The great escape: Underground Cinema

Underground Cinema founder and creative director Tamasein Holyman used a background in theatre and boutique events to create the ultimate immersive experience

One hundred and eighty team members, 42 actors; 14 departments, catering to around 1500 punters…

The logistics of running an Underground Cinema night are a head spinner. The concept, which has been warmly embraced by Melburnians since its inception in 2009, involves ticket holders being texted and emailed clues to the film that they will gather at a seemingly random location to see.

After dressing to specifications (‘white’, ‘1970s summertime beachwear’, ‘foreign’) and assembling at this point, they’ll be taken on an adventure, bombarded with further clues, before being whisked off to the final location for that “ah!” moment of realisation when the opening credits roll and everything comes together.

This massive operation these days is a far cry from the maiden event, put together by founder Tamasein Holyman and just five of her mates. They opted for a French documentary, Generation Yamakasi, screened at Thousand Pound Bend with parkour athletes scaling the rooftops. “The message behind it was overcoming obstacles in your path,” says Holyman. “We liked that.”

Underground Cinema began as a “crazy enterprise” during the GFC. “I was a bit stuck, career-wise,” Holyman admits when we meet in her Collingwood office, surrounded by boxes filled with stethoscopes. She won’t tell Time Out the meaning behind the stethoscopes, but we find out a week later when we turn up at a Collingwood college for the themed screening of ‘Snow’ and find ourselves enrolling at a forensics university, being put through our paces. The movie? Swedish vampire thriller, Let the Right One In.) “We were doing something nobody had done ever in Australia; I mean, can you imagine telling people we’re going to do a secret event, secret location, it’s a movie screening but there’s a world – there’s actors, there’s set, there’s costumes… people would just say, ‘You’re insane.’ ‘Yeah, most likely!’ But when something’s in your gut, you just know. And you go for it.”

Now Underground Cinema is operational in both Melbourne and Sydney, with 25,000 members signed up to the mailing list. They typically sell out around a thousand tickets in an hour. It’s a concept that first found its feet in London with Secret Cinema in 2007 and the idea has last year been adopted by SBS to promote their World Movies channel (their World Movies Secret Cinema events have spread from Sydney to Melbourne).

“We’re just going to have to get bigger and better,” beams Holyman at the twin challenges of raising their game and catering to ever-larger numbers. To this end, they’ve come up with the idea of an equally mysterious prelude. “We’ve learnt that guests just love getting immersed, and they love playing a character, and they love the creativity. So now, a week beforehand, ticketholders are invited to also come to a ‘pre-world’, totally for free. At this event you’ll witness something that will be a clue for when you arrive at the event proper. We use this and our social media and our EDMs to pull you in and seed you into the world so that you’re already in the right headspace when you get to the main event. I don’t know anyone else in Australia who’s done this before. It’s taking guest participation to the next level.”

The next Underground Cinema event will be held in July or early August. You’ll have to sign up to to learn more.

HOW TO THROW AN UGC EVENT: THE BASICS

1. Find your theme. “It starts by looking at what kind of genres or themes we want to hit," says Holyman. "We want to take our guests on a journey so that every time they come it’s very different, so we have to make sure we’re not repeating ourselves, it has to be absolutely unexpected every time.”

2. Find the quintessential movie within that theme. “If you’ve never seen it, you’ve gotta see it. Or, if you’ve seen it, you’re going to love it again because we’re going to show it to you like you’ve never seen it before.”

3. Pick the venue. “If you find a venue first that you love, it’s really bloody hard to find a film to fit in it. We did that with World War II – we had this venue that was amazing and I was like, ‘Fuck, this is a WW2 venue and I know our guests would love to go to WW2’. I must have watched 42 films to try and find something.”

4. Create the set. “The set team meet every Saturday. They workshop for about six weeks and I give them the smallest budgets in the world and they deliver the biggest sets I’ve ever seen. We’ve have artistic directors from film sets who have borrowed my whole team. I’d tell them the budgets and they wouldn’t believe me. Sometimes I think if you have a lot of money and you throw it towards a creative problem, it means that you don’t have to be too intelligent about your design. I’ve worked for companies that have a lot of money and you throw it at it, and everything just becomes safe and beige and no one really commits.”

5. Rehearse with the actors. “All actors are auditioned or interviewed. When the film is chosen they’ll have around four weeks for the ‘experience design’ – working on their character’s accent, the historical period and knowing each other’s back-stories so well that they can improvise and introduce guests to different characters, drawing them further in.”

TAMASEIN HOLYMAN: RESUMÉ

UGC’s founder describes each career move as a happy accident that she was quite unqualified for…

- Studies Performing Arts at Monash

- Moves to the US and works in a restaurant part-owned by a Hollywood method actor

- Becomes stage manager for a private events company, catering to the jet set in Aspen, New York and South Beach, Miami. Puts on events for the HBO Comedy Festival, X Games and private clients

- Lives in France and works in marketing for a touring company 

- Moves to the UK and becomes a producer for an independent theatre troupe

- Is set to shoot a BBC pilot in Scotland but has to return home for a family emergency

- Sets up Secret Squirrel Productions in Melbourne, putting on bespoke events for magazine Dumbo Feather and Popcorn Taxi film festival, as well as establishing Underground Cinema

First published on . Updated on .

By Jenny Valentish   |   Photos by Lucy Spartalis

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