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The problem with movie studio theme parks, take two

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Published: April 23, 2013 at 11:26 AM

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.

'Want I really want to do is direct'
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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Readers' Opinions

From 129.42.208.184 on April 23, 2013 at 11:52 AM
Right on. But start with one attraction or experience, and learn from it. Take a risk and be prepared for failure. The biggest challenge I see is trying to cater to all people. Not everyone is a maker, but a few are. It's difficult to set up an interactive attraction for someone with no inclination and who hardly speaks English, etc.

But take something like Disaster! from USF. Have makers come into certain roles, and let others be extras or viewers.

There's also an opportunity to advertise the parks over the internet - as you said with Universal-supplied apps. And it could work before you come to a park as well as after you leave.

A no brainer would seem to be setting up a weekend event for makers. Sounds like there are already events.

Just listen to what people are asking for. Find a need an fill it, like an entreprenuer. LOL.

From 85.150.173.168 on April 23, 2013 at 12:07 PM
As movies, theme parks are still a passive medium in which the customer is entertained.
I'm sure that hasn't ended and I'm sure it won't end any time soon.
Yes there are ways to take part in a story, even movie like, experience but that's called gaming and although it is awesome it's not as popular trough all demographics as movies and theme parks are.
The only difference in a movie themed theme park or any other theme park is the coating.

Sure the movie theme park has/had the urge to learn you how a movie is made but it worn of. Not because it's not informative but a guest doesn't come back year after year to see how sound is put to a movie.
That's why movie theme parks are more and more trying to let their guests experience the movie as they are there, if we are lucky (like at Universal) they tell us a new story or extend the story. Or if we are unlucky (like at Disney) we get the exact same story rehashed as a ride

I think there would be room for a boutique park where you can be an actor, stuntman, cameraman, etc and work on a movie clip together for a steep price with the real deal. But for anyone who had been in a movie they know that the real deal is so boring.

From 142.129.33.220 on April 23, 2013 at 2:26 PM
If you really want an immersive studio experience, you should go on the Warner Bros. VIP or Deluxe Studio tour in Burbank, CA

Groups are limited to 13 people and you won't see anything "made up" for the guests. Just a true behind-the-scene look at a REAL studio.

Big 3D monkeys and earthquakes are fun, but I'd rather walk on the sets of my favorite TV shows and films. Just sayin'

From 159.153.129.39 on April 23, 2013 at 3:28 PM
Isn't the VIP Tour there basically that? It does let you get out and walk around, it's expensive though.
From Anon Mouse on April 23, 2013 at 3:39 PM
Movie making has already entered into the public arena. You don't need the movie studios to tell you how it is done. The difference between your phone recording a movie & editing it on a computer to what a movie studio is doing isn't that big of a divide. Sure, you're not Tom Hanks and you don't have a $200 million budget, but that isn't the point. You can already create movies on your own.

Therefore, I don't see how visitors making movies will be a theme park attraction. The movie studios have one advantage which is access to the best technology and talent. However, the studios theme park can at best create a canned experience. Everyone will have the same result.

Disney's attractions like animation and American Idol are fine if guests are into such things. I'm not one of them. I find them naseauting and boring. Sometimes, making movies is pure drudgery. Besides, we are already past the point where hand drawn animation is fascinating (bye cells). We are moving beyond digital animation. 3D has come and went. Singing contests have saturated the television market and the public no longer cares.

Come to think of it, how about the public create the best theme park attraction ever. I can think of Mystic Manor as the latest greatest!!!

From Robert Niles on April 23, 2013 at 4:47 PM
I think there's space for something with a higher capacity than the VIP Tour, that's focused more on instruction and making and participating than just getting closer, more exclusive access.
From 72.197.30.46 on April 24, 2013 at 2:41 AM
Studio theme Parks need to convert to immersive themeing just like universal is currently doing now. Potter is the best example and Disney should be putting all there franchise stuff into the Hollywood studios park. Star wars, avatar, marvel et al. Nobody's really interested in how movies are made, at least not like before and the only park that needs to keep that element is the original Universal Studios Hollywood because that's what that park has always been about, and its the only park that is an actual movie studio.
From Ray Schroeder on April 24, 2013 at 9:48 AM
If you want the real feel of a studio, do a studio tour when you're in LA. I did the Warner Bros and SONY studio tours the last time I was in LA( 7 yrs. ago, damn I need to get back). We walked the outdoor sets of ER, Gilmore Girls,the movies RENT,and Zorro. We saw them building the sets of The New Posidon Adventure. We walked in the sound stages where the classics were filmed, Wizard of OZ etc.We even saw a few celebs. These are the real deal.
From Sylvain Comeau on April 24, 2013 at 10:53 AM
Interactivity is just one element of the modern theme park experience, in my opinion. If interactivity entirely takes over, then theme parks will become a giant arcade (like a bigger version of Disney Quest).

I think that we still want passive experiences, as long as they are well crafted and immersive.

From Anon Mouse on April 24, 2013 at 1:11 PM
The best way to describe the theme park experience is using computer terms. A desktop computer is a lean forward experience. A tablet is a lean back experience. Work is lean forward. Theme parks are lean back. I wouldn't want to work on my enjoyment at a theme park. It defeats the purpose of visiting a theme park where everything is done for me.

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