This past November, I made the trip for the second year in a row to the Mozilla Festival in London, a three-day technology binge fest that brings together some of the world’s top thinkers to consider and shape the future of the web. It’s awesome.

This year, however, I found myself sneaking away early on the last day of the conference at the coaxing of my friend, a London local. As an aside, in my experience you should always be open to coaxing from locals while traveling — it generally results in the best stories. He didn’t tell me much except that he had bought me a ticket to an event called Secret Cinema and that we would be seeing a movie somewhere in London that evening. Next thing I know, I received an email from the organizers with a new identity for the evening and instructions on what to wear — long johns and all. Being from Los Angeles, I hadn’t even considered packing long johns, so this required a quick trip to a department store.

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The Secret Cinema ‘Courthouse.’

That evening I met my friends at the “Courthouse” for my trial and soon found myself blindfolded and stripped of my clothes and belongings. So began a night of full immersion into the world of the movie we would eventually watch — “The Shawshank Redemption.” For the next five hours of my life, I was a prisoner. I was stripped of my possessions and any control over my short-term destiny. I had to lie to get to my belongings just to sneak out my camera phone. But I didn’t care, in fact I was loving every minute of it.

I travel a lot and do not say this lightly — Secret Cinema is near the top of my list of all-time favorite travel experiences.

a ‘true transmedia experience’

The production that their crew puts on is a true transmedia experience in the fullest sense of the definition from Henry Jenkins:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.

The way the physical experience played out directly coincided with the plot of the “Shawshank Redemption,” making the movie hit a lot closer to home when it finally came time to watch it while sitting in prison garb — even being served beer at the exact moment that coincided with the rooftop drinking scene.

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More recently, at Sundance, I had the pleasure with meeting with another friend who runs the New Media Fund at Tribeca. She said that a big obstacle people face when applying for the fund is how to expand beyond the traditional film, through technology and other means, in a way that actually enhances the story being told.

In my opinion that was the greatest part of the idea behind Secret Cinema. At its core, it is surprisingly simple — completely immerse your audience into the world of the movie, beginning days before they even step near the theater, as a means to get them to connect with the story in a deeper way.

I am constantly brainstorming and developing engaging experience online through my company, Uncharted Digital, but it is rare to come across a project that so eloquently combines use of the Internet, film, and physical immersion.

engaging with content

What if movies and television shows all had this additional component to some degree? A component that, while not as comprehensive as the Secret Cinema experience, would provide the viewer with opportunities to engage with the content and expand the relationship beyond the simple, lean-back experience of couch-based viewing.

Occasionally a show comes along that pushes these boundaries — á la “Lost,” which featured embedded commercials that included secret phone numbers and websites that led the viewer to uncover hidden facts regarding the Dharma initiative.

As the entertainment industry struggles to adapt to new business models — Netflix, Hulu, etc. — I think that there is huge potential here for ways that engage audiences while potentially creating additional revenue streams. Sponsored experiences, for example, that require the viewer to buy a Coke to unlock a scene that was not included on air or allowing the viewers themselves to direct the future of the show’s plot line as done in the CBS show “Hawaii Five-O”.

But while mainstream entertainment continues to experiment, you don’t have to wait for a great transmedia viewing experience. Secret Cinema is expanding to Athens and New York in April, so if you find yourself with an opportunity to attend one of these events, I guarantee it will be a filmgoing experience unlike any other.

Jon Vidar is executive director of the Tiziano Project. His past work has included archaeological excavations in Turkey and Greece, new media training programs in Rwanda and Iraq, and writing and photographing for the travel guide series Modern Overland in South Africa. In 2007, with Andrew McGregor and Tom Rippe, he founded The Tiziano Project in Kigali, Rwanda. Vidar has since led two programs in Iraqi Kurdistan and in 2010 launched The Tiziano Project | 360 Kurdistan, which has received recognition from SXSW Interactive, the Gracies and the Webby Awards.

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