Working with venues part 1 hero image

Making Immersive: Working with Venues, Part One

Immersive Experiences often take place in non traditional cultural venues and finding a space that fits can pose a real challenge for makers and producers. In this episode we’re talking to Will Ma and Andy Barnes about all things venues, from finding them to making sure they’re safe and legal to host a project in. 

Our Guests:

Will Ma is a Location Scout and Manager for Secret Cinema, Disney Star and Netflix, find him here on Linkedin   

Andy Barnes is a founding member of IEN and Director of Entourage, an event production Consultancy who specialises in delivering large scale ambitious projects for brands, agencies and immersive producers. Find him here on Linkedin

Hosted by Dr Joanna Bucknall and produced by Natalie Scott for the Immersive Experience Network’s, Knowledge Bank. Funded by Arts Council England.

Podcast Transcript

Joanna Bucknall

Welcome to the Immersive Experience Network’s Making Immersive podcast series, giving you the tools and insights into the making of all things immersive and interactive. I’m your host Dr Joanna Bucknall. Over the course of this Knowledge Bank series, I’ll be having conversations with extraordinary creatives, production specialists, and makers who shape this tantalising sector and the worlds that draw us into this form. In this second episode of IEN’s podcast, the discussion is going to focus upon finding your space from sourcing all the way through to licensing. I am joined by Will Ma, who is a location manager for Secret Cinema, but he also works as location scout for TV and film.

I’m also joined by one of IENs co-founders, Andy Barnes, who is creative director for Entourage, and has also worked with Secret Cinema, Punchdrunk, and all of those names that you might know. We will be spending the next hour or so doing a deep dive into how to source and make space fit for purpose from both a creative, legal, and health and safety perspective, sharing insight into how to start looking for spaces that can become non-traditional cultural venues for immersive shows. Enjoy.

So I just wanted to kick off by asking you both quickly how you got into this, how you got into working in events, in live immersive, just to give people listening a sense of how you might come to do what you do. Will, can I start with you?

Will Ma

Yes, of course. My route was a bit roundabout. I started off in production working in TV, on very highbrow reality dating shows, reality TV dating shows with various celebrities, and it was, I guess, fun. But I always wanted to get into scripted and work with actors. A friend of mine was a location manager working on … a commercial location manager … was doing a commercial and asked me to come in and shadow him to see if I liked working on set. I did. Then I just took it from there.

I moved away from television production. I moved more into scouting and working on set, and then it spiraled from there. I’ve worked obviously on set, I’ve worked on the agency side of things, and one of the clients of one of the one of the agents I was working for was Secret Cinema. I was chatting to one of their producers and he came to mention that they’re looking to bring a location’s guy in-house if I knew of anyone. I was like, I do know someone actually, because I had just been to see Ghostbusters. This is how long ago it was. I just went to see Ghostbusters at the Truck Sale and I was blown away. I was like, “This is an amazing thing that I’m doing here.” It was really innovative and very creative. I’d love to work on something like this.

Then a few months later they’re looking for someone and I was like, “I could do it.” Then had a few conversations with Fabian, Carly Fabian, obviously, the creator of Secret Cinema, and then, yes, that’s how I found myself not only doing the film TV scouting stuff, also now working in the immersive sector too. That’s how I found myself doing that.

Joanna Bucknall

Lovely. Thank you, Will. Andy, how about you? What brought you into this space of working in site and location for immersive?

Andy Barnes

Our event production agency used an awful lot of white label work for corporate agencies doing exponential stuff for brands, and a lot of that just happened to be outdoor festival style stuff for consumers and for band work. That included a lot of temporary structures work as well, and just through I think it was a random LinkedIn request that came through when Secret Cinema were looking for some help to do Dr. Strangelove at the Printworks. They’d just done Star Wars with WonderWorks who are this incredible production agency who do lots of really big high-profile stuff, and they were just looking for someone a bit cheaper to help them with their next one.

We came into it and we found that a lot of our expertise in doing temporary event sites in the outdoor world and things like that actually was very similar to setting up a MIMO use space for theatre or other immersive work. The thing that we learnt as you went is that their regulatory environment is quite different, but the more you get into that, and the more you work in those, say, a Venn diagram or theatrical and construction, and the more you understand about where that bit in the middle sits, the more second nature a lot of the decisions become.

So yes, we’ve grown into it through that field and learned the ropes as we’ve gone, because as we all know, there’s no course for immersive and how to do it. Everyone is learning as they go and trying to get it right.

Joanna Bucknall

This is a common thread that’s emerging, actually, over the discussions is that it is very much … there’s a small knowledge pool and a small set of people who know these things, and hopefully, what we’re doing is going to start to try to capture some of that as well because it is so embodied in people’s experiences.

Andy Barnes

It is and they’ve learned it by doing, and they’ve learnt it by making mistakes and sometimes those mistakes have been quite expensive and everything else. So, yes, I think the biggest … we work with a lot of new creators now trying to do their first project to get them off the ground, and our biggest goal is always, “Look, we’re going to help you not make the same mistakes that everyone else has done when they’re at your stage, and here are the learnings and here are the things that they wish they knew when they were starting out.”

Joanna Bucknall

Yes, because it’s hard to access that information. I want to start with a quite big question which is, what type of different spaces are out there? What different opportunities are there to access space? Because these things don’t often happen in cultural sites of varying kinds. They often are much more in either a warehouse or they are a pop-up or they’re outdoors or they’re in something that’s minimal, which is very much in your area of expertise, Andy. It’s that sense of minimal. What kind of space can people be looking for? What do they look like?

Andy Barnes

From a practical point of view, at the very baseline, you’ve got your licensed venue space, which is essentially a theatre. A theatre is one. A music venue is one. These are spaces which have been set up as those things and they’ve got a premises license, which means they can sell alcohol and they can do licensed activities like music, and it means that they’ve got the planning permission to use that building in that way from the local council. Those spaces are our dream because basically you’re just walking up and basically saying, “How much to rent your space?” And if the money is good, then you can just put your show in there.

Will Ma

Well, that’s the thing. As Andy touched upon, a lot of the time with these licensed venues, they often turn out to be quite expensive to hire and they’re often not available because a lot of them have recurring events. If it’s a music venue, as Andy said, they could have been booked up for gigs throughout the year and things really confirmed. Obviously, you come to them with your, “I need an unbroken 10 weeks,” or however long you need it for and they’re like, “Well, we can only give you two weeks,” or what have you, so it doesn’t work.

A lot of the time I find especially working with licensed venues is often too expensive for the budget that we have or they’re just not available for long enough. Which is, I guess, and obviously with things that, with the way the economy is at the moment with utility costs going up, these venues obviously have to reflect those costs in their prices. I don’t know if you’ve found that but, Andy, some of the spaces that were X amount a few years ago are now so expensive and it’s just, I don’t know how anyone can really afford to put a show on and make it work, and profitable when you’ve got such high-running costs in the licensed space. But obviously, the more we touched upon minimal use space, which has its own set of costs, which I’m sure we’ll touch on later.

Andy Barnes

I’m thinking within that license space, you also had to include some other opportunity like heritage sites and other things basically. There are spaces that exist where people will do a deal with you because they want something cultural in the space or something which complements it, and sometimes they’ll be places which just have a spare space. There’s some fantastic escape rooms that have found opportunities where there’s part of a cold space not being used and they’ve managed to set an escape room there and things like that. There are also some fantastic people out there trying to provide these blank spaces as well for most of the creators. People like Theater Deli and Colab are pioneers in that.

Joanna Bucknall

But then they’re precarious, because they come and go.

Andy Barnes

Yes.

Joanna Bucknall

We are at the point, I think, where we need potentially licensed spaces, but that are designed to host long runs of various immersive work.

Will Ma

That’s exactly it, and ProductLife are a company that do that. They take on non-traditional building warehouses mainly, and license them, get the planning permission, and then hold on to them and manage them for the landlord, and then people, obviously, hire the space off them. But when I started at Secret Cinema there was, not loads, but there was a decent amount of opportunity there. But as the years have gone by, it feels like landlords and developers just aren’t sitting on their buildings anymore for as long as they used to. It feels like they’re acquiring them and then trying to get the planning as soon as possible. Before it was, it might be a couple of years, maybe three, four years. When we had Canning Town, a site that we found for Secret Cinema, we were there for three years, and they’ve only just in the last year or so finished the build on that, knocked it down and built flats on top. It does take a long time, but now developers, they’re not sitting on their buildings anymore, so the opportunity for minimal use is getting less and less.

Andy Barnes

That’s the second category, really, which is that if the venue doesn’t exist, then you have to go out and try and find it. I think there’s a really interesting creative opportunity there, because sometimes if you’re creating site-specific work, you can go out and find the venue, which is the character in the story. That will not be a blank box licensed space, that will be an old church, an old prison, some was … the other day, really interesting spaces which have a big opportunity, but there’s quite a lot of work then involved in turning that into a safe-to-use, but also a legal thing that you can turn over.

Some of the factors that will be key in that is what you want to do with it from a practical point of view in terms of for the show. So if you’re a large company and you want to try and run something for 10 weeks, 20 weeks a year, that’s quite a different proposition than if you want to just do a small pop-up week-long thing somewhere as a part of something that’s a bit more low budget, a little bit more experimental. Will, with the licensing, there’s two different worlds you’re working at. It’s two different parts of the council and there’s the licensing department and there’s the planning department.

Will Ma

Yes, exactly that. As Andy touched upon earlier, every building has got a planning class designated to it. For this one that we’re sitting in is an office space, I think, and then so we’d have class, whatever. If we wanted to take this building and then turn it into a venue, we’d have to apply for a planning change of use and change it to the relevant use for what we needed it for, so regulated entertainment, a theatre show or whatever, live music performance, that kind of thing. It’s not as involved as building a block of flats, but it still takes a lot of council engagement as if you were building a block of flats, really. You do…

Andy Barnes

It’s the same structure. That’s the problem.

Will Ma

Yes, exactly. It’s the same set of rules and regulations regardless if you’re building a skyscraper or if you’re just turning a warehouse from industrial to a venue. You may speak to the councillors, speak to all the planning department people, speak to all the stakeholders, engage with the residents, all that extra work that you do around, and you haven’t even got into the building yet.

Joanna Bucknall

Is there a timeline? Is there a set, do these things move under a set timeline?

Will Ma

Yes, they do. It’s about, I would say, give yourself a good six months at least if you wanted to, because you send in an application, it gets validated, and there’s a statutory period of about 12 to 13 weeks where they just sit with it.

Joanna Bucknall

Is that to people to…

Will Ma

Yes, to represent, any representations for councillors and for the planning department to go through all the different criteria and all the different aspects of your application. Then off the back of that, you get it granted or you go to committee, which is probably most likely you go to committee. That committee could be a month or two after the end of that statutory period. A lot of the time that we find is that we’re up against it timewise in terms of the client needs to put a show on in X date and a lot of the time planning hasn’t even been granted before you’re even on the site, which has happened to us a few times.

Joanna Bucknall

Is there a cost for that then? Is there a set cost of putting what paperwork in and can that…

Will Ma

There is. There is a set cost.

Joanna Bucknall

Is it expanding?

Will Ma

There is an application fee, and then a lot of the time the council are very keen for you to do a pre-planning application, which is when you submit all your information to your planning officer who then tells you what changes you need to make in order to give you the best chance of getting it through the actual process. That costs thousands of pounds. A lot of the time, the councils will insist on you doing that regardless of how difficult or easy your application is. But it’s one of those hoops that you have to jump through, one of those costs that you have to grit your teeth and pay if you want to get it through the other end as easy as possible. Because obviously if you don’t get your planning, then you can’t put your show on.

Joanna Bucknall

Then so is the planning process a separate one to then getting licensed?

Will Ma

Yes.

Joanna Bucknall

You have to get the planning and then get it licensed?

Will Ma

Exactly. The licensing process doesn’t take as long. It’s a bit easier. The premises’ license is more geared towards things like noise, antisocial behaviour, because it’s obviously based around the sale of alcohol. It’s much easier to get over the line, but obviously, you have to… The way that we do it at Secret Cinema is obviously you apply for planning and licensing at the same time. A lot of the information does overlap, so things like, obviously, Andy can go into more technical details, but things like fire escapes and all those kinds of things.

Andy Barnes

Yes, a little bit about how many toys are you going to have, where the bar is, and where the security is. That’s when you’re dealing with very large-scale stuff, if that makes sense, and long ones. There are things you can get called temporary event notices which allow you to run an event for up to I think seven days is the time.

Will Ma

That’s right, yes.

Andy Barnes

You can apply for multiples of those to run up to about 21 days, I think, and each venue can apply for a certain amount of years. Again, if you’re doing smaller fringy stuff or experimental stuff, there’s a world in which you can get the appropriate licensing in place for that to use, like a found space would be quicker but as the size of what you’re doing escalates, because those tents are also limited to 500 people. As the scale of what you’re trying to do escalates and the length of time you want to do it tips into a bigger thing and then becomes a bigger problem.

Culturally, I think is one of the biggest barriers for most of the work at the moment, because in Entourage we have this thing called the immersive triangle, which we say that all shows have to complete immersive triangle to be viable, and that being point one, you have to have the creative and the IP and the team in place for it. Point two is you have to have the venue lined up, and point three is you have to have money. If you can get those three things lined up, then great, you’ve got to show, you can walk, but it’s very hard to get that triangle all in place all at the same time.

The majors struggle with this as much as the people just starting out. It’s not an uncommon thing. But culturally, there’s a … what was just described is essentially running property, and it’s running a venue, and the investment of time and effort required to go through that process. Especially finding a big space which is suitable for what you’re trying to do. Then the investment that you have to put into that space to make it up to regulatory standards because one of the criteria they check when they go through the planning process is, is everything up to building control standards? If you’ve found an old warehouse which hasn’t been used for 20 years, the chances are that the electrics are not going to be up to scratch, the fire alarm is not going to be certifiable, the ventilation might need to be replaced. The investment required for those things are the things where if you are taking that on and going great, so I’m an investor, I’m going to create a venue which is going to be open for the next 20 years, the investment at the front of that, you can go…

Joanna Bucknall

Is perfect, yes.

Andy Barnes

You can go, “Great. Well, look. Over 20 years if we … here’s the business model, here’s the business plan, we’ll see that investment back.” If so you can go to property investors and go, “Well, look, 20 investments, great.” But the problem with so much immersive work is that even the larger scale stuff sometimes is only there for three or four months and that’s their business model. So when you try and work out what that investment is going to take, even when you don’t do anything to a permanent standard but install temporary systems and that’s an in-between version of this you can do, that investment is still very high just to create the property to put the show in. Which is why it’s one of our things we talk about with a lot of our clients in terms of these two very different business models. There’s a property in business model here and there’s a theatrical show, or a creative show business model, and sometimes you have to find different investors for two different things, and you think about creating different entities, legal entities for those different things. We have great advocates for people finding venue spaces and taking it on for three to five years and having their shows being the first tenant, which is going to come into it. Then looking at…

Joanna Bucknall

Then other.

Andy Barnes

Then if the show falls over financially, then at least you still got the venue and that venue you can still then put other things on.

Joanna Bucknall

Is there anything especially in a minimal space that you would look at and just be like, “No, not this building, even if it’s creatively brilliant and exactly what we’re looking for …” are there certain things that make you go, “Yes, this would be great,” or “We can’t touch.”

Andy Barnes

Everyone wants a warehouse in the West End.

Will Ma

Yes, exactly that. If you know of any aircraft hangars in Mayfair, that’d be amazing. For me, that’s a tricky question because even if a space is hard to activate or hard to service, if you throw enough resources at it, you can make it work. But all things being equal, the things that I look for when I go see a space for the first time is, as soon as I arrive at the front door, I look around. If it’s surrounded by residential properties, I always have a little bit, that’s a red flag for me. You can make it work for sure, but when it comes to the premises licensing and the noise management program, the noise management plan has to be really on point and very robust, you might potentially have to soundproof the entire building, which is a massive investment. So that’s one thing.

Linked on to that, if there’s lots of residences, there’s potentially lots of stakeholders. Different residents’ groups always want different things and a lot of them can be quite militant and can be quite hostile to someone coming into their neighbourhood and creating a venue in their space, in their back garden as it were. A lot of the time, most of them, they’re not happy about it. So that could be another battle that you might have to fight.

Then you go into the building, if it’s not structurally sound, there’s a big hole in the roof, there’s pooling water on the floor, there’s damp everywhere- again Andy can touch upon this- you can make it work if you throw the resources at it. But if there’s another warehouse which doesn’t have all those issues, I would tend to try and push the client so that one instead of spending a lot of money making the rotten one work. If the building is an old venue like an old night club or an old theatre, if the history of the building is complicated, i.e., it’s had its premises license pulled before for crime or various antisocial behaviour, that building will have that reputation for the local residents.

Even if it’s an old nightclub and you’re not opening up as a new nightclub, it’s going to be an immersive experience, their memory of that building is people fighting, disruptive behaviour, drunken behaviour, all that stuff. That will come out as you engage with the residents. They might be a bit wary of what you’re going to do.

Obviously, as you dig deeper into it, it might have a complicated planning history. We looked at a site, me and Andy, for Secret Cinema a few years ago whereby there was a beautiful big old warehouse on the banks of the Thames. That had a very complicated planning history in terms of the developer could never get planning permission due to the quite militant residents around the area. We found that was — as we dug deeper and peeled the layers back, we found actually, it was very hard ourselves just to get planning to do what we wanted to do. It’s lots of different things. Structurally and the history of the buildings is what I look for.

Joanna Bucknall

How do you pull those layers back? Are these things that come out during that planning process or do you have access to public records? How do you discover that?

Will Ma

As you engage with the landlord, you’re engaging with the council, and then as you’re engaging with those two, you’re engaging the residents. Then you get a clearer picture of what the history of the building is. Most of the time, it’s fine, but sometimes, you hear stories of XYZ. The landlord might not say what the reason is, why they haven’t got planning for this building and why they’re sitting on it, but then the residents will tell you or someone from the council would spill out what the reason is because … and yes, you get a clearer picture of the building. You get all the information. I guess from there you make an informed-decision whether it works for you or not.

Joanna Bucknall

In the last week, actually, the government have announced that they’re thinking of removing some of the barriers to changing high street and commercial space into potentially residential space. They’ve said that in the last couple of days.

Will Ma

Interesting.

Joanna Bucknall

My first thought was exactly this conversation today and I was like, will that present a significant challenge if high street space or commercial space could, without planning … that’s what they’re thinking of doing; removing planning permission to change its use, or is it going to be a huge opportunity?

Will Ma

It will be huge opportunities for residential developers, but the issue is with … the issue that I find is, like I said, when you find a space that’s surrounded by blocks of flats now, there are so many new blocks of flats springing up that it’s really hard to open a venue when everyone’s going to be complaining about the noise. So people who move next to Fabric, for example, they’re complaining about being near a nightclub, but the nightclub has been there for years.

Joanna Bucknall

For forever.

Will Ma

Then you decided to move to Farringdon or to move to a nice block of flats near Fabric and then now you’re moaning about living near a nightclub. It’s really tricky. Because as the opportunities get less and less, the stock of buildings get less and less, the buildings that are available are suddenly now surrounded by residential flats, or potentially will be surrounded by residential flats. How would you make that work?

Joanna Bucknall

Because I really thought that was an opportunity. It’s sad to see the way our high streets have gone, but what you’ve now got is massive Debenhams, massive John Lewis sites that clearly are probably able to cope because they haven’t shot that long ago. These huge, huge sites on the high street and so I was like, great, this could potentially be really exciting for us. But now if the government are going to allow people to, like I said, make them residential, and you’ve got residential popping up on the high street, then that seems like that might be challenging.

Andy Barnes

I think so. The post-COVID culture shift on the high street has been from retail to residential, and since even now, you walk around Westfield, it’s amazing they’ve got climbing walls and activities and people are going there to do activities rather than us doing … I think the opportunities for immersive work from escape rooms to location-based VR, AR, and you see Game Box is doing absolutely great at the moment. They’re expanding all over the states into malls and shopping malls. I think there’s loads of different … people are going out for experiences. Experience UK did a big study on experience in the high street just making the commercial case for the importance of governments supporting and planning supporting, putting experiences into actual retail spaces because that’s where people are going now. They’re buying stuff online, they’re going out for experiences.

The barriers to it, there’s some regulatory stuff to go through. Less arduous if you’re putting an escape room into a shopping centre versus building 1,000-person seats is a venue warehouse. But it’s the economics of it which is tough, because retail space rents sometimes doesn’t work for cultural work like escape rooms and things like that. The rent tends to be high. But where I think the opportunity is, is to try and find those spaces where it’s been vacant for a long time, and actually, you can start, push that button of, “Look, would you either want your space empty or would you like us to come in at a reduced rent?” Or even things like a revenue share and things like that sometimes landlords are interested in, just to bring some life to the area. Because I think there’s a massive case for putting experiences into retail space and things which is just, we’re going to bring foot traffic back. We are the attractor that’s going to bring people back to the high street and we’re going to make this feel a bit more live again.

Joanna Bucknall

A lot of that high street space, the landlord is the council.

Andy Barnes

A lot of time. Yes, exactly, and so trying to get them on board with that. Sometimes, especially if there’s a lack of long-term master plan which they’re trying to work towards, the fact that you can be in there and say, “Well, look, we’ll be in there for three to five years while you work out what you’re trying to do everything else, instead of being empty, instead of being vacant.” Sometimes landlords, they’re incurring quite a lot of cost through security and other things, which obviously you can take on. There are some tax rate relief which I’m not altogether over.

Will Ma

Business rates for the space. It’s very complicated. No one really understands.

Andy Barnes

Nobody understands. I know. But there are people you can pay money to who understand. You can sometimes make that a thing in your favour as well. It’s better to be occupied than it is to be not. I think there’s definitely cultural changes and levers to pull in there and opportunities to try and get into, and partnerships as well. Going back to that heritage site thing, there are people who run heritage spaces who would love the opportunity to bring in some extra revenue and to support the charity’s work. If you could put on an experience in … sometimes people have spaces they’re not using, sometimes, especially in the historical spaces, they closed out at six o’clock, offer to come and do…

Joanna Bucknall

4:00 a lot of them.

Andy Barnes

Or four o’clock, exactly. If you have something creative that you could put into those spaces three or four nights a week or over a weekend, those real conversations to open up with them and pictures to put out there.

Joanna Bucknall

Often, especially memory institutions and cultural institutions really struggle with 18 to 35-year-olds engagement, and it’s usually a huge part of their KPIs of trying to target that audience. Of course, that often is the audience for immersive.

Andy Barnes

Exactly, and that’s the deal you just need to put to them. Again, the alternative is that your building is just empty. But if you let us have it and if we can potentially cover the costs for the security and the staff to make that happen, again, we can bring life to your building, we can bring new audience into your space, and we can make it feel alive as opposed to just being a monument.

Joanna Bucknall

There are some funny quirks though potentially, as well with heritage sites. I know some of the historic royal palaces because of some of the arcane laws that sit around who hold keys and all kinds of things that can actually cost thousands of pounds to be open outside of hours. There’s often you just be mindful sometimes of some of the unusual things.

Andy Barnes

Oh, yes. We’ve dealt with all sorts of bonkers nonsense when having these inquiries. But that’s still a good reason to ask the question and poke that opportunity and to see what’s there. Yes, if a piece of paper from the 17th century says the owner of the board has to be there, great, give him a costume, proceeding character.

Joanna Bucknall

Yes, exactly.

Andy Barnes

But yes, you had to be very entrepreneurial with it because I would say unlike the other more established art sectors like theatre or dance or music, there isn’t an established touring circuit or an established places. It’s like great, I’ve got a band or I’ve got a gig. Great. Here is a list of places I can go to. You’ve got to be quite entrepreneurial and quite punchy trying to find those opportunities to go and do your thing.

Joanna Bucknall

This is my next really big question is, how do you even begin? Other people I’ve spoken to in the past like, “I was cycling down this road and I saw this and then I managed to talk to someone and I manage …” and be very entrepreneurial in that way. But you both do this full-time, and so are there lists of spaces? How do you even start to look at the opportunities of space before you even decide if I’m going to do licensed or not licensed?

Will Ma

The way you describe is one way to attack it. The old school scouting method of hitting the streets in an area that you’ve… You work out an area where it’s most likely to be the property that you’re looking for, you go and hit the streets and you drive around and you try and find somewhere. I often find that way is hit and miss in terms of you can find some good stuff, but a lot of the time, the way I do it is from… It’s really hard to define it because every year that goes past when you’re doing it, you add more contacts and you add more locations to your list of locations. Now I’ve got quite a long list of contacts and locations.

Joanna Bucknall

I was going to say do you have a location, and a black book?

Will Ma

Exactly that. I’ve got my own black book of X amount of locations and X amount of contacts that will shake the tree to see what might work. On top of that, you have the location agencies who have a massive library of different spaces that might or might not work. Obviously, that’s a great resource to use because they’ve already got the in with all the landlords. It’s a really good way of just floating the project. That again is potentially hit and miss because a lot of those agents are geared towards more filming and TV, but you never know.

Then you’ve got your colleagues in the industry, other location scouts and other location managers, other producers. Everyone is always looking at different spaces. You can never know 100% what’s out there. You might be working in the industry for 100 years and you still might not know every building, every space that comes out. Andy could have been looking at a space that might not work for the project that he’s working on. But I could ask him, be like, “I’ve got this other client, look for something,” and he might say, “Oh, actually, I saw a space or I’ve heard of a space that’s coming on the market in next couple of months that might work.” Then from there, you could go from there. Basically, what I’m saying is utilise the hive mind, always utilise your peers, your colleagues.

Joanna Bucknall

It’s being connected.

Will Ma

Yes, being connected is really, really important.

Joanna Bucknall

Say you’re cycling along and you see a building, how do you dig into finding out who owns it?

Will Ma

If it’s an empty building, a lot of the time will be gated up with various… If developers own it, they might have some advertising on a hoarding outside saying, “It’s going to look like this in a few years’ time.” Then you see the developer, it’s whoever it is, you’ll make a note of it. Then there might be a number on the gate for security. Give the number a call, security guard will come out. Often, they’re very wary of just some random guy coming up going, “Oh, so who owns the building, can I come in and look at it?” Often, they’ll be like, “No.” Most of the time, they’ll be like, no, because it’s like, “We don’t know who you are.” But sometimes they might be like, “Well, email this email address. This is my boss. They might be able to put you in touch.” A lot of the time you’re emailing or you’re phoning and it doesn’t get through to anyone, and then eventually, someone will get back to you. Then once they’ve got back to you, the door is slightly open, and then you can then hit them with the pitch. If you’ve got a big brand behind you like Secret Cinema, that does open doors.

Joanna Bucknall

Of course.

Will Ma

If you say I’m from a company that hasn’t done anything before, that might be a bit harder for the landlord or the owner to listen. But if you say, “I’m Secret Cinema,” or “I’m Punchdrunk,” or, “I’m Marvel,” or “I’m Bond,” or whatever, they’ll be like, “Okay, I’ve heard of you. Can I come and tell me about what you’re planning?” Once the door is open, you have to try and get your foot in there and keep up.

Joanna Bucknall

That’s then when you become very entrepreneurial, I guess.

Andy Barnes

I think so. I think those guys are all looking for stuff at scale as well, so I think to be taken seriously at scale, you need to have that thing behind you. But when you’re looking at a much smaller level and a much basic level, I think you often have to ask… For me, there’s always two ways to approach it. You know what you’re trying to create and you’re trying to find a space that will fit it in, and that space can be a blank box because you’re going to put the show in and you’re going to fill it up. Or sometimes I’ve worked with some really interesting people who are just creative and great, who, for them, it’s about finding the space, and actually the space then shapes the work because it’s a site-specific response to what is the space.

Museum of London are redeveloping the ultimate fields market at the moment and they’ve been doing it for years. It was just before COVID actually when I went on a — I did a monthly tour of what’s currently there and talked people through their vision for … and you could book onto it, and the bit at the top was completely derelict. It was an old market space, hugely hazardous, looked beautiful, very decrepit but you couldn’t use it. But then they took you down. There’s a little door on the street and you went down about three storeys worth of a circular staircase, and you were in the old, I think it must be in the meat section where they used to prepare the meat, and these tiled corridors going off into these huge cavernous tiled rooms where they used to do the butchery. It was just such a vibe, just the whole space.

Joanna Bucknall

I can completely imagine.

Andy Barnes

It was. You’ve seen they’re going; you hand this to the right people and they create the most spectacular piece of World War II bunker or zombie attacks.

Joanna Bucknall

Horror. I was going to say that as well. A horror dream.

Andy Barnes

Exactly.Those opportunities, I think you’ve just got to be open to just exploring and finding out, to go on those short trails. Sadly, COVID happened, and post-COVID it’s now a construction site, so the window has been missed for doing something with it. But those opportunities are just fantastic, and we don’t find anything like that. I’m always just, like you said, it’s the hive mind. You go out to the people that you know could absolutely do something with it and say, “Look, I found something amazing. You should check this out, go on this tour, talk to these people, and see if you can make something happen because it’s super fun.”

Joanna Bucknall

It’s such a good space.

Andy Barnes

The other thing is that, as you mentioned, so after COVID again, so the London Council commissioned a report with ALOP called the minimal use for London report. It’s a really good piece of work digging into the benefits and the advantages of minimal use for unused spaces. Again, in this window between someone purchasing a property knowing they’re going to develop into something else but there being that gap of X number of years in between where this place is just going to be vacant. It’s got loads of great examples about people doing things like city gardens and temporary office space and things like that. But if you’re trying to put together a pitch deck for the reasons why minimal use are solid, it’s got some great bit of research in there. But the recommendations out in the report, one of the things that it was recommending … actually there’s three things that I always remember because I just really wish that we can make it happen, was firstly making minimal use a conditional planning, which will be amazing, because that will have so many options for everyone.

The second thing there being a directory of people who are competent to activate in these spaces, and the third thing we can do is talk to people who have these spaces available. It is those things of if we could get political will behind that, and again, that’s a London thing, but if people who around the UK start bothering their councils and saying, “Look, if you can set these things up, then we can start to put people who can use these spaces into them and start regeneration from the ground up like that.”

Joanna Bucknall

This is what I was going to ask because of course at the moment everything is quite London-centric, so I was going to ask, “Do you feel that London is a good example of minimal use that can be then replicated potentially in other parts of the UK, or do you just really don’t have audience?”

Andy Barnes

Do you know what? There’s…

Joanna Bucknall

It’s a very hot topic.

Andy Barnes

One of the people who got me out of my London-centric bubble was … and I can’t remember their name, which is a theme, but we’ll try and put it into the podcast description. There’s this little immersive theatre company in Leicester- I’m pretty sure it’s Leicester- and one of the things that’s not known about Leicester is that it’s built on tunnels, actually the whole city has got tunnels everywhere. So they’ve managed to…

Joanna Bucknall

Nottingham is the same as well.

Andy Barnes

Again, going back to that, find a space, build a show, they have got a tunnel, they’ve two or three tunnels underneath this building. They’ve done like a whole season of shows there just utilising the space.

Joanna Bucknall

I know who you mean.

Andy Barnes

You know who I mean, don’t you?

Joanna Bucknall

I know exactly who you mean. Again, I cannot recall it, so we will add it into the description.

Andy Barnes

But it’s amazing, and that is what site-responsive immersive work is. There’s some amazing stuff going around the country, and I don’t think it is that London-centric actually. I think there’s some big stuff going on down here because this is where the large-scale stuff, but if that’s as authentic or as creatively exciting as some of the other stuff going on around the rest of the country, I don’t think so.

Joanna Bucknall

No, I agree, and I think there are little pockets of really exciting things happening across the UK. But I think at the moment, part of the issue with that is actually visibility as well in terms of people don’t know about it unless you’re in the bubble of knowing about it. Is it the same for you, Will, when you go to look for a space? Because Andy said he comes from either they want something unusual that they can respond to or looking for something specific to fit something particular. Do you find that it very much falls into those two areas, or are there different ways in which people have asked you to find them space?

Will Ma

No, it tends to be that. For me, obviously most of my work is London, and for the last few years, it seems to be everyone looking for the same space. It’s very odd. Everyone just wants that unicorn warehouse space that’s in Central London with high enough ceilings that you can have people flying around and all that stuff for no money.

Andy Barnes

Next to a tube station.

Will Ma

Next to a tube station, not residential, so part of London where there’s no one living but there’s a tube station there.

Andy Barnes

Lots of power.

Will Ma

Lots of power, so much power.

Joanna Bucknall

Toilets.

Will Ma

Toilets, all that stuff.

Joanna Bucknall

Fire.

Will Ma

Yes, exactly. A lot of the time you get the brief, and again, yes, it can be chicken and egg. It can be you find a building and then you title a show to it, they ask you to go. Or you get the brief and you have to go and find that building to match the brief. It’s very much that really.

Andy Barnes

We often end up with lots of different lease-wise options. Don’t use, and that, well, this place has got power, it’s got a working fire alarm, and it’s got some stuff, but it’s next to residents.

Will Ma

Yes, and no roof.

Andy Barnes

Yes, exactly. This space got no service at all, 20 years old, requires complete refit out, but it is five minutes walk away from a tube station and on an industrial estate, so you’re not going to bother anyone. You get all of those.

Joanna Bucknall

Ones that cost trading in a lot of ways.

Will Ma

It is. With minimal use, you’re never going find a perfect building. You’re always going to have to compromise in some respect, whether it’s for money or the aesthetic or the distance from the nearest tube stop or whatever it is. It’s always a case of managing your clients’ expectations and making sure that they have the full picture of the property so there’s no horrible surprises. Then they can then make the informed decision obviously with your input about whether they take the building on. But a client needs to know that the perfect building doesn’t exist and they will have to compromise on something.

Joanna Bucknall

Do you think you need big budgets to have minimal space?

Will Ma

It depends. For the smaller projects, maybe not, but for the larger ones, definitely, but it always helps to have money behind you, whether you’re big or small.

Joanna Bucknall

That planning process, I’m assuming, is a fixed cost regardless of the size of what you’re doing if you’re going through that planning process, or is that, again, ranked in terms of… 

Will Ma

I think indoor, and I might have to check this, but I think for indoor it’s the same cost, for outdoor it’s dependent on your square meterage.

Andy Barnes

It’s both. It would depend on the square meterage of the property that you’re working on. But I’d say actually, in the big scheme of things, that can be relatively much bigger for outdoor events because you’re doing it in a bit much bigger space. But it’s the associated costs, because you have to get a lot of … if you’re going to do a proper planning process, you’ve got to get a lot of consultants involved in that on various levels ranging from… Again, it’d be property-specific as well. But an example, we just had to employ someone to write a heritage statement just to … it’s one piece of A4, it’s 10 bullet points basically acknowledging the fact that this property is in heritage area and it was empty and vacant. What we’re going to do is better than that and it’s not going to massively unduly affect the…

Joanna Bucknall

Damaging.

Andy Barnes

Yes, it’s basic stuff, but it’s a fee, and that on top of all the other consultants you’d have to get involved to build up all of the documentation you need for the planning, if you’re going to go for that big scale stuff, it does mount up. There are smaller agile ways to do it on a smaller scale, especially if you’re going to be short-term. That’s the key parameter there. If you’re going to be not massive capacity and you’re working with a landlord who’s supportive, I think there are agile ways to do it, but as you scale, the money scales as well. It gets to that point, like I was saying earlier, that tipping point where actually the venue itself can become a different business entity, or need to become a different business entity to make the investment plan work.

Joanna Bucknall

We are coming to the end of the time that we have because I know you’re both incredibly busy, and so I wanted to ask you, are there a couple of tips or tricks that you would recommend for people to think about or that they could apply if they’re listening? Thinking potentially about people who might be starting out, are there a couple of really key things they should be mindful of or they should think of or they should do?

Will Ma

I touched on one before. Utilise your peers and your colleagues, utilise industry, utilise all your contacts. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t spoken to this person for five years. If you think they might help, fire off an email because you never know what might come back. That’s tip number one. Never burn a bridge ever. It doesn’t matter if that’s a venue or a developer, it doesn’t matter if they haven’t been particularly nice to you. Always take that with a smile because you never know when you might need them again. It could be years down the line, but you never want to burn a bridge.

I guess my third point is, don’t take it too seriously. It’s supposed to be fun. We’re in the business of entertainment and creating these immersive experiences. I’ve been on a lot of sets and a lot of sites and seen people get quite upset and actually shed some tears. That’s fine and I get it, frustration, exhaustion. But at the end of the day, what I find helps me is I know that if I make a mistake, hopefully no one’s going to die. I use that perspective and I try and see the wood for the trees, and I know that I’m good at my job, we’re all going to our jobs, that’s why we’re doing it. Even though it’s very stressful, even though we’re up against it, it’s not that serious. I always use that outlook and then go from there and I think it always helps me. A calm mind means a sharp mind.

Joanna Bucknall

Possibly a bicycle, it would seem.

Andy Barnes

Yes, bicycle.

Joanna Bucknall

Cycle around your city-

Andy Barnes

Cycle around, yes.

Joanna Bucknall

-and your town.

Andy Barnes

For me, I think as much as possible, just try and spend the time and really understand what you’re getting yourself into if you start to want to take on minimal use or found spaces. There’s a lot of regulatory stuff to deal with which you could get tripped up on. Just basics like the fire safety, electrical safety of these spaces is really key. It’s easy for people to get hurt if you don’t know what they’re doing, and the liability on you as the lease holder, as the show owner, as the escape room owner or the director of the company is pretty serious if you get it wrong.

In that same guise as well is, if you’re going to get into owning your own space or taking on as a lease or, even as minimal use, just talk to as many different people who have done it as well. Because they’ll tell you all their stories and they’ll tell you all the things that tripped them up. They’ll tell you all the things that you didn’t think about. Find the people who can advise you. I was just actually thinking, it’s a really simple thing but insurance can be quite hard to get. Actually, Vista Insurance, who are one of our industry supporters, are brilliant. They’ve been doing this for years. You give them a call and say, “I’m looking at taking over this space,” and they’ll be like, “Oh, great, have you thought about this? Have you thought about that? These are the policies you might want to consider.” If you find people like that who have got that experience, who have got … just even that conversation will spark all different lists of things to think about and to work through, it would be great.

Will Ma

One more thing, and obviously this is not a handy, surround yourself with good people that know what they’re doing as Andy touched upon. When we were doing Secret Cinema and Entourage, we worked together many, many times, and the heavy lifting that Andy and his team did on our shows is just immense. So many headaches and nightmares they dealt with, or they would flag something that we didn’t even think about because obviously Secret Cinema are a creative company. We don’t necessarily have the logistical knowledge. We didn’t have the logistical knowledge at the time when Andy came on, but now we do. Like I said, surround yourself with people that know what they’re doing. You can get carried away with the creative but there can’t be a creative without the logistical side of it, the foundation of the creative, of the show. The health and safety, the HVAC systems, the toilets, the plumbing, all the really boring stuff that you need to have installed and in place.

Joanna Bucknall

It impacts on the audience’s experience and so it should be something…

Will Ma

Creatives don’t often think about the toilets, do they?

Andy Barnes

Every immersive show, it’s the toilets. It’s the most, I’m telling you.

Joanna Bucknall

Is that the biggest pitfall then? Toilets are the biggest pitfall of immersive shows.

Andy Barnes

Going back to that thing of talk to people who have done it before, I think every immersive creator who has put a space on in the minimal use space has a story about their toilets in some context.

Will Ma

In fact, if you can get into toilets, that’s where the money is.

Andy Barnes

That is the money.

Will Ma

Toilets are so unbelievably expensive to hire.

Joanna Bucknall

Fitting them, so plumbing, go to college and become a plumber.

Will Ma

Just even hiring toilets of a company that owns toilets is… The money that you spend on toilets, you’d be surprised how much temporary toilets cost.

Joanna Bucknall

That’s a commercialization tip; get into toilets.

Will Ma

Get into toilets, yes.

Andy Barnes

Own your venue for 20 years and have temporary toilets. That’s all.

Joanna Bucknall

Well, thank you so much. I know you’re both incredibly busy right now and in the thick of very exciting things you probably can’t talk about, which is also great because that’s the heart of what we do. But thank you ever so much for joining me. It’s been incredible. There’s a million things I could have asked, and give the scope to ask them in the future, I think. But I think we’ve given people some really helpful takeaways with this so they can apply and possibly hire you.

Will Ma

Yes, I’m always available for work.

Joanna Bucknall

Seems to be a potentially good way to approach things, but thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.

Will Ma

Thank you. Cheers.

Andy Barnes

Thanks much.

Date of article - March 7, 2024
Updated - April 12, 2024

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