On a sun-nuzzled morning in Los Angeles, 25 people filed into a narrow, windowless room. They were about to participate in “Squid Game: The Trials,” an interactive experience based on the popular, dystopian Netflix franchise.
A South Korean series about an indebted man who enters a deadly tournament, “Squid Game” was a surprise hit for Netflix two years ago. In November, Netflix released a companion reality series in which 456 players competed, less lethally, for a $4.56 million prize. Now anyone with $39 — or $99 for a V.I.P. pass that includes parking and coat check — can play along in real-time. A ticket is an entree to a 70-minute roundelay of dire versions of children’s playground games, with Korean snacks, claw games and shopping to follow.
The original “Squid Game, ” a savage anticapitalist satire, delights in blood sport. The reality version, though gentler, takes a dim view of human nature. But in the rooms of the interactive experience, housed on the former soundstage of “The Price Is Right,” the mood was cheerful, even giddy. “Squid Game” fans — dads and sons, friend groups, couples, a grandmother celebrating her birthday — thrilled to each callback and Easter egg. Many of them had come in tracksuit costume. Once the trials were complete (the grandmother had won, via light cheating), they happily browsed the snack stalls.
“Squid Game: The Trials” is the latest in a trend of immersive experiences designed to lever an imaginary world into our real one. Referred to as brand activations or brand experiences, these events transform television shows (and films and sometimes consumer products) into multidimensional happenings.
“It’s moving and it’s organized and it’s becoming a lot more expected,” Fri Forjindam, whose company Mycotoo specializes in immersive design, said of the trend.
This past year, in New York City alone, fans could snuggle on the couch during a “Friends” experience, wander through an opulent theater during an “Only Murders in the Building” experience, solve a murder at “Welcome to the Continental: The Hotel Bar Experience,” dance the night away at a ball out of “Bridgerton” or sip cocktails while ogling Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe closet. Really, the options are legion. (In 2017, the FX series “Legion” rated an experience, too.)
“We are bringing a theme park to people,” Marian Lee, Netflix’s chief marketing officer, said. “We are going to where the fans are.”
These participatory and walk-through experiences have been part of the media landscape for more than 20 years, but until recently they have been rare and exclusive, the province of events like Comic Con or the South by Southwest festival or some of the splashier premieres. An amalgam of theater, commerce, viral marketing and fan service, they were intended to publicize shows in ways more forceful and creative than a Sunset Boulevard billboard.
“You don’t hear from people necessarily about billboards that they see,” said Barrie Gruner, Hulu’s executive vice president of marketing and publicity. “But these types of activations are what really help drive word of mouth.”
In recent years, these experiences have multiplied, particularly for prestige shows. “The Walking Dead” has sponsored a zombie-ridden obstacle course. “Game of Thrones” has birthed an interactive studio tour. The pandemic accelerated the trend. Many viewers consumed unusual amounts of television during lockdown. When live events returned, marketing and publicity departments looked for innovative ways to engage those fans. Hulu debuted a “Nine Perfect Strangers” activation in 2021. The next year Netflix created elaborate experiences in multiple cities based on three of its most popular properties: “Bridgerton,” “Money Heist” and “Stranger Things.”
“We’ve seen an acceleration, post-Covid, of people wanting to be out,” Lee said. “This is how fans are engaging.”
Not every show or movie lends itself to an experience, but many do: Walking away from the “Squid Game” immersion, I stumbled across a lollipop-filled “Wonka” pop-up that had taken over part of a nearby shopping center.
These activations offer titles another way to stand out, literally, amid a crowded mediascape. For series, specifically, they offer a way to retain fans between seasons.
“A lot of shows can get hot for a season or two, but we’re really looking and interested in sustained success,” Gruner, from Hulu, said. “In order to do that, you need more than fans, you need advocates.”
These brand extensions take different forms, which typically gesture toward older varieties of entertainment. Some resemble museum exhibits. Others, which can involve dozens of actors, resemble plays.
“They’re not theater,” said Sarah Bay-Cheng, an academic who studies the intersections of theater and media. “But they are theatrical.” And now some of them are in fact theater, as in the case of “Stranger Things: The First Shadow,” a prequel that recently opened in London.
Not every activation invites or demands absolute fidelity to its source material, though an experience risks disenchanting fans if it deviates too far. While streamers and networks typically outsource activations to external marketing farms, those firms tend to work closely with writers and producers to preserve the spirit of the work.
“We’re all making sure that we’re coming to it from a place of authenticity,” said Forjindam, who has helped to design experiences for “Stranger Things,” “The Mandalorian” and “Westworld.” “And then from there, you break all the rules.”
A recent “Only Murders in the Building” experience, held in September at Upper Manhattan’s United Palace theater, where the show had filmed, was a faithful, playful recreation of the show. Guests could wander onstage, backstage and through the lobby, surveying actual props and costumes from the show. Using special flashlights to illuminate clues, they could attempt to answer the most recent season’s whodunit just days before the finale aired.
A week later and a few miles downtown, at “Welcome to the Continental: The Hotel Bar Experience,” fans would encounter all-new characters and an original mystery, inspired by the Peacock series “The Continental,” a prequel to the “John Wick” franchise. Inside the Beaver Building, which had lent its facade to the movies, ticket holders, who were encouraged to dress as assassins, were free to move from room to room, engaging actors at will. Or they could congregate at the bar and swallow some very strong cocktails.
“We wanted guests to feel like they were the main character in their own show,” said Ollie Killick, whose company, Fever, designed the experience.
But is the show really about them? Or are activations like these merely a means to a marketing end? If an experience delights fans, those fans, by documenting and posting, often in meticulous detail, become part of a show’s advertising campaign.
“We do look at social buzz,” said Shannon Willett, the chief marketing officer at Peacock. “We want people to have a great time, have that great experience, post on social, talk about that experience to other people.” Though expensive to produce, such immersions will have a greater impact on fans and will likely lead to more social media impressions than a traditional billboard or print ad.
Netflix’s Lee put the emphasis elsewhere. “For us, it’s about the fans,” she said. “We don’t approach it as advertising.” Netflix recently announced a plan to open destinations known as Netflix Houses, where fans can engage in rotating live experiences while also eating branded food and shopping for souvenirs.
Though perhaps not conceived as an advertising ploy, a venue like this achieves some of what advertising intends, building brand identification and loyalty. And they may lack the intellectual and emotional nourishment that theatrical or museum experiences might offer.
Last year, in Toronto, Bay-Cheng attended the “Bridgerton” ball. She was named the diamond of the season, which involved confetti, glitter and great fanfare. “It was just this amazing moment of totally unearned adoration,” she said.
While she enjoyed the ball and understands these activations as reflecting the desire for a live experience, she worries that the form is inherently limiting, feeding fans more of what they already enjoy rather than challenging them with something new.
There were true challenges at “Squid Game: The Trials.” (The marbles were nearly impossible.) And if the experience could not be reasonably mistaken for theater or art, it did provide moments of exhilaration, affection, collaboration and joy, which is more than most billboards can say.
Had it felt like living inside the show? “No,” a woman said after the final challenge. “But it was fun.”
Why would a person pay to immerse herself in a dystopia, albeit a fun dystopia? Mike Monello, whose company, Campfire NYC, designed the “Only Murders” experience, has one theory. If you love something, he believes, then you must want to share it, even if the thing you love, as in “Squid Game,” is a caustic drama with an alarming body count.
“Opportunities like this offer people a chance to get together with your tribe and experience something unique,” Monello said. “We have the need to share in the things we love. And it’s a lot more fun to do it in person.”