#1120 – Active Entertainments Showcase

A condensed entertainment trade season continued as we passed Easter and started to prepare for the first full entertainment and vacation period in some time. The trade reflected this with major developments internationally, including more trade gatherings and ongoing market restructuring.

Fun and Games in the North

The importance of supporting the entertainment Northern Powerhouse outside of the UK capital was reflected with the holding, in April, of the InterFun Expo (InterFun’22) in Leeds, UK. Organized by publishers InterGame, the event returned to a physical show, and gathered a selection of leading entertainment developers, service providers and distributors. The event was opened by the Blackpool Pleasure Beach attraction’s deputy managing director.

The show floor was also supported by a two-day conference session. Spider Entertainment’s co-founder and publisher of The Stinger Report was invited to give the second-day keynote presentation focused on immersive entertainment and the drive from “digital to physical”. The Expo was able to mirror this drive with actual examples on the show floor, with the importance of immersive entertainment on full display.

Regarding the immersive technology, and representing VR, Harry Levy showed (along with the amusement, redemption and prize machines) the ‘VR Shark’ from Movie Power. Representing the Chinese developed 9D motion seat and effects platform which, along with VR rides, also includes a selection of interactive VR game experiences, the system offers a means for operators to dip-a-toe into the VR waters. Exhibitor Hero Zone VR was showing their free-roaming standalone VR platform, employing both the Meta Quest 2 and latest HTC Focus3 headsets, allowing players to take part in multiplayer experiences – the company is offering five compelling games, in a simple to operate plug-n-play package, that has already seen strong penetration with some 150 installations worldwide (20 of which are in the UK). The standalone VR installation is able to be accommodated by a wide variety of locations. Also exhibiting was Cleanbox, offering a hygienic UV light sanitization for VR headsets. 

Meanwhile, regarding VR application of active entertainment, the grand opening of the first JUMP by Limitless Flight was revealed in Rockwell, Utah – proclaimed the “world’s first hyperreal wingsuit simulator”. The venue comprises several of the unique full body simulators that replicate the experience of soaring through the air wearing a wingsuit. Much of the experience is based around a unique hoist system, as well as the latest VR technology. The concept of JUMP was developed by a team comprising ex-TheVOID executives. This flagship site will be followed by a second venue at the American Dream Mall in New Jersey later in the year. A full report on the experience, and its aspirations in a crowded market, will be covered shortly.

The other side of immersive entertainment presented at InterFun’22 was through AR, with developer meleap and the ‘HADO’ platform represented by their UK agency at InterFun’22. Long-time readers of The Stinger Report will be familiar with the augmented PvP (Player Vs. Player) game system from Japan, allowing teams of players to compete using virtual fireballs and shields in a fast-paced game experience, viewed through smartphone headsets. This is a game system supported by an extensive streaming and eSports following. The system has made UK landfall and established itself with the first UK arenas in Balsall Common, Brighton and RAF Halton. The highly active experience has proven a physical fitness boon – seen as a perfect sport activity for schools and physio workouts. UK HADO is about to announce further arena openings and the start of their latest eSport championship in the country, in partnership with ESL UK.    

The trend of “Active Entertainment” was represented on other booths during the show, with CSE Entertainment bringing their highly popular ‘iWall 3.0.’ system – tracking players movements and representing them in the game. This system has a split life between a pure entertainment experience and physical workout, driving home the importance of active entertainment linked to gamification. Concerning immersion, the ability to add gamification to the physical experience has been a driving force in the leisure scene. One such example at the Leeds show was from Tag Active, with the company applying their new wristband RFID system, linked to ‘Tag Hub’ units placed around the play arena – turning the activity into its own timed game, with scoring. This also allows the operator to monitor usage, and even run their active play space like a carpark, tracking those coming in and leaving, and promoting available slots. All while running same day competitions, generating repeat revenue.

Speaking of Active Entertainment, news was revealed that motion tracked screen game experience specialist NeoOne had won the “Excellent Stadium Experiences” award at the Reimagine Football Challenge. The company is creating an immersive active experience center, based on their ‘NeoXperience’ platform. The concept was presented to AFC AJAX and the Johann Cruyff Arena, and we expect to hear more on the development of the idea into reality. This follows the recent opening of TFOU Parc in France, an immersive interactive entertainment experience within the local mall, and including a HOOFS attraction (based on the popular character) that sees the interactive ‘NeoXperience’ platform deployed for young guests. 

Returning to Leeds, and immersive technology was also represented on the InterFun’22 floor from Sports Simulator, with an example of their projection screen, object tracking entertainment system. Comprising over 60 different sports activities simulated through the platform, the use of this type of technology in active entertainment, social entertainment, and more conventional leisure entertainment deployment, shows the growing versatility and interest in this approach. 

One new application of immersive tech into the entertainment sphere was seen from exhibitor Combat Laser. Known for their active laser tag outdoor platform, the company has included a new immersive scoring feature to their system, that allows the venue to present the scores and achievements to the players in a better, more inclusive manner. But the big development from the company was the inclusion of a new ‘Hyper-Shock’ feature that gives a mild electro-shock to the user when they are hit in the game, amping up the action and engagement (and getting very physical). Advancements in lasertag were evident on the InterFun’22 show floor with representations from LaserForce and Zone Technology.

Outside the exhibition space in Leeds was installed the ‘SensoryMobile’ system, an immersive space on wheels, developed by Osborne Technologies. Deploying the company’s ‘Aurora’ immersive space technology, the cabin can be used as an educational space, transporting the students using visuals, lighting, audio, and olfactory effects. Continuing the active entertainment trend, the company has also presented their ‘WizeFloor’ projected surface system, that was exhibited inside the show. 

We would like to thank the team at InterGame for their hospitality and support of the sector with this influential event – and we look forward to plans for the 2023 gathering. 

During InterFun’22, the international theme park, resort and LBE sector was rocked by the news that, in the UK, the two leading executives of Merlin Entertainment suddenly revealed they had informed the company board they intended retiring within 12-months. This has started a period to find the successors to the CEO and CDO internally. The departing CEO had been instrumental in defining Merlin, leveraging the operation out from its previous owners Vardon Attractions in 1999, and helming the corporation ever since – now comprising some 140 attractions and 23 hotels (defined as the second largest entertainment attractions company in the world). However, after the acquisition of Merlin, by the LEGO family investment firm Kirkbi and Blackstone for some $7.5b (£5.9b), in 2019, major restructuring of management and business had been expected (delayed by the pandemic). With these retirements, other top management positions are expected to be reorganized, reflecting the new leadership style and need for restructuring. This move mirrors the major developments impacting all aspects of the entertainment landscape, and beyond.  

Meanwhile, the developer of Mixed-Use Leisure Entertainment (MULE) was recently in the news – Gravity Active Entertainment, having pivoted, from an extensive trampoline and bounce-house venue portfolio, now into MULE with their first Competitive Socializing venue. Scaled to fit within an abandoned Debenhams department store in Wandsworth, London, this first venture comprises e-Karting, FEC (from FunBox), AR darts (from 501 Entertainment) and bowling – along with eSports, mini-golf and an Electronic GameBox addition (a detailed review of the flagship site was covered in The Stinger Report previously). This was a move more towards a young-adult drinking and fun environment and, with this first initial success, the company has made the announcement of a second venue. Gravity revealed plans for a Liverpool 100,000-sq.ft.,venu and this will see a £10m investment into the space – once again in an abandoned Debenhams department store in the area.

Cinema Trade’s Future Focus

The return of physical trade events matched the excitement to see a return to cinema audiences, and the recent ticket sales success of ‘Spiderman: No Way Home’ ($1.89b in global box office), ‘The Batman’ ($752m in global box office), and ‘Sonic The Hedgehog 2’ ($331m in global box office), seemed to show green shoots of success. This positivity was on display at this year’s CinemaCon, returning to Las Vegas. The star-studded event was the chance for the theatre chain industry to see the coming big presentations for the rest of the year and into 2023. Movies that had been held in reserve untilthe end of the Global Health Crisis, as well as new productions, are all vying to generate significant revenue in the face of an industry suffering from the encroachment of streaming TV’s success before and during lockdown. Along with the concerns of the decline in cinema going audiences over the last few years.

The future of the cinema sector was defined during the convention, in stark colors, by the executives of the respective theatre companies. AMC’s CEO even suggested a major move for the industry, with the proposition that theaters could negotiate with leading streaming services to give cinema runs to their content. The offering of a full theatrical release to selected streaming releases would be a major departure for the industry and will illustrate the impact of the streaming wars on the film industry. The idea of Netflix, Apple and Amazon streamed movies having a token release in the theaters was still a vague proposal at this point. Rumors even suggested that some streaming services may take stakes in cinema venues. Before this statement, it was revealed that AMC had continued its active growth of venues, signing an agreement with Bow Tie Cinemas. This will see AMC absorbing the seven locations retained by the company. 

During the convention, big announcements were made for coming releases, such as the December rollout for Disney’s ‘Avatar 2: The Way of Water’ – the blockbuster that hopes to reignite the success of the original, one of the most successful films in history (supporting its own theme park gate). Other sequels were on display during star-studded stage presentations, along with teaser events. One aspect that was spoken about more behind closed conference suite doors for the major theatre groups, was the development of “Cinema Entertainment Center” (CEC) concepts. All the major groups are having to test projects in development and test-operation, towards finding the right mix of entertainment to baluster their business, and weather the storms expected as the industry consolidates after harsh times. 

The restructuring and power struggle amongst the cinema, studio and entertainment groups in the market continued. From an Asian perspective, CJ ENM (CJ Entertainment and Merchandising) is a well-known Korean entertainment conglomerate, comprising divisions in the mall and retail scene, cinema, and digital entertainment industries (including its own streaming service). The operation had been in the news in March, with their $82m investment into Korean Telecom (KT), towards their latest acquisition of television studio assets. In April it was announced they had acquired a minority stake in Hyperreal Digital

The company, famous for their realistic digital human development tools (‘HyperModel’), used to create virtual avatars for media. Hyperreal had last year raised some $7m in seed funding to expand their work in creating the tools for avatar representation in the Metaverse, and virtual production (with a large library of virtual content). CJ ENM is a division of CJ Group that also owns the CJ CGV operation, the largest multiplex cinema chain in South Korea, with operations across the globe, ranked as the fifth largest with some 455 locations. The operation is known for their CJ 4D Plex cinema experience system (4DX), and previously acquiring the Simuline operation in 2016. The operation invested in several failed VR cinema concepts in 2018, as they continue strive to find the winning formula. 

The ability to create digital humans for movie and gaming content has also been seen as an essential for the prospects of the Metaverse. And along with the need to have digital avatars, investors are also banking on the need to clothe these digital humans. It was announced that The Fabricant, a development house focused on creating fashions for digital avatars, had raised some $14m during a raise led by Greenfield One. Described as creating the “wardrobe for the metaverse”, the operation looks to establish itself as a leading fashion house for the digital revolution that the aspirations of this new revolution will usher in. The importance of digital characters in entertainment is not lost on the movie industry, who has just seen a video game character (Sonic) top the movie box office for a second time. Riding the video game wave, streaming service Netflix announced they would be following the video craze with an anime-style series based on the popular NAMCO arcade brawler ‘Tekken’. 

As covered in our previous report, the “Streaming Wars” have started with a vengeance, with the impact of dropping subscribers impacting Amazon, Apple, Disney, and Netflix, as well as many of the other perfusion of platforms. The immediate shuttering of CNN+ has sent shockwaves through the streaming sector, and mergers and acquisitions continue – illustrated with news that the company Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment was in the process of acquiring the streaming service Redbox for a proposed $375m. The need to find a way to protect revenue and show a profitable business model has had some companies turn to having a physical presence in the entertainment landscape. Following the success seen for Nintendo and Universal with their ‘Super Nintendo World’ gate, and the Netflix pop-up attractions, other entertainment corporations in streaming, cinema and studio development are looking at a location-based entertainment future. 

Just as the increased success of screenings of movies in 4D marks the upswing in the cinemas fortunes, The Stinger Report publisher has covered the 60th anniversary of a ground-breaking technology that had hoped to bring sensory film experiences to the amusement industry and kickstart a brand-new era. In a special feature in VRFocus, the story of ‘Sensorama’ and its creator is charted, and how the amusement industry lost its chance to be first in what has become the profitable 4D and 5D theatre business. Read the full article here.

The end of CinemaCon promised more announcements in this line soon. But also promised that the cinema, and its physical presence as an entertainment medium, were far from dead as many pundits had predicted. And while the industry was going to have to re-invent much it had taken for granted, the movie-going audience was still there, and was hungry for more.

About the author

Kevin Williams

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The brainchild of two location-based experience enthusiasts, Christine Buhr and Brandon Willey, the LBX Collective aims to inform and educate, create opportunities to connect with industry peers, and to spur collaboration, discourse, and cross-pollination of ideas.

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