Street Feast and Secret Cinema have been the hottest tickets in London in recent years. Both draw on two of the most traditional leisure activities, turning up the sensory dials to max.
Courier got the two together and discovered they have a lot else in common: raving, riots and worries about Mark Zuckerberg.
COURIER: Let’s hear how you both got to doing what you do?
Dominic Cools-Lartigue: I was putting on raves in what is now the Electric cinema on Portobello Road. I spent 15 years doing that with people like Roni Size and Daft Punk and then knocked it all on the head in 2011.
I wanted to do something different that didn’t keep me up into the wee hours when I had a baby boy.
I was fascinated by the food markets in places like Zanzibar and Barbados and imagined what it could be like in London with all the different cultures we’ve got here. I knew my way around temporary event notices and council licences, so I thought I could make it work.
Fabien Riggall: I was always enchanted as a child going to the cinema. I used to look back at the faces of people watching the film and the light reflecting on them and was always just taken by that experience and that sense of magic.
I was a runner, a director’s assistant and started making short films but no one watched them so I started a short film festival.
Finding non-theatrical spaces was something I got into, and inviting DJs to play after screenings. That was at 93 Feet East.
DCL: That’s funny. I ended up doing stuff there as well.
FR: I was probably at a lot of your raves!
C: Dancing in warehouses, roller domes and aircraft hangars in the 90s seems to be the back story for a lot of people doing interesting stuff in the cultural-commercial space today. Is there something in that?
DCL: There’s definitely a generation who were going out in the ‘90s and are now in their 40s, and want to be doing something with their lives.
FR: I think there is something powerful in rave culture around it being forbidden and a sense of discovery.
DCL: There was a community as well. It was a great breeding ground for ideas; chatting and exploring things while getting high.
FR: You’re right, there was a creative energy and intimacy.
C: That idea of being part of something is apparent in what you’re both selling today through film and eating: two very traditional leisure activities.
DCL: People came together with dance music in a way that they hadn’t before. You’ve done that in such an amazing way with film and we’ve tried to do it with food and drink. It’s an evolution of the way people socialise.
C: What are the most significant ways that coming together is different today?
FR: I feel a lot of it is being much more commercially packaged and perhaps it hasn’t got as much…
FR: Soul, definitely. People feel a disconnection, and technology is a big part of that.
Mark Zuckerberg talks about how he’s changed the world, and he wants to change it again with Oculus Rift. He believes the world should be lived through the screen, but we want to build a secret world that’s romantic and adventurous and dream-like. That for me, is exciting.
C: What you do definitely feels like an antidote to life-through-a-screen, but social media also plays a crucial role in galvanising your communities. It’s quite an interesting duality.
DCL: Even though people are instagramming pictures of burgers, the best bits have got fuck all to do with anything digital. People say it’s the smell that gets them first at Street Feast; their senses being lit up.
I love that you ask people to hand their phones in when they come to Secret Cinema.
FR: We’ve used Facebook and Twitter and even Myspace back in the day as tools to reach audiences. But they’re just modern day landlines or pagers. We’ve got quite a large community on Facebook and I have to pay Facebook huge amounts to reach them now. In the old days it was just whack it up, and there was no algorithm. It feels like it’s getting harder and harder to reach the very audience that I’ve built. And they’re saying ‘oh we’re helping small businesses’. Bit of a weird one.
C: Neither of your ventures seem raw commercial opportunism. Have you had to retro-fit making money around what you want to do?
DCL: It made sense in my head, where it could go, the experience and I had to just stay true to that. Even when everyone else is questioning you and all the money’s gone!
FR: I don’t even know how putting on short film nights turned into this big project, I certainly didn’t go to business school. Taking risks and pushing the boundaries has been tough though. And I’ve had to accept certain truths as we’ve gone along.
C: Are some of those truths around setting higher prices than you’d ideally like? Neither Street Feast nor Secret Cinema are cheap.
FR: We charged £15 for the Amy documentary recently and go up to £75 for Star Wars. Go to the biggest football matches, theme parks, musicals, and you’re paying that kind of money.
I’m unapologetic because we create entire environments, worlds actually, to create an experience people will remember.
DCL: Maybe because of what I do, I can see where that money goes. I went to Star Wars and was like ‘how is he making money?’
FR: Well don’t tell anyone, we’re fucking broke! The truth is we make some profit, but it all goes into the next project. We’ve now got some investment to fund a launch in America and are a bit more settled.
C: And despite the perceptions of price Dom, you’ve taken Street Feast to Lewisham and Fabien, I saw you screened La Haine on the Broadwater Farm Estate. Not exactly the most affluent parts of London.
DCL: It doesn’t matter if it’s in a trendy or not trendy place. It’s not like people in Shoreditch are the only people who can enjoy tapas.
We walked around Lewisham and liked it. There’s soul, a vibe, an energy despite the site being empty for 10 years and covered in four inches of pigeon shit. People there totally embraced Street Feast.
FR: My girlfriend lived in Wood Green during the 2011 riots and I remember a firebomb hit a bus just outside us, and I thought ‘this is never going to stop’; I was so affected by that. I come from a middle-class background and was very supported as a child but for me, the idea of not having creative outlets when you’re young and feeling isolated is something you can’t help but be concerned about.
C: What do you hope to achieve with taking your projects to young people who don’t have that access to culture or a creative outlet?
FR: I think that there’s an opportunity to radicalise youth with culture so we started a project called Secret Youth. Why is it that people are joining ISIS? Because it’s an adventure, because it’s a gang, because it’s a group with a quest.
What has someone got in Broadwater Farm? The youth centre’s burnt down, people are getting shot by the police and they’re being denied opportunities to express themselves.
DCL: One of the things that excited me most about doing Street Feast in the first couple of years, was young people with no experience of the food industry coming up to us and wondering how they could get into it, because they’re inspired and can see it’s possible for them.
C: Despite it being technically easier to start creative projects and get out there, there still seems a dearth of original voices and ideas coming through. Is that fair?
DCL: I think those of us who have the opportunity to bring them through, should try, otherwise what are you doing here?
FB: There have been festivals and exhibitions cancelled over the last year because of security issues, and most recently the play Home Grown by the National Youth Theatre was too.
There’s less risk-taking in the arts and it goes back to that idea that you’re making art to sell rather than communicate or inspire. The cultural space feels quite sanitised.
C: To what extent do you want to remain outsiders or want to engage with the more established parts of film and food?
FB: If Frieze represents art then what the fuck is art, do you know what I mean? I don’t think an Odeon multiplex represents the magic of cinema.
I don’t know how people treat you in the culinary world, but we’re ignored by BAFTA, ignored by the BFI and yet we bring 200,000 people to film every single year, which is half what the BFI bring. They should make us an ambassador, because I want to help, I want to support and promote. I’m a good promoter, they should use me.
How do they treat you in the food industry?
DCL: They ignore us. Apart from the critic Giles Coren.
FB: Hardly any critics come?
DCL: Jay Rayner’s not been, or ever mentioned it. None of them actually.
FB: And yet you’re getting some amazing food in there.
DCL: Yeah, it’s fantastic. But also, if you’re interested in food and the food industry, this is a radical new step in your industry and you’re ignoring it because you can’t reserve a table. What if the whole world is changing around you and leaving you behind? We just keep on going and doing what we do.
C: You both certainly have got attention though for unwanted reasons: the fire at Dinerama and having to cancel the first few nights of Back To The Future. What impact did they have on you?
DCL: We had actually just done the deal with London Union, and I went on a little bender. I had a little bit of freedom for the first time ever. I was in New York at the time and I was smashed in a bar when I got the message and I instantly felt really guilty for being where I was,
because there I was enjoying myself and this appalling thing had happened.
It was awful and very sad. Dinerama was the shining example of us trying to do more and working with traders who really pushed themselves. They all put more money than they’d ever invested in their spaces, and for six weeks after opening for that to burn down; that’s really hard.
FB: The difficulty for me was that I have never experienced a situation where it felt the world sort of descended on us. We’re just an event company and we weren’t able to get to the place where the authorities were going to allow us to do it. It definitely made me stronger but it was very close to the end of everything from a reputational point of view.
The real tragedy for me, and the thing that makes me sad was that we’ve always spoken to the audience in character, we never step out of character. Secret Cinema has always kept that mysterious tone, and the way we talk to the audience is through the characters of the film.
Creating a magical world around a loved old film for 85,000 isn’t easy. It hurts given the audience put so much effort into coming and I had to cancel it. I just wish we were working with authorities that welcomed us with open arms given what we’re trying to do.
C: Do you feel there is active opposition to what you’re trying to do?
DCL: Look what’s going on in Hackney at the minute. We fought a campaign against plans to shut Hackney down at midnight by people telling us we all need to be tucked up in our beds. There are people who genuinely believe that people going out at night are responsible for all the social ills. Can you believe it?
FB: The demise of nightclubs and music venues has contributed in part to young people feeling more isolated. There’s a gloom around, and fewer possibilities to lose themselves in a world where they can create their own thing.
C: We’re looking at property in this issue, and I wonder if you’ve seen a response from developers to create new shared social spaces?
FB: We worked with Southwark council and British Land for Star Wars and they’ve been amazing. I’ve got lots of issues with property developers, and now I’m developing something with British Land where I’m going to have a 40 acre site around Southwark because they see the value of what Secret Cinema did, to build a cultural, communal area that’s not just a horrible Canary Wharf, but it’s a proper thing.
You get clubs like Berghain in Berlin, which is like a cathedral to that sort of urban decadence that you need to have. You need to have a dirty city, you’ve got to have the seediness, and London is going to lose that, rapidly. The demise of nightclubs are a warning sign.
DCL: What’s replacing them? Communities being designed at the minute are quite soulless. It’s going to be to everyone’s detriment.
C: Both of you are nervous about this sanitising of the city, but do you worry your own ventures will lose the magic and specialness as they grow?
DCL: No, because there’s a desire from people like Jonathan Downey in charge of Street Feast now who loves the magic. He won’t change. There’s an understanding and appreciation of the experience and the soul that’s at the heart of what people connect with.
FB: I’m quite optimistic that the barriers get smaller as the community gets big enough and they own Secret Cinema rather than we do.
I’m interested in the idea that we could release a film as big as a blockbuster, but people won’t know what it is before they see it. Imagine it! And I really believe people want secrets.
So, yeah, I believe you can build a very large niche organisation and keep it that way. It’s just a question of not losing that sense of purpose and magic. I’m never going to do that, so that’s the battle. And it’s boring without the battle, anyway.
This is a condensed and edited extract of a conversation that took place on 22 September 2015.
Rise of immersive eating and watching
Street Feast and Secret Cinema are the biggest, and in many ways pioneering, names that have taken the film and eating experiences out of relatively sedate multiplexes and restaurants.
It’s fuelled a surge in film and food operators taking over car parks among other cheap large spaces, creating temporary events and attracting crowds through social media.
Many credit the appetite for sensory experiences to how easy it has become to order food and watch HD films at home.
Day and night food markets such as Kerb, Urban Food Fest and Southbank Centre Market have been at the vanguard, popping up across busy parts of London, and bringing often extremely niche specialist concepts to the public. Half the country buys street food at least once a week and one in five indulge three times weekly, according to research firm Allegra.
Although far from the theatre and imagination of Secret Cinema, several operators have put on screenings in the outdoors: rooftops, parks and in hot tubs. Nitro ice cream and high quality independent burgers and beer feature as another antidote to the typical multiplex fare.
Fabien Riggall, Secret Cinema
Rigall has found himself able to send an email to a million Secret Cinema fans, often proffering little more than a location at short notice and witnessing droves of people queuing for a film they know nothing about. They even follow his costume instructions.
He has put on large scale crowd-pleasing spectacles that bring to life classic films like Ghostbusters and Star Wars, but also social and politically-led endeavours. Most recently, he held screenings in support of refugees in London and Calais in makeshift camps.
Secret Cinema followers had been growing on the back of increasingly elaborate shows and gushing fans.
It attracted criticism after it was forced to cancel the first week’s performances of its most ambitious project, Back to the Future, last summer.
It’s produced an even more audacious show for Star Wars this summer, pulling in 100,000 people over four months.
Having secured investment, with the details undisclosed, Riggall is now developing a permanent site in London, and preparing to launch Secret Cinema in the US.
Dominic Cools-Lartigue, Street Feast.
The first Street Feast took place in May 2012, in the small car park near Brick Lane with nine stalls. Cools-Lartigue soon discovered a world of passionate food vendors in London were itching to get in front of the public.
By the end of 2013, he was running Friday and Saturday events simultaneously in three different locations.
Its most extravagant project, Dinerama, came in May this year, with a vast double storey space in the middle of Shoreditch. A fire a month after launching came as a blow to Dinerama but it opened its doors again three weeks later.
The momentum attracted the interests of investors, notably Leon founder Henry Dimbleby, who is leading the development of a permanent space for Street Feast. He set up London Union, and earlier this year the new company acquired Street Feast with Cools-Lartigue remaining a minority shareholder.
Cools-Lartigue is now developing a new project. A big cultural space in east London is due to open in March 2016, which will feature live music and theatre, art gallery, restaurant and studios to design and manufacture products.