EXCLUSIVE: The old department store could be about to get a new lease of life with ‘immersive’ performances of movies such as Dirty Dancing, Blade Runner or Guardians of the Galaxy. By STEVEN DOWNES
Fabien Riggall, the man who has made himself a millionaire by developing his Secret Cinema immersive performance concept, could soon be coming to central Croydon with a new business using the Allders building.
Croydon Council has received a licensing application from one of Riggall’s newest companies, Aerodrome Croydon Ltd, which is seeking to use the ground and first floor of Allders as a “pop-up” venue for music, dance, theatre and cinema performances, and which requests a licence to sell alcohol through to 2am on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
The licence application runs from September 1 this year until the end of August 2023 – which would see it cover the first six months when Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture.
“The premises is the former home to the department store, Allders. It consists of a loading bay/basement, ground floor, first, second, third and fourth floor. The ground floor will be used for events. The loading bay and a section of the first floor will be used for production purposes,” the licensing application states.
The building is owned by Croydon Council, having been acquired under the Compulsory Purchase Order conducted on behalf of the Whitgift Foundation and Westfield for their promised supermall that was never built.
The Allders department store, a flagship business in Croydon town centre, went into administration 10 years ago this summer, finally ceasing trading in 2013. The building was then used by a random selection of franchises and other outlets, but in 2019 the council sent in the bailiffs to evict all the small businesses in order to make way for… the Westfield non-development. About 40 businesses were displaced, with as many as 100 jobs lost overnight.
The building has been standing empty ever since.
Inside Croydon understands that discussions with the elusive Riggall have been going on for some time, but the details of the plans for the Allders building were being kept under wraps for a grand announcement which would see Mayor Jason Perry take all the credit.
Secret Cinema already has a couple of productions lined up for this summer, with tickets available online for “a secret location in London” for Dirty Dancing and Guardians of the Galaxy, priced from £42, to £68.53 (the booking fee malarkey throws up some bizarre price points) right up to £124.20.
The latter, for Guardians of the Galaxy, offers “bespoke character and backstory”, “immersive adventure”, “exclusive access and storylines”, “private cloakroom and queue jump” (nice), “food token” (yum), “2x Drink tokens” (slurp), and even “larger seats and at-seat service during screening”, all as part of “enhanced film screening of Marvel Studios’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2“.
The dates on offer for Guardians are from September – which coincides with the licensing application made to Croydon Council.
It is not yet known what plans Aerodrome Croydon Ltd has for Allders, beyond the outline contained within their licensing application. The company, with an address in east London, was only registered in January this year. Riggall is the sole director listed.
In March, Riggall also registered Aerodrome Entertainment Ltd, Aerodrome Properties Ltd and Aerodrome City Ltd at Companies House.
It is not yet know why the licensing application has been made through this new company, rather than using the established Secret Cinema parent company, Future Cinema.
Secret Cinema has been operating since 2005, originally putting on obscure 1940s films in car parks with performances by flamenco dancers. It quickly built a cult following for its themed film events.
They staged pop-up screenings of classic or cult movies – Star Wars and Blade Runner proved particular successes – they often take place in disused warehouses or factories, transformed into a film set for the purpose, and always at a “secret location” until the punters are given final details.
Riggall says he came up with the idea of Secret Cinema when he was a child who “wanted to live inside the film”.
He had watched Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and imagined “slipping into the world of a movie, to become part of the script”.
According to a profile published by The Hollywood Reporter, “Secret Cinema has grown to a phenomenon in the UK, capable not only of generating interest from fans and journalists but also of driving the box office as well. Secret Cinema’s Blade Runner event, which recreated the dystopian future world of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, ran for four months in east London, taking in more than $6 million, putting a 35-year-old film in the top 10 of the UK charts for 11 weeks.”
Riggall has worked his Secret Cinema magic on new releases, too: a preview of the Korean movie The Handmaiden, which screened before its official release in Britain, grossed £1.4million, “the best result for a foreign-language film in Britain” at the time, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
A one-time film producer, Riggall said in an interview with the BBC four years ago, “When I started making short films I thought ‘Why can’t cinema be something closer to a rock ‘n’ roll concert or a music festival or a nightclub?’.
“Audiences need to feel the story.”
Riggall, 46, has taken Secret Cinema around the world, enjoying success in the United States, where cinema-goers, having signed their non-disclosure agreements, will arrive for the event in costume, ready to dive in to their character, with actors on-hand to encourage the audience’s involvement.
“Every audience member gets given a specific character, which they build online before they come,” according to Riggall.
“Of course people thought we were insane,” Riggall said of Secret Cinema’s early days, with its secret locations all part of the heightened excitement. “Everyone was getting into being online all of the time. The idea of being offline and it being a secret was really important to us,” he said.
That profile in The Hollywood Reporter quoted Riggall as saying, “We have to create secrecy and mystery again, something like the beginning of cinema, when it was a social event to go out a see a movie with a group of strangers.”
These are not fringe or minority events. Secret Cinema sold 80,000 tickets for a staging/screening of Back To The Future, and 100,000 for Star Wars.
“Humans want mystery, they want to experience something unpredictable and I think that is why Secret Cinema has its place,” Riggall said.
Could that “place” be Croydon?
Riggall’s Secret Cinema has been to Croydon before. It got off to a rocky start, with the company cancelling the opening weekend.
In April 2013, they lined up Delta Point, the old BT office block near West Croydon, for one of their events, but had to cancel last-minute. “We have been prevented from opening our latest production, due to unforeseeable circumstances beyond our control regarding the building we are using,” read the company’s online apology.
The unforeseeable circumstances? There was an issue with licensing with Croydon Council.
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