“Never Break the Spell”: Turning Entertainment Brands into Real-World Experiences

Lumsden Associate Director Dan Whetstone examines design opportunities by taking stories from the screen and turning them into immersive attractions for visitors.

The news that Netflix has lost subscribers for the first time in a decade was a wake-up call for the streaming giant – and should be for the rest of the entertainment industry.

As well as demonstrating that people couldn’t afford to subscribe to multiple streaming services, it showed that a year after most of the world emerged from pandemic lockdowns, people are turning off the TV and looking instead experiences that feel real and tangible.

Netflix hinted that it understood this shift when creating Stranger Things: The Experience. A place where fans enjoy an immersive event as they pass through familiar parts of the show, including the Hawkins Lab government building and the alternate dimension Upside Down, before heading to the Mix Tape, a place for refreshment and entertainment inspired by the 1980s.

The streaming platform has also teamed up with interactive games company Immersive Gamebox to develop a real – but less deadly – experience of its 2021 hit Squid Game. Giving fans the chance to try out some of the show’s games South Korean in person, but with less severe consequences for those who lose.

It’s a savvy move to help prevent subscriber exodus, and more entertainment brands should take advantage of it. Netflix has realized that real-life experiences forge much stronger bonds with fans. Shifting the experience from passive observation to something immersive and sensory can be very powerful – if done right.

Netflix CEO Will Dean says reimagining Netflix’s most popular show in a different format gives fans more ways to stay connected to Squid Game.

It’s not just streaming platforms that can benefit. A movie, a book, a play, even the world of a beloved toy can come to life. If people really like something, this is an opportunity to make them feel like they belong.

Now is a particularly good time for entertainment brands to take advantage of this. After two years of intermittent confinement, people are desperate to find life outside their own four walls: to feel a connection, to be part of a community.

Disney, Marvel, the BBC or any entertainment content producer have the opportunity to engage with fans off-screen. Give people a reason to go out and interact with your brand, rather than something to activate when they have nothing better to do.

How do you do this successfully?

At the heart of creating immersive experiences are love and fandom. It won’t work with something that people just “like”.

You also need the right kind of thing to bring to life, something with a rich universe to pull from. Many fans who visited the Friends experience felt cheated. But it’s an impossibly small universe – centered around Central Perk and a few apartments – so all it had to bring to life was the iconic couch: a picture and fans were done.

Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter

By contrast, Stranger Things is ripe for it: it’s not only an interesting story with well-developed characters, but it’s visually spectacular – and distinct. It’s a different world that people would like to discover. Similarly, Game of Thrones and Harry Potter studio tours have many worlds and settings that people want to experience.

Immerse visitors authentically

For the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones tours to work, they had to tap into what people love about stories. Before embarking on the creation of a new experience, it is essential that designers understand what makes this particular universe special. You have to understand the meaning of all the different elements and their importance. Basically, what makes sense to superfans?

Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter

This information is always available. Not just in source material, but in articles, blogs, or fan sites, which can tell you what makes a movie, show, or book special. Deviating from this can be dangerous. Take Disney’s immersive Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser hotel. In principle this makes sense, but in practice it is not so appealing. It takes place far from the story that people know and fans struggle to tell. This is not a place to say “wow I’m finally here”. And then there’s the price of $6,000 (£5,100) per night.

This is also why any real-life experience must be authentic. Fans know instantly if he was dumped carelessly. It’s like going to a concert and the band miming.

Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter

Doing things well is long and requires a lot of effort: it is not something that can be done halfway. Each element must be considered: the colors, the atmosphere of the space, the sound, the light. It even depends on what you are selling; people would love to own Dustin’s “thinking cap” in Stranger Things, but slapping an underage character’s face on a water bottle screams “all we want is your money.” The Making of Harry Potter shop and cafes amplify everything fans really love about the franchise. They are a seamless extension of the whole studio tour experience, not a bolt on.

This is the key lesson: never break the spell. From the second they step into the queue to the moment they leave, fans should feel like they’ve been catapulted into the world they see on their screens and away from their sofas at home. If it’s an experience they’ll never forget, Netflix – or any other entertainment brand looking to fully engage their audience – will have captured their long-term attention.

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