Tony Christopher And Landmark Entertainment Enter A New Reality
Landmark Entertainment Group recently announced plans to build a state of the art Virtual reality and Augmented reality experienced called L.I.V.E. (Landmark Interactive Virtual Experience) Centre, which is slated for launch in three years in China. Landmark founder and CEO Tony Christopher is looking to pioneer the amusement park business by taking the emerging technology and exploring new, creative avenues in order to engage audiences. Christopher and his company have a proven track record with amusement park brands like Terminator 2: 3D, The Amazing Spider-Man 5D , and Kong-frontation, all three created for Universal Studios. Now, Landmark plans to use virtual reality and augmented reality to explore new, innovative venues where the consumer can explore worlds without having to travel all over the globe.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
Well, I grew up in Santa Barbara, and I was really involved with the arts program there. Theater, dance, singing, you know all that kind of stuff. And it was really my calling at an early age. But I loved several different things. I loved Jack Kirby in comics, I loved Bob Fosse in theater, and then of course Walt Disney. Those are my three icons. When I graduated high school, I went to Cal Arts. Fast forward a bit, I graduated on Friday and on Saturday I’m flying to Disney World. And I got hired by Disney. But I was there for only two years because it was this sort of ‘sleepy Disney’, before Katzenberg and Wells came. Everything that was going on there was sort of old fashioned. So I left and, with a group of friends from Disney, formed Landmark Entertainment Group in 1980. But in 1980, there wasn’t even a fax machine. And our thing was ‘Technology to meet the needs of creating entertainment.’ Since then, we’ve created a lot of Universal’s ‘high-tech attractions’. We’ve also created attractions for Six Flags and Knotts Berry Farm.
What’s cool is the T-2 show was the first time James Cameron ever filmed in 3-D, now he’s the godfather of 3-D film. After that, we did the Jurassic Park ride, and then the Spider-man ride. Spider-man was the big attraction where we did a lot at once. You really feel like things are happening to you. Both that and T-2 are very theatrical, because that’s where we come from. Now, if you go back to the work we did with Six Flags, we created an attraction called ‘The Sensorium’. And that was an immersive experience, where all the senses were challenged. We had 3-D projection filming at 30 frames a second, we had vibrating seats, and we had true surround sound. And then we had scents for the audience. So when the guys on the screen put a pie out, suddenly you smell the pie. And that was the ‘Ah-ha’ moment. The first time that ever happened, I’ll never forget. The audience just laughed. They got it. It was amazing. All of their senses were being engaged. And that was the invention of the 4-D theater.
Disney famously has the Muppet 4-D show.
That came out way later, way later. Sensorium was first. When we did that for Six Flags, it was 1983 or so. That’s way before Disney came out with theirs. Truth be told, to me, T-2: 3-D is the ultimate 4-D show. Now, apart from the movie theaters, this has been what Landmark has been doing, and about 2 or 3 years ago, we decided working for other people wasn’t the right way to go anymore. The world was going into an economic meltdown, and we came to the conclusion that everyone was making money off of the things we had created, and we were only getting our fee while they made tons of money. So we started thinking about creating our own attractions. The first is the LIVE Centre.
What do you envision with that?
The LIVE Centre is virtual reality, but an out-of-home experience. So imagine a 200,000 square foot facility that would have shopping, virtual shopping, and maybe even entertainment retail so the retail is part of the experience, combined with five attractions. We have a zoo, a museum, an art gallery, a theater, and an immersive cinema. We think that those things could be combined with education in a way that hasn’t been done before. We can create software-based attractions, so with the zoo if you want a new attraction, you just put in new software and you’ve got a new attraction.
Everything comes down to what we want to do and the problems we have to solve. We did an attraction in Japan called ‘Sea-fari’ where we wanted to have a talking dolphin, this talking porpoise which could talk to the audience. We thought about a lot of different ways, and settled on a wall of glass with water, and rear projection. So you’re looking through the water at a projection. Because of depth perception, it looked real. With the new technology, we actually want to take you in the ocean, to whatever you want to see.
Currently, we’re targeting China for this, because we’ve done a lot of work in China in the last 20 years. We’ve worked our way up to the right level where we’re working with real people who are going to care about the quality and care about our reputations. We want to use virtual reality to put people in unbelievable environments, like the Outback or the African Serengeti. We can see all the animals on the plains, and then have them become skeletons, or dance to music. In an aquarium, you can see the giant squid, or other things we don’t normally get to see. Its almost like merging movies with education. The LIVE Centre is the first of the experiences we want to create, and we’re estimating that around 30% of the experience will be virtual. The other 70% will be typical theme park technology, maybe a personal simulator, maybe a 4-D theater, that sort of thing. We don’t want it to be one thing, we want to blend technology so audience don’t know how we’re achieving an effect.
So is your idea to start in China and then bring it to other countries, sort of like a proof of concept?
Yeah, exactly. See, if we tried to do this here in the States, no one would spend the money. It’s not cheap, what we’re talking about. You know, we’re overbuilt here. There’s plenty of museums, plenty of attractions here for audiences. We want to go somewhere like China where they don’t have as many attractions or museums. They have an idea over there about creating something like 2000 museums in the next 10 years, to get that influx of culture. 3 years ago, culture, things like education, entertainment, history, became a pillar industry in China. Now, the government wants to support it as much as possible. Our idea is interesting and unique, and innovative. Its everything they’re looking for.
Do you think the Chinese Government will hinder any of the entertainment growth? The creative growth?
I think…See, the government over there is really like any government. They’re looking after their constituents, creating growth, trying to keep everyone happy. The one thing they sort of lack is that creative side, and they’re looking for partners to help with that. There would be a Chinese partner that would be investing, but if you’re at a certain level you get the respect needed to do what you do. Of course, we’ve had to earn that respect, and we’ll have to continue to earn it. It’s very ancient society there.
So will the plan be once you have the software in place, you’ll be making bigger pushes into education, going back to your theater roots and things like that?
Our plan is to create this out-of-home experience and have it in as many places as possible. You know, the Shanghai Disney park is going to cost $5B. Now, how many $200M LIVE Centres could I create with that, putting them in more than one city? Now, instead of seeing 20 million people to visit that location that they’re projecting, I think we could see 5 million in each city a year. And that’s five million times 30 or 60 locations. That’s pretty compelling.
When you make this type of deal, are the Chinese only bringing in their people or can you go globally and bring in more?
You know, the Chinese are into that. They’re a big part of the global community. What we want to do is convince them that working with us is creating a major opportunity in China. That will give us the freedom we need to do the great job we know we’re capable of and then build the brand.
Now, once its done and its successful, what’s the next step?
We want to be in-home as well as out-of-home. We just believe the in-home experience will take longer. The LIVE Centre we have control of, creating hardware and software. We have control. We also want to create a virtual theme park accessed in home with a VR headset through the computer at home.
See, I thought you’d jump back to theater and bring Broadway into the home.
I think to some degree that could happen, and we would be interested. Content is something we’re getting into right now. But the first thing we have to do for in-home is how you as a consumer will actually consume this. And nobody knows. Truth is, this is such a new business, no one has a clue. We’re trying to figure out how to take people’s existing patterns, play patterns as its called in theme parks, and create a new one. People are not used to strapping something onto their head, aligning it in their house, download software, and all of that for the in-home experience. That’s asking the public a lot right now. So we believe that we need to create a product that will bridge us from where we are today to where we want to be in the future.
The first criticism that most people have when they hear this plan is that you’ll put zoos and schools out of business. How do you balance that?
We’re not trying to put zoos out of business. Though, truth be told zoos are a very archaic idea. It can be inhumane. While I’m not a judge of what is right and what isn’t, I’m just saying there should be an alternate. People would also say the current school system is broken. Having a good experience is totally reliant on you getting the right teacher. If you get the wrong teacher, one that doesn’t like you, then you’re Tony Christopher. You’re outside the room in the hallway because the teacher couldn’t deal with me. Wasn’t because I was stupid, but because I was excited. But a lot of people are talking about game-ifying school to make it more engaging for the students. Imagine if you could learn through gaming. Kids would understand it easier.
This is bold, don’t get me wrong, but it’s innovative and people don’t always respond to innovation.
There’s going to be some resistance. People will complain we’re creating a society like what we saw in ‘Wall-e’, all the big people living virtually, not going out and experiencing anything for real. That’s not the goal, the goal is part-time entertainment.
Because of your icons and background, will you also be creating content as well?
Yeah, we plan on creating our own content. We want coders and engineers who have a sense of humor, who want to do something different. It might come out of the world of theater. We want to provide unique experiences that can’t be done anywhere else. Our mantra is if it can be done in the real world, then we don’t want it here. You know with the LIVE Centre, one of the pillars is a section that has nothing to do with entertainment. It’s about why are we on this planet and what should we be doing with our time here. You know, give people a look into what they should be doing as global citizens. I feel like we really are global citizens today, and there’s a lot of things going on in the world that aren’t very funny.