The UK perspective on our industry

This is a very interesting article by Vanessa Thorpe published in The Guardian on 30th April 2016, which provides a unique analysis on what’s happening in our industry from a UK perspective. What role can the UK’s cultural mothership BBC play?

BBC in race with theme park giants to build hi-tech visitor attractions

Doctor Who to vie with US superheroes as BBC develops 3D film experiences for parks abroad as well as partnership with Paramount London.

The BBC, which now boasts several of the world’s most popular entertainment brands, from Sherlock, Doctor Who and Call the Midwife to Top Gear, is to compete with US theme park giants Disney, Paramount and NBC Universal, in a multibillion-pound race to build hi-tech visitor attractions around the globe.

It is developing 3D filmed experiences for new theme parks abroad, as well as for a vast Paramount London site by the Thames in Ebbsfleet, Kent. Another new BBC entertainment venture in Asia is to be unveiled later this month.

“We’re always interested in working with partners who can help us extend fans’ enjoyment of the BBC brands they love,” said Stephen Davies, BBC Worldwide’s director of live entertainment. “Abroad, we’re looking for fixed-attraction opportunities in Asia and we operate and license a number of UK attractions, including CBeebies Land and the Doctor Who Experience, and we’re looking forward to running Countryfile Live at Blenheim this August.”

High-stakes commercial ventures might seem unwise when the BBC is being asked to cut costs and clarify its core purpose, but its global division operates independently and its job is to earn maximum value from popular programme “content”.

“Our Live Events business helps us grow the BBC brand abroad and contributes to BBC Worldwide’s returns to the public service,” said Davies.

Mainstream film industries in Britain and the US increasingly focus on the familiar franchises, from Bond to comic-book superheroes, rather than on original film-making. As a result, there is a fresh drive to squeeze the most from popular brands, off-screen as well as on, with a dawning era of themed visitor “experiences”.

Visual effects specialists in Hollywood and London are already competing to create immersive experiences based on the TV shows and films with the biggest international audiences. John Lambert, a producer working in LA with Europe China Pictures Group, thinks any forward-thinking content producer is now planning for virtual reality, augmented reality and for immersive screens of all sizes.

“We look for a story that can be told in the theatre and the small screen and gives the audience something to take with them after the primary viewing,” said Lambert. “We also look at elements that can be taken to a deeper level in theme park adventures, rides and immersive environments. In short, it is about connecting all the senses and delivering it to the audience.

“These are the technologies and techniques that will carry the movie and entertainment industries into the future. The future is now, not 10 years from now.”

Last week, in Hollywood’s biggest financial deal, DreamWorks Animation, producer of the lucrative Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon and Madagascar franchises, was sold for $3.8bn to NBCUniversal, the company behind some of the most successful theme parks.

The purchase is widely seen as strengthening links with Asia, now a key battleground for entertainment parks and fan merchandise. In 2012, DreamWorks was one of the first Hollywood studios to open a production base in China and the company has assiduously built up audiences in the world’s second-largest film market. Its beloved animated properties will be a big boost for NBCUniversal’s sales, already at $500m a year. Revenue from its theme parks also doubled between 2010 and 2015 and a new park is planned in Beijing. Announcing the purchase, which is yet to be approved by regulators, Steve Burke, head of NBCUniversal, said: “How great will it be to have Kung Fu Panda in our park when Beijing opens?”

The Middle East is also investing heavily in visitor attractions. A long-awaited Warner Bros billion-dollar destination, featuring comic-book heroes Superman and Batman, along with Scooby-Doo and Looney Tunes characters, is under construction in Abu Dhabi and set to open in 2018, near to a Ferrari-branded theme park. According to Warner Bros chief executive and chairman Kevin Tsujihara, it will be “a fully interactive, innovative and unique experience that will allow fans of all ages to experience the most exciting aspects of Warner Bros in a completely immersive environment.”

No need to wait so long for IMG Worlds of Adventure in Dubai, which opens this summer. The 1.5m sq ft site will be split into four zones, each with themes taken from Marvel or the Cartoon Network.

Other planned parks are concentrating on hit virtual reality games. This month, Nintendo and NBCUniversal announced a $250m collaboration on themed attractions, while a park in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, devoted to the games Assassin’s Creed and Raving Rabbids is due to open in 2020. In Tokyo, the Oriental Land Company, which owns Disney’s Japanese resort, plans five new attractions in the next four years.

It is also boom time for this new breed of “immersive” theme park in Los Angeles. Southern California visitor attractions broke records on spending and attendance last year, and at the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter last month, the mayor of Los Angeles spoke of drawing in 50 million visitors a year by 2020. When the $500m Harry Potter attraction opened at Universal Studios Hollywood, the evidence for his prediction was in the long queues that had, reportedly, held vigil outside the gates overnight.

Last week, Disney released the first images of its 14-acre Star Wars Lands sites in Florida and California. Disney bought the Star Wars franchise in 2012 and now plans a series of feature films and attractions to follow the hugely successful release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens last Christmas. NBCUniversal, a division of Comcast, is thought to be inspired by the strategy of Disney chief executive Robert Iger, the man who orchestrated its acquisitions of Pixar Studios and Marvel Entertainment. “Comcast is definitely trying to emulate Disney,” said Scott Krisiloff, chief investment officer at Avondale Asset Management.

The idea of bringing paying visitors into a branded experience has appeal outside film and TV. Ferrari is now choosing between California and Florida for a new park and in Long Beach, Los Angeles, the Aquarium of the Pacific has raised $40m in donations to pay for an “immersive theatre” with a 40-metre-long curved screen to simulate an ocean and coastal environment.

On 5 May, Legoland California will open Ninjago, a one-acre “Ninja training space” and interactive ride, allowing visitors to shoot virtual fireballs. Many parks already use technology to let guests to interact with attractions, for example by projecting the visitor’s name or home town into the effects as they pass.

At the end of this year, nine parks run by Six Flags will have rollercoasters equipped with virtual-reality headsets so that riders can pretend they are flying or fighting aliens. It is proving a cheaper upgrade than building new rides or employing more actors. By the summer 24 VR-equipped rollercoasters are expected to be functioning around the world.

The pace of development is such that, by the time London Resort Company Holdings, the group behind the BBC and Paramount’s joint 388-acre venture at Ebbsfleet, is ready to put in its planning application next year, the international competition is likely to be a whole lot scarier.

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