Bringing dreams to life is the fastest growing frontier in entertainment. Or if not exactly dreams, then movies, shows, even toys (see: the new World of Barbie immersive experience, which opened in Santa Monica last month) and music (RIP the short-lived Britney Spears-themed The Zone, which launched in LA just two months before the global pandemic hit).
The official name for these pop culture encounters is “location-based entertainment” (or LBE for those who work in the field). And as Merlin Entertainments CEO Scott O’Neil and Sony Pictures partnerships EVP Jeffrey Godsick told Variety ahead of the official opening of World of Jumanji in the U.K. this week, with the developments in technology, licensing and audience appetite for IP there’s never been a better moment to be in the LBE business.
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“The technology is merging with IP which is merging with imagination,” says O’Neil, who joined Merlin last November from Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment. “And it’s a pretty special combination that’s unlocking entertainment that we couldn’t even imagine ten years ago.”
It was O’Neil’s predecessor, Nick Varney, who began the journey to “Jumanji” with Godsick around three years ago. Last March, Merlin and Sony unveiled an exclusive multi-territory agreement to bring the boardgame movie franchise to life in Merlin’s parks across Europe and North America (the company boasts 143 attractions over 25 countries).
The first “Jumanji” experience, a motion vehicle dark ride called “Jumanji The Adventure,” opened in Merlin’s Italian theme park Gardaland last April. This week, O’Neil and Godsick finally unveiled an even more ambitious project – an entire “Jumanji” land – at Chessington World of Adventures in the U.K. Called World of Jumanji, it’s comprised of three new rides including the park’s first inversion coaster, “Mandrill Mayhem.”
While Merlin’s parks operate a number of original rides and experiences, the company is increasingly shifting to IP-based properties. In 2017 they also worked with Sony on a “Ghostbusters 5D” ride at their German amusement park, Heide Park, and in the U.K. alone they have partnered with dozens of production companies including Magic Light Pictures (best known for adapting Julia Donaldson’s children’s stories), BBC’s children’s network CBeebies, eOne’s Peppa Pig and Korean animation studio Toonzone. Merlin also operate the Legoland parks across the world.
So is the future wholly IP-based? “When you come into a company like this, you recognise really quickly that IP matters, more than just about anything,” O’Neil acknowledges. “There’s always room for creative expression and individual attractions. However, there is a flight to quality and in the consumers and our guests’ mind some of that quality is tied to ‘Is this a brand I know? Is this a brand I love?’”
It also helps that pop culture gives us what O’Neil calls a “common language.” “We quote movies, we laugh about movies we’ve seen, we cry about movies we’ve seen, it gives us emotion,” he points out. “And then if you marry that with bringing it to life and bringing that brand to life, we sit right in a really interesting space at the perfect time.”
Like Disney’s Imagineers, Merlin’s Magic-Makers, who are based in London, act as the central creative and engineering hub for the company’s global portfolio, which includes attractions such as Madame Tussauds and the London Eye as well as parks. With each ride or attraction requiring a huge investment of time and money (Chessington says “World of Jumanji” cost in the region of $21 million) it’s no surprise that boosting a ride with a universally-known IP looks increasingly attractive. “They’re big bets,” O’Neil says of launching a new attraction.
Which is why Merlin’s partnership with Sony – who boast not only a film library of over 4,000 titles but TV, video games, anime, kids content and even music – shows no signs of slowing down. “We’re looking at everything across the board – not just in movies – in all of the IP content that we have,” Godsick says of what the future may hold. While neither he nor O’Neil would share specifics about what Sony projects Merlin is currently working on bringing to life – they said discussions are still ongoing – Godsick did suggest there might be more to share about “Ghostbusters” in the near future.
Given the studio’s embarrassment of IP riches, might audiences one day be able to visit an entirely Sony-themed amusement park? Godsick thinks it’s a possibility: “I would say yes, without being more specific,” he says. O’Neil says Merlin “will be exploring all sorts of opportunities.” But, he adds, pointing to Universal’s recently-launched Super Nintendo World in California, “it’s not lost on us what’s been really successful.” (Watch out, Playstation fans.)
There is even the potential for experiences based on artists signed to Sony Music, whose roster includes superstars such as Adele, Beyonce and Harry Styles. “Internally we’re talking about it,” Godsick says. (Before heading to Chessington he reveals he held a conference in London with the record label). “We’ve started to speak to some of our artists and there is a great interest.”
Whether it’s theme park rides, pop-ups, VR, immersive dining, cruises or more, there is undoubtedly an uptick in experiential spending. Research firm SkyQuest predicts the LBE market is set to surpass $25.34 billion by 2028, citing a “huge surge in demand for immersive and interactive entertainment experiences.”
Why are consumers so willing to throw money at experiences – which accrue no value – over tangible goods? O’Neil and Godsick point to the rise of technology. “I think [it] is what has led us to want to be together more and that’s why the experiential economy has exploded,” Godsick says. “Because we can be alone but we also realise that as human beings we need to be together, and better to be together in experiences because they’re exciting.”
Which is why for O’Neil and Godsick, who were the first to ride “Mandrill Mayhem” when it opened on Monday, “Jumanji” is just the beginning.
“[Sony’s] is as good a catalogue as you’ll find anywhere in the world,” O’Neil says. “And so for us, it’s first to dream. To talk and dream and figure it out.”
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