In defense of theme parks and the artists who create them

October 7, 2019, 5:18 PM · Major theme parks welcomed more than half a billion visitors worldwide last year, earning hundreds of billions of dollars for their owners. People are willing to spend that kind of money because theme parks deliver powerful emotional, physiological, and psychological experiences that connect and engage them. But the adoration of millions of fans still hasn't been enough to win theme parks the respect they deserve from all others who work in the creative community.

Academy Award-winning film director Martin Scorsese last week responded to a question from Empire magazine about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which he managed to disparage both Marvel movies and the theme park industry.

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

The most charitable way to view Scorsese's response is as a sharply targeted clapback against Disney. Unique among major studios, Disney shies away from producing the type of stand-alone film stories that Scorsese has built his universally admired career upon. While Disney CEO Bob Iger now has promised to support such filmmaking within the Fox Searchlight division that Disney obtained in its deal to buy Fox, before that acquisition, Iger famously declared that Disney would be looking only to produce films that were part of, or could be developed into, multi-media franchises such as the Marvel films.

By dismissing Marvel and theme parks, Scorsese takes on two of Disney's most visible products, perhaps implicitly criticizing Disney for not supporting filmmakers like him. That said, if someone as blunt and honest as Scorsese has been over his career wanted to call out Bob Iger, he would have done it by name.

So let us instead take Scorese's words as he said them. To me, this seemed a generational issue — an industry veteran complaining about others making entertainment in different ways. Scorsese's work has earned him the right to say whatever he wants in forums where people actually listen. But that doesn't mean anyone has to agree with him.

Indeed, some of Scorsese's younger colleagues in filmmaking simply would like him to extend them the courtesy of watching their work before dismissing it.

Ultimately — as fans have come to expect from him — Disney's Joe Rohde offered a defense of theme parks' ability to engage with their audience — despite Scorese's dismissal of that connection.

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On the concept of escapism. Theme parks, tourist spots, movies and other forms of popular entertainment are often referred to as escapist. Very often this is a pejorative term. As if all of us are meant to remain in a constant state of existential awareness perpetually involved in the struggle of life. Some of this attitude is just a survival of Puritan attitudes from the 17th century, some of it is Marxist theory, some of it is snobbery. But here’s what’s interesting about unusual environments such as one finds in theme parks, tourist destinations, and the fantastic worlds presented by films. The truth is that you are probably more alert and more aware and therefore less escapist in these environments than you are walking down your own street. Because our brain works by referring to existing scripts and models, familiar places and familiar experiences require very little brain energy, because we are barely actually experiencing them. We are experiencing our pre-existing model. That means we are not really there… which is kind of ironically, escapist. However, when we are in an environment that is novel, unusual, challenging, strange, we must be fully alert because our brain has fewer existing models to use. It has to pay attention. We have to be there, in the moment, for real,…sort of the opposite of escapism. You know how the sky seems bluer, the food tastier, the sights more amazing when you’re on vacation? That’s a function of brain activity...of really seeing, really tasting, etc because of increased awareness in a novel environment. So rather than thinking of a make-believe environments as being escapist, we should think of the make-believe environment as being experientiallist. Sort of a supercharged version of reality instead of an escape from reality.

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For more on this issue, watch Rohde's defense of theme parks as an art form from the 2017 IAAPA Attractions Expo.

Rohde is perhaps the best in the business at not just creating themed entertainment but also being able to analyze and place into broader social and artistic context his work as well as that of others in the field. By doing both, he has demonstrated that he can function as an artist and a critic of art — a combination that few in either side of the field have been able to master.

If you don't like theme parks, fine. If you don't like Marvel movies, fine. If you want to craft a well-documented argument as to why specific themed attractions or Marvel films fell short artistically, well... welcome to my world. That's the work of a critic.

But it's not fair to the people who put in the hard effort of creating this art to dismiss their work with lazy criticism by saying, in effect, 'I didn't feel a connection, so no one else must have, either.' Half a billion fans around the world say otherwise.

Replies (11)

October 7, 2019 at 5:48 PM

Wow talk about being triggered. Honestly who gives a crap, Disney's got $130 billion reasons to not care about his opinion.

October 7, 2019 at 7:05 PM

I have to agree. Scorcese's comments are his opinion and to see the internet (and fanboys in particular) lose their mind in this way is crazy. I love theme parks and I love Martin Scorcese's films. The two coexist in my world and his comments had no bearing on me. Sorry to see them have such an impact on others.

October 7, 2019 at 10:04 PM

Like someone said, it is his opinion, and nobody should get worked up over it. On one level, he is right. Marvel movies and theme parks are much different than his films. That is not to say they don’t have value. They are escapism. Escapism is great. I go see Guardians of the Galaxy to leave my worries behind and have a good time. That is very, very important. That has incredible value. Same thing with a theme park. I go see Schindler’s List for a different purpose. It is not escapism. It also has value but of a different sort. I do not want to experience that as a theme park attraction. Deep, serious films serve a much different purpose. I did not take his comments as necessarily saying the Marvel films or theme parks were bad. He just does not like them. That is fine. He says they are well made. I am glad I am somebody that can enjoy both. To get worked up over his comments is wasting grey matter that can be better spent enjoying anything James Gunn has made (Slither is especially good) or rewatching Goodfellas.

October 8, 2019 at 2:59 AM

Sounds like the same Luddite crap that’s said about video games.

October 8, 2019 at 5:27 AM

If Martin Scorsese created theme park attractions, no ride would be fewer than 3.5 hours long (and that excludes the queue). I don't care as much about him entering his "old man yells at cloud" phase as him entering his "I'm too big to hire editors for my films" one. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Guillermo del Toro is a huge Disney fan. I was actually kind of hoping Universal would back up a truckload of money to his house to have him consult on the (rumored) Universal Monsters world coming to Epic Universe.
Movies are about the audience sitting and observing the story. Theme park adaptations, especially as lands, are about becoming part of the story.

October 8, 2019 at 8:18 AM

Scorsese is really missing the boat on this issue.

There's a huge audience that spends thousands on a yearly basis to enjoy an entertainment form that involves and immerses them for days.

Then there's his target audience that spends a few hundred dollars a year to be spoon fed his form of entertainment.

Not even in the same league.

Throw in the fact that movies largely haven't changed since the 1940s while theme parks are constantly evolving to provide ever more immersive experiences, and it's apparent that Scorsese is really off the mark.

Theme parks, not movies, are the pinnacle of the entertainment industry, and are the path to the future for entertainment.

October 8, 2019 at 9:39 AM

I've been to a ton of movie screenings for critics and cinefiles (typically over 50 every year), sitting in the crucible where Scorsese's attitude is brewed. There's this hierarchy within the entertainment industry between what's considered "art" and what's considered entertainment (and frequently labelled "fodder). I've never understood why a director working on a personal piece resonating with critics and Oscar voters is placed on a pedestal above a commercially successful film making a $1 billion dollars. It further confounds me when the same people whining about the commercialism of Hollywood willingly accept $169 million to make a movie from a company that is actively undermining the studio model that has funded artistic expression for decades.

I admire Scorsese's movies and his longevity within the industry, but his comments here are misguided and representative of what is wrong with an increasingly shrinking segment of "old Hollywood" that refuses to see the art within any movie filmed in front of a green screen. The reality is that the shift of studios to larger, bankable projects is giving young, up and coming directors and artists far more exposure and notoriety than they would making small arthouse films. It's also bringing a level of artistry to larger, blockbuster-level films that we've never seen before. While the creativity on the fringes is perhaps being marginalized, the current era of cinema is a renaissance that may eventually be seen as on par with Hollywood's "Golden Age".

Expanding this view into theme parks makes this an even more salient point as a destination needs to appeal to a much larger audience than a film that has a single theatrical run and can survive/profit from a single demographic group. I'd love to see Scorsese try to design and build a theme park - After a few weeks, he'd be standing outside the gate wondering why no one is coming back to see his creation for the 5th or 6th time despite the park being designed for 50+ year old white males.

October 8, 2019 at 2:26 PM

Ultimately, Hollywood loves to stroke its own ego, and the ivory tower that is Scorsese is one those folks seeking "old Hollywood" notoriety continue to attempt to summit. In my opinion, films celebrated by self-declared elite critics amount to cinematic self pleasure, made to celebrate oneself rather than the art form so fiercely defended.

I genuinely love films spanning decades and perspectives, but Scorsese and those of his ilk exist first and foremost for themselves, not art.

October 8, 2019 at 3:25 PM

First, if anyone has a right to critique cinema, it would be Scorsese given his amazing work.

Second, I think the way he said it came off far more "old man yelling" than he intended to although I agree with how he seems to be judging something he hasn't watched.

I don't get too worked up as others are over it as he is expressing his view and I think some are just getting too worked up over it. Maybe if he handled the issues of blockbusters, he'd have a different view but then I don't see the Russos or Whedon making Taxi Driver or Goodfellas.

If the fights over Galaxy's Edge on this very site have shown, people will have very differing viewpoints on what works or doesn't in entertainment so no matter how great a work is, someone will always have an opposing view for it.

October 8, 2019 at 8:33 PM

Meh...

October 12, 2019 at 2:08 AM

People, there is more then Hollywood , INCLUDING Disney (!!!!) in the world.
....
By far most of groundbreaking 'storytelling' (sic) artist creations are in the world of theatre, not film. It's scattered all over the world, in places NOT goverened by big (multinational) money at all. Theatre artists (including their directors) are "free" to create individual masterpieces...

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