Jazz Shaper: Fabien Riggall

Posted on 15 May 2021

Fabien Riggall is the Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Secret Cinema, creators of immersive film experiences that put the audience at the heart of the story. 

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers, it’s where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues.  My guest today, I am very pleased to say, is Fabien Riggall, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Secret Cinema, creators of immersive film experiences that put the audience at the heart of the story.  As a child, Fabien was, he says, obsessed with the cinema and aged eleven, after sneaking into a screening of the three hour long gangster film, Once Upon a Time in America, he felt completely immersed and transported to Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  “I literally lost myself in it” he says and thought, “What if you could live inside a movie.”  In 2003, as a filmmaker making short films and working for a production company, Fabien saw an opportunity to give short films the platform he felt they were lacking.  He launched Future Shorts, originally a one-off screening which has now grown into a network of small film festivals around the world, uncovering talent and, vitally for Fabien, creating communal experiences.  But it was bringing his love for theatre, festivals and clubbing into the mix that gave Fabien the answer to his question, “What if cinema could be something different?”  He founded Secret Cinema in 2007, creating immersive, participatory worlds where the audience lives out a film, often cult classics like Back to the Future, Blade Runner or Star Wars, in my case, in purpose built sets and where secrecy is key.  In a world addicted to information, as Fabien says, “The idea of secrecy is critical as it is a physical, social thing you have to invest in.  One you just can’t click and download.” 

It’s really nice to have you on the programme.  I’ve wanted to interview you for quite a while so, here you are – virtually – but on Jazz FM nevertheless.  How are you?

Fabien Riggall

I’m good, actually, very good. 

Elliot Moss

Good.  Good that you are good because there’s so much to talk about.  Tell me about the Secret Cinema.  Obviously heard about where the idea came from but what made you bring it to life the way that you did because lots of other people have had a go at being immersive but you sort of went a step further, you put the audience absolutely in the box seat and having experienced it myself and my son, it’s extraordinary and every experience seems to be individual to your journey on the day. 

Fabien Riggall

Yeah, I think it, you know, it was a, as you mentioned it was something that came to me as a child where when I used to go to the cinema as a child, I wouldn’t understand the difference between what was happening on the screen and what was reality and I guess there was a blur and I still think that today when you find yourself watching a film and when you come out of it, you felt like you’ve lost yourself in that world of that film and that you would believe that you believe the story and you become part of that story because if you don’t believe then you are not part of it and I think well really the sort of inspiration behind Secret Cinema came from that experience of going to the cinema as a child but then also growing up with going to music festivals, being part of the sort of rave culture in the ‘90s, slightly clichéd that I was, and that sort of feeling of the culture, the sort of the worlds around the music and this sense of coming together in these kind of secret environments and this sense of not knowing, of not knowing what to expect and what I found about Glastonbury was that wonderful sense of mystery, of uncovering and discovering all these secret fields and finding yourself in a place, you know like Lost Vagueness which started off really part of really Lost Vagueness and Roy Gurvitz and that kind of scene really started off a lot of the immersive culture that we have today.  This idea of a casino and a kind of restaurant being in a field and not knowing and so, you know, I spent a lot of time going to music festivals and then following cars up the M25 going and finding these warehouses and during that time I started thinking well, why is cinema so restrictive and why could it not be something that’s a bit more rock and roll and what could an experience of going to the cinema mean and so that’s how we explored it and we started Secret Cinema in 2007 and, you know, it grew from there. 

Elliot Moss

The first question I have intrigues me.  Are you someone who enjoyed the experience so much yourself and your different ways around music and that sense of discovering things that you wanted to replicate it for other people or are you the person that was actually happiest when they were in it?  Have you alighted on this as a, I say career in the loosest sense, I mean entrepreneurs don’t have careers, they have passions and they bring them to life, I guess but my sense is you, you know, I love the experience so much, I wanted to share it with other people?  Is that kind of it?

Fabien Riggall

Yeah, I think there’s a part of that.  I think also that probably I’m a bit too much of a dreamer in some respects that I’m constantly thinking about the way that things could be and in certain places where you go to a field and you can be anything and Glastonbury very much taught me that everything really is just made up and there’s certain people that have made up certain parts of the world and so I think cinema was a passion so I guess I used cinema as an idea but it wasn’t just about cinema, it was more about that feeling, perhaps when you go travelling when you discover a new city and you explore the city and you uncover these little alleyways and streets and you discover a place that you perhaps didn’t know you were going to find and why do we need to travel for that?  Perhaps, why could we not go to these buildings and spaces and become part of it.  So, no, I think a lot of it was essentially, yeah, my passion for what it was and absolute, I guess, frustration with those that have created the system or the structure of how movies are seen and I find a lot of those systems very restrictive and so I think Secret Cinema was a reaction of that, not just in myself, it wouldn’t work without the audience.  The first Secret Cinema, you know, started with Future Shorts, a short film festival, and then we started, you know, doing Future Cinema and then Secret Cinema started by, what if we could take over a series of tunnels, transform them into a secret skate park where these skaters meet in this film, Paranoid Park, and 400 people bought a ticket for £5.  They didn’t know what the film was or where they were going and yet it sold out in less than an hour, and what it showed to me was that actually the whole system is built on initially, you know, what stars are in the movie, how much marketing you can do but really, what people really want in life is mystery.  What people want more than anything, is an experience and what people want more than anything, is to connect with other people.  Perhaps we can create an environment in which strangers become friends, you know.  Why not?  And that’s not to say that when they arrive we create this kind of forced fun thing but if we create a magical thing then people will be – especially if you take their phones off them – they’ll come together as a group. 

Elliot Moss

I want to pick up on something which I am already seeing in you, is that the status quo, the wave of industry and in this instance it’s the film industry, has managed itself and presented itself is essentially, it’s a form of control in the same way that other industries emerge and it’s not that there are ten people sitting there saying, “This is how it will be” but it becomes a certain way and you are a radical, you’re a bit of a revolutionary, you are saying well hold on a minute, it doesn’t have to be like that and I kind of think I want to bring it to people because I want to democratise it and I want them to enjoy it in a different way and away from the marketing machine and all that.  Have you always looked at what exists and thought why is it like that’?

Fabien Riggall

Yeah, I think so, I think that from an early age, I mean, I wasn’t the best student, I was quite a rebellious student, went quite a few different schools because I thought it was just fun to disrupt things, you know that was just my thing, annoyingly for a lot of teachers and I think when I became passionate about film, it gave me that opportunity to take that disruption of why is cinema so restrictive, why are short films only seen at festivals and Channel 4 after midnight, why could short films not be something, you know, more open and so I was like, okay, let’s do something with short film and then it’s like about cinema and then we, also with music so, yeah, I think there’s always been a bit of that and I think I guess I’ve become a little less rebellious perhaps but it still is very much in me and I feel responsibility to mess things up, if that makes sense. 

Elliot Moss

It totally does.  But why?

Fabien Riggall

Why?  Well…

Elliot Moss

Firstly, why the rebellious piece and why is it your responsibility to mess things up, as you say?

Fabien Riggall

Well, I don’t know, I think we all just act on our emotion and I think that, you know, I’m, much to a lot of my partners, I’m deeply emotional and I wouldn’t swap that for the world and so therefore I react to things in an emotional way and I think that the world’s become, through this rise of digital culture, perhaps less emotional, less sensual, less mysterious and that culture has gone into the hands of technocrats and of those that control the algorithm and it’s given a lot of opportunity to a lot of people I would, you know we work with Netflix and different organisations with Secret Cinema so, you know, we’re very happy with those relationships, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about even though it was not necessarily as revolutionary as people thought, the Game Stop kind of phenomenon of groups of people coming together to bring up the stocks of physical businesses that perhaps they don’t want to see die and I’ve been looking at these non-fungible tokens, the NFT and this kind of… people talking about this sort of revolution with artists being able to sell directly, create unique pieces and all of this and I’ve been exploring all of that and I really believe that where things are headed that, actually, if you can create a culture around secrecy, around surprise, mystery, almost like there’s data on one side and there’s reality on another and gradually we are going to stop wanting to be tracked constantly, 24 hours a day and we’re going to want to take part in hyper real moments and then artists are going to start changing the rules and defining the business model around how they get their work directly to audiences, it’s already happening and it’s very interesting because, you know, you’ve got people like Grimes selling £6 million worth of crypto art directly to audiences, outside of the current system.  So, I just think there’s something really interesting and what I’m really interested in is continuing to build what I started with Secret Cinema, which is starting to look at engaging and creating a space for people to come together that’s outside of the ecosystem that we currently live in, the kind of bubble of nonsense that are distracted by every day of our lives.  I just think maybe there’s a way of that sort of individualistic society combining with the collectors society, I’m taking Adam Curtis’ words really because he’s to me this, he’s provoking radicals to actually try and get it right and I, you know, Secret Cinema is… I’m very happy and proud of what that’s become but it’s in a, you know, it had to grow very fast in order to keep up and therefore it’s gone down a direction which I’m proud about but my new venture is to explore what the future could look like, if we allow ourselves to lose ourselves. 

Elliot Moss

And before you go any further because I feel like we’re going into the matrix of the rabbit warren of the warren of the warren of what we think is just a Secret Cinema is actually a much more radical and revolutionary beginning of some journey which Fabien Riggall is going to explain in a lot more detail in a few more minutes.  But right now, we’re going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  They can be found on all the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Victoria Pigott talks about ESG, that’s Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance and what the resulting long-term benefit is for businesses putting purpose before profit. 

All former Jazz Shapers are available for your delectation on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again as well or if you’ve got a smart speaker, you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will find many of our recent shows.  But back to today’s guest, it’s Fabien Riggall, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Secret Cinema, they make brilliant immersive film experiences that put you, the audience, at the heart of the story.  When you are talking, it is clear that there are a thousand things going on in your head, Fabien, at once.  You have a very busy mind and it’s almost like the words can’t come out quick enough to keep up with the thoughts that you’ve got.  Has that always been the case and is that why, do you think, you just at school were like, yeah, this is really boring, they’re just too slow, they can’t keep up and I really, I’m actually getting bored of this so now I’m just going to play with the genre?  Because it feels like you can play with a lot of genres, metaphorically, and if that’s the case, does that make it difficult keeping on the straight and narrow running a business?  You know, it’s a business and businesses have rules, don’t they?

Fabien Riggall

Yeah, I mean I thinks that… so, with Secret Cinema, you know, I’d never gone to business school, I started the idea and it grew very quickly.  As I said, the audience created Secret Cinema really because they’re the ones who came and took part and, you know, as I went along, you know, I made quite a few mistakes but what was interesting, as this is sort of business orientated as well as music orientated show, was just that there wasn’t anyone to say no to these ideas and to the ideas that the audience were having so therefore we were able to build something quite imaginative with a group of very creative people, we were able to turn Secret Cinema from something that was quite underground which, my intention was to keep it always underground but to grow it a massive underground, if that makes sense, but yeah so what was interesting is that I’ve managed to just get it to a certain point where we were able to create I guess the magic of it so that it would then be able to become a business because, to be fair, it wasn’t really a business, it was a…

Elliot Moss

But how do you?  It feels like a movement almost, it’s like an expression of what you thought a new reality and film could look like and as you said, challenging the industry itself.  How have you found people that can keep up with you and that can manage you and that they can say, “Fabien, that’s a really brilliant idea.  You’re bonkers and the answer’s no.”  Do you have no people around as well as yes people?

Fabien Riggall

Well, I brought no people in as we grew and, you know, to be honest, I was able to sort of keep the balance.  I knew roughly what I was doing, right, I put on big shows like Star Wars to fund smaller shows like The Battle of Algiers and Dr Strangelove, like I was using the power of the IP at a certain point in order to create Secret shows so I knew what I was doing, roughly, but I think that, yes, I think it’s been difficult and I think where I am at right now is to start with a group of people and to find the right business help but what I like about what you said about ESG is that very much, this is driven by purpose, the product is driven by purpose, the idea of participating in this new venture is driven by a need for social change through art and entertainment, you know, which I think is all around us and I think post-pandemic, people will not take manufactured products in the same way as they did before, I think people need integrity. 

Elliot Moss

And just as a thought, I mean, of course the notion of manufactured consent, a Noam Chomsky notion from 30-40 years ago, you mentioned Adam Curtis… these fights in culture and in the presentation of news and the presentation of politics and systems, they’ve been there for a while, I mean you sound more like an activist than a business person.  Is that what’s underpinning this new venture?

Fabien Riggall

Well, I think, you know, sadly, or nor sadly but, you know, activism became part of the sort of trend, whether it’s brands like Nike etcetera but yeah, I am truly an activist and an entrepreneur and I guess have a vision of the way that things could be but the way I see it is that the future is about purpose, is about social change.  I think what we are finding ourselves with the sort of idea of a radical movement in a world which essentially, you know, is driven by the algorithm, is that the only activism left is to gain power and being offline and discussing new ideas and then growing it from outside of the algorithm. 

Elliot Moss

The name of the new venture, the venture that will break the barriers down between the real and the algo… or rather will smash the world of the notion that the algorithm is enough to make people happy.  What is it called?  What is it trying to do?

Fabien Riggall

It’s called Lost and I mean the premiss behind Lost is that I think in a society where we are constantly online that perhaps there is a place for getting lost.  I think that artists are already losing themselves in the way that they make their work and so what Lost is going to do is really rethink the distribution of art works and create a community of audiences, participants and then rethink the design of theatre and what that could be and it’s to really re-imagine the way that things could be in a world that is currently being dictated by the algorithm and it’s going to allow there to be a break which is already happening where the walls between mediums are collapsing, where the walls between people are collapsing, i.e. perhaps less being on our phones all the time, and it most importantly, how do we come together in a physical space?  What’s the future of Broadway?  What’s the future of a West End?  What’s the future of theatre and how can we make it more inclusive, diverse and more provocative? 

Elliot Moss

What you’ve just described is essentially the coming together of all these different forms of expression and what you are really saying is, look there needs to be a physical space beyond the virtual and it needs to be more freeform, it needs to have purpose at its heart and it needs to create a new contract between those people watching because you don’t just want to watch, you want them to get involved and those people providing the entertainment because actually there needs to be a more equitable way that they’re remunerated and it sounds like, to me, that is essentially a reinvention of the whole notion of entertainment, I mean that’s a pretty big thing to bite, isn’t it?

Fabien Riggall

Yeah, I mean it’s… I believe that entertainment does need to be reinvented and I think it’s clear what is happening right now and what Covid has accelerated has meant that the opportunity now is to reinvent the system and to do that we… I started with a film called Les Misérables which was a film made by the first black film maker from France to be nominated for an Oscar, a film that is telling a story about youth and Police brutality, the same story that another film called La Haine told twenty five years ago and it’s still happening and nothing’s got better and so to me, I think that entertainment needs to become something which has more opportunity to change the way that things can be and stories to me are the most important thing and if we can create a story that’s powerful enough then that story can become more powerful than looped storytelling that the current political system etcetera does. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for my final chat with my guest today, the inventor, or rather the re-inventor of entertainment, that’s Fabien Riggall and we’ve also got something a little special from Weather Report, that’s in just a moment, don’t go anywhere. 

I’ve got an entertainment guru in the house, he’s Fabien Riggall and he’s the Founder of Secret Cinema back in 2007 and he’s at it again, never sits still this one because he’s constantly saying hold on a minute, this isn’t right, I want to make it better.  If we were to meet five years from now, what would the new, reshaped landscape of entertainment look like, according to you?  What would you have done?

Fabien Riggall

Well, I think it’s also what people would have done that have become part of it, what artists etcetera so, to me I think, what would it look like in five years?  Just a new, decentralised system of rewarding both artists and audiences and looking at perhaps changing the way that we experience culture so, I would imagine new spaces, new forms of theatres that are kind of, you know, combination of film, music, art, theatre, where you go and you might have a fashion show taking part alongside a gig, with food, and all these different things so, it’s reinventing and re… giving ownership back to the artists, creating a new space for those artists to play in and then creating a social network that is so good that no one uses it except for to meet in physical places and I see that and then also, whilst we’re at it, let’s reinvent the system of festivals in terms of, what is a film festival in the future?  What is an award show?  I just don’t believe any of the system anymore.  I don’t believe in the… I don’t believe in that sort of validation anymore.  What if we could change all of that?  And that’s not to say that those wonderful people that work in all those places, it’s just to say look, could there be another opportunity?  Here’s what we did with Secret Cinema.  Can we explore something new?  Let’s take the risk. 

Elliot Moss

Fabien, I really hope you achieve that because that is, firstly, it sounds naughty, it sounds like a lot of fun and it sounds like you are not going to stop disrupting until you’ve properly disrupted, I guess, and that’s how you’ve got to this point but it feels like, to me, that there’s a long way yet to go for you.  Thank you so much for joining me today, it’s been an unusual, an unusual show to say the least and I’ve really enjoyed it.  What is your song choice today before I let you go?  This is the convention you are going to have to adhere to, I apologise, the radical in you will just have to go with the flow of this structure.  What’s the song choice you’ve got and why have you chosen it?

Fabien Riggall

Well, it was between Sinnerman and Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.  Sinnerman, just because it goes on for about ten minutes and I thought that could be quite nice but no, Please Do Not Let Me be Misunderstood by Nina Simone because often I get misunderstood and it’s annoying. 

Elliot Moss

Here it is, just for you. 

The song choice of my Business Shaper today, the incredibly interesting Fabien Riggall, the Founder of Secret Cinema.  “Everything is made up” he said, which if it’s made up then you can make it up as you go along and you change what things look like.  People are interested in mystery and secrecy, don’t forget that that is part of the human condition but fundamentally, he said, and what’s really important and at the centre of why Secret Cinema is so successful, people want to connect and they want to connect in the real world.  Really good stuff.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have lovely weekend. 

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

With roots in Fabien's childhood love of cinema, experiences in the 90s rave scene and passion for activism, Secret Cinema has grown into a cultural phenomenon since launching in 2007. Using the attraction of secrecy and immersive experiences, it often sells over 30,000 tickets to its events without revealing its location or title of the film. It has recently established partnerships with Netflix and Disney and has moved into immersive live music experiences.

As a cultural activist, Fabien has led events to raise awareness of the plight of refugees globally, including installing a temporary cinema in the Calais refugee camp known as the Jungle. He also co-founded March for Europe, which saw over 120,000 people take to the streets to oppose Brexit.

Fabien's latest venture, LOST, aims to imagine new spaces and ways of creating and distributing art with urgent social messages.

Highlights

I started thinking well, why is cinema so restrictive? Why could it not be something that’s a bit more rock and roll?

I’d never gone to business school, I started the idea and it grew very quickly.

I think also that probably I’m a bit too much of a dreamer in some respects – I’m constantly thinking about the way that things could be.

We were able to build something quite imaginative with a group of very creative people.

What people want more than anything, is an experience… to connect with other people.

I react to things in an emotional way and I think that the world’s become, through this rise of digital culture, perhaps less emotional, less sensual, less mysterious.

I’m really interested in continuing to build what I started with Secret Cinema… creating a space for people to come together that’s outside of the ecosystem that we currently live in.

I think post-pandemic, people will not take manufactured products in the same way as they did before – I think people need integrity.

The premise behind LOST is that I think in a society where we are constantly online, that perhaps there is a place for getting lost.

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