The problem with movie studio theme parks, take two
Written by Robert Niles
Last summer I wrote about the problem with movie studio theme parks, and suggested that such parks were losing their appeal to visitors who've already learned about making movies from DVD extras and online video tools. And that studio parks' false fronts look cheap and unappealing when compared with the more authentically immersive themed lands that theme parks are creating.
If I painted a grim picture with that previous post, let me offer a more optimistic view today. Is there any place for a studio-themed park in this business? Perhaps -- but a successful 21st century studio-themed park will need to reflect the way that people access motion picture entertainment in this century, and avoid the trap of eternal tribute to the filmmaking conventions of the past century.
I'm not talking about conventions of storytelling, photography or cinematography. Great art endures, no matter when a work was made, and new theme park developments will continue to need the work of great artists who can tell stories and create visual environments that engage visitors in unique and addictive ways. But a 21st century studio-themed park needs to overcome the 20th century divide between creators and consumers.
TPI Kid Brian at Universal Studios Hollywood's Transformers ride. The T-shirt pretty much says it all.
In the 21st century, that divide is gone. Consumers have become creators. Many of us live in, as attraction designer Dave Cobb called it at last year's IAAPA convention, "a maker culture." If the 20th century version of Universal Studios Hollywood's Studio Tour put us on a tram to sit passively as we drove by the park's famed backlots, the 21st century version of that tour needs to stop the tram and let us off to create new entertainment of our own.
This occurred to me as I was sitting in another studio park, Disney's Hollywood Studios, drawing a picture of Goofy in the park's Animation Academy. While I mourn the loss of the park's animation studio and its accompanying walk-through tour, now I have the chance to get off the sideline and into the game. Instead of looking at animators through glass, like animals in an old-school zoo, now I was learning from an animator and putting pencil to paper myself.
That is an attraction for the maker culture of today. Don't just show us how entertainment is made. Empower us to do it ourselves.
When I wrote that the Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour should let us off the tram, I meant that literally. My son, Brian, has been pestering me for weeks to buy him a pass to this year's VidCon in Anaheim. For his birthday nearly three years ago, we drove him and his friends to several popular filming locations around Pasadena, where they shot scenes for a short film that Brian edited while they all ate pizza back at home later that afternoon. For the party favor, every friends got a DVD of the video they'd shot. Kids like Brian and his friends aren't satisfied with driving by film sets for movies that were shot years before they were born. They want to get out and explore these settings on their own, and use them to create new stories that will engage them and their friends online.
Imagine a tour where you stop in Courthouse Square and Universal film consultants are waiting to show you how to use your smartphone cameras to set up a shot and film a short scene. You could use a Universal app to edit and upload the snippet, sharing with Facebook or other social media. It'd be like Disney's Animation Academy, but with video. And it'd be created in a place that no other social media video app could offer -- a working Hollywood film studio.
Obviously, Universal's created and honed its studio tour over the years to balance the capacity needs of theme park with the production needs of the studio and its clients. It can't -- and shouldn't -- disrupt that balance without careful thought and planning. But Universal's pouring more than billion dollars into remaking its Southern California property as part of its "Evolution" plan. (Update: The Evolution Plan got its final government approval today, clearing way for large-scale construction.) The Studio Tour is changing as part of that plan, and incorporating more interactivity into that attraction could -- and should -- be part of that plan.
Perhaps Universal could start with a special, upcharge interactive version of the tour, offered a couple times a day. From that, Universal's operations team and Universal Creative could learn what does and doesn't work with new interactive elements, not just creatively, but logistically as well. With that information, Universal's various teams could begin to design a more new tour attraction that balances the studio's production needs with the creative and capacity challenges of an interactive theme park attraction.
No, this wouldn't be easy. But if it were, a lot of companies would be in the studio theme park business. Universal's theme parks are flush with cash now in large part because Universal Creative proved itself up to the challenge of creating the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I'd like to hope that they'd be up to this challenge, too. This isn't just about the Studio Tour, either. Look at all the visitors cosplaying their way around the Wizarding World in Orlando. People want immersive environments in which they can engage and create their own narratives, whether they film and upload them or not. The maker culture wants to be active participants in theme parks, not passive tourists herded from one attraction to the next. That's a challenge for all theme parks and designers today. It's just that this challenge become most apparent in parks whose theme is the creation of media itself.
If Universal Studios Hollywood and other studio-themed parks are going to remain top draws for the next several decades, they need to do more than offer the same experience that they offered to a previous generation that had a different relationship with entertainment. The emergence of a maker culture has provided movie studios a new market of eager film fans, who would love the chance to experience those studios not just as passive tourists, but as active creators. This is an opportunity, one with the potential to become massive lucrative for Universal and other entertainment companies that might otherwise be losing income and market share to the marker culture.
Can the studio theme park survive in the 21st century? Certainly. But 21st century film fans have a different relationship with film than their parents and grandparents did. If studio theme parks want to engage these potential visitors, they can't get away with offering just the same old experience that drew those parents and grandparents.
What would you like to see Universal and Disney do with their studio-themed parks? What would make you and your family more likely to visit, and more often? Please tell us you wish list, in the comments.
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