Betting on the Bridgerton Ball — immersive pop-up experiences are back
Is this what we waited all pandemic to do again? Entertainment companies are betting on it, Netflix included
Like the rest of us, 28-year-old Chi-Chi Onuah has waited for this moment. She's planning a trip for the first time in more than two years, and it's all to see a show. Later this summer, Onuah, who lives in Toronto, will zip over to Montreal for a whirlwind, 30-hour vacation. The plan: mingle with a few hundred fellow fans of Bridgerton, the hit period romance that broke records for Netflix when its first season debuted in December of 2020. And her destination? A pop-up event that's being held at the city's Arsenal Contemporary five nights a week through July 23.
The Queen's Ball: A Bridgerton Experience is the name of the affair. It's a travelling production, one co-produced by Netflix, Fever and Shondaland, the Shonda Rhimes media empire from which Bridgerton's steamy universe has sprung. And Although Montreal is the only Canadian location to host the event, identical versions are currently operating in three other U.S. cities: Washington D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles, where it first premiered at the Biltmore Hotel in March. A further American stop, San Francisco, was announced last week.
The premise sounds a bit like an elaborate theme party, one where guests are encouraged to cosplay as lesser British nobility while dancers and acrobats perform scenes inspired by the show. There's drinks and dancing and plentiful photo ops, and this being a branded enterprise, you bet there's shopping. Guests can browse an IRL version of Mme. Delacroix's Modiste, perhaps purchasing some ladylike fripperies — gloves, fans, or maybe a tin of Anthony and Kate's trademarked spiced chai — while also admiring original costumes worn by the characters.
And for those especially keen on dressing to impress, a Diamond of the Season will be selected out of the crowd during every performance, anointed by the Queen herself — or rather, a queen (Bridgerton star Golda Rosheuvel isn't actually in attendance, but her character appears in proxy, played by a local performer).
The whole experience is over and done in the time it takes to fasten a corset — roughly 90 minutes — but Onuah is already sure the trip will be worth it. She's especially excited about the live musicians and dancers. There'll be a string ensemble inside Arsenal playing instrumental arrangements of Billie Eilish hits and other Top 40 fare — a nod to the show's anachronistic soundtrack. But more than anything, she's just buzzing to get out.
Onuah works as an actor and performer, and she says she was a frequent theatre-goer before the pandemic. "This is going to be my first real event," she says. "I wanted to do something that was fun and that would be, you know, fantastical, especially after the last couple of years of being isolated and indoors. I thought, 'I want to kick back and bring some magic back into my own life.'"
The return of a pre-pandemic trend
When the fairy god-marketers at Netflix launched The Queen's Ball, they surely had someone like Onuah in mind, and really, who isn't feeling like her right now, if only just a bit? There are fewer reasons to languish on the couch these days, and as we emerge from the lockdown era, surely people are desperate for any form of entertainment that won't give them screen fatigue. In step with that thinking, one trend that was surging pre-pandemic would appear to be back in full photogenic force: the "immersive pop-up experience."
The folks at Arsenal have labelled The Queen's Ball "a social and immersive experience," and to be fair, the event would seem to be more LARP-esque in flavour than other examples of the genre, of which San Francisco's The Museum of Ice Cream is perhaps the epitome, an attraction based around whimsical pastel photo ops.
But, whatever form these productions take, most seem to share a few important elements: the visitor is plunged into the centre of the action and given permission to expend a little Main Character Energy through a game or VR component, perhaps, but the more likely scenario is this: walk around and take a lot of selfies.
And they all seem to hinge on the same proprietary wisdom: experiences have value, and that's especially true when those experiences are shared with others … preferably on one's social platform of choice.
In July, something called The Friends Experience will arrive in Toronto after appearing in places including New York, Boston and Atlanta. A tribute to the old sitcom, a $34.50 ticket allows visitors to poke around re-creations of TV sets including Monica's apartment, Central Perk and other relics of the "global village coffeehouse" aesthetic.
The World of Barbie (also arriving in Toronto this summer) is another ticketed pop-up that trades on nostalgia, promising visitors a romp through a life-sized dreamhouse, or at least passage through a few plastic-fantastic photo backdrops, each one evoking the eponymous fashion doll's favoured magenta-forward decor.
These sorts of attractions are a hold-over from the days before lockdown, but could people expect to see even more of them as health restrictions continue to ease?
Placing a bet on live entertainment
Fever, the Spanish company that acts as one of The Queen's Ball's producers, describes itself as a "live-entertainment discovery platform," and upon visiting their website, which provides listings for more than 60 cities around the world, any user will be confronted with a menu of events happening near them. Many of those productions are "Fever Originals," attractions created for bulk distribution, as they often play several cities at once. They include more than a few of those 360-degree tributes to the all-stars of the museum gift shop: Monet, van Gogh, Klimt, etc. But there are also several Fever Originals that speak to less socially distant tastes: pop-up cocktail experiences, for example, ticketed parties that are themed around things like Alice in Wonderland or The Little Mermaid — or intellectual properties that have yet to slip into the public domain. They're involved in a few Netflix co-productions, for example: events based on Tower Heist, Stranger Things and, of course, Bridgerton.
In January, upon announcing a $227 million U.S. investment in their company by Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Fever said they'd thrived during the pandemic while other live-entertainment ventures were forced to pause. The company declined interview requests from CBC Arts, but in a release from earlier this year, they claimed their profits have increased tenfold since 2019, and that the Goldman Sachs investment is a testament to the "increasing demand for real-life experiences — in a world where most of the conversation is around digital entertainment or the Metaverse."
It would seem demand for their Bridgerton-inspired fare is increasing, at least; an all-ages "afternoon tea" experience is now running alongside The Queen's Ball in L.A. And Netflix itself is leaning into live attractions inspired by stories beyond "the ton."
Why Netflix is getting off the couch
Greg Lombardo is the vice president and head of experiences at Netflix — experiences being defined as any sort of live event that happens beyond the home, the traditional habitat for consuming a Netflix product. And for a company synonymous with the stay-at-home binge, Netflix would seem increasingly interested in the realm of live events.
Earlier this spring, they launched their own comedy festival in L.A. Originally scheduled for 2020, the 11-day event (Netflix is a Joke: The Festival) featured some of the biggest names in the industry, many of whom should be familiar from their respective Netflix projects: David Letterman, John Mulaney, Amy Schumer, Ali Wong and loads more.
Most of their IRL projects to date, however, are more in keeping with "immersive" fan events in the style of The Queen's Ball. A Stranger Things experience arrived in Brooklyn earlier this month and will expand to San Francisco and London; a 2020 drive-through experience based on the same sci-fi series was their first foray into this sort of pop-up attraction. An immersive scavenger hunt based on the global hit Money Heist has previously appeared in London, Paris, New York, Miami and Mexico City.
All three of those productions are based on series that have been global hits for the streamer. In the case of Bridgerton, it's their most-watched English language show of all time. But even new properties — and those yet to be created — might be eyed for a live experience.
In September last year, Netflix acquired Roald Dahl's library of twisted kid-lit, and the company announced plans to create "immersive experiences" alongside streaming adaptations of classic titles. And during the streamer's quarterly earnings call in January, the discussion included comments on the company's interest in building their own franchises — and subscribers' devotion to said franchises in turn. Developing live events like The Queen's Ball is one part of that plan. As co-chief executive officer Ted Sarandos declared on the call, "fans will flock to and flood their social media feeds" after attending the experience.
Retaining those fans is perhaps a greater challenge than it ever has been for the company. They reported a loss of 200,000 subscribers in Q1 this year, and expect to shed 2 million more by the end of this current quarter. Live attractions would seem to be one strategy for keeping viewers devoted to a favourite title (and the streaming service that airs it), as they bide their time between binges.
"You watch a season and then most of the time, if you're a fan of the show, you want more. And I think at the end of the day, we want to give fans more," says Lombardo.
People want to go out, they want to have events where they're able to share — you know, share together. And so we certainly plan more.- Greg Lombardo, vice president and head of experiences at Netflix
The pandemic happens to have stoked the public's appetite for live events, he says, which he sees as an opportunity for both Netflix and its viewers. "Consumers want to experience things in new ways, so I think that there's going to be an increasing demand," he says, noting that trend was already on the rise pre-2020.
"I think that the pandemic accelerated that demand, and you're seeing outsized demand now based on that notion," Lombardo says. "People want to go out, they want to have events where they're able to share — you know, share together. And so we certainly plan more."
They also plan on touring their existing productions extensively. Any given engagement of The Queen's Ball is designed to stay in market for three to four months, he says, before it's packed up and moved to another centre. "Our hope is that this experience will tour for a very long time," he says. "I mean, look, I wouldn't bet against Bridgerton."
How did the Bridgerton Ball land in Montreal?
In Montreal, sales have been strong. Approximately 30,000 tickets to The Queen's Ball were made available, and a week before its launch, more than half of those were already sold. Guy Laforce, general manager at Arsenal Montreal, has never programmed anything quite like it. (The show currently occupies a 20,000 square-foot exhibition space that was previously home to Imagine Monet, a more passive sort of "immersive experience.") But Laforce says he seized the opportunity to host the event after seeing a preview right in Montreal.
Much of the travelling production was developed by local talent, including creative director Carl Fillion, production director Simon Vigneau and costume designer Marie Chantale Vaillancourt. Even the sets were built by a Montreal company, Studio Artefact.
You can not just look at your TV set, you know. You have to live something with other people around you.- Guy Laforce, general manager at Arsenal Montreal
"I've been in show business all my career, and I think I have the right antennae to read what people want," says Laforce, and what people want right now is a live event, he says. "I feel it. … I think we really missed all the entertainment, the culture."
"You can not just look at your TV set, you know. You have to live something with other people around you."
Even a massive Bridgerton fan like Onuah would probably agree. She loves the show's "fantastical Regency-era gossip," the love stories, the costumes and the diverse casting.
"But you know, sometimes you can't really replace the same feeling of being in a room and experiencing something live," she says. "I'm itching to get out and get back out there and explore the world."