Theme parks to promote horror pic with Halloween attraction

After spending the past five years promoting other studios’ movies, Universal is turning to its “Halloween Horror Nights” theme park franchise as a marketing platform to hype its own films, starting with the prequel for “The Thing.”

With “Horror Nights” officially opening today and running mostly on weekends through Halloween, the thriller, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton, gets its own elaborate maze in Universal’s parks in Hollywood and Orlando.

The properties typically don’t share the same mazes, but with “The Thing,” they made an exception.

With tens of thousands of guests buying tix to “Horror Nights,” the studio saw the event as an opportunity to spread the word about the Oct. 14 release — especially with younger moviegoers who may not necessarily be familiar with John Carpenter’s 1982 original — and to take advantage of the company’s various businesses as promo platforms the way it does with its TV channels.

“We’re extremely proud to be the birthplace of the horror film genre and the home of an amazing library of monsters,” said Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson. “Halloween Horror Nights is the perfect place to introduce park visitors to what promises to be a very frightening ‘Thing.'”

In that regard, “The Thing” maze — which replicates the film’s Norwegian camp, where a group of researchers find themselves infected by an alien creature that can transform itself into an exact replica of any living being — will also be used for an upcoming press junket for the pic and for the afterparty of the film’s Oct. 10 premiere.

A maze based on “Saw” was previously used for press junkets and a shoot for bonus features that appeared on homevideo releases.

“Horror Nights” producers worked closely with the filmmakers behind “The Thing” to replicate the look of the creatures and sets from the pic, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.

“For filmmakers it’s great; they have a set,” said John Murdy, creative director, Universal Studios Hollywood. “Here’s your movie sitting here months after the sets have been torn down.”

“(But) the actual movie sets aren’t useful to me. How you build something for a movie and a haunted attraction that thousands of people will walk through are very different. When you’re doing a movie and you’re doing practical effects they just need to work once. When you get the shot you’re golden and never have to worry about it again. That same shot has to work for us every night.”

Because of that, “The Thing” producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman of Strike Entertainment encouraged Alec Gilles and Tom Woodruff’s effects shop Amalgamated Dynamics, which handled the film’s makeup and creature designs, to work with Murdy and his team, which includes art director and production designer Chris Williams.

Murdy’s crew wound up moving into Amalgamated’s facility, “which was absolutely huge for us,” Murdy said. “At the end of the day, when you see the creature, you’re seeing their work.”

The team also worked with the sound and music departments to borrow from the film’s soundtrack.

Producers didn’t prohibit Murdy from re-creating aspects from the film. “We asked if there were any creatures you don’t want us to do and they said, ‘Do them all.’ That’s what we did. There isn’t a major creature in this film we didn’t cover in this attraction. That’s very unusual.”

In the past, that kind of exposure for an upcoming pic for U wasn’t possible, with a film’s release too far from “Horror Nights” dates or the genre not fitting the event’s intended fear factor. U had been considering a maze as a promo for its update on “The Wolfman,” but opted not to when the film’s release date shifted from fall 2009 to February 2010.

But another factor is awareness.

“We look at everything from box office to the fanbase for a film,” Murdy said. “We want to work with properties people know.”

For example, “Friday the 13th,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” were featured in years past, with “Friday” and “Nightmare” produced in three different ways to tap into their originals, sequels and remakes.

Murdy wanted “The Thing” because the original Kurt Russell starrer still has a large fanbase. But he also liked that the new pic is a prequel.

“The producers truly made a prequel,” Murdy said. “This is about the Norwegian camp alluded to in the original film.”

“Horror Nights” kicks off with tonight’s Eyegore Awards, hosted by Corey Feldman. Rock-horror icon Alice Cooper, David Arquette, Rainn Wilson, Jamie Kennedy, Bailee Madison (“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”) and Emma Bell (“Final Destination 5″) will receive kudos.

The five other mazes built alongside “The Thing: Assimilation” are “Eli Roth’s Hostel: Hunting Season,” “Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare,” “Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses: In 3D ZombieVision,” “La Llorona: Villa De Almas Perdidas” (“The Weeping Woman: Village of the Lost Souls”) imagined by Diego Luna, and “Wolf Man: The Curse of Talbot Hall.”

“Scream 4″ will also be the theme of the studio backlot tram tour, with guests venturing through four different film sets producing the parody pic “Stab 8,” referenced in the pic.

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