Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

When will experiences replace movie theaters?

When I was a kid, I remember my school putting on a production of Peter Pan. For the dramatic flying scenes, they rigged a special harness that would go under Pan’s costume and hoist him around the stage. But what I remember most is sitting outside the theater, desperately wishing it was me who got to fly. I knew I had a long life ahead of me, but when do grownups get to fly as if by magic?

The world is weirdly disappointing that way. Billions of dollars are spent making and watching people explore mysterious tunnels, chase down alleys, and fly as if by magic, but there’s hardly a single opportunity to actually do any of these things.

I know of two exceptions. In Boston, there is a company called 5 Wits. The experience is something like this: you enter an unassuming rug shop and when the salesman asks if he can help you, you tell him the secret pass code. He gets a funny look on his face, locks the door and pulls down the blinds. He pulls back the rug to reveal a television screen that briefs you on your secret mission.

Once briefed, he shows you a concealed door where you tiptoe down to an underground passage way, only to find one of those arrays of laser-triggers, where you have to crawl underneath the lasers without setting them off. This leads to a whole underground lair, where you have to solve various puzzles to find the stolen plans, erase evidence of your intrusion, and disarm a bomb. It’s enormous fun.

It’s hard not to think this will be the future of in-person entertainment in the era of the Internet. Sure, movie companies are loading up on gimmicks like 3D to force people into theaters, but it’s hard to see that working in the long-term. No, we should embrace the trend — let the Internet distribute every movie ever made and free up these physical spaces to provide the kind of experience that you can only provide in an actual physical space.

I feel (have always felt) the same way about museums. Go to a local museum and look around — how much do you see that actually couldn’t be provided by a website or a book? That’s why I was so excited to visit the City Museum in St. Louis.

In the dark days of St. Louis, when everyone with money had fled to the suburbs, an artist named Bob Cassilly bought a large abandoned shoe factory downtown. He and his friends begun using scraps and bargains to turn the place into a giant sculpture park. As you walk in, you enter the mouth of a giant whale, inside there are dozens of passage ways to crawl through and climb on, each filled with its own surprises and sculptures. Crawl down and you’re led through a network of caves which spiral upward and upward until you find yourself atop a giant eight-story slide. As you slide down, picking up speed, you literally ride through a giant classical organ, playing music so loud it shakes you to your bones. And that’s just the beginning.

The City Museum has been so successful, its led a renaissance of downtown St. Louis. Part of the building has been turned into offices and trendy lofts and the neighborhood now has some trendy restaurants and a shuttle. I flew to St. Louis just to visit it and I don’t regret it one bit.

But I am mystified by why there aren’t more places like these. There’s definitely a universe where I work on building more. Instead we get bland amusement parks, pretentious performances like Punchdrunk, and dull museums and galleries. New York City worked itself into a tizzy when artist Carsten Holler exhibited a slide a quarter of the size of the one at the City Museum. Surely a city of that size can support a place like this of its own. What am I missing?

You should follow me on twitter here.

February 14, 2012


I suspect you’re missing the cost of (and trouble of finding!) amusement-park insurance. Like circus insurance, it’s expensive in part due to it’s rarity.

posted by PJ on February 14, 2012 #

What didn’t you like about Punchdrunk?

posted by Matt on February 14, 2012 #

Whoa, I love the 5 Wits description.

I organise urban adventures that have some affinity with what you discussed. When I started working on them I was in a crowd where people were bored all the time, and I figured we could come up with things to entertain ourselves. I hoped people would be inspired and make their own adventures.

That never happened, but I still enjoy planning adventures for people. I’m hoping to create a “Make Your Own Adventure” framework to make it easier for non-programmers to organise these things. I’ve long dreamed of traveling between cities and hosting adventures, and I just completed my first outside Canada last week in Tel Aviv.

I must not be the only one doing these things. You can see some of the sites for events I’ve organised at the address I gave for “site”, though documentation isn’t my forté and some of the sites are dead.

posted by Buck on February 14, 2012 #

Movies will never be replaced. Passive entertainment is a fundamental part to human mental conditioning.

posted by Rich on February 14, 2012 #

Having grown up all my life in St. Louis, I’ve taken the City Museum for granted. It is a truly exceptional place!

I think the main reason places like this haven’t spread with the vigor you might have is that people people simply aren’t as interested in getting “dirty” doing physical tasks, no matter how satisfying or entertaining.

posted by glen elkins on February 14, 2012 #

Great stuff. But movies have one thing that the solid experiences don’t (yet) have — in seconds a completely new movie can be loaded.

Once you’ve done a physical experience a few times, it is no longer surprising. The next movie can always be surprising. That’s why people go to different vacation spots, different ski areas, etc.

The designers of the experiences will need to design in this kind of variability, and without making it just looking at a series of video screens.

When the full experience approaches the holodeck level, then….

posted by jp32 on February 14, 2012 #

it’s a good point @jp32. an interesting idea would be to think about creating experiential games /urban adventures that compose with their local environment in space and time, such that they are inherently unpredictable and different each time through.

posted by jessykate on February 14, 2012 #

But Aaron, I love going to the movies. Ditto for museums. I believe a lot of people are like me, based on the crowds I see when I go to either of those venues. So, I’ve got my doubts they’ll be gone any time soon. I hope not!

I’m also into more active experiences, like rock climbing and skiing. If you want to experience flying, try paragliding! It will knock your socks off, especially if you choose an interesting region.

Of course, such active experiences are substantially more risky and expensive than going to the movies. This may be why they aren’t as popular.

posted by Marya on February 14, 2012 #

The premise of the article is garbage as is the conclusion. First, the idea that movies need replacing is as ludicrous as paintings, photographs or books needing replacing. Each medium has its limitations, mystery and reward. For the forseeable future, an image of a painting on your screen will never be able to compete with the real thing. Ignoring the 3-dimensionality of a painting, there are limitations on things like size, resolution, and color gamut. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can stand in the Temple of Dendur and touch it— a structure built 2000 years ago. The environmental and tactile experience is like nothing you will get from a website or book.

The fact you’re wondering when experiences are going to trump movies shows how devalued experiences already are for you. Things like hiking, camping, sailing, indoor skydiving, open mics, dinner parties and so on are still experiences regardless of whether they are constructed from fantasy. As for fantastical experiences, there have been war re-enactors, the SCA, ren faires, theme parks, laser tag, and haunted houses. Also the 826 stores have some of this element, the Superhero Supply Co,the Boring Store (absolutely NOT a spy store), time travel mart.

I’m all for ‘experiences’ like these and Sleep No More or Fuerza Bruta, but to approach them as some new replacement for consumptive media is nigh idiotic, because none of the previous examples seem to be showing anymore than faddish growth. Instead, the trend is for places like this to die the death of an over-elaborate mini-golf outlet.

posted by arparp on February 14, 2012 #

Wow, I hadn’t heard of 5 Wits — very cool!

Red Frog Events in Chicago appears to be doing something similarish (they call it the “active entertainment” industry): http://www.redfrogevents.com/

posted by Adrian on February 15, 2012 #

Regarding “Go to a local museum and look around — how much do you see that actually couldn’t be provided by a website or a book?”

Well, there are the resolution/color depth/3D issues. I suppose that’ll be solved someday, but for now there’s still a significant gap there.

Movies are “social” experiences also - “dinner and a movie”, and one could make a good argument that theaters have shrunk to that market from the experience qua movie.

After all, one could say “What does a movie provide that couldn’t be provided by a VCR tape or DVD and TV?”. Obviously there’s something there that’s true to an extent sufficient to economically support an industry, even if not as much as during its glory days.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on February 16, 2012 #

You can also send comments by email.

Email (only used for direct replies)
Comments may be edited for length and content.

Powered by theinfo.org.