Max Alexander, is the CEO of Secret Cinema, a live experience brand that’s bewitching audiences with its sensory-rich takes on some of the best films ever made. Prior to his current role, Alexander cut his teeth in senior roles at Sky and Carphone Warehouse, learning lessons in leadership from the mobile phone giant’s founder, Charles Dunstone along the way.
In his third year as CEO of Secret Cinema, he talks to Real Business about the brand’s progression from kooky concept to an experience that’s found international success – and is set to hit American audiences soon.
Real Business, (RB): How did you end up as CEO of one of the 2000s most exciting brands?
Max Alexander, (MA): I’d say it was a combination of luck, momentum, non-judgement and learning from startling errors that got me to the Secret Cinema. I did a stint at Mckinsey, Sky and then worked with Charles Dunstone at Carphone Warehouse who had the most impact on my career. I then spent numerous years at TalkTalk before going to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Really Useful Group, which was my first role within a ‘pure’ entertainment brand and paved the way for the role at Secret Cinema.
RB: What drew you to the company?
MA: When Secret Cinema was founded in 2007, there weren’t many category-leading companies that had a combination of ground-breaking productions, enormous cultural integrity and a global opportunity that hadn’t reached its full potential – all of this made the prospect of working for Secret Cinema unbelievably exciting to me. Today, the business has an incredibly supportive board who are ready to embrace the right kind of change and could see a bright and progressive future for the brand. Obviously, one is always concerned about businesses that have very charismatic founders like Fabien Riggall, but he wanted to bring in a CEO to take the business into its next phase of growth. Getting to know Fabien has been a huge bonus, he’s a brilliant creative and a genuinely original thinker.
RB: What leadership lessons have you learned in your previous roles that helped you secure your current position?
MA: Being able to see the essential problem in a disparate body of facts buried deep in everyday noise is essential to being a CEO, and you learn this skill through experience and wisdom. I worked for Charles Dunstone – one of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs – he had an informal, non-hierarchical but reasonably decisive style and I learnt a lot from him. However, the single biggest challenge for any leader is how to create conditions where brilliant people come together and where success is almost inevitable. My role at Secret Cinema is to create the spaces for brilliant people to be brilliant in, as that’s when the magic happens.
RB: If you could summarise Secret Cinema’s mission statement in one sentence, what would it be?
MA: To give people the best night of entertainment of the year and probably – their lives.
RB: Is the Secret Cinema concept responding to a consumer desire for more authentic experiences?
MA: The idea at the heart of Secret Cinema is actually very old fashioned – it’s enabling people to re-engage with fantastic storytelling that’s explorative, participative and unbound – like the tribal gatherings or medieval mystery plays. We embrace technology but only when it enhances our stories and adds to the experience, not at the expense of disconnecting people to each other. We work with the best people across video, lighting, stage design, mixed reality and projection mapping to bring an elevated experience. For Secret Cinema presents Blade Runner, we made it rain indoors every night of the production, not an easy feat but it was fundamental to the story and experience.
RB: How did you secure the deal with Disney?
MA: Disney make amazing stories and have an extraordinary catalogue, so it’s always been a partner we’ve wanted to collaborate with. We were talking to them for about a year before finalising the deal. We had to demonstrate that we would cherish their work, write amazing stories, prove we were respectful of their rights and collaborate effectively. We also had to show that we could deliver titles into more than one market, which is something we have already done in China with Secret Cinema presents Casino Royale. Being able to turn a passive experience into a very active visceral engagement with the story is different from a movie and different from a ‘parks experience’, so what we bring to the audience is a unique and intimate experience of the title. And for Disney a different way for their fans to experience these films and to appeal to new audiences.
RB: What expansion lessons did you learn from your China launch?
MA: The most important thing is cultural sensitivity, even a product derived from a universal story like James Bond doesn’t necessarily translate. As Secret Cinema is a live show and ebbs and flows around the audience, it’s only during the previews that we really get to see it in all its glory. We learnt a lot from the previews in China and the show that was receiving great audience reactions was different from what we opened in the London show. We also learnt that our productions are really complicated to create, and Shanghai needed our effort and experience to open the show on time. We had 25 Secret Cinema staff and partners over in China working 20 hours a day for 3 months to open the show. Moving a show from one country to another will never be easy and it takes a skilled team to deliver an incredible production that resonates locally.
RB: You’re launching into the US market next year, are you able to tell us anything about your plans?
MA: We will launch in LA with our first show, but I obviously can’t tell you what it is!
RB: What sort of culture does the Secret Cinema workspace have?
MA: Secret Cinema has always had an activist culture – accepting of risk, pushing boundaries and we are completely comfortable with embracing new techniques and ways of doing things. Over the past few years, we’ve grown much bigger from 15 to 50 people with lots of people from different places and backgrounds and we have worked very hard to retain the DNA of the original Secret Cinema but also to allow new voices to come through.
RB: Your founder (Fabien Riggall) is the creative genius behind the brand, how do you fulfil your commercial role as CEO while honouring his founding vision?
MA: The most important jump has been from moving from Fabien’s singular creative vision to one where our incredibly talented bench of directors and producers can genuinely compose their own original work – albeit we retain with thanks much of Fabien’s DNA. We have a team of excellent people and there are highly skilled working groups of people running the process for each show, so we are respectful of each other’s opinions and let them get on with it.