How Scottish Ballet made their first feature film

7 May 2021

Thanks to Scottish Ballet's Brand, Audience & Digital team for revealing the secrets behind 'The Secret Theatre'

A film crew member holds a film slate aloft, while a boom operator stands behind them, and costumed cast members are poised in the background
Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Scottish Ballet is, at its heart, a touring ballet company. We tour across Scotland at least three times a year, and regularly visit venues around the rest of the UK and internationally.

During our busiest winter season, we usually perform for around 60,000 people, and for many this would be their first experience of Scottish Ballet, or ballet in general.

When it became clear that, thanks to everyone’s favourite pandemic, we would have to postpone our 2020/21 winter tour, we asked ourselves a series of questions.

We asked:
  • From an audience perspective, what is the value of our winter tour?
  • How have the needs and wants of our audiences changed due to the pandemic?
  • How can we adapt to best serve these needs, given all the constraints of the pandemic?
  • As an organisation lucky enough to receive direct funding from the Scottish Government, what is our responsibility to provide in this challenging time?

We did this with our peripheral vision wide open. It was vital we examined the needs and wants of our audiences in the context of the seemingly endless digital cultural offerings available at the time. While we had been an early adopter of digital content creation, it was now a very crowded market.


Our discussions and research led us to the following conclusions:

  • For our existing audiences, there is a strong, emotional and nostalgic association with ballet at Christmas, and we must maintain that powerful connection.
  • This is also an opportunity for us to reach new audiences, as we always do at this time of year, and provide a wonderful and welcoming introduction to ballet.
  • Our winter product must be an experience the whole family can enjoy, bringing people together while at home.
  • Audiences want to be entertained and transported to a world that acknowledges but doesn’t dwell on the challenges faced by many of us due to the pandemic. It must be magical, but empathetic.
  • It must be easy to access and low-risk, removing technical and cost barriers. Audiences should feel confident of the value they will receive when investing their time/money.
  • We would not hope or plan for an easing of restrictions, but be as creative as possible within all the pandemic constraints.
Our first feature-length film

After many blue-sky sessions, it was decided that we would produce our first feature-length film, The Secret Theatre. Not a stage capture or broadcast, but a film – devised as a standalone film and shot to international film standards.

The film would be ticketed (for free, with donations encouraged) via Scottish Ballet’s website and released for a three-day viewing period in the lead-up to Christmas.

We would promote the premiere as an event not to be missed, encouraging viewers to join ‘live’ – for a sense of shared experience.

For its distribution, we made the following decisions:
  • This would be the perfect flagship content with which to launch our planned new Membership programme. So, the booking process should be managed through Tessitura, Scottish Ballet’s CRM, and encourage free Membership sign-ups.
  • The booking process should be as simple as possible, while customised to enable us to promote supplementary offers, such as behind-the-scenes events and souvenir programmes.
  • Donation asks should be carefully framed and embedded throughout the customer journey to maximise income while maintaining the key principle that the film must be available for free and accessible to all.
  • The viewing process should be as simple as possible, removing barriers such as login errors, device compatibility issues, unfamiliar platforms, convoluted user journeys, or overly limited viewing windows.
Scottish Ballet First Artist Jerome Anthony Barnes in 'nutcracker' soldier costume dances in front of a film camera and crew
First Artist, Jerome Anthony Barnes. Credit: Andy Ross
Principal, Constance Devernay. Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Making The Secret Theatre easy to access

Getting the viewing platform right became our first priority. By choosing not to make use of the plethora of OTT platforms on the market we faced a double-edged sword. On one hand, we were able to gain complete control over the user journey and fully integrate with our CRM. On the other, we essentially became our own test dummies.

Testing, testing, testing

So, we focused our attention on nailing the customer journey. And, crucially, we used another short film we had produced to run a test event a month in advance, to trial the booking and viewing experiences before making final decisions.

We began extensive internal testing to determine the most straightforward way to structure the event within Tessitura.

We settled on two price layers with a ticket price fixed as zero and an editable contribution layer to enable bookers to make an optional donation. Entering an amount into the donation field was mandatory – but it was clear to customers that this could be £0.00.

Clear communication

The promotion of the film was done in partnership with Scottish Ballet’s regular tour venues, and so a custom form was created as part of the purchase path so that bookers could attribute their order to their local venue, enabling us to segment communications in the lead-up to the event.

We encouraged audiences to opt-in to future communications from their local theatre, join local online Q&A events, and to make a donation to support them as well. A non-venue specific option was also available for international audiences.

Each booking triggered a series of confirmation and on-boarding emails, segmented to align with their donation amount, venue affiliation and membership status.

Keeping the tech simple

We explored the option of releasing the film using Gated Digital Content pages in Tessitura’s TNEW platform, but the risk of crashing was too high. (The predicted volume of simultaneous logins and associated API calls would overwhelm the site.) In this case a queuing system would not be appropriate because users would not just be transacting and exiting, but staying to watch an hour-long film – the wait-times would be unacceptable.

To keep things simple, the film was distributed to ticket holders by emailing a link to an unlisted page on Scottish Ballet’s website where the film was embedded (as an unlisted YouTube video) with supplementary content surrounding. To achieve this, we worked with Supercool to scale-up Scottish Ballet’s servers to handle the temporary load on the CMS, and implemented Queue-It to protect TNEW on the day of the premiere to cope with any last-minute surge in bookings/donations/shop purchases.

We implemented a live chat service ( for the premiere, to help process last-minute bookings and troubleshoot any technical difficulties. We also created a really comprehensive set of FAQs to help users navigate this new process, and signposted this everywhere!

Working in partnership

The lead-up to both the test event and the premiere were very much all-hands-on-deck, making use of a shared Slack channel with our partners at Supercool, Tessitura and Queue-It to monitor the site traffic and manage the customer experience.

Behind-the-scenes of The Secret Theatre Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
The results were overwhelmingly positive
  • Around 25,000 households booked a free ticket, with a robust audience survey sample indicating a total viewing audience of over 55,000 people – pretty much the equivalent of a winter tour of 50+ performances.
  • Around half the bookers opted to donate, with the most common donation being £10.
  • We resolved around 600 customer support queries, or around 2.5% of total bookings. Most of these were people with booking queries or needing help casting the film to their TV.
  • The NPS rating (a brand score based on likeliness to recommend Scottish Ballet) was an incredible +89, with 100 being the maximum possible score.
  • Responses of enjoyment for all areas of the film were overwhelmingly ‘excellent’, and satisfaction with the customer journey was also very high for the vast majority.
  • A third of the audience were completely new to SB, and over 10,000 bookers signed up to our free Membership programme.
  • 50% of the audience was in Scotland, with the other half widely spread across the UK and around the world.

Overall, we couldn’t be happier with how this went, and we learned a huge amount from the process.

The robust testing and risk mitigation measures in place ensured that it was a smooth audience experience, we raised a significant amount of money to offset the production costs, and we have built a very strong foundation for our new global Membership programme. But, most importantly, we know that we brought a lot of joy to people at a time when they really needed it.

For more about the story, reviews, credits, and a full image gallery, visit The Secret Theatre on Scottish Ballet's website.

Thanks to Scottish Ballet's Brand, Audience & Digital team for revealing the secrets behind 'The Secret Theatre'

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