Universal launched its enduring monsters Dracula and Frankenstein during the Great Depression. Now it’s watching Halloween Horror Nights grow into a major franchise for its theme parks during the recession.
The annual event, which transforms its Hollywood and Orlando theme parks into a series of haunted attractions throughout October, broke attendance records last year and looks to do so again by adding high-profile properties such as “Saw” and cult favorite “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” through licensing pacts with Lionsgate and 20th Century Fox, respectively.
Halloween events are considered prime opportunities for studios to keep horror properties, and the monsters that star in them, alive and scare up more coin outside the megaplex. Disneyland, for example, gives a big push to its “Nightmare Before Christmas” franchise in the park at this time of year.
With the scary economy, theme parks are driven to do anything they can to lure guests, particularly locals who can provide repeat business. Holiday-themed events and attractions have proven a strong draw.
U’s fright fest was a big hit for the parks last year even amid the worst of the global financial meltdown.
Last year “was our most successful year, hands down,” said John Murdy, Universal Studios’ creative director. “People are attracted to either comedy or horror in times of uncertainty. They need escape and love to be scared.”
But theme parks are also challenged to reinvent their offerings year after year.
“Everything is different this year,” Murdy said. “There isn’t one thing we’re repeating from the past,” with mazes built around “Saw,” “Halloween,” “My Bloody Valentine,” and “Child’s Play,” while a 30-minute tribute show for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is being imported from the Orlando park. Focus Features’ zombie laffer “Shaun of the Dead” will also be featured.
Lionsgate’s gory “Saw” franchise is the main attraction, integrated into the Terror Tram Tour and scare zones and prominently featured in U’s advertising for the event. Thesp Tobin Bell voices the franchise’s bogeyman Jigsaw in the mazes and tour.
Last year, Lionsgate paired up with professional haunted house designer Jeff Schleffelbein to produce an elaborate haunted house inside a former movie theater in Brea, Calif.
After the house proved a major draw, the studio and the “Saw” franchise’s producers considered creating an even larger attraction closer to L.A. with Schleffelbein.
But Lionsgate wound up partnering with U instead, given the extra exposure “Saw” could receive from the Universal parks, as it readies to unspool the sixth installment of the franchise on Oct. 23.
Given that last year was the first time “Saw” had been officially featured in a haunted attraction, Schleffelbein isn’t miffed that Lionsgate parted ways. “I was flattered to get the chance to start it,” he said.
This year, Schleffelbein, who has been producing haunted houses (even props for U’s horror event in Orlando) over the past 15 years, signed on for another haunted house in the Brea theater, themed around Konami’s popular videogame series “Silent Hill,” which was adapted into a film in 2006.
The attraction, made up of montages from the games and film, will help promote Konami’s latest reboot, “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.”
Konami isn’t funding the house but is helping to market the attraction.
The “Saw”-themed house attracted more than 20,000 visitors, and “Silent Hill” could draw up to 30,000 given word of mouth over the event’s previous productions. It will move to a new larger and more permanent location next year because the shopping center that houses the movie theater is being redeveloped.
But as he tries to get bigger, Schleffelbein knows he is under pressure to live up to Hollywood’s high production standards.
“When you’re working the studios, not only do you have to impress teenagers, you now have to impress the executives that come see it,” he said. “It’s intense.”
Disneyland will again launch its “Halloween Time” event, which runs through November and transforms the Space Mountain roller coaster into a “Ghost Galaxy” for the first time, while its nightly fireworks display will incorporate Disney’s villains over Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The Haunted Mansion will again be converted into a “Nightmare Before Christmas” holiday mash-up.
And for the second year in a row, Sony’s Screen Gems is partnering with Knott’s “Scary” Farm to license its horror pic “Quarantine” for a maze.
To take advantage of consumers’ interest in thrill-seeking this year, U has added two more days to this year’s 16-night run of Halloween Horror Nights, which kicks off Oct. 2 and takes place after the parks’ usual 7 p.m. closing time.
Organizers held off on making “The Wolfman” a major attraction at Horror Nights in Hollywood after U moved the pic’s release into next year. Much of the marketing around the film won’t roll out until later this year, meaning audiences won’t be as familiar with the property as designers would have hoped.
“We really have to think about our fanbase and how aware they are of certain things,” Murdy said. “When you’re making an attraction, you can’t take the time to educate guests on what the story is. They have to know going in what they’re going to be afraid of.”
The Orlando park will still have a maze for “Wolfman,” however, and the Terror Tram in Hollywood will screen exclusive footage from the pic to start hyping the film, as well as post banners and screen the trailer for guests.
Overall, U’s designers had plenty more to work with, partnering with the studio’s production designers and f/x crews and teams from other production companies.
U brokered a deal with Fox’s licensing and merchandising arm to produce the “Rocky Horror” show, while the “Halloween” maze is based on the original pic owned by Compass Intl. Pictures. Lionsgate also owns “My Bloody Valentine.”
Universal wouldn’t disclose how much it spends to produce the Halloween event, but it’s invested more coin over the years.
“Saw’s” traps, like its needle pit with 6,000 syringes, only have “to look good for the camera once when making the movie,” Murdy said. “Here, it has to work hundreds and thousands of times every single night. We’re trying to create movie-quality haunted attractions. To do that, we’re using every trick in the book.”