In Melbourne, secret cinema business pays off

MELBOURNE -- A production company's secret cinema concept paves the way to new business.
Written by Lieu Thi Pham, Contributor

MELBOURNE --  Since 2009 Secret Squirrel Productions, a bespoke events company based in Melbourne's industrial inner-north, has used their secret screening events, Underground Cinema (UGC), to showcase their capabilities to prospective clients.

The creative cinema events, held every three to four months and generally lasting three to five hours, feature audience engagement and film screening. The first half of the event allows guests to wander through 'scenes' (sets) from the imagined world and interact with the characters (roaming actors). This leads to the second half -- the screening itself -- in which the film, kept secret up until this point, is finally revealed.

"You make [the guests] engage with the space to the point that you design the atmosphere -- the temperature, sound, smell, taste, tone, energy, movement...We encompass you in every detail possible ... we make you the central character in the movie," Tamasein Holyman, Underground Cinema's creative director, says of the UGC events.

Holyman's team for UGC is comprised entirely of volunteers -- on last count it was 140 people working across 13 departments covering specialists areas such as hair and make up, front of house, wardrobe, set and lighting design, and cast and crew. UGC's 'experience makers' will often spend four weeks designing, planning and rehearsing the artistic elements from the film to help the audience get the most out of their immersive cinema experience on the day.

Anyone can sign up to become a UGC member which is done by submitting a personal email address via the UGC website (currently there are over 21,000 members). Cost of a ticket is AUD$35(USD$35) which helps the UGC team cover fees such as film licensing and venue hire.

When there's an upcoming event, clues begin to appear on the UGC's social media channels in the lead up -- generally taking place across three weeks. To keep the guessing game going, most clues (images and words) are often abstractions of a theme (i.e. 'seventies California'). Even the location is kept secret (revealed only a few days before the event) and can take place anywhere; at a car park, at the beach, a museum or even a mansion.

"My friends and I love Underground Cinema," Andrew Deane, a regular UGC member, says. "We often have no idea what and where the movie will be, even though we spend a lot of time sleuthing, and so we get really excited preparing for the movie."

To date there have been 16 film titles and over 36 screenings in Melbourne and Sydney, including a live rock ‘n’ roll gig for DIG!; a Halloween screening of Sleepy Hollowat a church; a 1930's murder mystery at a historic mansion for Gosford Park; a 'Californian' skate park for Lords of Dogtown; and a dystopian future for Children of Men.

From costumes and set design to lighting and sound, nothing is done to half measure. Arriving at one of the screening locations is like walking onto a film set, with live performances from professional actors reenacting scenes from the film.

"It's not often you get to experience something so completely out of the ordinary. Every time I've attended an Underground event it amazes me the level of detail and love that goes into creating the sets and costumes, and it's always good fun guessing what the movie might be," Sarah Cole, another Melbourne Underground Cinema regular, says.

The screening of Children of Men is a prime example of this production value. At this filming event, guests were invited to dress as 'foreigners' and instructed to meet at a train station. From here, they were ushered onto a bus for transportation -- processed into detention-like centers with guard dogs and soldiers walking the perimeter. This sort of theatrical display continued well into the night and included some surreal moments where reality and make-believe were often blurred.

"Our generation now -- culturally, socially, artistically -- want to be led strongly down the rabbit hole. They want you to take away the feeling of safeness but still trust that they're going to be OK by the end of it," Tamasein Holyman, Underground Cinema's creative director, says.

But Holyman is humble to the fact that her secret cinema concept is not a new one -- there have been many that have come before --  both London’s Secret Cinema and New York’s Sleep No More by Punchdrunk spring to mind. But Melbourne’s UGC story serves as an exemplary business model for other production houses competing for creative work.

Holyman's production business and her flagship project Underground Cinema were born under the cloud of the Great Financial Crisis. “Production companies were closing everywhere and many corporate sponsorships were being pulled from various established events,” Holyman, the performance arts graduate, says.

On paper the idea to launch a production house during an economic downturn seemed destined to fail -- particularly during a time when funding cuts in the arts industry were all too common. Despite the odds being stacked against her, Holyman made a decision to run with her creative Underground Cinema concept as the production house's first project. In essence, she became her own client.

"It's the best thing we could have done. If we didn't have Underground, Secret Squirrel would have taken on mediocre projects to survive. We would've had to make a lot of compromises, in terms of our creative integrity, just to get jobs, and we would be battling on an even keel with very established companies for bigger projects," she says.

With UGC, Holyman and her core team had the freedom to do whatever they wanted including who they wanted to work with. "We didn't take everyone. It wasn't about who had the best CVs -- it was who wanted the best CV. We created a culture in UGC and selected a really strong team," Holyman says.

In UGC's fourth year, the production team are now riding the wave of UGC's success. "We get paid gigs and we pull people from our team because we've worked with them before, and we know they're not just there for the dollar. They are there for something well and above," she says.

Today Secret Squirrel Production clients, often PR and marketing agencies, find them through UGC, asking them to come up with concepts and ideas for their clients. "That's why we're called 'Secret Squirrel' -- because we're often the secret behind an agency's event. We'll design the experience for them, even staff it and whatever else they might need," Holyman says.

From a business perspective, the UGC concept has paid off. As Holyman explains, "You separate yourself from the pack. It also means that your clients come to you with a different kind of respect and trust. The clients who come to us now already know what we do... what we're capable of. They buy-in to our creativity."

Photos: Dan Bilsborough

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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