Bob Rogers' Legends panel this year welcomed Joe Rohde and Scott Trowbridge from Walt Disney Imagineering and Thierry Coup of Universal Creative to talk about their adaptations of Avatar, Marvel, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and more, for the Disney and Universal theme parks. But lots of movies make big money at the box office. How does a designer know which ones would work well in a theme park?
"A profoundly character-based intellectual property, that focuses almost exclusively on the events that happen to a set of individuals and that doesn't really have place-making and doesn't really have a physical plant, is just simply not worth even pursuing," Rohde said. "Where do you go with it? You are locked to plots about characters and things that happen to then. It's very difficult, then, to create something immediate."
"When we think about using IP, it's not about taking a creative work that was designed for one medium then trying to shoehorn it into another," Trowbridge said. "A good way to use IP is to take the essence of what made that story successful, understand the DNA of that creative work and then find the best possible way to express that DNA through another creative medium."
"Film is format that allows you to explore the character-based side of a story-telling world," Rohde said. "The stuff we do is much more about direct experience. It's about you and what's going to happen to you inside this story world where these (other) things happened to those characters."
"You allow the guest to enter a world they seem to know that they are emotionally connected to," Coup said, "but they are discovering new places within that world, and they are the stars of that."
"When we adapted the Harry Potter stories, it's almost like we added a few pages there" for fans to discover in the park experience, Coup said.
Trowbridge pointed out that expanding an IP in this way requires a collaborative approach with an IP holder, in contrast to the simpler relationship that results when a park simply licenses a work or a mark.
"Not everyone is approaching it as we have the luxury to do," he said. "Sometime it just about 'how do I differentiate my new coaster in the marketplace?'"
But if a park is pursuing a collaborative relationship, it must find a way to develop a positive working relationship with the IP owner, all three designers agreed.
"You have to be open to this idea that somebody who is not from your industry, but who is a master storyteller, might have an insight how to get something done that you would never think of," Rohde said. "At the same time, you have to be able to convey that there is a business here; there is an art form here; it does have parameters."
"If you are talking with someone who is just licensing IP to you... that person or group is probably not able to have a conversation about 'let's expand this universe,' they're really only able to interpret scripture and not write new scripture," Trowbridge said.
"It's almost like marrying someone for their wonderful child," Coup said. "It's give and take, you have to make compromises. There's a lot of educating going on... you have to put your ego away and both sides have to really listen to each other. It creates a great marriage and in the end it's a great experience."
But even with that relationship, IP is, at most, a head start and not a shortcut.
"The idea is that I can go buy credit by buying a property and when I stick it on this thing, it will have more credit," Rohde said. "But in fact it won't, unless you put the same amount of effort into it that you would put into anything."
"Intellectual property has great value as a marketing asset, absolutely," Rohde said. "It's just that, if you are doing your design properly, and starting the story at zero, then an intellectual property assignment, as a designer, is very little different than any other assignment."
Near the end of the session, Rogers asked the three to identify a source of inspiration for their work, which launched Rohde into a four-minute discussion of the art and science of theme park design that ought to be required listening for anyone in this business — or any fan who wants a deeper appreciation for it.
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