Les Mills International
Les Mills International
Les Mills International


The art of collaboration

Huge, green and grumpy - Shrek is an evergreen IP in more ways than one, and Merlin’s new attractions are sure to be a global crowd pleaser. Alice Davis finds out what it’s like to work with DreamWorks on the popular franchise

Falling for the perfect intellectual property (IP) can be the start of a beautiful – and lucrative – relationship. When in February this year Merlin Entertainments announced a deal with DreamWorks to create six Shrek-themed midway attractions, it was a sign of a blossoming romance. There’s more to it, though, than throwing money at an IP holder and running off with the spoils. Like any successful relationship, it needs to be nurtured and based on the foundations of communication, mutual respect, the ability to get along and – who knows – even have a good time together.

Merlin’s creative team, Merlin Magic Making (MMM), headed up by Mark Fisher, has been driving the DreamWorks partnership since they worked together on the live Madagascar show staged at Chessington World of Adventures in the UK in 2012 and Heide Park, Germany, the following year. Things have developed organically — though purposefully — thanks to Fisher’s strategic consolidation of all their IP business, bringing it under one umbrella at the centre of MMM. Every brand, franchise and partner is unique, each with its own challenges and, indeed, each with its own rewards.

When Fisher, who joined Merlin Entertainments in 1995, took the role of chief development officer for MMM in 2011, it was all about reaching out and building relationships. He got rid of the existing system, where IPs were managed haphazardly by different staff across the globe, and appointed an IP director, Jonathan Lewis, to anchor the license portfolio — a critical component in Merlin’s business model. Present IP partnerships include licenses for Madagascar and Ice Age with Fox, CBeebies with the BBC (and others), Saw with Lionsgate, Sonic the Hedgehog with Sega, Angry Birds with Rovio Entertainment and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the Roald Dahl estate. “We got on a plane and went to sit down with all the Hollywood studios,” Fisher says. “DreamWorks was one of them, and we got on really well.” That led to the Madagascar shows, where the teams on both sides worked together. When Merlin pitched the idea of the Shrek attractions, DreamWorks “was in the right frame of mind to look at it,” says Fisher.

The initial agreement reached with DreamWorks is for Merlin’s midways operating group to open six attractions named Shrek’s Far Far Away Adventure over the next 10 years. The first of these will be in 2015 in London, a new addition to the FTSE 250 company’s Thames-side cluster at County Hall, where the London Eye, Sea Life London and London Dungeon are located. The other Far Far Away Adventure locations have not been decided, but will be in different countries around the world on sites of between 20,000sq ft and 30,000sq ft (2,000sqm and 3,000sqm). The family-focused attractions will be actor-led, interactive Shrek adventures, “where you’ll actually take part in the story,” says Fisher. “It’s participative like the Dungeons, and massively immersive, so you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the story. That’s the majority of it, and then there’s a second part where you’ll meet some of Shrek’s friends and other DreamWorks characters.”

The beauty of this first Far Far Away Adventure is twofold: its proximity to other Merlin offerings, and Shrek’s enduring and age-spanning appeal. “From a strategy point of view, you can cross-sell tickets across sites, have bigger central management teams in those clusters, things like that,” says Fisher. “And I suspect it won’t just be about cross-selling to our visitors, but that it will actually drive more people into London because there’s been a massive interest and people will come into London to try it.” Fisher adds that the franchise fits well with Merlin’s wider midway strategy. These attractions need to be chainable and scalable: “We’re not interested in having one-off midways round the world.”

When it comes to Shrek’s popularity, his audience has been growing since the first film was released in 2001. From the beginning, the characters and narratives have offered enough ambiguity in interpretation to entertain both children and adults. And it’s not just the ogre protagonist who wins hearts; the franchise’s success is owed to the multitude of genial characters. A 2012 poll by Co-operative Pet Insurance to find the UK’s all-time favourite animal film star saw Donkey claim the number one spot. “It really does appeal to everybody because of its multi-level humour,” says Fisher. “Some people have grown up with the franchise, and older people too have an affection and an affinity with it.”

This near-universal fondness for the animated characters gives added weight to the importance of Merlin and DreamWorks working so closely together. The UK-based entertainments business accepts that a global franchise like this puts it ahead of the game in terms of marketing the final products to the public, but as Fisher points out, the challenge then is to “make sure we deliver and live up to what people love about Shrek.”

There are several aspects of this partnership that seem to have helped lay the foundations for a successful attraction that meets and surpasses expectations. The first is the ability to negotiate — and skilfully. According to Fisher, DreamWorks was “pretty open because they are a good group with similar aims.” Even then, it took a little time for the details to be ironed out. “An IP holder’s main collateral is his IP, and he’s not going to let you walk all over it. There was some negotiation [with DreamWorks] about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it, but it was all done with good grace.”

Every IP holder will be protective of their creation, and each presents a unique set of circumstances. The recent collaboration between the BBC and Merlin to create CBeebies Land at Alton Towers not only involved working with the BBC on their own IPs but also managing sub-IPs owned by other parties. Fisher says: “I think there were 12 to 15 different IP holders, and that’s probably the most complicated one we’ve ever done. You have to try to please everybody.” Despite the complexity, he’s confident that Merlin and the BBC joined forces to good effect, and is hoping the groundwork will lead to a “deeper, longer-term relationship” with the potential for more opportunities. These deeper relationships promote a better understanding of one another and the IP. “What we don’t want to do is go and ‘logo slap’,” Fisher says, believing great IP-based attractions need to be based on something more profound.

Another contributor to the success of the relationship is regard for the IP. Working within a complex legal framework, presenting ‘other’ ideas to the creators and winning their trust is no easy feat. “There’s a very specific set of rules that exist because the brands are protected,” says the MMM head. “We’re conscious that when we deal with someone else’s IP that we deal with it in a respectful manner and follow what they want as well.”

Ultimately, though, it’s about the people. A collaborative environment, where the IP holder’s team and the licensee’s understand each other and get along, is invaluable to the project. Part of that could be recognising and capitalising on each other’s strengths; part of it could be straightforward team-building activities. DreamWorks’ and MMM’s creatives have been perfecting the art. “The Merlin team has been to the US to Burbank on regular visits, and their team has been in London. It’s a bit of a love-in, to be honest,” Fisher says. “They’re the same kinds of people – gregarious, creative – so there’s a really good relationship.”

That philosophy runs from the creatives to the management and right up to the top, with Merlin CEO Nick Varney and DreamWorks’ boss Jeffrey Katzenberg maintaining a close personal relationship too. Could this lead to a “wider collaboration” as Varney has suggested? “There are a number of things; whether it’ll be other attractions, I don’t know at this stage, it’s too early,” Fisher says. “But there’s a lot of ambition in DreamWorks to do more of these kinds of things as well.”

Though Fisher is quick to iterate that Merlin is not going to turn into “everything to do with IP”, the business, with its 2013 flotation on the London Stock Exchange, is riding a wave right now and the vital role IPs have played is undeniable. “When they’re relevant to what we want and, more importantly, to what our customers want, then all these relationships with major IP holders are massively important.” He mentions Ice Age as an example of a successful IP attraction, running at Alton Towers, UK, and Gardaland, Italy, where the relationship with Fox has been cultivated. Another big IP-led attraction that opened recently is Angry Birds Land at Thorpe Park, UK. “Now that we have got people running these relationships, Nick and I can go and talk to them and demonstrate it’s not about a one-off, but about how we do things in the long term.”

The spotlight now though is likely to stay on Shrek and friends, as expectation rises and fans’ anticipation builds for the first Far Far Away Adventure. Fisher, for one, is excited. “All I can say at the moment is that I went through some of the scripts and I was howling with laughter. The same humour and fun that you see in the Shrek films comes through.”

This feature first appeared in Attractions Management Q3 2014


We asked Jonathan Linn, head of location-based entertainment at DreamWorks Animation, what’s happening behind the scenes of the upcoming Far Far Away Adventure

Jonathan Linn
Jonathan Linn

What’s most exciting about the Shrek-themed attraction?
We are very excited as this is the first attraction of its kind for our globally beloved Shrek franchise. Fans and guests will have the chance to interact with many of their favourite characters in a unique and exciting way, including custom animation, special effects, a 4D experience and live entertainers.

What makes the Shrek franchise translate well into a global attraction?
Shrek is an international brand and there really is a little bit of the green ogre in all of us. People respond to him as he is an unlikely hero who feels like a dear friend.

How closely are DreamWorks’ designers working with Merlin on the attractions?
Merlin’s and DreamWorks’ creative teams have been collaborating for the last year to design the most innovative, adventure-packed and fun-filled attraction. In fact, the DreamWorks creative team is led by the actual film makers who brought Shrek to the big screen. They have been working very closely with Merlin’s creative teams to bring the animated land of Far Far Away to life for fans and guests around the world.

What are the biggest challenges to creating an authentic Shrek world?
One of the exciting challenges of the project is how we will immerse the guests fully into the experience. Attention to detail is also crucial in bringing Shrek’s animated world into ours.

Can you provide a brief overview of the planning and design process?
DreamWorks and Merlin are working to provide a fully immersive experience combining animation, special effects and live entertainers. We’re delighted to be working with Merlin, a global leader in creating unique, memorable and rewarding visitor experiences around iconic brands.

Can you give us some clues about the content?
We don’t want to tease you with a spoiler alert right off the bat!

Rest assured that fans and guests will find the same great level of comedy and attention to detail in the attraction as in all of our Shrek films.

Far Far Away Adventure
Far Far Away Adventure

Finding the right ip

There are a lot of IPs with a lot of potential, but how do you know which ones to bank on? Here are some tips from Merlin Magic Making’s Mark Fisher.

- A well known and loved IP means a readymade customer affinity with the brand. That helps when it comes to building its appeal and the marketing side of things.

- Be driven by what customers say they want. Try not to be too subjective.

- Do your research. With CBeebies Land, we found out the biggest and best IPs in the pre-school market, then asked the audience to choose their favourite from the best five or six we’d found. Turned out CBeebies is far and away the biggest IP brand for the toddler group.

- Be on your toes. You never know the next big thing, and some of these opportunities come up quickly, like a project we’re doing with a [CBeebies’] brand called the Octonauts at Sea Life. It went bonkers.

- Choose IPs that are going to be around for a reasonable amount of time, particularly in today’s society where everything moves so quickly.

Shrek by numbers

The year the first Shrek film was released.

88 Critics score for Shrek on the film review website Rotten Tomatoes.

The year the book Shrek!, by William Steig, was published. The rights were bought by Steven Spielberg in 1991, before DreamWorks acquired them in 1995.

484.4m The total lifetime worldwide grosses for the original film, in US dollars.*
* Figures from Box Office Moj

The total lifetime worldwide grosses for Shrek 2, in US dollars.*

The budget for the original film, in US dollars

Number of people who have “liked” Shrek’s Facebook page.

5 Number of films in the Shrek franchise so far. They are Shrek, Shrek 2, Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever After, and the spin-off Puss in Boots.

9 Position in the rankings of the highest-grossing movie franchises of all time, below Batman and above the Twilight Saga.
* Harry Potter tops the chart.

Shrek by numbers
Shrek by numbers
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