Beyond immersive cinema

I spent several years feeling wary of the idea of Secret Cinema’s immersive cinema experiences. And then I went – and I really felt they’d got it wrong. But I think I’ve got a solution for them. 

They were doing Dr Strangelove. It was a really cold evening, and when we arrived there was the weird bossing around and getting acted at, and then we got inside and there was this great environment. An empty warehouse had been transformed into a mid-century military bureaucracy, with fascinating beautiful attention to detail. We wandered about exploring the rooms, occasionally flirting with in-character barstaff or getting shouted at to move out the way of the president’s entourage. It was really good.

And then we get shepherded into the huge screening hall, and it is utterly impossible to get immersed into the film, because there is always something going on to distract you from actually watching it.

That’s very nice, but you’re getting in the way of the screen, mate.

You’re getting in the way of the screen, mate.


The film closes with that desolate, thrilling moment when Major Kong straddles the nuclear bomb plummeting to earth, waving his cowboy hat and whooping, whooping, whooping til the film cuts to white. But rather than let this image speak for itself, a team of staff roll a mock bomb onto the high stage, with a flailing actor blocking our view.

There’s a quote from the director Alan Parker, which goes: “Film needs theory like it needs a scratch on the negative.” After tonight’s events, my version replaces ‘theory’ with ‘Secret Cinema’.

Cinema by its very nature is immersive. You sit immobile in a darkened room and you fall into it. It cannot be more immersive, so the whole premise of Secret Cinema’s ‘immersive’ (or rather ‘interruptive’) cinema is faulty.

So what to do? They should dump the film screening. Shift the story off the screen and back into the magnificent immersive sets. And how do you tell the linear narrative of, say, Dr Strangelove or Empire Strikes Back in the non-linear space of a multi-person wander?

You don’t. You immerse the audience into the universe of the film, and let new narratives emerge. Instead of the forward-forward singular film narrative, we fashion a deeper-deeper rhizomatic multiplicity.*

You love Back to the Future? Then you don’t need to actually watch it again – you need to go deeper. Let’s create an immersive world in which you’re a time traveller who can find out the story of what Doc Brown was doing just before October 1985. Or how Biff is getting on in 2025. Or what Marty’s parents’ life was like in the 1970s.

Let’s use the aesthetic universe of 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later to make a horribly immersive 3-hour version of the playground game British Bulldog, where you either survive and run, or zombify and chase. The night ends when everyone is a zombie, and we all dance.

What wealth of immersion could we find in the poetic spaces† of The Shining or Blair Witch or The Godfather?

Write your own ideas here:








Secret Cinema, it’s time to embrace what you’re good at, and ditch the annoying film screening bit. If you’re reading, I’m be happy to help you work out how to do this.

Let’s ditch immersive cinema. It’s time for cinematic immersion.

Phoenix is currently thinking about how to create a Sister Act 3 event that involves fan fiction and gospel singalongs.

* I can’t get a grip on anything that Deleuze writes. Is this a correct usage of his rhizome idea?

† I must try to finish Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Poetics of Space’. But in the evening when I try to read, the sun slants onto the sofa and I wake up hours later with the book on my chest.