“On Cinema and Theme Parks” (part 10)

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The overall theme of movie-based theme parks has gone from exposure and education to simulation and immersion—much more experiential. Instead of seeing how Harry Potter movies are made, guests at the Studio-Parks want to feel like they are Harry and his friends. And, this is not something that could be achieved by the former models of original Universal Studios Parks or Disney’s Hollywood Studios. So, the parks have to change in order to remain relevant and viable tourist destinations. Concurrently, movie and television studios are going through their own evolutionary process. In many ways, a careful examination of modern cinema compared to its predecessors reveals that storytelling has been removed from its pedestal to play second fiddle to salesmanship.

As explored earlier, spectacle and visceral thrills are the principal drive for the modern (1990s-present) cinema-based theme park attractions, and, for some, they confirm the worst tendencies identified within the Hollywood blockbuster: the epitome of apparently vacuous rollercoaster experiences. According to King (2000), “the label ‘thrill ride’ is a term often used approvingly in Hollywood publicity and by some film reviewers in the press, presumably because a trill ride is precisely what many viewers want from modern cinema” (2000, P27). The late 1980s and the 1990s saw the arrival of theme park attractions that claim to allow the park guest to ride the movies; movies became theme park attractions. But now, theme park attractions are inspiring films. Beyond being the inspiration for films, the idea of being able to market a horror, action, or epic film or film franchise or the ability to create themed attractions from the narrative is at the forefront of studio executives’ minds, as cross-promotion is an important financial strategy (King, 2000).

CinecittaParkMapCreating attractions from cinema is not unique to the United States. The former Italian cinema powerhouse, from the early to mid twentieth century, Cinecittá Studios, known as the “Hollywood on the Tiber” is following suit with its American counterparts and converting the production lot(s) into a movie-based theme park. Located outside Rome, Cinecittá Studios, Italian for “Cinema City,” opened its gates this year (2014) to the public to experience the magic of movies on this side of the screen (Associated Press, 2014). According to Emmanuel Gout, president of Cinecitta, “Here, the idea is that people will also enter not only sets, but the confusion of a place where we are shooting movie. Everything will be illusion…the visitor will become a protagonist of the day, becoming a star, becoming involved in some fake movie” (Associated Press, 2014).

CinecittaStreetsThe model of this theme park appears to be more reminiscent of how the classic American movie-based theme parks were setup; however, there is one big difference. At the new Cinecitta Studios (theme park), park guests will actually don costumes and take hold of props to act in scenes from movies. So, in many ways, this park differs from its American counterparts because it is not defaulting to digital simulations and special visual effects; instead, it’s using practical technologies to create the illusion that the guest is actually on the set in the movie as a character in a given scene. Still, three-time Academy Award® winning production designer Dante Ferretti knows that audiences and guests want more than an immersive experience into movies, but want thrills as well. So, there are rollercoasters and water slides, amidst Roman and Egyptian ruins, to accommodate those guests seeking more conventional amusement park attractions (Associated Press, 2014).

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“On Cinema and Theme Parks” (part 8)

My Book

For the movie studio (or media conglomerate), the theme park provides a seemingly limitless opportunity to cross-promote imagery and narratives from the screen into the park. This accomplishes the desire to advertise new movies and television programs and to sell merchandise pertaining to the various movies and themes that the park showcases. Either way, this two-fold process generates income to sustain the endeavors of the company (Davis, 1996)

Unlike SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment and Cedar Fair (parent company to Cedar Point), Disney and Universal use their parks for more than cross-promotion and merchandising opportunities. Until the late 1990s/early 2000s, they also used their parks as production studios and offices that acted as a counterpart to the Hollywood divisions (StudioCentral.com). The television channel Nickelodeon also operated two sound stages plus production offices at Universal Studios Florida (Riley, 1998). So, in addition to using the intellectual property provided by the movie and television studios, the two media giants used their parks as production facilities to create new media and entertainment content and create production jobs in Central Florida (Milman, 2001). Beyond MGM’s timeless logo featuring the Latin inscription ars gratia artis (art for art’s sake) surrounding Leo the Lion, the cinematic works and television programs can be converted from visual art to commodities because they now have a material place to exist in the real world accessible by millions.

DisneyMGMIn essence, the entertainment elements and advertising materials are so thoroughly fused that it is nearly impossible for the average park guest to tell them apart. Beyond the surface level of movies and theme parks, there is evidence that, when planning a blockbuster movie, the studio has it in its mind whether of not this movie would be good to ride or be used as a theme in a park for shows and other attractions. Susan Davis (1996) explains that the media conglomerates, that primarily run the theme park industry, can pull from other media resources by way of acquisitions, partnerships, and licensing in order to grow and widen audiences and park guests. A classic example of this is the (no longer active) partnership Disney had with MGM Studios. Disney’s licensing deal with MGM allowed the company to use the iconic MGM logo and pull from its film library.

2006_psychotramIt’s well established that theme parks are an outlet for the parent companies that own them, and the movie studios they also own, to act as conduits for one another: the end result being cash flow. But, there are different ways of utilizing the cinema to benefit the theme park experience (Riley, 1998). Whereas Disney uses the characters in its movies to bolster the parks’ influence, Universal Studios (Hollywood and Florida) took a different approach (although, Universal is trending toward the Disney model in recent years). Universal Studios uses its studio tour(s) to blend labor with spectacle (Murdy, 2002). This offers the park guests a glimpse into how films are made. In recent years, this has provided less of a pull since it is common knowledge that a large portion of filmmaking exists within a computer. Universal Studios presents cinema and television history, production techniques, and special effects to impress the audiences and guests. So, one could assess that Universal Studios parks are self-reflexive in their choice of entertainment. At least this was true until park guests demanded more thrill rides and less education and appreciation for film and television art and history (Murdy, 2002).

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On Cinema and Theme Parks (part 2)

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(Continued from Part 1)

Understanding the synergy or convergence that exists between the cinema and theme parks requires looking to the history of the relationship between the two entertainment giants. Before Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios), Universal Studios Florida, and more than 40 years before Disneyland was opened, the founder of Universal Studios (studio) German immigrant Carl Laemmle, opened his 250-acre-movie-making ranch, just north of Los Angeles, to the public for a mere $0.25 (Murdy, 2002). More than side income for the trailblazing studio, most well-known for its pioneering of the horror film, the original studio tour began on the outdoor backlot in March 1915. Laemmle desired to immerse the “people out there in the dark,” as famously referred to by Norma Desmond in the timeless classic Sunset Boulevard, into the magic behind the screen (Sunset Blvd, 1950).

Interestingly, according to famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, horror is often concerned with revealing “other” scenes to the audience (Freud, 1919). And, keeping with this theoretical approach to horror cinema, Laemmle opened this “other” scene to the guests of Universal Studios Hollywood.  But more than horror, Laemmle also brought the studio guests face-to-face with western action/drama (Murdy, 2002). From early in the 20th century, the concept of cinema and theme park convergence was born. The happy marriage, however, was not to last very long. Upon the introduction of cinema sound, Laemmle was forced to close the studio “park” to the not-so-quiet guests in order to facilitate appropriate recording sound for the motion pictures (Murdy, 2002). The Universal Studios tour would remain closed to the general public for over 30 years. But, in 1961, the studio would once again open its gates to a new generation of movie lovers (Murdy, 2002). Between 1961 and 1964, Universal outsourced the famed tram tour to the Gray Line bus company.  Following a feasibility study, conducted by researcher Buzz Price, the same man who helped determine the locations for Disneyland and Walt Disney World, Universal decided to start its own tram tour of its facilities, and Universal Studios Hollywood opened in July 1964 (Murdy, 2002).

Following the ending of the Studio System, the now bankrupt motion picture studios had been purchased by various conglomerates looking for new sources of income (Riley, 1998). One of the sources of income that studios began investing into was the concept of movie-based theme parks. With the opening of Walter Elias Disney’s Disneyland in 1955, Universal Studios made the decision to incorporate stand-alone attractions into its newly reopened studio tour (Davis, 1996). Both Disneyland and the future Universal Studios used their intellectual property (IP) as the basis for creating theme park rides, shows, and attractions. Although movie studios as a “park” began with Laemmle, in its current incarnation, the convergence of cinema and theme park began with Disneyland, and later was perfected by Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida. Since the movie studios already had dedicated movie-going audiences, it made sense to capitalize on the idea of incorporating the concepts from the movies into attractions that the general public could enjoy and be immersed in (Davis, 1996). This action both acts as advertising for the respective studios and generates income for the movies and park improvements.

In today’s entertainment marketplace, media conglomerates are restructuring themselves to be as large a player in entertainment and media as possible with the ability to integrate various products and services into multiple areas of exhibition (Taubman, 1970).  This is easily witnessed in how the Walt Disney Company, Sony, and Comcast companies are setup. Walt Disney Company has significant investments in: motion pictures (i.e. Disney, Buena Vista, Touchstone), theme parks, TV (i.e. ABC, Disney Channel), leisure/tourism, radio, video games, stores, and record labels). Sony has investments in consumer/commercial electronics, computers, video game systems, motion pictures (i.e. Sony, Columbia, Tristar), television (CBS), record label, recording studios, radio, and stores. And, much in the same way, Comcast has investments in motion pictures (i.e. Universal Pictures, DreamWorks-SKG), theme parks, resorts, television (i.e. NBC, Golf, SyFy), video games, radio, record labels, and recording studios.

Whereas the fall of the original studio system set the precedent for media companies not to own or operate all the elements of media creation from conception to employment to production to the distribution, also known as vertical integration, companies are now embracing the idea of horizontal integration. Horizontal integration allows a media company to push or market its products or services through various media channels. And, this is a perfect example of why media conglomerates own and operate theme parks. This is a common practice by Disney and Universal in their respective parks and resorts. Disney can release a movie, base an attraction off that movie, use that movie as the basis for a video game, and even include costume characters in the parks and on the cruise ships. In the same vein, Universal can take one of its movie properties and integrate the characters and story into a theme park experience, use the concept for a video game, and maybe even develop a TV series as a spinoff of the movie. This type of integration allows the companies to effectively customize glorified marketing campaigns for their brand. Having a given branding on various commercial outlets allows a company to maximize its exposure to general audiences/customers (Taubman, 1970). As companies acquire more intellectual properties, media outlets, and commercial infrastructure, they are able to actively change entertainment offerings over the years; and this is definitely the case with the theme parks owned by media conglomerates that also have movie studio interests.

Continue to Part 3

On Cinema and Theme Parks (part 1)

My BookDo you love learning about the magic of movies and theme parks? So do I! Living in Tampa, I am surrounded by some of the world’s top destination white sand beaches and exciting theme parks just up the road. As a passholder to Disney World, Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, and SeaWorld, I frequent the parks nearly as often as I go the cinema. Having spent a great deal of time working in independent film, working for three years at Disney World, and now as a cinema and theme park critic, I have a great deal of passion for both storytelling mediums. And the amazing thing is that there is such a fantastic and symbiotic relationship between the two. Hence why I spent my Master’s program at the University of South Florida studying the place at which both converge. Specifically, I researched the elements of narrative, spectacle, pleasure, character, setting and more in terms of how they correspond with one another. Whether that is taking a movie and developing it into an attraction or taking an attraction (or entire section of a park) and developing it into a movie. Both are powerful means of conveying a story or message. I delve into what it takes for a movie to be a successful attraction or vice versa.

Although there have been peer-reviewed articles and books written on cinema, there definitely lacked empirical research on the theme park side. Furthermore, most peer-reviewed articles and books are so incredibly boring and pretentious to read. My goal was to break down both and write about them in such a way that it is fun to read about. Movies and theme parks are FUN! So, reading about the relationship between the two should be equally fun and interesting. Starting with the history of how cinema influenced the modern theme park design and finishing with some of what to expect in the future, this book has it all! Although I would prefer that you buy my book (on Amazon), I have selected excerpts from it that I will publish over the next few weeks as I work on my next theme park piece. I hope you enjoy!


 

WDW CastleIn today’s world of entertainment, where some media conglomerates own both film studios and theme parks, successful films sometimes bridge these two media to create the basis for new theme park attractions. The following research study seeks to define the elements that a film needs in order to be successfully translated to a live themed entertainment experience, thus eliciting the desired emotional response from the guests; and also the necessary elements that a theme park attraction needs in order to convey both spectacle and narrative regarding the film upon which it is based.  Although there are tools currently available to studio executives and creative staff at entertainment companies, this study will serve as a model using the ideas, theories, supporting evidences, and streamlining them into one study—a consolidation of tools, if you will.

As media companies grow, and both cinema and theme parks adapt to changing needs and desires of movie patrons and park guests, the leadership at these companies needs to have the appropriate information at their fingertips to create effective and memorable stories for the screen and park. This study highlights what the potential park guests or movie patrons are looking for in terms of what drives them to spend money on themed entertainment or the cinema. Condensing this complex set of desires into a simplified answer: in terms of cinema-based attractions, the audience is searching for attractions and rides that immerse themselves into a participatory environment in which they make a difference in the story and encounter the unique characters, settings, and plots from the movie.—they want to be viscerally engaged and transported into a world of fantasy or adventure.

Universal HollywoodEver since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, audiences from around the world have been drawn to the temple of the height of the visual and performing arts, the cinema. In many ways, the early days regarded the cinema as an attraction, an amusement. In fact, many of the first silent films were shown in carnivals. Nickelodeons dotted the landscape in drug stores and clubs. Elaborate and ornate movie palaces housed some of the first big screens, and orchestras played along with the narrative (Gunning, 1986). Over the last century, cinema has gone from existing in sideshows to being a dominant mass communication source that has evolved into the very rollercoaster to which many critics and lay people compare it; and, not only metaphorically.

From starting in carnivals to now being the inspiration for the most visited theme parks in the world, cinema has gone full circle and is now instrumental in an unparalleled synergy with themed entertainment. Over the decades, there has been a strong convergence between cinema and theme parks. Studio executives, filmmakers, and theme park designers are working together in ways that serve to support both the movies and the parks that have rides based on the movies. More than ever, filmmakers and attraction designers need to know what the cinema patron and park guest both want in order to create a synergistic and dynamic entertainment experience based on a single narrative.

Hitchcock AttractionTwo of the greatest forces in media and entertainment are the cinema and theme parks; and for the latter part of the 20th Century and continuing strong into the 21st, the convergence between the cinema and theme park is becoming clear. Additionally, within the last several years, theme park attractions have inspired movies (e.g. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion). The relationship between the movies and theme parks is a strong one, but why is that so? Can one exist without the other? Or, is it a co-dependent relationship that benefits both entities? Perhaps it is all of the above. But, not every successful movie makes an equally successful theme park attraction. Often times, it is the Horror and Action genres that are used as the inspiration for successful attractions (e.g. ET-The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, The Bates House and Motel, and Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies).

As technology advances, the cinema and theme parks have adapted and evolved over the years to include the technology to both impress audiences and save money. Still building off the success of the cinema, theme parks have evolved their rides and attractions to go from the magic behind the movies to immersing the audience or guests into the movie itself. Likewise, studios and production companies are producing movies that act as attractions themselves. But, central to this study are the questions: why is it essential for the cinema to continue this synergy with the theme park industry, and what does it take for a movie to be a successful theme park attraction?

(Continue to Part 2)