“Immersive” entertainment is all the rage

A room full of visitors surrounded by projected images in the immersive King Tut exhibition.

At Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience, images of artwork from Tutankhamen’s tomb are projected onto screens surrounding visitors. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel

Attendance at cinemas and museums is sluggish, but people are flocking to “immersive” shows that let them (virtually) walk around in a Van Gogh painting, King Tut’s tomb, or a surreal fantasy world.

Why it matters: People long to ditch their couches and phone screens for transcendent experiences that allow them to move freely from a theater seat or virtual reality headset and mingle.

Driving the news: The surprising popularity of the half-dozen competing immersive Van Gogh exhibitions held across the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic helped open the floodgates for similar exhibitions that make world-class art and artifacts more accessible and engaging.

  • Advances in projection mapping enable manufacturers to build stunning spectacles.
  • “You walk in and you’re transported to another world,” said Gilles Paquin, CEO of Paquin Entertainment Group, which is behind the show Immersive King Tut, which just opened in 14 US cities. “It puts you in a zen place, a calming place.”

What’s happening: Production companies specializing in concerts and stage shows are now rushing to open immersive entertainment divisions — partly because the original Immersive Van Gogh made big bucks.

  • The company behind Immersive Van Gogh, Lighthouse Immersive, “reported sales of more than 5 million tickets between February 2021 and May 2022, indicating that 1 in 90 Americans had purchased a ticket,” according to Artnet News.
  • Lighthouse’s Van Gogh shows grossed $250 million in total, MarketWatch reports — not including $30 million from the gift shops.

Now you can hike too through the works of Monet and Klimt as well as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

  • Other immersive experiences — some modeled after Meow Wolf’s abstract weirdness — include outdoor Lumina Night Walks and indoor shows like Inter_, a “Fantasia”-like display that just opened in beta in New York City.
  • Inter_ features a “sound bath” and interactive light tunnels, as well as bubbles that release as guests progress.
  • “Hopefully the bubbles fill up with fog and smells later,” said Ryan Nelson, co-founder of the show. “It’s going to be a very nice olfactory experience.”

The trend hits airports and Through Stations: A new installation at Newark Liberty International Airport was designed by Moment Factory, which also hosted a “dye of color” at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station and multimedia diversions at Los Angeles International Airport.

  • Some shows — like SuperReal, which took place in Lower Manhattan’s Cunard Building last summer — capitalize on the architectural uniqueness of their venue.
Spectators sit on benches at an impressive Van Gogh exhibition.
At last summer’s Immersive Van Gogh show in New York City, visitors were able to sit “inside” the paintings. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel

What you say: When the 2019 Van Gogh show took place in Paris, “I couldn’t understand how you could put on a very successful immersive show in a market that has the largest museums in the world, and then I realized that it was It’s a new art form, if you will,” Paquin said.

  • Immersive shows transform viewers from passive to active participants, explained Jamie Reilly, General Manager of Moment Factory.
  • “They blur the lines between what’s real and what’s surreal, what’s digital and what’s physical,” she told Axios.

Yes but: Critics and viewers have called some shows overwhelming, cheesy, and expensive.

  • The Van Gogh shows “distill fin-de-siècle French painting into entertainment as absorbing as a nursery mobile,” sneered a New York Times critic.
  • The Daily Beast asked “Monet’s Garden”: “Does it really live up to the miracle of Monet?”

The bottom line: Shows that blend art, music and a happy ambiance fit well with today’s zeitgeist of wellness, mindfulness and mental health.

  • “We really encourage people to put their problems behind them,” says Nelson of Inter_, which is run by a company called Jobi.
  • “We want to create experiences that give people a reason to get out of the house and engage with each other.”
The scene at SuperReal, an interactive projection mapping exhibition.
Played at Manhattan’s Cunard Building last summer, SuperReal was a trippy experience for viewers, who could lounge on giant beanbag chairs. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel

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