Boats & Shows: A Sprawling Global Conspiracy

How a short blog post on a “Floating Boat Cinema” led me down a tangled, intercontinental clickhole.

Welp. It happens to the best of us, even journalists. A few weeks ago we ran a story about an upcoming event dubbed “Floating Boat Cinema,” and it seems that we may have bought — and inadvertently attempted to sell you all — a handful of wolf tickets.

As the Editor of SF Weekly, the blame for this ultimately rests on my shoulders. And I say to you, sincerely and with a heavy heart: my bad.

About a week after our story was initially posted, a loyal reader reached out to us with some interesting intel. Our friends over at Orlando Weekly also had a story about the fabled float-in movie night, this one titled “No, a ‘floating cinema’ with ‘socially distanced boats’ is probably not coming to Orlando.”

The piece, written by Dave Plotkin, picked apart the proposed event — wondering about the plausibility of keeping all the individual boats from moving around, asking how drinks would be served, and, most importantly, “What do you do when you have to go to the bathroom?”

Plotkin also noted that his paper, along with other local outlets in Florida, had posted stories about several similar events — all appearing to be linked to the same promoter — never materialized before deciding to call bullshit on the Floating Boat Cinema.

We were aghast, mortified even, to think that we had possibly led you, our dear readers, astray. And so, we endeavored to make it right — posting our own brief recantation and diving headfirst into a search for the truth.

The more we dug into this dubious gathering of boats, booze, and movies, the stranger things became. Curiouser and curiouser we grew as we peeled back layer upon layer of this online onion — paging through a litany of phony-looking Facebook profiles, ostensibly made-up publicity agencies, and YouTube clips of apparently unlicensed events built upon the intellectual property of LEGO, Nintendo, and the estate of Lewis Carol — before finally zeroing in on the pair of Australia-based blokes responsible for it all.

Looking back to late last week, when all this business began, it’s hard to say exactly what I expected I would find. However, I think it’s safe to say I never would have anticipated that what at first appeared to be a bush league scam would have me scheduling a Skype session with a German investment banker, combing through a Nottingham community newspaper, and calling in favors with various professional and personal contacts in an effort track down foreign cell phone numbers and to get eyes on a bar in the Potts Point nightlife district of downtown Sydney. 

Then again, 2020’s been an exceedingly strange year, so why the hell not?

Phishing for Clues

My immediate fear upon learning that the Floating Boat Cinema might not be what it seemed was that we had unwittingly directed readers to a phishing site.

I scoured the event’s ticketing site, zip-tickets.com, to see if there was any place I could enter credit card info. I couldn’t find any such prompt. However, I did notice that the site asks people for an email address and a password in order to sign up for a wait list for the Floating Boat Cinema event. This fact is what initially triggered our tipster’s suspicions and ultimately led us to take a closer look at the event and its organizers.

After poking around zip-tickets.com for a bit, I realized that the site appears to only sell tickets or solicit sign-ups for a select number of events — all of which have been organized by the Sydney-based promoter Viral Ventures.

Although the zip-tickets.com page did not make it immediately clear that Viral Ventures was the company behind the Floating Boat Cinema — a suspicious clue in and of itself — I was ultimately able to track them down at their website, viralventuresglobal.com, a URL which reminds me of Brennan Huff and Dale Doback’s ill-conceived Prestige Worldwide.

What’s more, upon typing the URL “zip-tickets.com” into my browser, I discovered that I was not taken to a main page. Instead, I was always rerouted to the Floating Boat Cinema event.

From the ticketing site — which is registered in India according to a WhoIs search — I hit upon the name of another website: thehiddenapp.com. The landing page of this site, in turn, directed me to a collection of Facebook pages, all of them titled “Hidden” something.

There are “Hidden” Facebook pages for Denver, Cincinnati, Melbourne, Toronto, Columbus (Ohio), Vancouver, Houston, Miami, and, lo and behold, San Francisco.

They all look more or less the same, and all promote the same handful of events, including an Alice in Wonderland-themed cocktail party, a Pokémon-themed pop-up bar, and, of course, the Floating Boat Cinema of legend. The “Page Transparency” portion for most of these Facebook profiles noted that the page manager is based in Australia.

Duped & Doxxed

As I said before, I completely own my failure to catch all of this before we posted our original story. However, in our defense, the event sounded like a really fun diversion in the midst of a downright apocalyptic news cycle. Also, we weren’t the only ones to fall for it. Here in San Francisco, KRON 4, Do The Bay, and ALT 105.3, all posted stories plugging the event.

In defense of Viral Ventures, it would seem that plenty of people were interested in the event; our original piece was extremely well read, as far as articles on our website go. And it also seems as if this event promoter from Down Under has pulled off at least a handful of well-attended events in the past.

More online sleuthing turned up a number of videos from vloggers and local news outlets about events that actually took place. There was a Mario Kart-inspired event in Houston, a ball-pit bar in Cleveland, and a so-called “Brick Bar” in Pittsburgh. At the last of these, attendees were encouraged to drink booze, play with LEGOS, and further solidify the belief — widely held by Baby Boomers, Gen-X, and even Gen-Z — that Millennials are all permanently stuck in adolescence.

To be fair to our brothers and sisters in the alternative media world, Orlando Weekly is not the only paper to have pulled back the curtain on Viral Ventures. An even more in-depth exposé was penned by Walker Evans of Columbus Underground, which detailed numerous events planned by Viral Ventures in the Columbus, Ohio, area that never came to be.

In his piece, Evans noted that notices for Viral Ventures often came to Columbus Underground without specific dates or venues attached — as was the case with the boat-in movie event in San Francisco. Evans’ piece and Plotkin’s post both identified a number of Viral Ventures events that were supposed to happen in their respective cities, but never came to pass.

“Each sounded achievable and fun,” Plotkin wrote of the PokéBar and Brick Bar pop-ups, as well as a Pac-Man-inspired maze and bumper cars on ice. “But after the event dates came and went, and the website domains for each expired and reverted to Wix placeholders, we got wise.”

For his part, Evans even went so far as to attempt to track down the men he identified as being at the helm of Viral Ventures.

Aden Levin’s Twitter profile shot.

Aden Levin, a University of Manchester graduate from Nottingham, England, now runs the company out of Sydney. According to a profile of Levin, which can be found on the Nottingham Post’s website, Viral Ventures is not his first business. He is also responsible for another company called Mainstage Festivals, which has promoted boutique gatherings in exotic locales, like the French Alps and Dhërmi, Albania.

This business model of managing  “clubbing holidays for young people,” as the Nottingham Post so charmingly and English-ly put it, even earned Levin and his partner, Rob Tominey, £100,000 — an investment from British businessman Piers Linney. They secured the funding after pitching their company on Dragon’s Den, the United Kingdom’s version of the reality TV show, Shark Tank.

Evans also identified Levin’s business partner, James Farrell — a man who is a bit harder to pin down. Unlike with Levin, I could not find any fluffy articles about Farrell online, and his LinkedIn page does not have a profile picture (at least not visible to non-connections like me).

The closest I could get to a good picture of Farrell was this screen shot, taken from local network coverage of the Mario Kart-inspired Viral Ventures event held in Houston.

James Ferrell?

Among other things Evans called out in his piece: the fact that many of Viral Ventures’ events seem to be inspired by internationally recognized brands but never directly affiliated with them. There is the “Mushroom Rally” (Mario Kart), the “Brick Bar” (LEGOS), and the “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

He also called out an odd trend that he noticed among the publicists sending him pitches for Viral Ventures events. Adam and Eve PR and Hyper Public Relations — two of the flack outfits that peppered Columbus Underground with press releases — appeared to have been made up, as visits to their URLs turned up blank wix.com placeholder pages.

A third publicist, identified as Lisa Brown of Boost PR, also reached out to Evans and his team. This time, the firm actually had a website, but, as you can see for yourself, it doesn’t exactly seem legit. Furthermore, Evans observed, the website used stock photos of its three employees, Brown, Erik Downie, and Jessica Martin. Those same three names were found on another sparse website for ND2 Media, although the photos that were connected to them were different.

Out of Stock

Speaking of pictures, of all the photos I came across while clicking through the myriad websites and Facebook pages connected to Viral Ventures, one in particular stands out.

While some of the snaps I’ve encountered have been quite obvious stock photos and others have been verified as images of actual Viral Ventures employees, one belonged to a German man named Björn Siegismund, CIO of the Berlin-based investment firm Kapilendo. He was listed as “Merv” in the “Meet the Team” section of the Viral Ventures website.

Björn Sigismund as “Merv.”

I found Sigismund by performing a reverse image search through Google, emailed him, and we set up a time to talk. I wanted to find out how he felt about his likeness appearing on a website for an event promoter in a country half a world away.

“That’s my official photo,” Siegismund said with a laugh when reached via Skype earlier this week. The image, he explained, is one he regularly attaches to the blog posts he writes for Kapilendo. It is not, however, a stock photo — at least not to his knowledge.

While he recognized his picture immediately, he was at a loss to say what it might be doing on the Viral Ventures website. “I’ve never talked to them,” he said. “I don’t know them. They stole the photo.”

As for the name they gave him — Merv — he laughed again, saying he isn’t so much concerned with the moniker or title he was assigned.

“Maybe because I’m wearing a suit, they might think this fits more to accounting than other parts of a corporation,” he mused. 

As it turns out, he was right. But I’ll get to that a bit later.

A Cold Call

Siegismund’s photo is no longer on the Viral Ventures website. And I have to assume the reason for that has everything to do with yours truly.

‘Nuff Said.

In his Columbus Underground article, Walker wrote that several direct emails inquiring about the authenticity of the PR firms pushing Viral Ventures events were ignored. However, in response to four very detailed questions submitted directly to Levin via email, the Ohio journalist did manage to obtain a pithy written response:

“Many thanks for your email,” it reads. “We at Viral Ventures host and partner with a number of local and national organisations to promote events with the intention of bringing exciting and unique events to new cities and use various channels in which to promote them. In bringing new events to new cities it can take time in organising them and gauging local interest which can take a few months.”

Given the detailed play-by-play provided by Evans, I had a feeling that emails were not the way to approach the folks at Viral Ventures. Luckily, with just a few texts to a close confidant in the B2B sales world, I was able to track down several phone numbers for both Levin and Farrell. Some of these numbers were based out of the U.K., where it appears that Levin is from originally, while others had Australian country codes.

After compiling my dossier, I typed out a few questions, waited until about 10 a.m. local time in Sydney, took a deep breath, and placed a call to Levin.

He picked up. And he had an explanation for everything.

Calm & Confident

While I had braced myself for a combative exchange with a defensive Levin, what I found at the other end of the line was a man who was more than happy to answer every one of my inquiries, and confident that all of this was just a big misunderstanding — easily chalked up to logistical roadblocks, a buggy ticketing website, the COVID-19 pandemic, and journalists who haven’t gotten all the facts before going to press.

“We’re not running scams,” Levin said when asked whether he could see why someone might think there is something fishy going on with his company.

He acknowledged that zip-tickets.com was directly connected to Viral Ventures, saying that his company was a “partner” in the ticketing site. He also said he knows that people have had trouble with the site, which he attributed to high online traffic taxing a website that wasn’t ready.

“The site is really buggy,” he said, by way of explaining why zip-tickets.com asked event registrants for a password. “It’s kinda one of those classic things of too much traffic on a site that couldn’t handle it.”

He insisted that the Floating Boat Cinema was “definitely in the pipeline,” though he couldn’t say much more, and noted that he isn’t working on the project directly. In a follow-up email exchange Levin told me that Viral Ventures was working with the San Francisco Parks Alliance on figuring out a venue for the event. Citing the fact that they were unaware of any such talks regarding a float-in movie night, a representative from the SFPA would neither confirm nor deny whether the non-profit was indeed working with Viral Ventures.

Levin conceded that some events have fallen through in the past, but he said that’s the nature of things in the event promotion business. 

“Sometimes we might try and launch an event, it doesn’t get enough traction, and we don’t run it,” he said. “We’re not data harvesting, … we don’t have any other motive apart from trying to put on fun, exciting events across different countries.”

He went on, saying that his business is “not about trying to build up hype for something and then let people down, because that makes us look bad,” and that they’ve run “hundreds” of events across the United States in the past 18 months.

Given the fractured manner in which so many of these events have been promoted — that is, through zip-tickets.com, the various “Hidden” city Facebook accounts, and the numerous, disappearing publicists — and without a clear throughline connecting said events to the parent company, Viral Ventures, verifying this claim feels like it might be a bridge too far for our small but mighty editorial staff of three full-time journalists. However, a quick check of zip-tickets.com shows that Levin and Co. appear to not be shy about using a shotgun approach when it comes to promoting the Floating Boat Cinema.

Screenshot of various Floating Boat Cinema events from zip-tickets.com.

On Sept. 2, they have Floating Boat Cinema Events scheduled for San Francisco, Denver, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Auckland. Sept. 9 has the party paddling into Orlando, Miami, Chicago, Houston, and St. Louis. On Sept. 16, the event could be dropping anchor in Pittsburgh, New York, Calgary, Toronto, and Vancouver. And on Sept. 23, it is slated to sail through Cincinnati, Columbus, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Austin.

While it’s conceivable that all of the above events could ultimately happen on this timeline, it seems, at least to this outside observer, that Viral Ventures is merely throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks. In other words, it looks like they are doing exactly what Levin says he and the rest of Viral Ventures are “not about” — generating hype for events that are unlikely to come to fruition.

A Distinct Possibility

None of this is to say that a Floating Boat Cinema isn’t possible. Indeed, there are photos and video of a Viral Ventures-organized boat-in movie night available online, although it doesn’t look quite like the original illustration that Levin’s organization sent to newspapers in the United States.

You can access the clip of this event through the Viral Ventures site by clicking on the “Floating Cinema” link in the “Our Brands” section. That will take you to a website with the URL floatingcinemaaustralia.com, where an embedded video from the YouTube channel called Have You Heard — which belongs to yet another Australian event promotion company of the same name.

In the video, you’ll see people gathered on a chartered yacht, all seated together on the top deck, looking at a single screen.

From what I can tell, they’re watching Jaws. It looks a lot like something the Fisherman’s Wharf-based Red & White put on last year.

Back in the early fall of 2019, the bay cruise company gathered a group of paying customers on their electric hybrid boat and screened some films, in partnership with the Roxie Theater.

Tyler Foster, executive vice president of Red & White, says that because the electric hybrid vessel is so quiet, they are actually able to show a film while cruising through the water — something a boat with a traditional combustion engine wouldn’t be able to do due to noise interference.

He says that he was a bit dubious of the viability of the event described in our original post, especially if the organizers hoped to put the boats in the bay, where choppy waters and strong currents would make it difficult to keep the vessels still.

“The risk of putting anyone who walked off the street in the bay — it starts to feel pretty silly,” Foster said.

And so it seems that San Francisco may one day soon see some form of floating cinema event. Even if if Viral Ventures isn’t behind it, Foster says he and his team hope to partner with the Roxie again, once we finally get COVID-19 under control.

Björn, Again

As I said at the outset of this piece, I had no idea how far down the rabbit hole this story was going to take me. And I still don’t know entirely what to make of it all.

While Levin said he didn’t see why I thought his methods for organizing and promoting events seemed strange, I still maintain that it’s all a bit kooky. Plus, it just seems like a lot of extra work.

Why build your own ticketing company instead of using a service like Eventbrite? Why all the “Hidden” cities Facebook pages, instead of a single “Viral Ventures” page? In short, why all the smoke and mirrors?

I asked around, hitting up promoters both large and small. Most didn’t want to go on the record to weigh in on the practices of a peer.

I did get Foster to weigh in. He says it seems as if Viral Ventures did things “the wrong way around” with the Floating Boat Cinema — putting the cart before the horse by seeking to gauge interest in a potential event before getting all their ducks in a row.

“We developed the relationship with the Roxie before we even thought about promoting it,” he said, explaining how his company went about producing its own movie night on the water.

Happily, there is at least one part of Levin’s story that I have far less trouble believing or getting behind.

When asked about the Björn-Merv discrepancy, the British expat let out a hearty chuckle and offered this explanation:

“That’s just a stock photo that we found on Google,” he said, referring to the image of our friend from Kapilendo. Leven went on to say that the real Merv is a “65-year-old South African who just didn’t want his picture on the internet, so he just asked us if we could put a nice picture of a good-looking guy that we found a stock photo for. … I think we searched for ‘good looking male office worker.’”

Kudos to you, Siegismund, you handsome devil.

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