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Storytelling after COVID-19: the show must go on

In the wake of the global pandemic, the ‘new normal‘ must not impact on the immersive storytelling power of theme parks

kids-at-Galaxys-Edge-with-lightsabers storytelling after covid

By Eddie Sotto

eddie sotto

What happens to storytelling in theme parks after COVID-19? Perhaps it will help to use a metaphor from the movie business to explain the impact of new regulations. In the entertainment industry, one of the most coveted terms in a film director’s contract with the studio is the right to the final cut. This means that the director has control of editing, ensuring the story best captures their vision.

So powerful is the edit that cutting scenes and even changing the pacing of the film can alter one’s ability to feel the emotions in it as they are built over time. For instance, in the use of a long stare or a single uttered word. Think “Rosebud” from Citizen Kane.

This fragility of the story as determined by the cutting of the film is the lynchpin of the storytelling process. In many cases, it is fundamental to the success of the film itself. So why did directors need this deal point? Studio heads are notorious for editing films. They can shorten the running time to get in more screenings, change the emotional tone, or quicken the pace.

old fashioned film camera

It’s art versus commerce. Hollywood legends abound with butchered versions of famous films like Orson Welles’ fractured masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons. Film purists still ply the archives hoping to find a can or two of lost footage to restore Orson’s intent. Another of Welles great works, Touch of Evil also went under the studio knife. This was recently reconstructed to match the shot by shot notes left in Welles’ own hand.

When you see this, you get the point of how important every scene and detail is, and how the story and its emotional impact depends on a complete vision.

To close or not to close?

This brings us to the point of storytelling in theme park attractions and how much a show or its intent should be compromised after COVID before we say it’s no longer a complete piece of entertainment and it should be shut down.

Story-driven attractions depend on continuity and special effects to suspend disbelief. Years ago, Disney Imagineering created a show readiness criteria. This set out what must be in working order for that story to be told properly and for the magic to play out, or the operators should shut it down.

Space Mountain Disneyland Resort
Space Mountain

Take, for example, Space Mountain, the galactic indoor rollercoaster that depends on starry darkness for its illusion. This could not be run with the work lights on, exposing the tracks. Guests are not paying for that. Or, if enough of the audio-animatronic actors in the Pirates of the Caribbean malfunction, it will close for repairs,

Like a film, rides are story-driven with a series of complete scenes. The guests deserve to see and experience a complete and uncut show, as close to the original intent as possible.

Storytelling after COVID – 15 minutes of fame

For storytelling after the pandemic, Disney Parks and Imagineers now face a new studio system with COVID-19 mandates from state authorities, limiting the running time of park attractions in California to 15 minutes. Several shows, like Pirates of the Caribbean at 15 minutes and Rise of the Resistance at 18 minutes, must be edited somehow to comply or close the ride. Do you cut scenes? Speed rides up? Rejig the queue?

star wars rise of the resistance galaxy's edge storytelling after covid
Rise of the Resistance

Other attractions have distancing mandates. These begat plastic shields dividing the guests, reflecting the hidden lights and ruining the immersion or visibility of the show. Queues in some cases come into question too. Now, guests are being led backstage to wait. Or they are using exits instead of the pre-show that sets up the anticipation of the ride itself.

All of this erodes or ruins any illusion of disbelief the rest of the attraction provides. So, like Orson Welles, Walt Disney’s vision of a seamless magical world of fantasy is at stake here.

How then do we retain the coveted Director’s Cut? Do we close the rides? In some cases I would, depending on what the sacrifices would be. Just as James Cameron would not shoot his next Avatar film in a masked and distanced Pandora.

Raising the safety bar

Welles once said, “I prefer people who rock the boat to people who jump out.”

The theme park industry needs to take a serious look at the long term experiential damage being caused to their assets. Guests may not return to compromised attractions. Therefore operators need to take decisive action to achieve a new and safer normal. Instead of waiting things out, we need to “rock our own boat. The industry needs to pursue a permanent way to restore the complete show.

family-on-ride-at-Disneyland-in-masks storytelling after covid
Disneyland Resort

One way is a rapid viral screening solution. This will, once and for all, allow parks to restore the magic and provide a higher level of safety beyond vaccines, as not everyone will have taken them (like small kids).

Guests will return for the Director’s Cut, not the hacked version. They still want the full storytelling experience after COVID. Now, there are several good technology options coming to market. These can digitally screen for variants and COVID-19, preventing you from closing in the future.

We are working on that solution to give the parks back to those who run them and to raise the bar of safety beyond the mandates. Let’s earn the right to reassure the guest that they will be healthy and safe, free to gather and enjoy stories as they are meant to be experienced.  Why not solve this for good?

“This theatre is your theatre. You are responsible for its creation and its progress,” said Orson Welles.

This game is ours to lose.

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Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto, former SVP of Concept Design at Disney Imagineering now runs SottoStudios, a turn-key entertainment design and experiential R&D firm. He also recently formed the group to address the need for COVID-19 variant screening.

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