License to Create: Theme Parks and Intellectual Property
Posted in Theme Parks on Thursday, August 11, 2016
Author: Ryan L. Terry
License and registration please. With 20th Century Fox, Sony Entertainment, and Paramount Pictures entering the themed entertainment game as potential heavy hitters, and to some extent Warner Bros. as well, questions about cinema, television, and video game intellectual property (IP) begin to rise. Only having really had two main players in the industry for the last couple of decades, unless you count CBS/Paramount before selling off the amusement park investments to Cedar Fair, Disney and Comcast (parent company to NBC Universal) utilize their own respective IP libraries as well as licensed properties from other media companies. Not having as vast an IP library as Disney, many of Universal’s theme park properties have come from companies like TimeWarner, Viacom, and Fox. Whereas Disney primarily uses their own extensive library, they too have licensed other companies’ IP such as MGM Holdings, 20th Century Fox, and CBS. Although some of the once-licensed properties by either Disney or Universal have now been officially procured (i.e. Disney’s LucasFilm and Universal’s DreamWorks Animation), a common practice in the themed entertainment industry is to license, borrow, barter, trade, etc. But, with these new players demanding a slice of the hospitality and tourism pie, could we see more original television programming or movies?
Think about it for a moment. Let’s look at some of the most well-known IPs from Sony, Fox, Paramount, and Warner Bros. Although there is a mild to moderate degree of subjectivity in what constitutes “well known,” I am going to go with commonly thought of properties. Starting with Sony. In no particular order, some of the most popular Sony properties include: James Bond (formerly MGM), Spider-Man, Men in Black, Smurfs, Terminator, Silence of the Lambs, Hotel Transylvania, Spyro, The Nanny, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Price is Right, Final Fantasy, and Crash Bandicoot. Switching gears to Fox. Some of the most well-known Fox properties include: Avatar, The Simpsons, Rocky Horror Picture Show, The X-Men, Bones, New Girl, American Horror Story, Alien, X-Files, Die Hard, Futurama, and Family Guy. Although not well known in the US, Warner Bros. operates a theme park in Australia and what is now called Movie Park Germany. Some of the most popular Warner Bros., IP are: Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Looney Tunes, DC Entertainment, Lord of the Rings, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Lego Entertainment. Viacom, parent company to Paramount Pictures, is one of the original Hollywood studios and owns IP such as: Mission Impossible, Titanic (partnership with Fox), Star Trek (films and TV shows), Forrest Gump, and the valuable Nickelodeon. Obviously the aforementioned lists are not exhaustive, but I wanted to try to paint as brief but effective a picture as possible to understand why IP is a hot topic.
Recognize some of those titles? You probably recognize most, if not all of them. Unfortunately, these companies have already licensed out some of those properties to Universal, Disney, and Six Flags. Avatar and Alien are licensed by Disney. Marvel Entertainment, Harry Potter, and Nintendo are licensed to Universal, DC Entertainment and Looney Tunes are licensed to Six Flags Parks, and the Nickelodeon IPs are split amongst different entities. Of course, when the licensing agreements were drawn up, it is unlikely that either Sony, Fox, Paramount, and to a lesser extent Warner Bros., thought that they would enter or re-enter into the themed entertainment industry. Now that this part of the tourism and hospitality (and live entertainment) is exploding, Sony, Fox, Paramount, and Warner Bros. need to rethink how to play catchup–and FAST. But, when you have licensed out some of your most valuable properties, how do you make up for it? The short answer is (1) refuse renewal when the license expires or (2) develop original content. Since some licenses run for decades, the former isn’t really an option unless the license is coming up for renewal in the next few years; so, we are left with one logical conclusion: pump out original content that is adaptable to a live experience. This is where research like mine comes into play since I have studied the relationship between cinema and theme parks, and moreover how to successfully translate a movie or TV show into an attraction. It’d be nice if one of these companies would snatch me up. But, I digress.
It is entirely possible that Sony, Fox, Paramount, and Warner Bros. will be forced to generate new ideas for movies, tv shows, and video games. More specifically, original creative media content that can and needs to be able to be translated from the screen into a theme park near you. When developing original content that has the ability to be translated to a live experience, companies need to keep in mind that a high-concept plot with unique settings, characters, and action sequences are necessary for a movie turned attraction. There is a lot more to it than that, but at least this gives you an idea what is required and backed by empirical evidence. Although blockbusters are typically the sourced content for theme park attractions, not every blockbuster is appropriate. Take Titanic for example. It is a movie about the 20th century’s worst and most infamous maritime disaster. So, I don’t think Paramount or Fox will add “Titanic: Ride it Out” to its parks. The ability to cross-promote intellectual property is of great importance for the strategic exhibition and integration of movies, tv shows, or video games. One of the reasons why the Disney parks are so successful is because the Disney movies can be (1) seen in the cinema (2) character meet and greets in the parks (3) the platform for a video game (3) used in theming on the cruise line (4) A-list artists can record covers of the songs from musicals (and broadway musicals can be produced) and (5) the platform for attractions in the parks. Sony, Fox, Paramount, and Warner Bros. need to concentrate on producing movies and TV shows (and by extension video games) that can be used in strategic and creative cross-promotion.
Returning to the present state of IP in the parks. Fortunately, some of those companies still–at least to the best of my knowledge–retain the theme park licensing for a few of the properties that were mentioned earlier; but for the most part, the most well-known movies, video games, and TV shows are already licensed by other companies. Viacom/Paramount operates the Nick Hotel near Disney in Orlando, so it still retains some licensing to its Nick IPs. However, since other parks use some of the Nick characters, there is probably some red tape to go through in order to fully use them in the Paramount park in the United Kingdom near London that is under development. Just like Disney wants to get their hands on Universal’s Marvel properties, Fox really needs to work on getting the X-Men back. On that note: since The Avengers is Disney’s heaviest of hitters and the same for Fox and the X-Men, perhaps eventually we will see that Disney has access to The Avengers and Fox the X-Men. Disney doesn’t really need The Avengers as much as Fox needs the X-Men. The X-Men is arguably Fox’s most successful film franchise in the last couple of decades and it is still going strong. Another Fox property that is licensed by Disney is James Cameron’s Avatar. As for Sony, they have not licensed out as many of their properties to themed entertainment companies, with the obvious exceptions of Terminator and Men in Black. Another area to explore is the reason why non Disney and Universal parks are mostly being built overseas. But that is the topic for another article; however, it is directly linked to IP and copyright.
Current IPs that would make for great attractions in a U.S. Sony, Warner Bros., Paramount, or Fox theme park would be Game of Thrones, American Horror Story, X-Files, James Bond, Lord of the Rings (but that is a whole other discussion in and of itself), Hotel Transylvania, Spyro the Dragon, Maze Runner, Hunger Games (need to be licensed from Lionsgate), Ice Age, or Mission Impossible. Content is king. More innovative and original content from the big studios who also have theme park investments means that there will be more movies to see each year!! It will also open the door for new ideas from comics, literature, history, and legend. Instead of reboots and remakes, you will enjoy new ideas and narratives. So, the long and short of it is that media conglomerates with movie studio and theme park investments are at a crossroads. They can either not go full-force into themed entertainment and play around with the current IP in their respective libraries or can rise up to the challenge to develop original movies and tv shows that can also find their ways into theme parks in the U.S. and around the world.
Ryan (right) is a theme park enthusiast living in Central Florida, and loves going to the parks as often as possible! He's an annual passholder to Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens, and SeaWorld. In the Fall of 2017, his Thrillz article on Turn it Up: the Hottest Show on Ice at Busch Gardens was cited in a massive ad campaign. He also loves horror films and just movies in general! If you see him out and about in the Florida parks, stop him to say hi!
Ryan holds a Master of Arts degree in Media Studies (with a concentration in cinema and themed entertainment) from the University of South Florida. His research area is on the convergence of cinema and theme parks. He explores ideas such as narrative, spectacle, setting, and setting in terms of movies and themed entertainment. Learning how to successfully translate an idea of intellectual property from one medium into another is the primary goal of his predictable model for creative design that affects both theme parks and the cinema.
Although he loves to write for Thrillz, his "day jobs" are working as a video editor for Disney on Ice and teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa.
He is also a figure skater.
Ryan's Favorite Ride(s):