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How HBO’s Westworld installation made fans ‘the center of the universe’

How HBO’s Westworld installation made fans ‘the center of the universe’


Immersive entertainment continues to take audiences beyond the screen

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Photo: HBO

One of the highlights of last month’s San Diego Comic-Con was HBO’s Westworld: The Experience. The half-hour attraction gave small groups of guests the opportunity to visit the offices of Delos, Inc., the fictional company behind the Westworld theme park. The experience included a one-on-one, in-person evaluation with a company psychologist, interactions with a number of actors playing “hosts” — Westworld’s sentient android entertainers — and a chance to hang out in a recreation of the show’s Mariposa Saloon. The event served 500 guests over three days, and it was an unquestionable hit. Fans waited in line overnight just for a chance to step inside.

With theme parks like Disney’s Star Wars land on the horizon, immersive entertainment is increasingly moving closer to the mainstream. A project like the Westworld experience — one constructed around detailed set design and personalized interactions with live actors — serves as a bite-sized introduction, letting fans get used to the idea of being the leads in their own customized stories. But the team behind the project says the lesson of Comic-Con wasn’t just that immersive entertainment is becoming an increasingly effective tool in film and TV marketing. It’s that these kinds of experiences are a natural fit for the style of TV being created today, and could one day become tightly integrated parts of the shows themselves.

Better than VR

The creative force behind the Comic-Con installation was New York-based marketing agency Campfire, and as creative director Steve Coulson explains, the project actually has its roots in a Westworld project the company worked on last year for TechCrunch Disrupt. At the time, HBO had built a virtual-reality experience to promote the show’s pending first season, and Campfire was asked to create a staging area that would make wait times more inviting for guests. The agency’s solution was to use live actors in a reproduction of Delos, Inc.’s offices, giving visitors the experience of chatting with the company’s white-clad representatives before diving into the headset experience.

“The VR was getting a good reaction,” Coulson says, “but the thing that really blew people out of the water was interacting with the hosts, and getting a little bit of immersive theater. So this year, showrunners [Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy] came back and said, ‘We really want to explore that as far as it can go. Can we really take people to Westworld?’ That was the germ of the idea.”

Immersive theater basically is Westworld, just using actors rather than robots

Immersive theater, which lets audiences interact directly with actors, first garnered attention in America thanks to New York-based shows like Sleep No More and Then She Fell. It’s since been gaining momentum in Los Angeles, where the city’s active escape room and haunted house scenes have served as a training ground for both audiences and creators. What immersive theater offers as a medium — and what made it stand out at San Diego Comic-Con so effectively — is its ability to give audiences custom-built, individualized experiences, where their questions and actions drive the action forward. Simply put: immersive theater basically is Westworld, just using actors rather than robots.

Couple that with the small number of people allowed into the space at any given time — less than 10 per group — and it made the tiny, bespoke experience the perfect match for the show. “Westworld is a high-end experience that only the very few can go through,” Coulson says, “so it never made sense to have a big experience with a hundred people in there. If you go to Westworld the park, you spend thousands of dollars per day, and the whole park is just for you.”

Photo: HBO

Personalization is Perception

Selling the location as part of the universe was a matter of outfitting and set-dressing the installation to match the Delos offices seen in the show, but the core of the experience was the cast. The performers broke down into two groups: the general Delos, Inc. hosts, and the psychologists who gave visitors their evaluations — and determined whether they would receive a black hat, or a white hat. The actors playing the hosts were provided with specific talking points and catch phrases designed to echo key sentiments from the show. (When I asked one whether killing a host in the park would feel like killing a person, he said “If you can’t tell the difference, does it matter?” — a subtle technique that I found extraordinarily effective in setting the mood.) But when it came to the visitor evaluations, things were a bit more complicated.

Campfire looked to New York’s immersive-theater scene for many of its performers, including original Sleep No More cast member Careena Melia. The script included a branching set of questions, so each evaluation would be unique based on a given guest’s responses and reactions. That culminated in the evaluation result, which used the actors’ ability to read each guest in the moment, and incorporated a bit of psychological sleight of hand.

“We've done some other work where we were playing particularly with the idea of the Forer effect,” says Campfire chief creative officer Michael Monello, “and I think we've gotten pretty good at it.” The Forer effect refers to people’s tendency to view certain vague, general assessments as being tailored specifically to them, even when they’re anything but. (It’s also referred to as “the Barnum effect,” a reference to infamous huckster and showman P.T. Barnum.)

“It was meant to make you feel like you were the center of the universe.”

During my time at the show, I was asked a number of questions, like what artist would be best suited to create a portrait of me (Francis Bacon), and whether I have more dreams or nightmares (nightmares). The psychological profile that was used to describe me in the end did seem eerily accurate, but looking back it’s easy to see how the traits described were no more specific than an average horoscope. But all that mattered in the moment was the feeling that they were unique and personalized, something enabled by the environment and the dedication of the actors playing the roles.

“I worked my way through college as a magician,” Coulson says. That led to him spending time with people who performed psychic acts and fake fortune-telling routines. “That whole genre uses these techniques of reading people, of using ambiguous statements that seem very specific to you. And then to put somebody in a situation where they've been with a group, and then they're split off and put into a room in a one-on-one theatrical presentation… Very few people get [to see a show] where the size of the cast isn't bigger than the audience. It was meant to make you feel like you were the center of the universe.”

It certainly seemed to have that effect on attendees. Westworld fans Kristin Falkner and Caroline Keim waited in line 15 hours to secure their spots. After going through the experience, they told me it was the most impressive event they’d been part of at any Comic-Con — with each praising that personalized interview portion specifically. “This was definitely an experience that was totally different than anything I've done,” Falkner says. “It definitely makes me interested to pursue more events of this type. I wish more events went to this level.”

Photo by Bryan Bishop / The Verge

The immersive escalation

While many audiences have had a chance to try virtual reality or escape rooms, that one-on-one immersive-theater experience is still relatively unique. But it’s something companies are eager to experiment with, as evidenced by the activations at Comic-Con alone. The Blade Runner 2049 Experience put visitors alongside live actors in a recreation of the movie’s White Dragon Noodle Bar. An elaborate, in-game scavenger hunt for USA Network’s Mr. Robot culminated in a secret, one-on-one meeting with a member of the show’s Dark Army collective. And the trend is already reaching beyond conventions: in Los Angeles, HBO recently mounted a one-time-only murder-mystery immersive-theater show to promote the Blu-ray release of Big Little Lies. While virtual reality was once the medium of choice for marketing events, now physical immersive experiences appear to be the trend, as evidenced by the numerous escape-room tie-ins popping up for TV shows, video games, and other projects.

Immersive events could become another way to explore a story world

But these kinds of smaller, limited-run experiences are preludes for what’s to come next — particularly given where agencies like Campfire think immersive entertainment can ultimately go. Before founding Campfire, Michael Monello was part of the team that created the expanded story world behind The Blair Witch Project. That movie is best known for its indie success and the is-it-real-or-not found-footage conceit, but what made that latter idea work was the websites and other guerrilla marketing that made the film seem like it could conceivably be a real documentary chronicling a real disappearance.

Part of Campfire’s long-term vision, Monello says, is to apply that same mentality to existing properties — but not simply as an after-the-fact marketing initiative. Instead, he sees immersive events as a legitimate creative channel that can operate in concert with creators and filmmakers. The company’s recent “Resistance Radio” project for Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle was particularly instructive. That project offered up original stories and song covers that fans could listen to as if they were tuning into a live broadcast in the fictional world of the show. But the relationship between Campfire and the show’s creative team was two-way, with some of the Resistance Radio themes getting written into the TV show itself after the showrunners saw what the agency had been working on. It’s the old promise of transmedia storytelling, where a single story can reach across multiple platforms and channels — only this time, the actual writers and directors themselves are on board.

“What I think it really took is a generation of creators that are coming up now,” Monello says. “People like Jonah Nolan are not stuck in that old way of thinking, because they grew up like we did, with video games. They grew up with the idea that story can be emergent, and that the story isn't just what's told to me. Sometimes it's the interaction between me and the thing that's been created.”

Not every property is Star Wars or Westworld - but they don’t need to be

These are all small steps, and not every property is going to warrant the kind of grand vision that Disney is building toward with its Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge expansion land and themed hotel adventures. But as Monello points out, the business model of the entertainment industry itself is transforming in real time, and the old methodology of traditional TV networks airing a single season of a show as their sole product is becoming increasingly outdated. He says it’s going to becoming increasingly important to think of shows more as story worlds that can be explored in a number of different venues and media — including physical immersive experiences.

“Legacy television networks don't necessarily have a direct connection with the people who consume their products and watch their shows. That relationship is mediated by the cable industry,” he says. Streaming services like Amazon and Netflix are disrupting that by creating content and distributing it directly — and their subscription models are fundamentally reshaping the value of programming itself. It raises the question, he says, of whether simply creating and distributing a show alone will be enough. “Is that a viable business model in a world where people are buying individually, or you have to attract people to subscribe to you?” he asks. “Or do you have to start actually thinking about the fact that your shows are story worlds, and you're in the business of expanding those story worlds to wherever they make the most sense?”