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‘Friends’ at 25: How Warner Bros. TV Built an Experiential Empire

Friends” may have been set in New York City and filmed on a Burbank, Calif. soundstage, but its reach has truly gone global. So when Warner Bros. Television Group began brainstorming ideas on how to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the show’s debut, including that international audience became imperative for new partnerships, as well as potential revenue streams.

“We’re trying to tap into an emotional connection, and there’s many different ways that you can do that,” Lisa Gregorian, president and chief marketing officer of Warner Bros. Television Group, tells Variety. “We wanted to create something for everyone, everywhere.”

While New York and Los Angeles still play large parts in the festivities (with a multi-room “Friends” pop-up experience in New York, and select Coffee Beans being rebranded with Central Perk decor, as well as a special edition to the Warner Bros. studio tour, on the west coast), the studio is sending the iconic orange couch across the globe on a photo op tour from the observation deck at the Willis Tower in Chicago, Ill. to Abbey Road in London. Buildings around the country will light up in the colors of the dots in the show’s logo, and for three nights this fall, select “Friends” episodes, remastered in 4K, will screen in approximately 1600 movie theaters across the United States as part of a partnership with Fathom Events.

Digitially, Warner Bros. released a dedicated “Friends” Giphy channel and two unique apps. The first was the “Friends 25 App,” which consists of more than 1000 pieces of content, including season-specific trivia questions and hand-drawn art, show-themed recipes, stickers and wallpapers and 3D photo filters. This app, Gregorian notes, is offered in Spanish, Portuguese and English to reach a broader audience.

“There’s nothing on that app that you pay for; there’s no microtransactions that you pay for. It literally was a gift to the fans, worldwide,” she says.

The latest is “Point-N-Pivot,” a “gamified AR experience,” says Gregorian, “kind of like Twister meets Simon Says.” Taking advantage of Apple’s augmented reality kit, this app was created to allow the user to feel like he or she is in the world of the show, directing a friend or being directed to virtually touch objects tied to specific themes from the show (and if they touch the wrong thing, they lose).

In 2014, for “Friends’s” 20th anniversary, Warner Bros. Television Group offered fans in New York an opportunity to visit a Central Perk popup. Dubbed the Cental Perk “experience” at the time, not only could visitors enjoy a special blend of coffee for the show, but there were also props, pieces of wardrobe and the couch on display for photo ops. The Rembrandts, the band who sang the show’s earworm theme song “I’ll Be There For You,” popped in to perform, and James Michael Tyler, who played barista Gunther on the sitcom, made appearances, as well.

Five years later, the world of such experiences has changed, though. This past year alone has seen pop-up dining experiences for classic titles including “Saved by the Bell,” “Good Burger” and “Beverly Hills, 90210” (with the latter designed to promote Fox’s new meta series “BH90210”), as well as for newer titles and Emmy Award contenders such as “Fleabag.” And studios are hardly stopping at dining experiences, though, such as Amazon Prime Video partnering with retailers all across Los Angeles to offer services at 1950s prices in support of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

After feeling like they “tested the waters” with the Central Perk pop-up in 2014 and seeing “so much momentum over the last five years with the series being introduced to a younger demographic,” Gregorian says that the worldwide television marketing group saw an opportunity to blow the celebration much wider open for the show’s 25th anniversary.

“It’s a good time to bring a little joy to the world and be playful and bring humor and love. It felt right,” Gregorian says.

The team began working on ideas in November 2018, and the first internal partner to come aboard was the consumer products group within Warner Bros. With them, deals were made for a special “Friends” inspired, limited edition Pottery Barn collection (including an apothecary table), a Ralph Lauren collection based around Jennifer Aniston’s character Rachel, Alex & Ani charm bracelets, special Coffee Bean roasts and mugs and mass production on a fan-created LEGO Central Perk set. Here, Warner Bros. wanted to work with partners that spoke organically to the “Friends” audience, often through products commonly seen in the show. But new merchandising opportunities proved to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Gregorian and her team invited many divisions from within the company, including members of various business resource groups, to offer their opinions on how to make the anniversary a “great fan experience” because, she notes, the mission statement of the initiative was always to put the fans first — although she adds that other goals are to “bring joy and, wherever possible, give back to the community.” Strategically reminding newer viewers that the show was a Warner Bros. production and would soon be streaming on HBO Max did not factor in, she says, because they started planning so long before details for the new streaming service were solidified.

One specific element that came out of the internal, extended collaboration, Gregorian shares, is the “Friendsgiving” holiday-themed Warner Bros. studio tour hitting the Burbank, Calif. lot this November. On select dates, fans will experience a 90-minute “Friends”-focused tour through the studio lot, in addition to eating a special meal and visiting both the replicated Central Perk set on Stage 48 and the fountain from the opening credits, which is being moved from the Warner Bros. Ranch for the occasion.

The idea of really embracing the experiential also led Warner Bros. to the aforementioned couch tour, theater screenings and pop-up experiences, as well as a takeover of Las Vegas, Nev. that includes 5G-enabled experiences at an AT&T activation, a life-size LEGO version of Central Perk, a special Bellagio fountain show set to the “Friends” theme song, a Blue Man Group experience that transforms the iconic couch from orange to their signature blue and appearances by Capuchin monkey cast member Marcel.

While for some attendees, the postable photo ops may be the draw, Gregorian says her team wanted to expand plans to be interactive beyond the confines of one particular space. Truly detail-oriented fans will notice the cards they receive at the New York pop-up, for example, have information about other neighborhood locations, such as Coco Pazzo and the Egg Shop, where fans can find “off-the-menu ‘Friends’ secret items,” Gregorian reveals. For her team, there is added value in “the serendipity of being surprised,” as well as being able to choose how deep one dives into the celebration.

Gregorian admits that it was the power of the brand of “Friends” that allowed the studio to go this big for this anniversary. Another pivotal property, the dramatic “ER,” is also celebrating the 25th year from its series premiere this September (just days ahead of “Friends”), but they didn’t feel it lent itself to the sheer size and scope of events.

“‘Friends’ is more multigenerational than ‘ER’ is,” Gregorian says. “We have a number of marathons that are going to be running around the world for ‘ER’ and initiatives, but ‘Friends’ is a very different animal.”

In some areas, the “affinity that the fans have” for “Friends” has proven somewhat problematic: LEGO had such a high demand for the Central Perk set during pre-sales that on the day the item was actually released, it was already sold out. Some New Yorkers who live in the neighborhood of the exterior building used in establishing shots on the show have taken to social media to complain about the flocks of fans stopping in the middle of the street for selfies. But overall, Gregorian feels that such passion is only added value to this campaign and what similar ones Warner Bros. wants to do next.

“Collaboration is based in trust, and what ‘Friends’ allowed us to do was create more trust across the different partners that we’re working with, which will enable us to have better conversations about other initiatives moving forward,” Gregorian says. “There’s a sense of volume that we have on ‘Friends’ that I think we’d combust if we tried it again, but the next brand that we push forward will have an easier time.”

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