaplin was incarcerated and forced into child labour before making his move to Hollywood – had already escaped closure following a campaign to stop it being sold to developers. Now, co-founder Martin Humphries has asked the public to crowdfund the Museum’s running costs during the COVID crisis. “You have heard of the organisations that have ‘fallen through the net’? Well, that’s us guys,” Humphries writes on the appeal’s crowdfunder page. The appeal has raised more than GBP £20,000 (USD $26,000) in a week, with large donations from actors Toby Jones and Rory Kinnear.

Unlike Secret Cinema, these two physical spaces screen films but are also used by their local communities for social events, and as hang outs. In its earlier successful bid to avoid closure, the Cinema Museum was commended by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, for supporting “the wellbeing of elderly people and other marginalised groups” in the South London borough of Lambeth.

Just to take London cinemas as an example, why there’s almost a million pounds for Secret Cinema available from government COVID-19 relief funding, but nothing for Peckhamplex and the Cinema Museum, is a secret which must keep itself, at least for now.

Applications for BFI’s own GBP £30 million (USD $39 million) fund to safeguard independent cinemas in the pandemic, closed on 30th October and an announcement on the grants is forthcoming.

Tim Concannon