“If Only I Had More Time”. The Secret Cinema/Back To The Future Debacle

“If only I had more time”, says Marty McFly just before he time travels back to 1985 in the cult classic Back To The Future. However, that’s what Secret Cinema founder, Fabien Riggal, will also be saying after performances were scrapped at criminally late notice this week.

As I type this I should be on a train heading down to London for tonight’s performance. As it is I have a return ticket that will go unused so I will end up £33 lighter in the pocket. Yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. 

While I thought my obsession for the film was a healthy one (it still ranks as my guilty, Friday night with nothing to do, pleasure) I didn’t catch a plane to attend nor booked time off work. My prom outfit was bought from charity shops yet I was genuinely excited to go. That sensation has ebbed to a gruelling disappointment and a deep sense of suspicion and disenchantment.

Marketing for the film has been titillating, from the emails hinting of an immersive set capturing Hill Valley circa 1955 in all its kitsch glory. From the diner, the frock shops and the cinema it seemed like stepping back in time, it looked incredible. Yet the more emails I got the further worried I became, particularly the HTML emails which seemed to hide important links like the actual meeting point (pretty crucial guys). You were instructed to bring props as if you were employed by a Hill Valley business and many seem to have received correspondence which picked which business for you, I didn’t. Unforgivably there were typos; ‘Enchanted Under The Sea Prom’, misnamings; postings from headmaster Stanford Strickland when his first name is actually Siegfried. The warning signs were there.

Thursday’s cancellation came as a shock. I was aware that you were not allowed to bring mobile phones yet so many public events allow them with discretion. Actual cinemas allow you to take your mobile phone in under the premise that you switch it off. Theatres and libraries have the same issue but not the same problem. I could have quite easily left mine in my pocket, I’m a grown man, I don’t need to Instagram every thing I see no matter how cool it looks. After some delving apparently there is an issue regarding the legality of a company taking your phone off you which makes you wonder if they had logistics in place to securely look after thousands of mobile phones and a system to hand them back. Then there’s belongings to think about. I also wanted to ask if there were changing facilities to suit up before the prom yet that was the least of my worries.

There’s a charm in enticing the customer with a website that includes answering phone messages from characters in the film but the actual logistics of the event seem to have been forgotten. Were there seats for the screening? Was there a separate email for friends of the ticket-holder to make their own Hill Valley ID? What was the point of making a Facebook alias? Why only use Facebook when not everyone clicks to attend events (only 15,000 bothered out of 86,000) so not everyone would get the updates? If you cannot take your phone how would you know if the event was cancelled if you only announce it 90 minutes before?

That final point really takes some believing. Not only that but an official announcement was due at 11am on Friday morning, another deadline that was missed. At this point I decided not to travel on the Saturday morning whether it was cancelled or not, despite receiving an email asserting that Hill Valley was ready to receive customers. There was still a lack of specific reasons as to why there were cancellations which is particularly galling and only lead to online speculation. The set wasn’t ready, there were H&S concerns, the fire service hadn’t given the exits the all-clear. No-one knew and the statement didn’t give any answers. “Unfortunately, we have experienced some difficulties and have had to cancel tonight along with the remainder of this first weekend and plan to re-open next Thursday 31 July.” Secret Cinema’s motto is ‘Secret audience. Secret locations. Secret Worlds. Tell No One’ which they seem to have taken a little too literally.

As it were an email arrived at around 6pm meaning that I knew not to go down. It makes you wonder, if they knew there were problems why did they not decide to cancel the first week sooner and let people know so hotels bookings could be cancelled and transport tickets transferred. I’ve begrudgingly decided to give them another chance and attend on 29th August when you would hope any issues were straightened out but I’m not holding my breath. Not when promises were broken and communications were simply not forthcoming.  

All these oversights smack of an over-ambitious naivete and a general feeling that they simply ran out of time, a delicious irony for an event based on a film about time travel.


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