Cinema is Experience; a USD $100 million experience judging by the deal that sees London-based Secret Cinema sold to Broadway ticketing major TodayTix. While large cinema chains are facing debt, restructuring and rollercoaster rides on the stock market (pace Cineworld, Vue, AMC and Dadi), it is encouraging to see a tech company prepared to invest a nine-figure sum in a “cinema” operator that does not own a single cinema screen and specializes in re-releasing old and recent film and TV shows.
For those that have never experienced Secret Cinema, it really is like stepping into the film you are about to watch. This is why you are encouraged to dress like an extra from the film of your choice, whether “Casino Royale” (dinner jacket or cocktail dress) or “Dirty Dancing” (think Catskills teeny bopper). You are not allowed any selfies or photos with your smartphone once inside. And if you think that popcorn or a glass of wine in the cinema is expensive, let me present you with the menu for Lou’s Cafe, where there are no 25¢ hamburgers, 30¢ ham and cheese sandwiches, or 15¢ chocolate sundaes, as they were in the original “Back to the Future.” But credit cards and ApplePay are happily accepted.
Despite the high prices the events have been such a success that even though they just host one screening per night in a single location, that was often enough to propel the re-release into the Top 10 of the box office in the United Kingdom, as was the case with “The Empire Strikes Back” in 2015. Secret Cinema has come a long way since its original “Tell No One” days when the choice of the film really was a secret and a surprise. It has expanded geographically to Los Angeles and Shanghai, it has embraced both television (Netflix), gaming (League of Legends) and home-based events during the pandemic. It has been innovative and not afraid to take chances, while developing smart partnerships with content owners in Hollywood and beyond, as well as premium brands.
There have been many imitators, but none have been as big a success as the original Secret Cinema. Notably even major cinema chains got in on the act in pre-COVID days, with Kinepolis holding an event called “Secret Cinema: the Nun” for the 2018 horror film. Yet the original Secret Cinema has stayed a step ahead by constantly evolving and even surviving the pandemic, albeit with a little help from the British taxpayers that is now paying off for them.
Most of the Secret Cinema events have taken place in what was the industrial wasteland of East London. Soon it looks set to get a permanent home for open-ended running events in both London and Los Angeles. Interestingly, also located in East London on a regenerated industrial site that is now the former Olympic Park is ABBA Voyage, where people pay good money to interact with “ABBAtars” of the Swedish pop group in what is effectively a simulacrum of a pop concert, only with drinks, sponsors and middle-class premium comforts. Much like Secret Cinema.
Cinema has not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with the exception of a few markets (we are looking at you, India and South Korea), but after having been locked up for the better part of two years, people with money that are not worried about the cost-of-living crisis are spending big sums on Bruce Springsteen concerts and Hamilton tickets on Broadway once again. In this regard it makes sense for an operator like TodayTix to spend big bucks buying Secret Cinema.
Investors might not yet line up to buy Cineworld, but we should not be surprised if the next deal is instead for a company like Luna Cinema, another London-based experiential cinema operator that holds open-air screenings across the UK. It’s got old films, premium food and beverage, brand partners and you don’t even have to dress up like the “Dirty Dancing” cast unless you want to – just bring a picnic blanket. Because the Secret Cinema deal shows that nobody, not even COVID or recession, puts Premium in the corner.
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