Experiential Entertainment: Insider Insights

Manatt Digital

From live events to escape rooms to popup brand activations, out-of-home entertainment experiences have seen significant growth in attendance and interest in recent years, thanks in part to social media and our always-connected lifestyles. More and more brands and media companies are building immersive worlds and co-creating experiences with their customers in real life to engage them beyond the confines of a screen.

We see this firsthand in retail, with digital native companies (most notably Amazon) opening brick-and-mortar storefronts. In media and entertainment, there are opportunities to develop new IP or expand existing IP beyond the screen into real-life interactions. It’s like the old theme park model, but more accessible—thanks to technology and creativity that enable big experiences in smaller spaces.

In this newsletter, we present unique perspectives from those creating experiential entertainment, where premium content and technology meet to create engaging and immersive out-of-home entertainment experiences. You’ll hear from highly respected makers and executives who are delivering entertainment directly to consumers (Meow Wolf, Two Bit Circus and Refinery29) and creating experiences to help brands more meaningfully engage customers on and off screen (Double A and MediaMonks).

Brian Solomon—Creative Director/Producer, Former Meow Wolf XR

Brian is a creative technologist working in the field of immersive digital content and installation design. Formerly the creative director at Meow Wolf focusing on virtual reality location-based entertainment [LBE] stories, mixed reality integration and brand partnerships, he now works as a freelance creative director and content producer mostly focusing on brand narrative content, original stories and concept development.

Location-based entertainment has been around for decades (museums, attractions, family entertainment centers, etc.). How have you leveraged existing best practices, and how are you doing things differently?

It really is an important question. There’s so much happening in the LBE space right now! We have new creators emerging that are melting traditional location-based experiences down (Moment Factory, Obscura Digital, Meow Wolf, TeamLab, to name a few) and reorienting our minds around what spaces can be. It’s akin to what digital video cameras enabled for a whole generation of filmmakers. That’s happening right now with IoT, game engines and accessible positional tracking equipment. There’s Disney Imagineering-level production happening on an indie level, and it’s only getting better.

One big one is scrapping the line-and-ride model in place of free-flowing exploration. People respond so well to that. What I find most beautiful about that format is what it does to your perception of the people next to you. You feel you’re there with fellow explorers rather than a family ahead of you in line. It was truly one of my favorite aspects of Meow Wolf, and it affected my outlook on LBE going forward. The roles others around us play while we experience something new should not be overlooked.

Other things will never really change about LBE, like food and beverages, upcharges for extra content, gift shops. Working those into your LBE in a clever way can make or break a permanent/semipermanent experience.

What are your biggest challenges in developing, operating and monetizing experiences, and how are you addressing them?

I feel it comes down to the type of IP generated from LBE and the creative ability to monetize it in a quality way. I’ve seen some beautiful installations and experiences come and go with no plan to create or generate and monetize the IP, with the mindset that ticket sales alone are enough. Ticket sales to a brick-and-mortar operation aren’t enough if you want to scale, and investors want to see characters and stories that can penetrate deeper and expand beyond your walls.

What are the biggest lessons you have learned to date in developing, operating and monetizing experiences? 

There’s a balance between simplicity and depth when designing for a broad audience. It’s been said people can only learn three new interactions per engagement before they reach cognitive overload; I think it’s more like two now. This doesn’t mean people are stupid; it means there are external factors to consider when we design for real life that we sometimes forget as creators when we get lost in our own imaginations.

No, I can’t learn all four things you’re telling me or decode the secret when my child is running around and I’m distracted.

Research and observation are so important in the early phases of design, and all members working in any given team should have and share that knowledge. For me, the biggest lesson was that I needed to simplify experiences.

What do you define as success, and how are you measuring against that?

For an LBE, I would ask, “When you first opened, was there a line out the door?” And the measurement of success would be, “Is there still a line out the door?”

What types of technologies are you incorporating into your experiences?

I would say it’s 50/50 between digital and physical for me—XR [extended reality], positional tracking and markerless body-tracking software, depth cameras, audio/haptic arrays. For the sculptural installation elements, I imagine my work and design in a similar way to that of a scenographer (theatrical designer), and only then do I incorporate or overlay technology that will enhance perspective.

What trends are you seeing today in location-based entertainment?

Immersive digital content like MR/VR [mixed reality/virtual reality] and other positional tracking-based interactive media is certainly going to play a big role in driving traffic to LBE, and in turn expose a lot of people to spatial computing devices or tech they wouldn’t normally encounter.

I was fortunate to come into the XR industry backward. I saw the location and how people responded to various interactive or analog content, and from there how I could integrate that with digital. It’s about enhancement, not substitution. The biggest challenge is the integration of that digital content in a seamless, story-driven way. It’s not enough to plunk down a few headsets with repetitive content; we have to mix them into the environment and onboard people in a way that has a true arc.

The trend right now is what I would call popup selfie installations. There’s only so long that will last before people just get annoyed by them. The properties that stick around will have more substance or more dense choices for how you interact with the space.

How do you see the space evolving over the next few years?

We’re going to see a more holistic approach in developing media properties. Art, immersive theater, XR, LBE, online gaming and social will blend into something new, and it won’t just be anchored to the coasts.

It’s a renaissance for creators, entrepreneurs and technologists right now. New brands and entertainment empires are forming, anchored in reality. We’re also about to have a slew of new electric vehicles with long ranges, and that makes me think of Route 66. If millennials prefer to be out in the world taking it all in, exploring, then it’s fitting that our media would change to keep up.

The model for how we produce is also about to change. The film model hasn’t changed in over a hundred years; it’s super wasteful and not at all what I would call a sustainable industry by design for the crew. I think LBE storytelling opens up a new path for those similar kinds of jobs, and the new properties will create more new jobs in the communities they’re produced in. To me it seems like the evolution and path forward for media, and land is getting pretty cheap with big-box retailers around the country shutting their doors.

It’s not that these LBEs will ever erase film production, and I love movies, but the day is coming when immersive and interactive development will happen in parallel to 2D content. Both will be better for it.

Eric Gradman—Cofounder, Two Bit Circus

Eric is the cofounder of Two Bit Circus, which recently opened the world’s first Micro-Amusement Park in downtown L.A. He’s also the architect of the Club 01 software and a total theater nerd. He received his master’s in computer science from the University of Southern California in 2004, and has been using it to entertain people ever since. Before he “ran away and joined the circus,” he developed self-driving cars, cameras that see in the dark and bomb-defusal robots.

Location-based entertainment has been around for decades (museums, attractions, family entertainment centers, etc.). How have you leveraged existing best practices, and how are you doing things differently?

We’ve taken everything we love about old-school carnival games, circus performance, vintage video games and arcades and smashed them together with cutting-edge future tech to create a brand-new kind of social play space.

Unlike traditional location-based entertainment, Two Bit Circus Micro-Amusement Parks are designed to encourage a new type of elbow-to-elbow play among friends and strangers. Using the latest technology (and some that we invented ourselves), we built a 35,000-square-foot park chock-full of truly unique experiences that get people together to have fun.

What are your biggest challenges in developing, operating and monetizing experiences, and how are you addressing them?

For the most part, our biggest challenges mirror those of the entire out-of-home entertainment industry. On Saturday night, the park is packed, and we wish we had twice as much entertainment. On Tuesdays, we have to entice people to come to the park. Solving the high and low tides of traffic throughout the week requires creative operational tactics and game designs that incentivize off-peak visits.

What do you define as success, and how are you measuring against that?

This micro-amusement park is designed to get people playing together. Two Bit Circus can be a place where you look forward to meeting up with your friends after work, or it can be a place where you make new friends. I measure our success in “micro-friendships.” When strangers find themselves playing, eating and laughing side by side, there’s a better-than-average chance that they’ll continue playing together throughout their visit. That’s success as far as I’m concerned.

What types of technologies are you incorporating into your experiences?

Our games are built using industry-standard game engines, primarily Unity3D. However, many games incorporate physical hardware and special sensors. We write a lot of custom code to connect bizarre hardware to game systems.

No game exists in isolation. Good out-of-home entertainment makes use of the entire environment, including theatrical lighting, venue-wide sound and leaderboards. To interconnect these games, we’ve developed a server framework called Walnut. Walnut helps us turn ordinary games into full experiences, and turns our entire park into a platform for creative game development.

What trends are you seeing today in location-based entertainment?

The days of mindlessly plugging quarters into arcade cabinets are over. Consumers increasingly demand a deeper experience, a sense of mystery, and to live a story they can later recount to their friends. We’re addressing that through our metagames, which infuse the entire space with a backstory, characters and immersive theater.

How do you see the space evolving over the next few years?

Technologies change and experiences grow stale. What’s high-tech today will seem quaint tomorrow. We’ve committed to keeping this place current. Our team is scouring the globe for tomorrow’s game-changing entertainment and our engineers are building crazy new experiments.

Christopher Sumner—SVP Business Development and Strategy, Refinery29

Chris leads business development and strategy at Refinery29, with a particular focus on the company’s rapidly growing live events business—including 29Rooms, the annual immersive festival of style, culture and creativity—as well as its video offerings, including the upcoming launch of Refinery29’s OTT channel. Prior to Refinery29, Chris led business development and operations at Live Nation’s award-winning creative agency and production studio, Greenlight, where he oversaw Live Nation TV—Live Nation’s original content venture with Vice Media—and helped build Live Nation’s film and TV business.

Location-based entertainment has been around for decades (museums, attractions, live events/installations, etc.). How have you leveraged existing best practices, and how are you doing things differently?

Over the past four-plus years, 29Rooms has essentially reimagined what an art installation can and should be. We’re building a completely unique experience that’s centered on our audience. To my mind, there are three key differences: 1) It is highly immersive—a fun (and safe) space to enjoy and engage with your friends; 2) it is highly social—beautiful installations to take photos and videos of and share across social media; and 3) it has meaning—with each room designed by a prominent artist looking to highlight a particular social issue or observation in a unique way. I think these three things set us apart from legacy art galleries, and from the new wave of Instagrammable experiences that have recently emerged. 

What do you define as success, and how are you measuring against that?

Success tracks back to the underlying goal of Refinery29 as a company—to be a catalyst for women to see, feel and claim their power. We want 29Rooms to be an outlet for female creators, and a safe space for women to experience and share with their friends (and hopefully one that inspires them, too). From a business perspective, we want to bring 29Rooms to more people around the globe, in bigger and better ways, constantly staying ahead of the competition due to the value we provide to women—both creators and consumers.

How do you see the space evolving over the next few years?

I think that the era of the Instagrammable experience may come and go. The experiences and brands that have longevity will be the ones that are not just a beautiful space to share with friends (and look good on camera), but rather experiences that add something to people’s lives, whether IRL or via the URL. It’s our challenge to continue to deliver this to creators and consumers around the world.

Amber Allen—Founder and CEO, Double A

Amber has been in the gaming and entertainment industry for the past 15 years and started Double A almost five years ago. Double A is a global marketing agency with in-house technology that engages influencers and consumers with experiences worth sharing. It is hyperfocused on innovation in three verticals: gaming, technology and entertainment. Developing and integrating immersive technology into its activations serves as a key Double A differentiator. It also connects its clients with each other to develop strategic brand partnerships that expand their reach, extract valuable data and ultimately maximize their return on investment (ROI). The Double A team has masterminded more than 1,000 immersive experiences, connected hundreds of companies and produced some of the world’s most popular activations at the Super Bowl, SXSW, San Diego Comic-Con and E3. Four years after the company’s formation, Double A was No. 123 on the 2017 Inc. 500 list. Amber feels really lucky to work with some of her favorite brands that are innovating in this space, including Magic Leap, Alienware, AT&T, Blizzard, Fox, PUBG and Warner Bros.

What are the most common objectives your clients set for experiential initiatives, and how are you helping measure success?

Every client and project is so different, but the common theme is that everyone wants to create experiences worth sharing that then lead to extreme FOMO [fear of missing out]. We’re always looking for ways to utilize technology to not only help improve the brand story but also give it legs. It’s not only about the 1,000 people in the room, but also the millions at home and the opportunities to extend the experience beyond a one-off engagement. Those metrics are where we see our greatest success in driving the real ROI for our events. For example, people are still creating memes and posting about Puppy Rumble, an Overwatch livestream we produced last year focusing on adoptable puppies. For DirecTV’s Mr. Mercedes, we created an AR and VR experience for our San Diego Comic-Con activation, but they both continue to be shared at additional events, in AT&T stores and for at-home audiences. This is a total win.

What challenges do you face in meeting those objectives?

It’s important to work with partners that are also creating the newest technology out there, and sometimes those vendors are experimental themselves. When we’re outsourcing the technology instead of developing it, it’s critical that it lives up to the same standards. We demand no smoke and mirrors. Data tracking is a big one here.

What are the biggest lessons you have learned in developing and operating experiences?

Sometimes it’s the little things that can make or break an experience. Never underestimate the power of walkie-talkies, extension cords, colored tape and stanchions.

What types of technologies are you incorporating into your experiences?

This list is always changing, as there are developments in both the technology and the story that the technology needs to support. The list of technology we use for events is extensive, but includes augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, spatial computing, holograms, projection mapping and proprietary data capture tools.

What trends are you seeing today in experiential? 

There’s always the experiential trend of the day, from escape rooms to scavenger hunts to AR and Instagrammable moments, but I think the real shift is in brands wanting to have substantial data that proves the effectiveness of the spend. By having a true call-to-action within an event that can give solid metrics, we’re able to help our clients show their leadership the real value of experiential. Trending themes will come and go, but the integration of data is the true underlying movement.

How do you see the space evolving over the next few years?

The future of experiential is all about merging the at-home audience with the on-site experience. We’ve been doing this for a few years utilizing Twitch and an overlay for the at-home audience to vote on what’s happening at the event, but I think this will blow up as brands seek the biggest reach possible. The evolution of how data is being collected and used within experiences will also see a big shift. We’re currently building some cool software around this, so stay tuned for awesomeness!

Eric Shamlin— Head of Partnerships and Growth, MediaMonks, L.A.

MediaMonks is a leading creative production company with 750 employees across 11 offices globally. In 2017, Ad Age called MediaMonks “the industry’s go-to play for ambitious digital ideas.” MediaMonks is honored to have won 128+ Cannes Lions and countless other industry awards and accolades. We’re a premium creative global production partner to the biggest brands and most innovative companies in the world. MediaMonks’ award-winning capabilities include experiential, VR/AR, web, film, games and mobile, and are recognized by over 50 institutions worldwide.

What are the most common objectives your clients set for experiential initiatives, and how are you helping measure success?

Previously, throughput was the primary objective. While throughput is still very important, today’s clients understand that headlines and social also play a vital role. For most of the activations we’re seeing, the primary objective is to drive awareness through press headlines or social media conversation. In our recent Comic-Con promotion, we made sure the on-location experience was thrilling and buzzworthy … but we also crafted aspects of the experience to entertain those who didn’t get to experience the main activation. Side events and supporting, ancillary experiences were in place to make even the spectators part of the overall activation.

What challenges do you face in meeting those objectives?

Throughput is always a challenge at an event. The larger the event, the larger the challenge. How do you get as many people as possible through the activation at a limited event? At some point, you’re fighting physics. On the flip side, everyone is trying to get headlines all the time. So having PR as a primary goal can be challenging, particularly if the activation itself isn’t suitably unique or buzzworthy. A lot of thought and effort go into crafting an experience that is both fun to do and fun to talk about and share. Leave-behinds and schwag can be handy, but mostly we need to make it an experience they won’t forget—an experience they’ll share on social or tell their friends and coworkers about.

What are the biggest lessons you have learned in developing and operating experiences?

Be innovative. Make the physical experience itself unique, fun and memorable, but don’t forget the power of technology to connect disparate audiences. If done correctly, the digital stuff makes the physical stuff way, way stickier. If you do it right, it’s an exponential effect on engagement, excitement and conversation that can really attract a massive audience and drive crazy awareness.

What types of technologies are you incorporating into your experiences?

We’re pretty agnostic to the tech and always craft the best experience by finding the best-possible technical solutions. At a high level, we’re keen on big physical interactive builds that leverage VR/AR, hydraulics and haptics as well as fully integrated, interactive social features.

What trends are you seeing today in experiential?

Bigger, more intense physical experiences that are really taken to the next level by digital augmentation and social connectivity. Turn FOMO into JOMO (the joy of missing out) … meaning make the distant audience also part of the engagement.