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Star Trek to The Godfather: Mike Bartok, EVP- Licensing at Paramount Pictures Talks IP and Theme Parks

Mike Bartok, EVP- Licensing at Paramount Pictures, started his career as a lawyer, before joining Paramount and entering the world of theme parks.  

Following Paramount’s decision to move away from the role of attraction operator, Bartok now looks after the licensing of Paramount’s wealth of IP which includes many much loved classics such as Star Trek, The Godfather and Forrest Gump.

Blooloop caught up with Bartok to discuss theme park developments, hotel projects and other attractions, as well as Paramount’s strategy to leverage IP in the future.

Please can you tell us a little about your background and your current role?

I started my career as a lawyer, an attorney, and after working for a law firm for a few years I went to work for what used to be the parent company of Paramount, Paramount Communications, which ultimately got bought by Viacom which is our parent company.  I worked as an in-house lawyer and got involved when we purchased a chain of theme parks back in the early 90s – I was the lead attorney on the acquisition.  

Once we’d closed it they asked me if I’d like to become the General Counsel for the Theme Park Division.  It seemed like a good opportunity and as I’d learned about the business during the acquisition it sounded like a lot of fun and an interesting opportunity.  So I took on that position and over time I ended up expanding my duties to take on a number of other corporate functions and by the time we ended up selling our chain of parks back 6/7 years ago I was in charge of all the corporate functions for the Theme Park Group and was no longer a practicing lawyer.

Once we sold our parks we focussed on our IP, which is what our company is all about.  We retained a small but expert staff of theme park creatives and designers, so when we’re doing projects we not only licence the IP but we also create concepts and designs for many of the projects that we’re working on.

How is Paramount looking to leverage IP?

Not as an owner anymore – we sold the parks and focussed on IP.  We’ve shifted from being an owner operator to being a licensor, designer and non-financial partner in the projects we’re participating in.

We do get involved in terms of the strategy for the ongoing operations.  We consult with our partners and have varied roles – obviously with our experience of running parks we’re in a different position than many of the other content licensors.  We’re not an operator but we’re a fairly active business partner.

How is the Paramount theme park in Murcia progressing?

Paramount Park Spain

It’s going quite well.  Building a theme park is like building a city and its going to take a bit of time, but our development partner has commenced the infrastructure on the project and we’re anticipating beginning the attraction construction in the next few months.  Hopefully the park will be open to the public sometime in 2016.  We haven’t set an official date yet but the park has been fully designed and we feel the next step is to build it.

We’re really excited about it.  We think of it as the next generation of theme park using all the cutting edge technology that’s available to us as well as putting into our programme a commitment to sustainability and green technology which is something that theme parks haven’t been known for in the past – we’re very committed to incorporating that and being sustainable.

The parks we owned, the ones we sold, we bought them and rebranded then and they were really good.  But we’re really excited to have the opportunity to design and see come to fruition a “ground-up” Paramount park.  When you rebrand you pick and choose, you don’t rebrand everything, and as you add attractions you overlay your brand.  When you build form the ground up every inch of it is Paramount which is cool.

Each land will have its own feel; every place that you walk you’ll have some theming either from the movies or Paramount, or the Southern California lifestyle which we’re trying to incorporate.

And what stage is the UK theme park at?

That’s still in quite an early stage.  We’ve done some early concept work [see header image].  Planning and approval processes in the UK are quite lengthy but our development partner in the UK has made some good progress and we’re anticipating that we’ll receive planning approvals in the near future, and with the design work we’ll be able to move the project forward.

Please can you tell us about Paramount’s ventures into hotels?  

We signed an agreement a couple of years ago and have made some great progress.  I recently came back from Dubai where we’ve licensed out a chain of Paramount branded hotels.  We have six in development and a couple of them are under construction in Dubai.

[PHR-FZ LLC, under license by Paramount Licensing Inc has six upcoming hotel developments across the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, China and Malaysia:  DAMAC Towers by Paramount Hotels & Resorts Dubai, set to open in 2016; Damac Villas by Paramount Hotels & Resorts in Dubai; Paramount Hotel Jumeirah Waterfront in Dubai Maritime City;  Paramount Resort Boao in China will open in 2017; Damac Tower by Paramount Hotels & Resorts Riyadh and Paramount Resort Langkawi, a private island resort just off the coast of Langkawi.]

Paramount Hotels and Resorts

They’re different than you’d find next to a theme park – not themed hotels like you would find in Orlando.  They’re luxury high end hotels which have the tag line “inspired by timeless Hollywood elegance.”  We’re using the Paramount brand as a luxury brand playing on 5* hotel properties.

There’s certainly going to be a lot to do with Paramount and Hollywood but softer – the artwork will be in there, our libraries will be available for on demand, but it’s not themed.  So you won’t have one floor themed as Star Trek.  The branding will be key, and we’ve worked with our partner to come up with some designs that are inspired by Paramount Hollywood elegance.

And what about other attractions: live shows and restaurants?

We’ve licensed out a variety of properties to Broadway and other types of productions.  That’s not the largest part of our business but it’s ongoing and the past few years we’ve had Ghost, Fame and we’ve just opened Fatal Attraction in London.   

Bubba Gump Shrimp CoWe licensed the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company which is a great business and was purchased a couple of years ago by Landry's Restaurants.  Bubba Gump is in up to 40 locations around the world and has been a great business for us.

Looking at other IPs which may be suitable, we’re doing a lot of things which I would say are reduced scale versions of theme parks.  They’re more like entertainment centres for markets which don’t have the scale that can support theme parks or the large investment in infrastructure that’s necessary.  For example here in North America in the malls we have big boxes like Sears which aren’t contemporary any more.  We’re looking at what type of entertainment could fill those big boxes in a mall environment which would bring traffic into the mall and would be financially beneficial to the mall owner/operators.  We’ve been working on a couple of projects both domestically and internationally which are in early level concept and are exciting opportunities.

Are there any Star Trek Attractions being developed?

We really only do stand-alone attractions with Star Trek as we have a great history with it.  We have the one in Las Vegas and we’re fairly far along in terms of completing the film for the project in Jordan [The Red Sea Astrarium] with Bad Robot which should be very exciting.  That’s going to be a centrepiece attraction with incredible, state-of-the-art technology.  It’s more than just a film, it will be the first attraction ever made to be 4D with actual freefall mechanisms in there.  It should be fantastic and with Bad Robot involved we will have that authenticity.

Star Trek fans are keen on authenticity.  Does this present special challenges when developing an attraction?

Actually Star Trek is a great and one of our creatives’ favourites because it’s so vast.  

The Star Trek universe has been created on both film and TV, so for the attractions that we’ve done every inch has been viewed and has to be authentic.  Some of the other IPs can be a little lighter but for the Star Trek World, it really requires full commitment creatively and financially to pull it off.

Star Trek Land at the Red Sea Astrarium

Which locations do you think are particularly exciting for the future of IP development?

We’ve looked in many places.  Without being too specific, there’s a lot of great markets in Asia, China especially and the Middle East.  Those are areas that have our significant attention.  We’ve had the good fortune to have a couple of projects in Europe, which is a mature market but were excited about it.  Asia is very great opportunity with growing economies.  We’ve also had some success in the Middle East, particularly with our hotel projects, and we’d like to expand that into successes in the theme park and attraction world as well.

We looked many years ago at Brazil and Argentina but there’s not as much development going on in those markets right now as there is in Asia and the Middle East.  Perhaps after the World Cup is finished.  Like on the UK project, after the Olympics there’s all this infrastructure in place now to be capitalised on.  I think Brazil and Argentina are interesting opportunities.

How do you choose or adapt the use of the IP for each geographical market?

Whenever we design something we look which of our properties resonate in those markets.  Most of our projects would include iconic ones like Star Trek and Mission Impossible which are globally popular.  But in Spain for example Westerns are very popular.  We have a nice collection of western films in our library but our western area is all going to be themed on Rango which turned out to be very popular in Spain.  (Johnny Depp was the lead in that film and he is incredibly popular in Spain.)  In some other markets I don’t know that we would ended up with a Rango Land rather than a Rango attraction but it’s turned out that it’s going to be one of the coolest part of the park.  

So we really do look at everything locally and see what works.  In Spain people also like to sit down and have a long meal at theme parks whereas most places on the world they don’t.  So we’re going to have a few restaurants where you can sit down and have a wonderful meal for two hours.

The Godfather is one of our prestige properties and is treated with a lot of reverence and we have a “Corleones” which is going to be fantastic fine Italian dining in the park. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?

It beats the hell out of being a lawyer!  I have kids who are rollercoaster fanatics so I can see first hand how much enjoyment a guest experiences from whatever it is that we’ve created.  It’s just a fun business to be in and it’s nice to be working in an area where the end product is something that people will enjoy. 

Images: TM, ® and © Paramount Pictures Corp. All Rights Reserved.

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