That’s Interaction

“That’s Interaction: Audience participation in entertainment monopolies”, Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, London, Vol 2 No 1, Spring, 1996, pp 103-126.

That’s Interaction!
Audience participation in entertainment monopolies

Ross Harley

That’s interaction: old wine in new bottles

In the constant hype surrounding corporate multimedia and digital infotainment, two terms continue to generate consumer fascination: “interactivity” and “participation”. The stream of new media products announced daily draw heavily on a discourse of enablement that promises to immerse the consumer in a stimulating world of media and information. We are told that new communication and entertainment products are revolutionising the way we amuse and inform ourselves. The audience is supposedly more in control and more “connected” than ever before, free to interact with people and multimedia products in whatever way they choose.

Although the new mass media corporations have been quick to exploit this discourse of interaction as a novelty, forms of technologically-enabled participation and immersion have long played a role in what could be called “the spectacle of modernity”. Far from being unlimited in their “revolutionary” scope, new media products and technologies have emerged as a result of complex historical and economic forces (often solely in the service of highly calculated mass-market enterprises).

The purpose of this paper is to provide a broad overview of some of these conditions. Specifically, I want to investigate how notions of interaction and participation relate to the economic interests of industry and the cultural forms that commerce subsequently generates. I argue that the increasingly vast and complex entertainment monopolies of the 1990s are the outcome of struggles in entertainment and culture that have their origins in much earlier commercial and cultural practices. These origins tell us much about the types of interaction that are actively developed and promoted by the media-entertainment complex of the present. As I will elaborate shortly, the convergence of commercial interests in new media technologies also coincides with the expansion of the “entertainment economy” into new cultural spaces (such as those properly considered the province of architecture and design).

This economy and its related technologies are largely determined by market forces. Advantages gained by vertical integration and cross-marketing exploit audiences by providing further opportunity to consume products (“interactively” or otherwise) across increasingly interconnected markets. As media corporations expand their horizons, they further synchronise consumption by way of a “commodified intertextuality”, further guaranteed by the popularisation of new technologies. In such a way, the visual economy of the media increases its hold in the world of commodity objects. As Eileen Meehan has defined this particular form of “intertextuality”, today’s multimedia products” which include film, video, CD-ROM, books, computer games, websites, magazines and an assortment of other merchandise” are “simultaneously text and commodity, intertext and product line.”

In addition, I contend that the visual economy of the entertainment industry mediates consumer culture via a “landscape of consumption” in which market, place, image and product intermingle. This postmodern landscape” which includes not just the physical surroundings, but also an ensemble of material, cultural, and visual representations” is an outgrowth of modernity and not necessarily its sequel. It is a landscape-as-market that continues to be organised according to perceptual and environmental technologies that epitomise the experience of modernity. Although the technical innovations of multimedia introduce new possibilities (even if we wish to label them “postmodern”) , today’s logic of participation has been anticipated by a variety of earlier innovations. The history of these innovations tells much about the continuing commodification of media, objects and places— old wine re-packaged in new bottles. In the commercial sphere at least, that’s interaction!

Infotainment synergy

The entertainment and communications industries are becoming increasingly amalgamated and “synergistic”. That is, they are more vertically integrated and monopolistic. Such synchronisation of consumption is vastly aided by the deployment of new media technologies in the marketplace. The current commercialisation of the World Wide Web is just one example of such a deployment, which exploits the technological possibility of two-way interaction for mostly one-way commercial objectives” the sale and promotion of goods and services.

It is now routine for the largest corporations to have interests across a range of media and technologies. Though this is nothing new, these empires now span a much larger field than in the past. In the 1920s and 1930s for example, corporations such as General Electric and General Motors had large investments in Hollywood studios, mainly by way of agreements concerning product placement. Inversely, the studios invested in companies such as RCA, who provided the studios with crucial research and development for new technologies such as sound. This period was also characterised by the domination of a small number of very large film companies who also controlled their own networks of distribution and exhibition, excluding others from competition. Though for many years the majors were accused of monopolistic practices, it wasn’t until the landmark Paramount case of 1948 that the studios were ordered by the courts to divest their theatrical interests.

Despite the fact that this is generally held to mark the beginning of the end of the studio system’s reign, Hollywood continued to survive” in one form or another. Though this topic is beyond the scope of this paper, the modern media-entertainment complex continued to evolve and innovate new (often technologically-driven) adaptive strategies in response to drastic changes in the commercial landscape. This ability to adapt to continually evolving technological and economic conditions also characterises the present era of electronic media. As we will see, many of the claims which have in the past been made for new mechanical technologies sound a familiar ring in the present electronic-digital era.

It is no coincidence that the “spectacular” use of colour, widescreen and 3D effects were developed in the 1950s as a means to re-capture and re-involve the mass audiences (considered lost to the new technology of television, in which Hollywood was supposedly unable to participate ). Technological novelty provided the industry a claim to greater participation, realism and audience involvement, a marketable way to attract a mass audience to theatres. By the 1970s, big budget film spectacles such as Jaws, Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure had helped the commercial film industry avoid its much anticipated final demise. As Thomas Schatz has noted in relation to the American film industry of this period, early “pronouncements of ‘the death of Hollywood’ proved to be greatly exaggerated… [T]he industry not only survived but flourished in a changing marketplace.” It did so by broadening its base in order to involve a mass audience at a number of interrelated sites that had the theme of the film as the common link. As a result of newly innovated cross-marketing and publicity in radio and television, a large distributed audience was attracted to the big budget movies organised around spectacularly simple themes.

This tendency continues to the present, though on a grander scale. Today the biggest corporations have (or would like to have) interests in cinema, television, the World Wide Web, multimedia publication, theme parks, cable networks, merchandising, and retailing around the world. This has a significant effect on the kinds of work that can be made for the market. Any participation in such a diversified (though highly concentrated in economic terms) media landscape involves immersion in a highly commodified network of entertainment, information and power. Hollywood represents just one dimension of the increasing consolidation of a media industry that is characterised by integrated entertainment conglomerates that manufacture, distribute and sell films, books, recordings, and related merchandise, providing more opportunities for big business to maximise profits. Claims that new technologies offer more power to the audience as a result of their participatory nature are often greatly exaggerated. In such a landscape of commodified intertextuality, the consumer is granted power to interact in ways which are limited strictly by the dictates of the market.

Such diversification strengthens the links between market areas that were previously relatively autonomous. This “synergy” ultimately affects the way products are produced and cross-marketed. The recent buy-out of the American television network ABC by Disney” paying a staggering $US19 billion, second only to the $US25 billion deal between Nabisco and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts” represents just such a logic. For Disney, there are enormous profits to be milked from an integrated company with substantial interests in a variety of media and their associated “retail outlets”. Put simply, “participation” in Disney’s world stimulates consumers to “interact” with more of their products according to the logic of Disney corporate culture.

This is by no means an isolated example. Nor is it the last we’ll hear of gigantic transnational “horizontal” integration in the multimedia business. The expansion and diversification of media companies has led the culture industry into retailing proper. It has also allowed retailing into entertainment. Of course, television programs and movies have long been recognised as commodities. Nowadays these products are subject to further commercial exploitation, and further distribution across technologised landscapes of consumption. These shifts have also affected the form and style of commercial filmmaking, as I suggest in the discussion of Jurassic Park in the final part of this paper.

In her important study of the transformation of the film industry, Hollywood in the Information Age, Janet Wasko argues that it

is as difficult to ignore the brand-name products scattered throughout a typical Hollywood blockbuster, as it is to avoid the ever-present tie-in campaigns featured at supermarket and quick-food outlets. Meanwhile there is a proliferation of toys, games and other merchandise based on Hollywood films… [T]hese marketing strategies have become more deliberate and carefully coordinated than in the past. These developments, furthermore, enhance the commodification of culture and promote a consumer society.

As I suggested earlier, this tendency is the outcome of broader changes in the entertainment and cultural landscape, and is not an isolated or recent phenomenon. I now want to turn to two related discussions which typify this proliferation of commodified culture and the expansion of multimedia corporations (with their “interactive” products) into consumer society. The first involves the evolution of amusement parks from turn-of-the-century mass culture to Disney’s present global kingdom of location-based entertainment and merchandising. The second takes the film Jurassic Park as an instance of technological and cultural convergence which successfully translates the Disney approach into a highly successful commodity spectacle. Together they demonstrate the extent to which the “spectacle of modernity” has been incorporated into the economic and cultural strategies of contemporary multimedia enterprises.

A Relational History

The perceptual technologies and marketing techniques first innovated by Walt Disney have had a profound influence on the entertainment industry. He remains a central figure in any discussion of the invention of what I have been calling “landscapes of consumption”. Disney (the man and the business) rode out the enormous financial difficulties that beset the company during the 1950s by creating an elaborate participatory fantasy-world based in part on themes taken from the company’s films and a form of idealised vernacular architecture. According to the Californian architect Charles Moore, Disneyland made possible for its American audience at least, a “kind of participation without embarrassment” , a comfortably recognisable built environment that instantly appealed to a mass market. He might have added that the park was organised to cause the least offence to the greatest number of visitors. The ersatz “world” is an ideal backdrop that masks the machinations of mass consumption “behind a facade that reproduces a unidimensional nature and history” . Utilising dizzying combinations of animation, building techniques, the marketing of recognisable characters, the promotion of a wholesome family ideology, cutting edge simulation technologies, and indeed television itself, Disney created a synergistic multimedia complex on an unprecedented corporate scale.

Disney was of course himself indebted to entertainment, architectural and technological practices that proceeded him, despite the fact the company went on to develop its own highly successful (and hence much-imitated) business strategies. At this point it is helpful to take a brief detour to look at some of Disney’s antecedents, before returning to the role of Disney in the corporate discourses of participation and interaction.

If the history of technology is not linear (in the sense that developments in one field do not automatically lead to changes in another), a more complete understanding of technological developments can be revealed in what might be called a “relational history”. I want to briefly outline a few of these possible connections here. The following section demonstrates how contemporary perception and realms of experience have been significantly changed by modern technologies of transportation, entertainment, architecture and telecommunications. It is this context, and not necessarily the vision of a great man, that informs the development of entertainment companies like Disney.

Mechanical perception and the origin of amusement parks

It is a commonplace to remark that the mechanical movement brought about by the advent of trains, cars, and planes inaugurated a new kind of “machine vision”. It was a form of mechanical perception that was quickly translated into cinematic and amusement cultures, which were themselves the result of changes in mechanical forms of reproduction and motion. Hence amusement park rides like the roller coaster mimic both the action of the train and the mechanical movement of cinema. It also parodies the utilitarian purpose of the train ride while heightening the kinaesthetic experience: the aim of the roller coaster ride is to produce an intense rush of speed, a thrill of acceleration and gravity-defying feats.

It is also worth pointing out that the vertically integrated companies that built the railways were also interested in a slice of the action in the new mechanical amusements. One of the earliest roller coasters in America (built in the coal mining town of Mauch Chunk in eastern Pennsylvania in 1870) proved “so popular that the railroads even ran special trains to accommodate the attraction.” The establishment of late nineteenth-century amusement parks was often associated with rail and electric trolleycar connections that transported workers from the cities to the parks which were located on the outskirts of town.

David Nye’s comprehensive research on the electrification of North America provides a detailed account of these developments. In Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, he gives ample evidence of the kind of “synergy” electric companies needed in order to make the provision of power profitable. The same logic prevails in today’s entertainment industry, as we have already seen. The need to maximise electric power during off-peak periods (evenings and weekends) neatly coincided with the decision to create form of “mechanised leisure”.

The American companies who brought electricity to urban centres were in partnership with the makers of the new electric trolley cars. Nye notes that in order to maximise the efficiency of their services, a large number of these small late-nineteenth-century companies encouraged workers to use the cars on their days off . What better way to spend a hot afternoon than on a breeze generating trolleycar whizzing through the countryside? At the end of the line enterprising business-people set up fairs and amusement parks. Many of the scenic railways and rollercoaster attractions located there were built and managed by the same companies that ran the intercity transportation.

One particularly vivid example of this sort of thing can be found in the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 which presented a profoundly influential demonstration of the synergy between electricity, streetcars and leisure.

General Electric built an electric railway that ran on three sides of the grounds, providing easy access to both the cultural exhibits and the midway… The public marvelled at the automatic signalling and braking systems, appreciated the cooling wind, and saw the Fair as a panorama… The success of the electric streetcar at the Chicago Fair and its connection to the midway provided traction companies with both the stimulus and the necessary model. They erected copies of the Ferris wheel at trolley parks across the nation… By 1901 one half of all street railways operated one or more amusement parks.

At turn-of-the-century amusement parks, roller coaster rides, rain crash rides, ghost train rides, panoramas and scenic railways were easily constructed and maintained by electric trolley companies, who made most of their money operating the trolley cars to the park. The amusements were a convenient way to solve the rail companies’ need to maintain profitable levels of operation during “down time”. The inexpensive journey to the park and the amusing attractions at the end of the line connected a sufficiently large number of riders to the newly automated landscape. The pleasure, thrill and fascination associated with electro-mechanical transportation was further incorporated into a parallel world of thrilling entertainment at the end of the line. As Tom Gunning puts it, such rides “did not simply produce the negative experience of fear but the particularly modern entertainment form of the thrill, embodied elsewhere in the recently appearing attractions of the amusement park…which combined sensations of acceleration and falling with a security guaranteed by modern industrial technology.”

Some amusement rides and panoramas were of course interested in simulating the experience of travel to remote and exotic locations. Like much travel photography of the time, the viewer-rider “journeys to another world”. The cinema extends this still further, developing a more complex repertoire of participatory techniques (such as narrative, point of view, travelling camera etc). Both are the function of the same kind of action: the experience of the modern landscape is profoundly modified by mechanical movement through space. The movement through the modern landscape” on a “phantom ride” in an amusement park, or on the trolley car on the way there” was mirrored by the new attractions of cinema (itself a function of the mechanical movement constituted by an ever-changing modernity). The modern subject experienced the novel and stimulating sensations associated with mechanical movement at a variety of distinct though interconnected sites. This coincidence of forces also marks the emergence of the “immersive” and kinetic views experienced in technologised landscapes of the present.

Gunning provides further insight into this important set of relations:

Cinema nestles into this network of circulation as both technology and industry, but also as a new form of experience… The early genres of cinema, especially such seemingly diverse forms as travel, actualities and trick films, visualise a modern experience of rapid alteration… Early actuality films frequently presented a simulacrum of travel not only by presenting foreign views but also through “phantom rides” films, which were shot from the front of trains or prows of boats and which gave the seated, stationary spectator a palpable sensation of motion.

Indeed, to be immersed in the kinetics of cinema and other amusements was likened to the kinetic experience of the everyday. Modernity was increasingly machine-like, and a new form of vision and experience emerged to deal with it. Entrepreneurs were quick to exploit this in their mechanical amusements. Today’s “ride films” and other forms of location-based entertainment are the logical development of these turn of the century perceptual and entertainment forms, and represent their information age equivalent. Now they also belong to the consumer landscape of mainstream American cinema, shopping malls, theme parks, and the new retail spaces of entertainment architecture. Today,

the stage-prop quality of a landscape of consumption… takes more ingenious root in the social imagination. This landscape is built up by the electronic image that faithfully transmits, yet also renders more abstract, the architectural facade that both mirrors and recedes, the Disneyland that re-creates a built environment for mass leisure consumption.”

Modernity transformed the texture of everyday experience and commercially orchestrated experience. As the built environment evolved technologically, so did commercial amusements, which greatly increased the emphasis placed on spectacle, sensationalism, kinetic experience and astonishing thills. In the era of telecommunications, this strategy continues to assure the entertainment economy’s expansion into new fields.

Disney Inc.

Disneyland remains the most profound reminder of this extending of boundaries and continual process of incorporation. It is an example of how the mechanics and economics of animated cinema was given geographic and physical form. In the view of European intellectuals such as Jean Baudrillard or Umberto Eco, Disneyland is an icon of spectacular society, an ephemeral American fantasy made concrete, a kind of hyperreality . While this may be true, Americans have focused more on the “reality” of Disney, providing a materialist criticism of the Disney phenomenon. According to New York sociologist Sharon Zukin, “the synergies between Disney’s various corporate investments are a model for the symbolic economy based on media, real estate, and artistic display.”

Though much of the story of Disney’s rise is well known, it is worth reframing here. When Walt Disney set up Disneyland Incorporated in 1951, he had no idea of exactly how successful and ubiquitous his dream of a “participatory” fantasy world would become. Based on the fortunes of an animation company that had not had a major box office success for close to a decade, this permanent theme park was to emulate the spectacular proportions that had previously been the province of the more ephemeral world trade fairs and amusement parks. Here in Southern California was to be built an elaborate fantasy-land that would permanently bring the world of animation to life. While it is correct to say that the construction of this new entertainment landscape was achieved by redirecting the talent and resources of production departments that had up until this point been involved in the making of cartoons, it is also true to say that Disneyland would never have materialised without the help of television, as the success of the project relied heavily upon the financial backing and large television audience the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) was able to provide Disney.

In fact, Walt Disney had a hard time convincing anybody that his idea of building a family park on a monolithic scale never before attempted would be of any interest to the paying public. Given the Disney studio’s financial situation at that time (the company was heavily indebted to the Bank of America) it was impossible for the dream to become a “reality” without the significant backing of other industries. The Board at Disney rejected the plans for the park, as did just about every other prospective investor Walt Disney approached. By 1954, just eighteen months away from what was to be the opening of Disneyland, it was primarily Walt Disney and his employees who had raised almost all of the money invested in the project thus far” already over $7 million. Costs had skyrocketed and at least that much again was needed to complete the project.

It was the American Broadcasting Company (ABC)” with much to gain from an association with Disney” that finally guaranteed the rest of the loans that would enable the park to open, thus becoming a 35% owner of Disneyland and, most importantly, of a new television series.

Disney had only produced two television programs prior to this arrangement with the ABC. The idea of diversifying into television was not Disney’s initial intention at all. In fact up until this point TV was the competition. But if this relationship was going to enable Walt to build what he described as “a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community centre, a museum of living facts, and a show-place of beauty and magic” , then this was the price he would pay. As it turned out, the one-off TV special that Walt envisaged gave way to a whole series, for which ABC would sink a further $1.5 million into the park.

Disney’s amusement park and television program was something of a perfect model for media incorporations. Everything associated with the park became a tie-in for the already very profitable licensing of animation characters. Although the live broadcast of the opening of Disneyland in 1955 was little short of a 90 minute television disaster, it did nothing to endanger the runaway success of the mouseketeers and the Mickey Mouse Club. The kids at home would put on their mouse ears while the kids on screen led them through a primitive form of “interactive television”. (The mouseketeer hats were taken from Mickey’s Karnival Kid of 1929, where Mickey lifts off his entire head for one particular gag! Here the whole of American youth seems to fall for the same joke).

These early experiments would later develop into further spinoffs such as Disney Television (DTV), EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community for Tomorrow), Eurodisney, DisneyWorld and all the retailing and marketing tie-ins that go with them. These places are themselves like giant inhabitable sets and attractions, spectacular entertainment shopping malls where consumer-audiences are made to feel happy parting with their money. As with prior amusement parks, Walt Disney managed to achieve this profitable effect by incorporating illusion through motion, graphics and characters established in cinema and extended through TV. But unlike the electric trolley companies, he did not yet have a monopoly on “delivery” and accommodation of the consumer-visitor.

Entertainment architecture and design

Today Disneyland is no longer bound by its Californian borders. Some critics would go so far as to suggest that the gulf that once separated the quintessential amusement park from the rest of contemporary architecture and design has disappeared. Disney’s innovation in the field of “entertainment architecture” has helped this transformation enormously. The look and themes of amusement parks are becoming part and parcel of late twentieth century architecture.

The list of prominent designers now associated with entertainment architecture suggests the significance of this shift. Eminent American architect Robert Stern has completed two hotels for Disney’s European venture, and also serves on Disney’s board. His Hotel Cheyanne is like a live-in stage set from High Noon, while his Newport Bay Club is a pastiche of the traditional Shingle style typical of northeastern American architecture. According to Stern, “You could not find a western town that looks like the Hotel Cheyenne. It bears a closer relationship to movie sets. It’s very literal, but it doesn’t resemble the real world so much as American western movies.”

Michel Eisner, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Walt Disney Company, is seen by many as the driving force behind this new emphasis on serious architecture. Though he clearly wants to bolster Disney’s reputation as a cultural benefactor, his approach is pure Hollywood. For Eisner, “the difference between a movie and architecture is that you go to a movie for 90 minutes and it’s over, but the architecture is there forever.” Or for as long as the market exists anyway. Eisner has proven very adept at expanding the reach and success of Disney’s audience.

Since he started with Disney in 1984 (he was previously Paramount studio’s chief executive) Eisner has seen the company trade out of difficulty and into considerable success. But Disney is more than a company with a high-flying chief. As Douglas Gomery reminds us, it is a vast capitalist enterprise with a history of coming to understand and adapt to the changing conditions of twentieth-century commerce and culture. This is part of the reason Eisner has been keen to recruit some of the most preeminent architects in the world to be his new “imagineers”. Many of the well-known pop, postmodern and deconstructionist architects have completed buildings for Disney. Frank O. Gehry’s shopping mall style Festival Disney for the French theme park epitomises this integration of contemporary architecture and “imagineering”, juxtaposing space and materials in order to create a kind of disintegrating theatre backdrop. Gehry’s usually difficult architecture here seems the epitome of popular accessibility.

However, we should remember that it was the architects who found pop architecture before pop found them. Michael Graves was well known for his playful brand of postmodernism before accepting commissions with Disney in Paris and in Florida. The fantasy architecture of Disneyland is now in the same league as the most serious-minded architecture of our times. Despite the criticism conservative architects level at his Dolphin and Swan Hotels for Walt Disney World in Florida, and the company’s corporate headquarters in California, Graves’ work has helped Disney make an important cultural transition. By crossing the imaginary critical divide, Graves and others have incorporated high culture into Disney’s corporate profile. Graves’ seven dwarfs supporting the pediment of the Disney corporate headquarters in California may drive some architects and critics crazy, but the building ultimately wins valuable cultural mileage for the Disney business.

According to Disney in-house architects, the hotels are meant to be a direct extension of the Disney theme park experience, and not merely architecture for architecture’s sake. Despite the stylistic jumble and head-on collision of architectural styles, the Disney message remains. What was once an occasional joke or a frivolous reference in pop architecture has grown into a large-scale assault on popular culture. Entertainment architecture is becoming a dominant theme in many built environments of the West.

Today we encounter “serious” architecture where shopping meets the movies. Warner Brothers, Sony, Universal and Virgin Records have all invested heavily in entertainment design, acknowledging that the extension of the fantasy experience into real-world shopping is an essential part of an integrated consumer media landscape.

Warners have opened 80 new Studio stores in the US, with another 30 or so scheduled for 1995. Their Manhattan store on 57th Street is styled according to precisely the same formula as the one in the Frank Gehry designed Santa Monica Mall. The Michigan firm of Jon Greenburg and Associates has given all the shops the same “behind-the-scenes feel”, though each is given its own “personality”. In the words of Greenburg’s President, Ken Nich, they want “people to have a sense of being behind the scenes of the quick-flash, quick-image vitality inherent in entertainment, but we also wanted a very high-quality, not mass-market, atmosphere.”

The aim of such corporate strategies is to set up a complete shopping and entertainment experience united in the “high culture” design of the environment. Just like Disney, Warners make a virtue of the visual cacophony characteristic of the times. These are multi-media commercial environments that have shoppers lining up in droves, and competitors jumping on the bandwagon.

Universal’s City Walk mall just outside its studios in Los Angeles is another pop essay in visual eclecticism. From the giant twelve-plex cinema at the head of the mall, through to the Sharp Panasonic store at the end, this commercial shopping district wears its identity on its sleeve. Each store along the 800 metre long “walk” has its own look, which competes with the surroundings for attention. Just like Disneyland. Taking Pop Art to its illogical extremes, every building literalises its theme and turns it into a facade. Sony have started entertainment retailing as well. Their first movie-set inspired mall is located in the lobby and basement of another icon of postmodern architecture” Philip Johnson’s AT&T building in New York. Part electronic demonstration centre, part corporate HQ, part public exhibition space, the Sony building is an extravagant attempt to make architectural space entertaining and profitable. This is the type of convergence that encourages a very particular sort of intertextuality and interactivity. The life and identity of commodities continues to stretch the bounds of media and social space, extending to the increasingly technologised landscape of consumption.

Cultural convergence in Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park is a particularly pertinent example of such convergence” from “the other side of the screen” we might say. Rather than looking at the film as an object, as something to subject to textual analysis, I want to discuss Jurassic Park in terms of the cultural, technological and historical layers upon which it rests. Given the nature of the film and the marketplace in which it operates, our criticism should focus upon the disparate conditions that make possible this particular kind of cinematic event and related products.

Compared with turn-of-the-century examples discussed earlier, it demonstrates how far the commercial strategies of cinema and amusement parks have come since their emergence in modernity. While most discussions of this Steven Spielberg vehicle have concentrated either on the state-of-the -art computer graphics or on the significance of the movie in the director’s career, my interest is in how Jurassic Park managed (successfully) to abandon complex narrative and character structure in favour of what I refer to as a “kinetic fiction”. Like the rides and early “cinema of attractions” discussed in the first part of this paper, this film is an excellent example of a thrill movie whose main purpose is to provide the audience with spectacular kinetic effects (via frantic chase sequences, computer graphics, widescreen and Dolby sound) by means of a highly schematic fiction. It does so by incorporating the idea of a theme park gone wrong into a simple narrative structure. Though this stylistic tendency is discernible in many contemporary blockbusters (particularly 1990s action flims such as Speed, Broken Arrow, the Batman and Terminator films, Judge Dredd,Twister, etc) it finds its apex in Jurassic Park. To describe the effects of Jurassic Park is also to map the more general transformation of the Hollywood entertainment industry in the information age.

In short, I’d like to suggest that Jurassic Park is a kind of “immersive three-act ride film”. The film’s kinetic effects pivot around the familiar three-act formula of mainstream American narrative cinema, stitching the audience into the diegetic world of shocks and a mythic landscape of consumption” a dinosaur theme park . Its success tells us something of how well popular commercial cinema has managed to integrate the commercial and technological innovations inaugurated at the turn of the century into a neat consumer package. In the same way that consumers were “packaged” in railway tours or attracted to stimulating kinetic environments (such as amusement- and theme-park rides) audiences of today are bundled up into its contemporary cinematic equivalent.

Jurassic Park is undoubtably one of the biggest box office successes of our time. In its first three weeks in the US it took over $200 million, easily recouping its own monstrous budget of $150 million and making up for its unusually lengthy production schedule. It perfectly illustrates the logic of spectacular film events that have become a major feature of the new Hollywood system during the 1980s. As pure spectacle, Jurassic Park marshals a number of popular discourses, drawing audiences in through a massive globally-coordinated advertising campaign.

Jurassic Park is an exemplary instance of how the media-entertainment complex functions in the latter part of the twentieth century. It is an extraordinary assemblage of effects, techniques and ploys that have their origins outside the usual instrumentalities of the cinema. It is more accurately described as a phenomenon that is materialised at a number of diverse (though highly integrated) sites in the contemporary landscape of consumption. The film is characterised by the same precision in locating and satisfying consumers that has been developed in advertising, theme parks and shopping malls alike. It is a central point in a system of consumption that replicates itself across a number of electronically integrated, though geographically discontinuous spaces. It is therefore a model of what is to come in marketing and “immersive” (often highly kinaesthetic) Hollywood spectacles. The audience, like the shopper or the driver, is placed at the centre of a “navigable” kinetic world. In order to facilitate this effect, the film alludes to models of “participation” that already exist in theme parks and expos.

Jurassic Park fictionalises the kind of theme parks pioneered and developed at attractions such as Disneyland and Disneyworld, while at the same time managing to parody them. Peter Wollen puts it thus:

Along with the box office, all those T-shirt and mugs and key tags and toys are, after all, the fuel that drives both enterprises, real film and imaginary theme park … video games, action figures and play sets, breakfast cereal and hamburger promotions, plush toys, magnets, story books, lunch boxes, pencils and, of course [the] ride at Universal Studio’s very own theme parks in California and Florida.

It also relies on the foregrounding of seamless new special effects techniques that have come to stand for the triumph of advanced computer graphics in Hollywood cinema. Like Terminator 2 before it, Jurassic Park stands as proof to a reluctant film industry that the digital era has well and truly arrived.

Historian of technology Carolyn Marvin has argued that “the introduction of new media is a special historical occasion when patterns anchored in older media that have provided the stable currency of social exchange are reexamined, challenged, and defeated.” I think she’s right, and would further agree when she insists that new media also “intrude on these negotiations by providing new platforms on which old groups confront each other.” This is precisely how Jurassic Park has been viewed in the industry and by the general public alike (in the same way that unsuccessful films such as The Robe could demonstrate the technological spectacle of widescreen to audiences in the fifties.)

Adjacent attractions

It can be argued that Jurassic Park is a breakthrough achievement in the construction of entertainment forms that have been radically altered in the so-called “information era”. Its “kinetic fiction” is played out over a (diegetic) landscape of consumption that is mirrored in adjacent media spaces and (real) sites of commerce. It is the perfect form of commercial entertainment for the shopping-mall-as-theme-park, and the coming wave of location-based entertainment. Jurassic Park can even parody commercialism within the fiction in order to stimulate it outside” in the lobby and beyond. More importantly, it connects these new spaces and technologies to familiar, recognisable locations. The Park itself becomes a kind of virtual geography that the audience journeys through alongside the characters in the film.

The film can be seamlessly incorporated into the increasingly interchangeable and interdependent spaces of shopping complexes, freeways and theme parks, computer games, and computer-mediated communications. Its lack of narrative coherence is replaced by a newer spatial ordering that mirrors the same disjunctures of desire, movement, and “mobile vision” now commonplace in any shopping mall, roadway or “information superhighway”" which, not coincidently, also provides the dominant model for the current push towards “interactive” home shopping. Jurassic Park is hence a perfectly integrated product that can also sell the products it ties into its world.

The film’s “contrived packaging, obvious manipulation, and mass market imagery” is a particularly vivid instance of special effects cinema as a mass-consumption environment. What critic Margaret Crawford has said of Disneyland is equally true of Jurassic Park:

Theme-park attractions are now commonplace in shopping malls; indeed, the two forms converge” malls routinely entertain, while theme parks function as disguised marketplaces. Both offer controlled and carefully packaged public spaces and pedestrian experiences to auto-dependent suburban families already primed for passive consumption by television… While enclosed shopping malls suspended space, time, and weather, Disneyland went one step further and suspended reality. Any geographic, cultural, or mythical location… could be reconfigured as a setting for entertainment.

From this perspective, Jurassic Park the film, is a form of suspended reality that carefully controls and packages its spaces and events in a mythical location, reconfigured for entertainment” just like Jurassic Park the fictional place. Though this is a modern tendency that has its Hollywood antecedents in fantasies such as The Wizard of Oz, Jurassic Park is primed for a more extensively commodified culture accessible across a range of electronic and geographic sites. The pleasures and dangers it offers are like those of the amusement parks to which it owes its existence” thrilling perhaps, but definitely safe. Although the major theme of the film is a reworked version of the tried and true “man-meddling-with-nature” (which is itself a narrative theme), this is ultimately resolved by the formation of a two-child family and their right to consume in safety (which is a property of kinaesthetic entertainment, regardless of whether it submits to narrative or not). Although Jurassic Park shares these characteristics with many other films, it is a particularly pertinent example of such tendencies.

Ride films

The development of electronic media and forms of information and entertainment can also be seen as part of this more general genealogy of culture discussed in the first part of this paper. In the words of American film historian Lauren Rabinovitz, we can see the evolution of the cinema and theme parks as “mutual sites of pleasurable gazing [which] are doubly articulated in the cinematic process of spectatorship and the mimetic representation of the amusement park ride.” The same can also be said of mass entertainment forms in the age of electronic and digital reproduction. Jurassic Park stitches its target audience into the action, schematic plot and spectacular mise-en-scene at every possible moment.

Indeed, the fundamental logic of Jurassic Park is one of incorporation and containment” of culture, identity and technology. The film is particularly noteworthy as an example of how contemporary commercial forms cannibalise and feed off others. Jurassic Park represents more than contemporary cinema at its most simplistic. It is the commercial node around which a vast complex of merchandising, marketing, product tie-ins, and computer technologies define the nature of the film itself.

The spectacular dinosaurs are indisputably the stars of the film. As Tom Gunning has argued in relation to the early American cinema, the primary motivating force in many of these films has little to do with narrative or even character: “The cinema of attractions, rather than telling stories, bases itself on film’s ability to show something… [T]his is an exhibitionist cinema, a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world to solicit the attention of its spectator.” Far from representing the decay of American cinema, I want to argue that Jurassic Park is the final result of this exhibitionistic tendency of Hollywood cinema. This kind of filmmaking is “in effect, plotless, a series of transformations strung together with little connection and practically no characterisation.”

In many places it actually seems as though the traditional approach to narrative filmmaking has been abandoned altogether. This is because Jurassic Park is at the height of an American kinaesthetic cinema whose spectacle produces a bodily cinema of shocks and effects, a hyperactive cinema of mainstream attractions. Its primary function is to move the audience through a series of kinetically linked spaces, a filmic architecture and geography of events that is negotiated” we could even say navigated” by the viewer as if on a ride.

Such a discourse, regardless of its variation, is hardly new. Indeed, the advent of new widescreen technologies such as Cinerama in the early 1950s exploited remarkably similar techniques of participation and immersion. John Belton’s vivid descriptions:

As the roller coaster moved forward, so did the camera. Spectators in the theatre were suddenly plunged into one of the most visceral motion picture experiences ever created. The frame of the theatre proscenium seemed to disappear, and the audience had the uncanny sensation of entering into the events … Cinerama put the audience in the front car of the roller coaster and surrounded them with eye-filling peripheral images which created an unprecedented illusion of depth…. the music and sound effects spread from the centre to speakers in the rear of the auditorium.

The “ride” structure of Jurassic Park is fundamentally reliant upon new technologies and their incorporation into the fictional and real space of the film. More than this, the penultimate crisis of the film is solved by navigating through a series of graphical computer user interfaces. As she points and clicks her way through the bewildering array of icons and boxes within boxes, Ariana Richards (Lex) reboots the Park’s failed computer system in order to lock out the invading dinosaurs.

Jurassic Park also meshes neatly into the rapid rise of immersive location-based entertainment” a cross between amusement park rides, special venue cinema, and limited-passenger motion-based cinemas. Starting with the international expositions of the World’s Fairs, a vast array of experimental communicative and technological forms have been showcased to awe-inspired audiences. These attractions have mostly thrived in theme parks, tourist attractions and trade fairs. However, there is an increasing tendency, for entertainment of this kind to be developed with the shopping mall and multiplex in mind. Jurassic Park can be seen as part of the developing adjacent field of entertainments which reduplicate the spatialised consumption required by the shopping mall into the structure of the film and its promotional attachments.

Companies such as Richard Edlund’s Boss Film, Ubi Iwerks’ Cinetropolis, Imax, Disney, Showscan, Omnimax, Douglas Trumball’s Ridefilm, as well as major studios such as Universal and Warners are all developing and marketing theme rides.

At the turn of the century, patterns of leisure and work were profoundly affected by the impact of new mechanical and electric technologies. As far as the amusement park was concerned, the “extravagance and scale of the architecture, the mix and confusion of different scales and details, the bright colours and the mechanical structures that dominated the environment addressed the visitor’s eye through their visual excess and velocity of parts-in-motion”. The rides may have dramatised and spectacularised the assaults to the body and to the natural order that were taking place in the wider culture. But they also functioned to normalise the abrupt shocks that were being inscribed on the body, which was increasingly a “consumer body” in an age of mechanical labour, leisure and reproduction.


Jurassic Park draws a number of popular discourses into a kinetic cinema of attractions. However, its ideologies and effects succeed in a different fashion from what we might ordinarily expect. The film cannot be explained in auteurist, narrative or even simple ideological terms. It is part of a tendency towards an exhibitionist cinema that displays rather than represents its own particular logic of vision, sound and motion. In the same way that Jurassic Park is willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world in order to solicit the “participation” of its consumer-audience, our criticism should similarly focus upon the disparate conditions that make possible this particular brand of cinema-as-spectacular-event.

New multimedia corporations such as Disney have understood the benefits of integrating media products in this manner, across a variety of inter-related sites. Like the railroad and electric companies at the turn of the century, Disney is interested in strengthening the synergy between the different activities of production, exhibition, marketing, retailing and broadcasting. These activities are increasingly bound up together, and are having significant impact on the shape of the interactive multimedia landscape. It is timely to look more closely at the complex network of precedents that give shape and meaning to “interaction” and “participation” in our new artificial environments and entertainment worlds.

Just as the need to maximise electric power during off-peak periods neatly coincided with corporate decisions to create forms of “mechanised leisure”, so in our era do we find a multimedia leisure (infotainment) industry obsessed with delivering different versions of the same product at a number of integrated though distinct sites. This has had and will continue to have profound effects on the kinds of cultural products made for mass consumption.

The synergy of multimedia corporations is also playing a significant role in the transformation of “realspace” into a form of “cyberspace”. In short, consumer society is being made equivalent to a vast electronic shopping mall, packed with all kinds of entertainment and related merchandise. Though this paper has not dealt with the nature of interaction itself, I have tried to show the degree to which the present objectives of multimedia corporations aim to integrate vast global markets via the commercial exploitation of interactive systems that flatten the distinctions between text and commodity, intertext and product line. In the global corporate logic of the information age, that’s interaction.