Netflix Double Taps The Unlimited Demand For Zombies with Army of the Dead VR

Viva Las Vengeance teams Zack Snyder with Pure Imagination for location-based virtual reality mayhem

The Army of the Dead VR experience “Viva Las Vengeance”, is a bold move for the streaming giant. But it’s not a surprise if you’ve been following closely.

In July of 2019, Netflix made a move that got little coverage in the location-based entertainment industry but signaled their intent to move into LBE. Former Fox Studios LBE topper Greg Lombardo was joining the streaming pioneer as Head of Experiences. Lombardo has a deep background in branded location-based entertainment, having worked with amusement design legend Bob Rogers at BRC Imagination Arts. I know Greg from his days at Fox, when we explored an Alien VR concept, that ultimately was built in Orange County by Pure Imagination Studios (remember that name).

Fast forward to August 2020, and COVID. Netflix announces a drive-through experience based on their hit show Stranger Things. It was limited to Los Angeles but was a nice toe in the water for what might come. It got rave reviews and gave fans a new way to connect with one of their favorite shows.

With major motion picture services all launching their own streaming services, they’re reserving their big IP and gradually pulling these shows and movies from Netflix. As contracts expire, Netflix needs to build its own original IP. The cinematic universes Disney has curated with their acquisitions of Lucasfilm (Star Wars) and Marvel created a modern blueprint for entertainment companies. Disney and Universal Studios continue to push the envelope on giving fans more ways to interact with their favorite worlds, stories, and characters. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando has been a smash success for the latter, and the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge has fans making the pilgrimage from all around the world to ride the Millennium Falcon or build a custom lightsaber.

Welcome to Zack Snyder’s World

Zack Snyder was tired of working within the constraints of third-party controlled IP. His experience with Warner on Justice League has been well-documented. He was looking for more freedom. Netflix was looking to build new universes they could build multiple stories around and deliver to fans in lots of ways. The result of that marriage is Army of the Dead.

Snyder became a notable force in the zombie genre when in 2004 he directed the remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Starring Ving Rhames, Sarah Polley, and Mekhi Phifer as a group of survivors hold up in a shopping mall trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. Snyder enjoyed exploring the zombie tropes, but with a remake of such a legendary film, had to stay close to the original.

“I think that was the cinematic challenge across the board,” Snyder says in an interview with Den of Geek’s Don Kaye. “I just finished, whatever it is, almost 10 years of DC films and all of the massive amount of canon and dogma that surrounds those characters, though I love them. I was really excited about venturing into a world where I was setting the rules… That was really appealing and it’s really been fun.”

Army of the Dead gives Snyder a white canvas on which to splatter ridiculous amounts of fake blood. It also affords him the opportunity to create his own Zombieverse. There are already two planned prequels in production: Army of Thieves, which hits Netflix this fall, and Army of the Dead, Lost Vegas, an anime series that will tell the backstory of the original movie.

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Army of the Dead VR: Viva Las Vengeance

Spinoffs, sequels, and prequels are old news in Hollywood, going as far back as the 1940’s when Fibber McGee and Molly spun off The Great Gildersleeve. But touring location-based virtual reality attractions on the scale of what Netflix just announced is breaking new ground.

Half of consumers said their fandom increased during the pandemic. Studios are responding by giving fans more ways to interact with the characters they love.

United Talent Agency study “Forever Changed: COVID-19’s Lasting Impact on the Entertainment Industry”.

Army of the Dead is one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the year and now fans have the chance to climb aboard the taco truck to experience the world for themselves,” said Greg Lombardo, Head of Experiences at Netflix. Viva Las Vengeance is a year-long touring immersive virtual reality experience that will hit 17 US cities before taking off for Europe. It consists of a taco truck on a motion simulator base. Up to 6 players don HTC Vive Pro 2 headsets, and blast away at hordes of zombies with Stryker VR force-feedback rifles.

Upon entry, guests will be briefed on their mission by the movie’s fearless mercenary character Maria Cruz – played by Ana de la Reguera. They will then enter a converted taco truck, the weaponized zombie killing machine from the film, and step into Army of the Dead’s terrifying alternate reality.

Army of the Dead VR
From left to right: Andre Lawless, of Lawless Marketing, Gregg Katano of Hologate, and Key Snodgress from Replay Magazine.

I spoke to Andre Lawless, a location-based entertainment marketing expert, who had this to say about his experience. “The tracking and graphics were good, so the whole experience was really immersive. The fans and motion floor reminded me of Nomadic’s Arizona Sunshine. The baddies were coming from all angles and reaching in from the roof and at times the back door opened and stuff came in. That created real intensity. It was a fun experience of the Army of the Dead brand.”

Not Their First VRodeo

The Army of the Dead VR: Viva Las Vengeance experience was designed by Pure Imagination, the team behind the Alien: Descent free roam VR experience that FoxNext Destinations opened in Orange County, California under Lombardo in 2018. They’ve partnered with Fever, which according to TechCrunch is “an urban events discovery app-cum-entertainment events business with an online media arm that it uses as marketing megaphone and data-gathering lens on its community of users… to win more hipsters over to its own branded “immersive themed experiences.” Got that?

Army of the Dead VR is from the same team that created Alien: Descent
Alien: Descent from Fox Studios and Pure Imagination

Anyway, Viva Las Vengeance is a 30-minute experience, and launches in Los Angeles July 28th, running into September. They’re launching their second tour in New York on Sept 1. The first two weeks in LA are already mostly sold out at $28 per ticket. Opening week in NYC is the same. Seems that each city will run about 2 months before moving on to the next stop in the tour.

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Some quick napkin math shows with two Army of the Dead VR taco trucks in each city and a throughput of 10 players (the max tickets they are selling for each time slot) each half-hour at 7 hours a day/5 days a week, they’re looking at $20K per week per city. If each city runs for 2 months, that’s $160K per city or $2.7 million over 17 cities. They could add more trucks per city, or increase the throughput for each truck with more efficient operations (I doubt the time in VR is more than 10-15 minutes). And it’s entirely possible that Fever is limiting ticket access to create scarcity and more tickets are available than is evident. Not bad for a taco truck.

Why is Netflix Doing Viva Las Vengeance?

This brings me to the interesting part. Why is Netflix doing this? Is it the beginning of a bigger trend of studios stepping aggressively into location-based VR attractions?

Production cost for the Army of the Dead movie is reported around $90 million. With a prequel, a series, and probably at least one sequel coming down the pipe, extending the buzz of the original movie will just add value to the large investment Netflix is making into this IP. This might take pressure off of this particular endeavor to earn a direct return on investment.

And Netflix has a lean software background, born and bred in silicon valley. Their culture is “experiment, test, iterate, and repeat”. This is opposed to the way big studios normally operate. Expect Netflix to do more of these popups, and maybe even move into permanent location-based entertainment facilities when they figure out they’ve cracked the code.

Giving fans who are clamoring for more contact with their favorite stories a highly immersive VR attraction just deepens their commitment to the franchise. And we know how people love zombie shooters. Who knows, maybe the Army of the Dead VR taco truck becomes a product that makes its way into family entertainment centers in the future.

Other Studios Are Increasing Investment in LBE

Jeffrey Godsick, EVP and Head of Location Based Entertainment at Sony Pictures Entertainment when speaking about their new waterpark Columbia Pictures Aquaverse, a licensing deal with Amazone Falls in Thailand, said that it “is the next step in Sony Pictures’ larger global strategy to grow and expand location-based entertainment by utilizing its strong global film and TV brands.”

Don’t expect Sony to stop at water and theme parks. Their Columbia Pictures division is also hiring for a project manager for LBE to work on “branded theme parks, water parks, attractions, entertainment centers, immersive theater, touring exhibitions, restaurants, and other entertainment concepts.”

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Warner Bros. is getting in the game as well with their blockbuster IP Harry Potter. Dreamscape Immersive installed two new virtual reality experiences at the new Wizarding World store in New York City. I couldn’t do a calculation on this one, because the tickets are already sold out. No word yet from Dreamscape if this attraction will wind up in their dedicated immersive entertainment centers.

Why Should You Care

If you run an FEC, VR Arcade, or another location-based entertainment venue, storytelling, branded IP, and fan engagement matters more than ever. If you’re just putting together a generic conglomeration of attractions: virtual reality systems, redemption games, motion simulations, bowling, laser tag, and the like, it’s going to be tough to compete when Army of the Dead VR or other attractions from Sony, WB, Disney, and other studios open in your market leveraging the deep stories and compelling characters that consumers are connecting with more than ever.

There are lots of ways to work with the products already on the market. I’ve already written about how to use the new Star Wars VR game from Nomadic and VRsenal to activate fans in your market. One clever operator in California is clustering Star Wars Battle Pod, Star Wars Trilogy, Stern’s Star Wars PRO Pinball, and Stern’s Star Wars Mandalorian Pinball, with a new Lightsaber Dojo to create a Star Wars arcade within his arcade.

If you’re building attractions, the good news is there’s so much IP out there now. It’s almost an arbitrage situation; a licensee market. We have never had more great content being delivered over more platforms from more studios and creators. The days of 2016 when studios were demanding 50-70% of ticket sales from VR attractions are over.

And as studios get more experienced operating these attractions, they will hopefully develop a better understanding of retail operations, and be willing to really partner with developers, manufacturers, and operators, instead of just trying to negotiate the fattest paycheck possible, ignoring the reality of operational economics.

The location-based VR market is going to get really really interesting over the next couple of years. Big IP, big brands, and big money are all stepping into the arena. If you’ve been around as long as I have, you know bigger is not better. DisneyQuest, Gameworks SKG, and Sony Metreon are prime examples of studios coming in with big budgets and bigger egos. They all failed to understand what it takes to design, build, and operate an engaging and profitable location-based entertainment center. Hopefully, they learn from those mistakes. But it’s been so long those lessons might be distant echoes in the halls of history. If you’re reading this and want some perspective for your project, you know how to find me.