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Martin Scorsese is wrong about theme parks – why it matters

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Martin Scorsese sparked a furore recently with his answer to a question from Empire magazine about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The director compared the movie franchise to theme parks. 

martin scorsese film director
Martin Scorsese

In his answer, Scorsese said, “…that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Louis Alfieri and Tim Madison of Raven Sun Creative sat down to discuss Scorsese’s statement and why it should matter to everyone in the location-based entertainment industry.

Location-based entertainment as a creative medium 

Tim Madison: Full disclosure: I’m a big Scorsese fan. I think he’s arguably our greatest living filmmaker, which in part is why I found his comment about theme parks disappointing.

Louis Alfieri: Without begrudging his personal tastes, I take issue with him looking beyond his chosen art form to frame location-based entertainment as a low benchmark for creative expression.

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TM: As criticism goes, it’s less scathing than dismissive. And if it was dismissive of Marvel movies, his use of theme parks as a low bar for artistic merit was doubly so. You and I both had our own reactions to his comment.

Louis Alfieri
Louis Alfieri

LA:  Absolutely. What’s important to me about the opinion of Martin Scorsese is that it’s not unique. He’s voicing a certain attitude/stereotype about location-based entertainment that exists culturally.

TM: It reminds me of how people use theme parks and the phrase ‘Disneyfication’ as shorthand for the antithesis of culture rather than an expression of it.

LA:  That reflects the lack of legitimacy location-based entertainment has as its own creative medium. Challenging that perception requires addressing the lack of understanding that limits our industry’s integrity and validity. Until we communicate our artform more capably, it will continue to impact our businesses and our ability to grow as an industry.

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What we mean by location-based entertainment

TM:  It’s interesting. When Martin Scorsese says “theme parks”, we both hear “location-based entertainment”.

LA: That goes right to the heart of the issue.

When I talk to people outside of our industry about what location-based entertainment is, I describe it as any destination outside of the home with interactive experiences that entertainment, educate, or engage.   It’s so much more than theme parks alone, which actually represent only a small segment of our overall business sector.

What’s problematic to me is a respected artist making a sweeping dismissal of an entire genre or art form.  That’s not insight; it’s bias.

Furthermore, I explain that location-based entertainment is the intersection of storytelling, writing, the visual and performing arts, architecture, gaming, human behaviour, mechanical engineering, movement, urban planning—the list goes on and on.

Tim Madison
Tim Madison

No other art form integrates all of these elements into a single spatial experience to be shared by groups of people. In an age of convergence, LBE is the most convergent and collaborative of the creative mediums.

The boundaries are limitless. The flow of ideas, inspiration, and innovation goes in every direction. Martin Scorsese is applying a very narrow personal definition of what has artistic merit. It would be one thing if he was offering a subjective reaction to an individual piece of art or entertainment.

What’s problematic to me is a respected artist making a sweeping dismissal of an entire genre or art form.  That’s not insight; it’s bias.

‘Popular’ vs. ‘serious’ culture

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TM: It sounds like he is drawing lines between “popular” and “serious” in a culture that is much more fluid and dynamic than he acknowledges in this case. There’s this belief that popular entertainment is empty calories that people consume with no residual benefits.

Yet, since the dawn of civilization, entertainment and storytelling have been central to the human experience. What we’re really doing when we discount popular culture—be it Marvel movies, video games, Stephen King novels, or theme parks—is devaluing the experience people who derive pleasure from it.

gangs of new york martin scorsese movie posterThere’s something more going on there, something essential that is nourishing the human psyche. Taking the audience’s reaction for granted is stating that pleasure is a low-value transaction.

LA: The question of high art versus low art will always be subjective. I see all art forms as modes of expression which support a dialogue between the creator and the audience. Every creative medium has its own capabilities and constraints.

Additionally, speaking from a perspective of transaction, we are discussing commercial art forms which are financed and dependent on profit and loss, balance sheets, and so on.

Film is a collaborative art form, and whether that be a long or short-form narrative, it’s primarily a director’s medium. A feature film director expresses their vision within a 2 hour (plus or minus) period through a rectangle to a passive audience in a controlled space

Storytelling with LBE

LA: By way of comparison, Location-Based Entertainment is a medium telling multi-branching narratives in large scale, free-range, experiences incorporating audiences of tens of thousands of people a day. These experiences can take place over a period of many hours or multiple days.

I see our role as creating a living painting without boundaries.

LBE storytelling needs to engage and generate emotional responses in the audience across age, capability, social strata, physical constraints, types of activity, and personal belief systems.  I see our role as creating a living painting without boundaries.

We provide strong narratives for the guests to interact with while also giving them opportunities to co-create the content. There is layer upon layer of interconnected narrative and experience. The audience has an active role in shaping their own story.

In addition, people have to willingly choose to travel great distances and dedicate very substantial time and financial resources to participate in these experiences. As a result, they have to see value, enrichment, and significant personal and communal benefit to making this choice with their limited time and budget.

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TM: It’s really more of a storytelling ecosystem.

LA: I see it as a living system that supports complex interaction. I can’t think of any other art form with as many moving parts or variables. It’s also an extremely versatile form of expression with so many applications. It’s that complexity and the fact that it has such flexible boundaries that leads to it being so misunderstood as a medium. People have a tough time wrapping their minds around what we do.

Due to its unique challenges, depth and complexity, expense and commercial applications, our art form remains misunderstood and under-appreciated for its contributions to culture, artistic expression, and business enterprise.

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A multidisciplinary community

TM:  There is some level of awareness about Imagineering.

LA: True, but Imagineering is so associated with the Disney brand. It’s tied up in their very specific value proposition and messaging. It doesn’t really enlighten the world about the industry so much as act as a platform to advance Disney brand story’s creative and technical excellence in the field of LBE. Looking further, Imagineering is meant to support a quality brand view. Imagineering does not typically have a wider association with the rest of Disney’s vertical integrated business units.

No other medium can match [LBE] for scale, consistency, volume of interaction, and complexity.

LBE is a creative medium that can bring a brand’s essence to life, convey original stories, and become a permanent physical (and digital) manifestation of ideas brought to reality that no other medium can match for scale, consistency, volume of interaction, and complexity.

The only other business sectors I see in the same vein are aerospace and the military, which are industries from which we source much of our technical talent pool. Our community of providers consists of artists, storytellers, technologists, engineers, owners, developers, bankers, etc. The combined contribution of that community to culture, technology, art, and business enterprise exists in a cultural blind spot.

Why does it matter?

TM: Okay, but if I may play devil’s advocate for a moment. The global theme park market is hugely successful, predicted to reach on the order of US$45 billion by 2020. In light of that kind popular success, does it really matter that location-based entertainment as a creative medium exists in a cultural blindspot?

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LA: It absolutely matters. Martin Scorcese’s comments, regardless of personal intent or tastes, can be seen as undermining the credibility and validity of our industry. This too can lead to a general change in attitude to our audiences tastes and spending habits. And that can lead to a decline in the overall health of the industry commercially and creatively.

Managing and defining the brand

LA: Just as we have to manage our personal brand as people, and as companies, we have to manage our brand as an industry and the global perceptions people have of it.

Theme parks have an image problem that overshadows our industry. Over the long run, it limits out potential, commercially and creatively. In order to ensure that we continue to grow and remain relevant in an uncertain future, we need to push back against these limited definitions other people are imposing on us.

I believe passionately in the importance of being an advocate for our industry.

This is a good opportunity for us to collectively step up to better communicate the contribution every member of our industry makes to their core sector and to our society as a unified force. We need to do better educating the global community about our value socially and economically.

I can only speak for myself, but I believe passionately in the importance of being an advocate for our industry.

Changing perceptions

LA: The two most important factors in changing perceptions such as Scorsese’s are organization and thought leadership.

location-based entertainment scorsese

The TEA and IAAPA are fantastic associations. We belong to and deeply value them, and are committed to contributing to both far into the future. We also belong to CAAPA in China and are beginning to participate with them more.  But these organizations are not structured—nor is their purpose—to function like the Writers, Director’s, or Producers Guild; VFX society; or AIA.

What’s missing to me is an industry advocacy group working in parallel with these organizations. This would foster better informed external perceptions of LBE. These are efforts that drive economic and creative growth and keep industries from stagnating. In today’s connected world, we should recognize that everybody outside our industry is an external stakeholder. So, we should be doing more to engage them.

robert de niro taxi driver poster martin scorseseWe need a visionary thought leadership forum, a platform for a robust series of voices for each discipline. Our industry would benefit enormously by from an open dialogue. One that explores what is working in our industry, what is not, and where we should be headed in the future. I’d like to see us cultivating a culture of more substantive critical analysis and non-proprietary information sharing.

We need to be advancing the art form, medium, and narrative to higher levels of thought, in order to bring global credibility to our industry.

Creativity and collaboration

TM: It’s hard to foster that kind of openness. Particularly in a competitive industry where people are afraid of losing their advantage. The natural self-protective impulse is to play things close to the vest.

LA: From a project-based standpoint our industry fundamentally a collaborative medium, more so than many other business sectors.  We are a niche industry with a relatively small group of community members. In the context of our overall industry, I believe collaboration is more important than competition. We can achieve so much more by joining forces. You’re a lot less worried about protecting your market share when you have a powerful means to enlarge the market for all.

There are so many creative, technical, and business minds behind theme parks and the extended world of location-based entertainment

We need to be advancing the commercial opportunities, inspiring the next great inventor, designer, marketer, or C-suite individual to see where this art form and commercial venture reach people, communities, and societies.

There are so many creative, technical, and business minds behind theme parks and the extended world of location-based entertainment. And they are in a unique position to drive innovation that transforms the larger culture for the better. That also requires looking beyond our own narrow personal business interests. We need to think holistically about our industry and how it intersects with the larger world. This means coming together to advance a message of our possibility and promise.

Theme parks, museums, heritage site and all variety of experiential destinations are places for shared human experience. They are special worlds where visitors seek connection and fulfilment. Let’s embrace that message. We can help incredibly talented people in other industries to see and appreciate our value and contributions with credibility and validity.

Update added on the 30th of October 2019:

TM: So, it seems people can’t stop asking Scorsese about his MCU/theme park comment…

LA: The MCU fanbase is passionate, and coming from a renowned icon, they want to make sense of his perspective. Clearly we’re no different; we are still talking about it. It touched some nerves. [Laughs]

TM:  The latest development—in a new interview, he amended his earlier comments, saying, “Let’s say a family wants to go to an amusement park. That’s a good thing, you know. And at theme parks, there’s these cinematic expressions. They’re a new art form. It’s something different from films that are shown normally in theaters, that’s all.”

A new art form. That’s validating, right?

LA: I appreciate hearing him clarify his thoughts. To me, the most gratifying part is that it is being stated to the global audience that LBE is recognized as an emerging art form in its own right. That is a message you, I, and others in our industry are invested in and personally very passionate about.

We still have a way to go in getting that message across to the general public. It’s a worthy and achievable goal. We need to continue the mission to grow our industry’s recognition, integrity, validity, and contribution to the globe at large. There is considerable work to do to get to the level of respect, recognition, and influence that cinema, fine art, architecture, branding, and financial institutions possess socially and economically.

We have the power and rare ability to move humanity—and we are not yet rising to meet our potential.

We need to light the way.

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Louis Alfieri Raven Sun

Louis Alfieri

For over 30 years, Louis has worked with global brands as an authority in leading, designing, and building experiential entertainment destinations, mixed-use developments, immersive media-based attractions, retail locations, cultural sites, and experiential events. He has a long track record of success collaborating with large multidisciplinary teams on the conceptualization, design, and implementation of location-based entertainment mixed-use resorts, theme parks, waterparks, museums, and cultural destinations.

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