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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I'll go with the example of Cars Land, a land (and ride) which I adore despite really, really disliking the films. The setting of Radiator Springs is itself inviting, and it has an emotional connection thanks to the Route 66 car culture which extends beyond whether or not I enjoyed a middling Pixar movie. I couldn't give two s&@%^s if I see Mater or not (other guests might), but Cars Land still speaks to a crucial bit of Californian culture. It works despite the IP.
Ariel's Undersea Adventure nearby in DCA, I'd say, is a much worse adaptation even though The Little Mermaid is a better film, since it's wholly dependent on riders already knowing the story, and on riders providing the emotional connection when they see the Ariel AA. It assumes its work is already done.
Pandora maybe doesn't have that extra emotional connection, if you're not already an Avatar fan. I can't say. It seems to try with themes of conservation, taking inspiration from Native American culture, but it's maybe not an intuitive and inviting concept. If Harry Potter had never been created, a wizard's castle would still be a graspable, engaging setting, one that's easy enough to understand. Guests to Hogsmeade who don't know Potter can still enjoy the land, even if there's still a ton of Easter eggs which are wholly Potter-dependent. It like how Tony Baxter once justified bringing Indiana Jones to Disneyland: They could've easily made a generic cursed ruin ride, and it would've been a blast, but Indy communicates that idea to guests more efficiently. It's good marketing, and a good springboard for ideas, and if done well guests can still today enjoy Temple of the Forbidden Eye despite its aging Indy IP.
I think Little Mermaid is sub-par in comparison because it's not a dynamic dark ride, but instead a slide show/cliff notes version of the film (most notably omitting the most important parts of the film involving conflict and decision making). Imagineers essentially "Dinsey-fied" a Disney movie, rendering the story and actual "Journey" (the name given to MK's clone of the original DCA attraction) of the protagonist inert.
Where I think Disney is missing the boat with PtWoA is that there isn't such a thing as an "Avatar fan". People enjoy and admire Avatar for its technical achievement and it's larger than life scope and beauty. However, I would challenge you to walk down any street in America and ask every person you pass to see if they're an "Avatar Fan", or if they even know when or if another Avatar movie is being released. I doubt that more than 1% of the people you asked would provide any positive response. Yes, the film utilizes native culture and themes of conservation, which helps to validate its presence at DAK, but is that what draws people to it? I would argue no. People are searching for a connection, something that they can touch, feel, and remember. Yes, everyone visiting PtWoA is going to have those amazing photos of mountains seemingly floating in mid-air that they can show their friends or family, but what else do they take home? A plastic dragon-looking thing on their shoulder that they can awkwardly move with a flick of their wrist? A Chinese-made sun-catcher, or 3-D printed action figure of their Na'Vi avatar? A video of them rubbing a plastic plate on a fake-looking alien plant that expels water after sufficient rubbing (I was honestly shocked to see such a thing in a Disney park, but there it was amongst the Pollack-splattered black light paint). Guests at PtWoA are not part of any story, and cannot interact with any characters from the world. They're just stopping by for a visit to a deserted planet, and there's very little, aside from trying to make family memories while standing in a 3-hour line, that will crystallize any love or lasting memory for the place. PtWoA is an amazing sight to behold, though I think more from a technical and engineering achievement, much like the original film, than a place where guests will connect and make lasting memories like other iconic Disney lands and attractions.
All that leads me to worry that Galaxy's Edge may be going in the same direction. In a previous discussion, I was supporting the concept of setting the land on a nondescript planet on the edge of the Star Wars Universe. I figured by doing so, Disney could avoid the criticism of not having every last grain of sand in the right spot because there was no blueprint for where guests would be visiting. However, after visiting PtWoA, I think trying to set a theme park land based on a known IP in a generic environment, or at least one not memorialized in celluloid, is a lost opportunity. I'm keeping my mind open, but what UC has done with Harry Potter, where guests can pretend to be their favorite characters and act out their stories, is far superior to what Rhode did with Avatar, where guests are just supposed to be awe-struck at a realistic, life-like alien world existing in the middle of a Florida swamp. However, what I fear is that Disney may do the same with Star Wars that they've done with Avatar.
It's like if the Harry Potter land was set in a time after all wizards had left, and we were simply viewing the scenery. The characters and the conflict are what draw us to the sets and the action - without it, the land might as well be a museum.
As far as it relates to the article above and Rohde's comments, certainly a sense of place is important but they are nothing without story and without intensely relatable characters. After all, you see Mickey Mouse walking around the Magic Kingdom surrounded by adoring fans - does it matter that he is standing in front of the castle or tomorrowland? I would say not.
On the other hand, the design, and unique look of the land, or ride, is another way which makes a great IP-based attraction. For example, when the Haunted Mansion opened, there was no movie, or tv show related to the ride. People just found the exterior of the ride cool, as well as interesting. The ride itself is unique, in a sense that I've never come across a ride in any other theme park similar to it. It's one of a kind. That also makes for a great theme park attraction. Something that stands out, and is distinctive.
Although many people enjoyed the Cars movies, it wasn't as big of a hit as Disney probably hoped for. However, Cars Land in California Adventure is extremely popular. The land is stunning to look at, and walk through. You feel as if you are actually walking through Radiator Springs. It's very unique. I feel the aesthetic of a land, has a lot to with the success, and popularity of the park.
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1. Money (IP was proven to be popular at the box office)
2. Money (Pay to play. Must pay licensee or must originate it)
3. Money (Heavy investment for fully immersive environment)
Disney and Universal have yet to disappoint. The most obvious outcry over an IP conversion was Guardians of the Galaxy at DCA's Tower of Terror and the announced Epcot's Universe of Energy has shown the limits of fan buy-in, but not theme park creativity and the final results. People love it and will love Epcot's new ride.
There is doubt about Avatar/Pandora, but the lines for Flights of Passage don't lie.
We will yet see another Harry Potter ride. Let's see if Universal hits another home run. Then there's next year's Fast and Furious attraction at USF.