For the past two years, Denver has been “immersed” in a new entertainment trend, one that has welcomed everything from pop culture to artistic masters to classic theater and Hollywood.
The buzzy “immersive entertainment” scene now can be found everywhere you look, and it is getting another boost in November and December with world premieres, touring debuts and the promise of a new year filled with even more high-tech, interactive baubles.
But what is “immersive?” A new kind of art form? A commercial cash cow? Maybe a bit of both.
As a marketing term, it covers everything from themed pop-up Halloween and holiday bars that appear inside existing establishments to globe-trotting artistic runs that envelope visitors into the works of well-known artists like Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Dali, Monet and even Walt Disney. It also applies to David Byrne’s ground-breaking “Theater of the Mind,” which world premiered in Denver in September, NFT galleries (digital art, glimpsed only through bulky virtual reality headsets), Meow Wolf’s installations and even “The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience,” an evening of performances based on the popular Netflix show.
But defining “immersive” is tricky, since it exists where film, music, gaming, theater, art and even dining overlap. The simplest explanation is that it’s any entertainment experience that seeks to involve the audience, flooding your senses, enveloping you in a self-contained world with the promise of visual, auditory, interactive-touch and even olfactory surprises.
And Denver is eating it up.
The sector, which appeals to broad demographics, is expected to surpass $62 billion in revenue this year, according to a study, and outside companies have flocked to set up studios for the metro area’s moneyed and adventurous populace.
“You’ve got a cutting-edge and daring arts audience … people who want to be early adopters, and who want to be the first to see something cool,” said Corey Ross, co-founder of Lighthouse Immersive, the Toronto-based company behind “Immersive Van Gogh.” It’s one of the first of the genre to come to Denver, and one of several competing, immersive Van Gogh shows around the U.S. — as well as “Immersive Frida Kahlo” and “Immersive King Tut.”
Edgy? Not really. “Van Gogh” consists primarily of pictures of the artist’s famous paintings projected on the walls, where they moved and waved as if they had come to life. Still, the experience, at up to $55 per person, can draw 3,000 people per day when it opens in different cities and has racked up more than 5 million visitors in North America, according to its website. In Denver, it has attracted 450,000 visitors since debuting early last year, a publicist said.
Each successful show marketed as “immersive” encourages more to sprout up, producers say. (Beyond the occasional big-picture statistic, most company representatives interviewed for this story were mum on revenue and budgets.)
Grande Experiences, an Australian company that put together “Dalí Alive, has signed a multi-year lease at The Lume, an events space at Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace.
“This venue is especially great because (producers) knew they had a lot of foot traffic here,” said Jeff Cornelius, Grande’s head of commercial operations.
As with all immersive shows based on famous painters, “Dalí Alive” contains no Salvador Dalí originals, opting instead for blue velvet curtains, custom-made lobster telephones, and dizzying digital projections. But that’s what is working, especially with younger audiences.
“You’re really going to be hard-pressed to get anybody under the age of 30 interested in staring at a 2D picture as an introduction to an artist,” said Cornelius, who noted “Dalí Alive” is officially blessed by the artist’s museums in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Catalonia, Spain. (The gift shop, through which all must exit, features merch from the Florida location.)
But Denver’s traditional art scene has a lot to lose if would-be visitors choose bells and whistles rather than original pieces, even if producers like Cornelius don’t think they are taking anything away museums and galleries, which they have cast as dinosaurs.
Officials at Denver Art Museum declined to answer questions about the scene’s effect on galleries and museums. Liz Black, executive director of Lakewood’s 40 West Arts District, also did not respond to requests for comment about immersive entertainment.
It’s notable, though, that most Front Range museums have avoided labeling any of their exhibitions or installations “immersive” over the past two years.
Craig Northup II, a Denver artist and musician who works at Lighthouse ArtSpace inside the former Regency Hotel, where “Immersive Van Gogh” is held, sees great creativity and skill in immersive shows.
“When I look at it I see the techniques, the color, the storyboards and the scripts that went into making it,” said Northup, assistant special events manager, as a “Starry Night” segment from “Immersive Van Gogh” spun around him. “I see how it changes and progresses in tone to portray a feeling, which is something van Gogh also did.
“The way it’s being prescribed here is very artistic,” he added.
Lighthouse this month launched two new shows in Denver: “Immersive Monet & the Impressionists,” on Nov. 18, and “The Immersive Nutcracker,” on Nov. 19. Both will run through early next year. Lighthouse is also prepping an early 2023 Denver show in partnership with Disney Animation, which taps decades of cartoon icons and songs.
“We’re currently testing an interactive floor for our gallery where you can move around the room and Aladdin’s flying magic carpet will follow underneath you,” said Lighthouse co-creator Ross. “We were also testing benches that are inflatable that you can jump off of. The conclusion was that they’re an eyesore and a hazard, since our gallery floors are cement.”
Once shows are tested, they can be slotted in and out of different spaces, said Laura Dennison, Lighthouse Denver’s technical supervisor. On a recent weekday she used an iPad as a remote control to run shows at Lighthouse, starting and stopping complex audio-visual programs with the press of a button.
“We have a vast amount of potential partnerships,” Dennison said as she surveyed the space. “We’re hosting an after-party here for the Denver Film Festival. What about watching a football game here? Or having a wedding?”
Not all shows take place in bespoke venues. “Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Experience,” from SEE Global Entertainment, kicked off Nov. 18 at 1st Avenue and Clayton Street in Cherry Creek, next door to Elway’s restaurant. Joining it early next year is The Museum of Illusions, a whiz-bang chain that’s somewhere between funhouse and science experiment (see also the just-extended “Theater of the Mind”).
They tend to fill otherwise empty, disused spaces. The Museum of Illusions, at 951 16th St., will offer “mentally-stimulating optical illusions, 3D holograms, brain-puzzling exhibits and interactive illusion rooms” across 6,229 square feet of space, officials wrote. Down the street, Denver Pavilions hosts digital art galleries and “selfie experiences” in previously empty storefronts, such as the eco-themed Earth Illuminated.
The gold rush brings to mind Santa Fe-based Meow Wolf, the art collective-turned-corporation that opened its third location, following Santa Fe and Las Vegas, in Denver in September 2021. In less than 9 months, Convergence Station — as Denver’s surreal installation is called — saw 1 million visitors, according to a Meow Wolf publicist.
“Historical museums have their own special place, just like the RiNo Art District or the (Art District on) Santa Fe have their own scenes,” said Lighthouse’s Northup, a graduate of the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design. “Then you have this place to come and experience visual aspects that you won’t be able to get elsewhere. It adds to the experience of art in Denver.”
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