Tuesday, October 17, 2017

YouTube Tuesday #15: Billion Dollar Fun: Creating the Film-Based Attractions at Universal Studios

Okay nerds. The Islands of Adventure design and construction footage is at 1:10, 25:10, 27:52, 40:00, and 44:45. We know that's why you're here. 

Jonathan Green (@JonathanGreen85):

Universal Studios Parks and Resorts, more specifically Universal Studios Hollywood was a playground for me growing up. My dad worked for Universal from 1969-1994 and for the last nine years of his tenure there, Universal was my home. My passion for the theme park industry began and my love for Universal was born. So many films that I grew up with, I wanted to experience and be a part of…from flying in a DeLorean to battling a Great White and even soaring to new worlds with E.T. When Walt Disney created Disneyland, his attractions weren’t only just based off of films. However, when Universal created its first park back in 1964, movies were the very foundation for which the tour was created.

Under the direction of Jay Stein and now Tom Williams, Universal Parks and Resorts have aimed at taking some of the more popular films and bringing them to life in new and inventive ways. But it didn’t quite start with either Jay or Tom; in fact it didn’t even start with Walt Disney. It began with Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle. In 1915 Carl Laemmle moved Universal Pictures from New Jersey to the San Fernando Valley in California.

Carl Laemmle’s idea was to give paying customers a chance to see movies being made. As most already know, guests paid twenty-five cents and were given a chance to watch some of the many silent films that were being filmed on the Universal lot. On top of the opportunity they were also given a sack lunch. Since this was during the silent film era, multiple films would be shot on adjoining streets and guests could cheer and boo all they wanted. However, in 1927 the first talking picture The Jazz Singer debuted, which effectively ended the silent film and the opportunity for guests to get up-close and personal with the movie making process.

Fast-forward to 1964 and you come upon two men in Jay Stein and Albert Dorskind. Both Jay and Albert were the ones who decided to bring back what Laemmle originally wanted in giving the public a glimpse of what the movie process was like. However, Jay Stein didn’t stop at just the idea of creating a tour, he wanted an experience. And with that idea, the Universal Studios Tour was born.
There’s something intriguing about watching a movie being made, however, the connection with the audience won’t happen till the movie comes out in theaters a year or so later, the idea was then to bring to life some of the most memorable films of all time, so guests can be thrusted into their favorite films.

That brings us to this week’s YouTube Tuesday video. During the late 1990s TLC aired an episode of Billion Dollar Fun, which focused on Universal’s push into the real art of not only making movie based attractions, but to also figure out which films will be a success and turns those movies into high-quality attractions. The video takes a look at the early entries of Universal’s attraction such as King Kong, Earthquake, Jaws and even a few from the 1990s like Jurassic Park River Adventure, Terminator 2: 3D Battle Across Time and Twister: Ride it Out.

As a child of the 1980s, Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour had a profound impact on me. Every visit to the park had to include a ride aboard the tram. Where else could I come within three feet of a thirty-foot tall, six-and-a-half ton animatronic King Kong or experience an 8.3 Earthquake. These were just two of the many attractions you’d see aboard the Universal Tour. The complexities behind King Kong and Earthquake are incredible especially for its time.

During this time Universal was never satisfied with where they were. The competition was strong even in the eighties, so Universal went out and worked with some of the best talents in the industry like Gary Goddard from The Goddard Group and Phil Hettema who during the 1990s was Vice President of Universal Creative.

One of the first attractions Universal began working on while the film was being shot was Backdraft, which opened in the Lower Lot of Universal Studios Hollywood in July 1992. While the basic idea of going through several rooms before entering the final scene and boarding a ride wasn’t new, Backdraft stood out from the likes of Earthquake at Universal Studios Florida, where you entered the final scene which was a recreation of the climatic finale from the film, in which you experience a warehouse explode into a blaze of fire with catwalks collapsing and floors dropping beneath your feet.

While if you’d never been to Universal Studios Hollywood to see Backdraft in person (attraction closed in 2009), you probably experienced one of the many different versions based off of the same idea whether it be Twister at Universal Studios Florida, Light’s Camera Action Starring Steven Spielberg at Universal Studios Singapore or even Armageddon at Walt Disney Studios in Paris. They were all developed with the notion of putting you right in the middle of your favorite films or what a disaster film might look like.

When you’re a theme park and deciding which movie you want to be your next big themed attraction, usually you want some assurances that the film has done well at the box office and in turn will be a success at the parks. Universal took a major gamble when they began developing two attractions before the films had been released. Jurassic Park and WaterWorld, both ride and show respectively, were well in development before the films were released. One film was obviously a monstrous success while the latter (WaterWorld) ended up being the biggest theatrical flop in Hollywood history at the time. What’s funny about WaterWorld is that the theme park show is more popular than the film. The show is currently in its twenty-second year as of 2017.

Jurassic Park River Adventure, which was originally designed for Universal Studios Florida, but opened in Hollywood first in 1996 was being conceptualized during the production of the film, which Spielberg states in the video “It’s not that we’re anticipating a big success (film), but it was such a natural fit…What if the theme park (ride) is more successful than the movie.”

The video tackles two more important additions to Universal’s attraction count, Terminator 2: 3D Battle Across Time and Twister: Ride it Out. Terminator was an incredible task to undertake, many different versions were story boarded including one, where Terminator was to replace The Adventures of Conan inside the Castle Theater at Universal Studios Hollywood. Eventually the show was settled on for Orlando first then three-years later for Hollywood. The sixty-million dollar attraction for Orlando “marked the first time a film’s cast and creative team combined to bring motion picture to life” according to the official Universal press release. The show was the most expensive live action film ever produced as of 1996.

For Universal, it began with Steven Spielberg helping out in the design phase of attractions and within just a few years; entire films cast and creative were designing and starring in attractions. And now, it’s almost unheard of for a director or cast of a franchise to not be involved in the creative process for rides and shows.

Universal Parks and Resorts are an ever-changing beast. For fans that grew up with the parks, there’s not much left to hold on to as Hollywood only has two attractions on the Studio Tour left from the 1980s in Flash Flood and Earthquake and one show in Animal Actors. In Orlando, only The E.T. Adventure, Animal Actors and Horror Make-up show are left from opening day.

When you’re a theme park based solely off from movies, you must stay current with films that age well and have a long generational span. Which makes this video from TLC a worthy watch. To see the creative process in deciding not only which movies will be a success five or seven years from when the come out, but movies that will span decades.

"Billion Dollar Fun" should really be named "Universal Studios Florida Propaganda Film Late 90s Edition". This special has more similarities to Disney's own productions than prior TLC and Discovery Channel specials. Additionally "Billion Dollar Fun" is a lost tomb of theme park attractions and concept art that transcends beyond its limited theme park focus.

Of the attractions featured in this special only two remain: Jurassic Park River Adventure and The Incredible Hulk, and the Hulk was rebuilt with new show elements! Universal's willingness to rebuild and replace is both a boon and curse on the parks. The parks remain fresh and stinkers of attractions are replaced at a regular interval but no one attraction can transcend its own opening hype to become a classic. While a Disney's Hollywood Studios special produced in 1998 would be nearly identical to the park as it is run even just two years ago, "Billion Dollar Fun" produced around 1998 is completely out of date now.

"Billion Dollar Fun" focuses on the gospel of theme park attraction as movie marketing, not nostalgia fueled pieces of Americana. In a way, the lack of romance has been the differentiating factor Disney fans tend to dislike the most. Executives keep hammering home the idea of movie making and theme parks.

The actual show tackles five major Universal projects over the course of development: Back to the Future: The Ride, Jurassic Park River Adventure, T2:3D, Twister: Ride it Out, and all of Islands of Adventure. Each attraction's development process and history is covered and the now familiar talking points are covered: T2:3D is the most expensive film ever made per minute, Twister recycles tons of air, Jurassic Park ride was in development concurrently with the movie, and more. And Stan Lee's enthusiastic proclamation that Islands of Adventure's Marvel Super Hero Island will be so good that Universal should get tax exempt status because of the good it will bring to humanity (instead Universal just gets cuts and funding thanks to the "high crime" area laws). Seeing original concept video, concept art, and opening year video from the two Universal parks is also worth its weight in gold.

Overall the special feels flat and one note, it highlights the need for parks to constantly refresh (this should have been shown to Disney) with any and all justification being long lines. Interviews with Gary Goddard and others from Universal Creative are fun but lifeless in filming. These specials have changed so much in 20 years now focusing as much on guests and cast members as much as movie directors and attraction designers. "Billion Dollar Fun" is worth it for the rare footage and crazy interviews but not much else.

Film-based attractions certainly aren’t a new phenomenon. Even before Walt took us on electric busbar-powered trips through Neverland, Wonderland, and Toad Hall, there were exhibits and funhouses throughout the country’s amusement parks, expositions, and World’s Fairs to take audiences into the world of a movie. Even the premiere of Snow White at the Carthay Circle featured a Disney-sponsored miniature Seven Dwarfs cottage for kids to play in.

We’ve always been hungry to jump into the world of the movies. We’ve always wanted to roleplay the part of Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia or Han Solo and fight off the Stormtroopers. We’ve always wanted to immerse ourselves in a world that seems more exciting than the one we currently live in. And now, like video games and RPGs, theme park attractions can give us a chance to fully enter and interact with these worlds as if they were real.

If you were to tell someone living in the 1930s that they would be one day able to ride on a tram and be menaced by a stories-high King Kong, what would the reaction be? Talk to someone who has never been to a Disney or Universal park. Tell them they would be able to ride through Gringotts with Harry Potter, or drive through New York with Spider-Man. It’s everyone’s dream come true, really. To be a part of the magic. To be a part of Hollywood.

Walt Disney wasn’t the first to incorporate three-dimensional elements of popular movies, but he certainly was the first to mold it into the familiar theme park format we see today. After all, Indy and Tower and Mania all owe their existence to the seeds that were planted in that original 1955 Fantasyland. Sail through London and Neverland with Peter Pan! Ride through Wonderland with Alice! Quite a hook for an enterprise best known for beer carts and ferris wheels.

What’s interesting to me in the history of movie-based attractions is the fact that Walt and company practically abandoned the idea post-1958. It’s clear he tried to tie-in as many elements of Disneyland 1.0 as possible to pre-existing franchises, partly as a selling point for those unfamiliar to what Disneyland was to be, and partly because he thought it would be fun for kids to walk through Davy Crockett’s world. Remember, even the Jungle Cruise was subtly connected in media to the popular Bogart and Hepburn film The African Queen. But once we get to the Tomorrowland expansion in 1959, we don’t see another new film-based attraction until Pinocchio’s Daring Journey in 1983, with the exception of the Swiss Family Treehouse (and 20k if we discount the fact it’s a re-imagining of the submarine prototype). That’s 24 years with, at most, two new film-based attractions. TWO! Can you imagine if that were proposed at Disney today? Please make sure there are no flammable objects nearby!

And that gets into the real critique of this special, something that Joe also touched on. There’s a real stigma in theme park executive circles nowadays that everything must be based on a pre-existing movie franchise. Indeed, Billion Dollar Fun acts as if movie-based attractions are the only way to go. To be sure, this is mostly because the show is a Universal Studios propaganda piece, but it’s like watching a football analyst go on and on about a team’s high-powered offense without realizing offense alone is not what makes a winning team. With theme park attractions, it’s about putting the audience into emotional situations. It could be scary situations as in a haunted house, or thrilling situations as on a roller coaster, or dramatic situation as in the attractions with more character-based elements. But the film-based attractions are only one way to go of many.

We can easily see the reasons behind making film-based attractions. These attractions come with built-in recognition and emotions in the audience. The merchandise is practically pre-sold. And in an environment where the main cycle of action (aka the ride itself) is only about 4 minutes long, that initial familiarity with the characters can save a lot of time and effort in attempting exposition and setting up the scene. Realistically, it’s much harder to make another Pirates of the Caribbean than it is to make another Forbidden Journey. Creating characters and entire worlds from scratch is not something MBA-schooled executives have the time or the patience for when they can start selling merchandise NOW.

Which brings us now back to Billion Dollar Fun, and my observations. I agree with the show that today’s E-Ticket attractions share a lot in common with Hollywood blockbusters. Neither of them are released in short intervals. Each studio will have only one or two major blockbusters a year, and theme parks (since there is limited space to build and popular E-Tickets bring in far less immediate revenue than popular movies) only release E-Tickets once every 3-5 years (or in Epcot’s case, once every Peter Quill visit).

Both have become billion-dollar industries in themselves, and thus have captured the attention of movie studios. They’re always looking for more ways to make money after all. Especially if you’re, say, Paramount, and don’t currently own any theme parks, you could license popular properties such as Star Trek or Mission: Impossible to Universal for huge fees (plus a percentage of merchandise revenues of course) and have absolutely no downside if the ride flops, since you didn’t spend any money to build the thing to begin with. So this area is a potential cash cow.

I was very impressed with the number of major Hollywood and theme park players TLC was able to put on camera (it seems the earlier the special, the more celebrities were willing to be interviewed). In this special we get not only the ubiquitous Steven Spielberg and Douglas Trumbull Universal interviews, but also Stan Lee, Gary Kurtz (producer of the original Star Wars trilogy), Jan de Bont (director of Speed and Twister), Gary Goddard, James Cameron, and even Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (directors and producers of Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow).

They all have some very good insights into what makes a film-based attractions so exciting and appealing, as well as where the idea of film-based attractions can go in the future. We’ve always wanted to go to the Chinese Theater to put our hands in the cement, or visit the soundstages where movies are filmed, because we want to get close to our favorite characters and movie stars. Douglas Trumbull relates how his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey prepared him for the potential of audience participation (apparently he had never gone to Disneyland). As we all know, the end sequence in 2001 is completely different from the rest of the movie, being a constant stream of images. It does not have a plot or character development. It is just pure visceral image. The idea being that the audience is the actor. It’s happening to them.

And that’s where film-based attractions, from Mr. Toad to Gringotts, succeed. It’s happening to you. You are Snow White, and in tonight’s episode, you are the star. Trumbull notes that rides are like dreams or out-of-body experiences. They exist in a hyper-reality so beloved by John Hench and other theme park philosophers. Jan de Bont chimes in by saying that audiences “want to be closer to danger.” Rather than simply see the shark attack on the screen, they want the shark to attack them, as long as nobody actually gets hurt, like a good magic trick. Rides based on films work best when a particular visceral action sequence can be identified and connected with the audience’s preconceived notions of the film on which the attraction is based. James Cameron adds that rides “break down the barrier” between the audience and the characters. The audience in T2: 3-D can see the characters jump from the screen onto the stage, and then back. Lines of reality are blurred. And lastly, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the producers of Godzilla say probably the most prescient item about this subject, when they mention that a film-based attraction has to be an extension of a movie, not merely the exploitation of a movie. Disney certainly has a lot to learn in that area nowadays. But it’s certainly correct. I’ll be nice here and point out that the most successful film-based attractions, especially recently (Forbidden Journey, Gringotts, Flight of Passage) are extensions of the movies they represent, with new scenes and actions by the characters. They are not merely there to be a “Harry Potter ride.”

So where is this technology taking us, or, more specifically, where does our celebrities think the technology will take us? Douglas Trumbull thinks that there is the possibility for an audience member to have a one-to-one encounter with Harrison Ford or Harry Potter, where the characters directly interact with you (you know, all these other people think I’m talking to them…). Jan de Bont wants to take the theme park potential beyond the berm and into the movie theater. For Twister, he wished every theater could have moving seats, blowing air, and the smell of the humidity so the audience can better feel what the characters were going through. I guess we still have yet to figure that one out. But things to think about for you future three-dimensional entertainment designers.

And finally, it’s time to comment on all the randomness found in the video. I know this is what you came here for. So, answer me this, nerds: what was that Batman simulator footage found at 00:45? Was that a simulator or a 3-D movie? WAS THERE EVER A BATMAN SIMULATOR AS SIX FLAGS?! Because that would have been the biggest “duh” of the early 1990s, but I can’t seem to recall any being there. Does anyone know? Because following the Batmobile doing ANYTHING, even picking up Taco Bell, would have been an E-Ticket simulator experience.

What is that James Bond 007 model behind Gary Goddard during his interviews (at 5:05)? Interesting that this has been in the works at Universal for so long. It looks like it was supposed to be a stunt show, ostensibly in the Waterworld/Miami Vice mold. Was it to be where the current Fear Factor is now? Was it originally supposed to replace Waterworld? Or the Wild West show? I’ve heard Bond is also a rumored replacement for T2: 3-D. Is this concept about to be resurrected?

There are also some juicy rumored “coming attractions” for Universal. Universal scholars will point out that around this time there were plans for an Apollo 13 simulator or roller coaster (or both) and a dark ride based on Stephen King’s horror titles. But I never knew that Lost in Space was considered for an attraction. Or Godzilla. In fact, the last few minutes of the video practically scream that Godzilla will be the next big ride coming to Universal. Oops. Funny how things look from the other side of the fence.

And then, of course, there’s the IOA construction footage. As Joe said, this is theme park gold. Starting at 1:10 we get to see early cinematics of Hulk and Dueling Dragons. Whether intentional or not, they seem like very old versions. They look nothing like B&M designs. The Hulk footage actually looks like a Steel Phantom-Arrow design, and Dueling Dragons I don’t even know what that is. Note that DD in this version only has one track, and flies around the spires of a castle, very Dragon’s Tower-like. At 25:10 we get the whole “building a theme park is like building a city” spiel, but we also get a clue that the video narrator has absolutely no clue about the details of IOA. He calls Dudley Do-Right “this water ride.” He calls JP “Jurassic Park Island,” and mistakes footage of Triceratops Encounter with that of the River Adventure. He also says the parking garages will be so big they will be seen from space (woof).

But the highlight is certainly the action starting at 44:45, aka the tour of the construction site. Here is the buried treasure people. The skeleton of the Hulk structure and the giant JP drop. The producers taking the first long down a half-completed Dudley Do-Right track. The interior of the Spider-Man building before the screens come up. The orchestra rehearsal for the IOA adventure theme and Dr. Doom queue music. And of course, Steven Spielberg being told that B&M SAID THE HULK WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE KIDDY COASTER, AND THAT THE REAL COASTER WAS DUELING DRAGONS IN THE BACK OF THE PARK. Those were real words said to Steven Spielberg. On camera. You can’t make this stuff up. Only in Billion Dollar Fun. Now playing on your local desktop or mobile via YouTube. Be sure to grab a Coke, popcorn, and candy in the lobby. We hope you enjoy the movie!

--ParkScopeJeff (@ParkScopeJeff)

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