How SXSW, Comic-Con Fueled the Rise of Activation Culture

Westworld Experience SXSW - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of HBO

HBO re-created 'Westworld' during SXSW and Hulu is bringing 'Castle Rock' to Comic-Con as entertainment companies look for new ways "to be the thing everyone is talking about" at overstuffed entertainment festivals.

Fans of Stephen King have been reading about Castle Rock for decades. Now they can visit it.

Hulu has re-created the fictional town just steps away from Comic-Con’s bustling hub at the San Diego Convention Center. There’s the Castle Rock B&B, where the more daring visitors can check in for a chilling experience. Nearby is the forest, which hides a few secrets among its trees.

The streamer is expecting some 5,000-plus people to come through Castle Rock over the course of the weekend, the signature piece in a full-throttle marketing push for its J.J. Abrams-produced show of the same name, including a screening of the premiere for attendees on Friday. “It is a big endeavor,” notes Hulu vp content marketing Ryan Crosby. In fact, it’s Hulu’s biggest ever presence at Comic-Con.

While Castle Rock fans are likely to be wowed, they’ve also come to expect this type of elaborate, over-the-top marketing stunt. Last year, in the same park that now houses Castle Rock, Warner Bros. staged a Blade Runner 2049 activation that featured a VR-turned-real life experience, complete with props from the film. A similarly detailed Ready Player One activation from the studio popped up months later at SXSW in Austin.

Designed for fans, these experiences often feature intricately laid out spaces full of Easter eggs for the most die-hard supporters. And they are set up with today’s phone-obsessed consumers in mind, giving them obvious backdrops for the perfect Instagram and creating so-cool-it-must-be-shared moments.  

After rising in popularity over the last few years, the interactive experience reached its apex at SXSW in March with HBO’s meticulously staged Westworld experience. The network has become known for its annual activations at the tech, pop culture and music confab — past years featured an escape room and a Game of Thrones VR project — but this year it went above and beyond with the Westworld stunt, which included driving attendees some 20 miles outside of downtown Austin to a ghost town that had been transformed into the Western-themed Sweetwater. There, a cast of 60 actors and six stunt people performed a 444-page Westworld-inspired script for their guests. 

HBO began working on the stunt, dubbed the Live Without Limits Weekend, with marketing firm Giant Spoon not long after the conclusion of Comic-Con in 2017. Production officially kicked off in November, and it took a 40-person crew five weeks to build the 90,000-square-foot town before attendees began to descend on Austin in mid-March. By the time guests began to arrive at the park, every detailed had been considered, down to the free hats (white or black) and Westworld-themed coins (drink tokens, of course) that were handed out before people even stepped off the bus.

“They wanted to be the thing that everyone was talking about at SXSW,” Giant Spoon co-founder Marc Simons says of HBO’s initial request. And it was. Per Simons, online tickets were being gobbled up within a minute of their release. Those who couldn’t reserve a spot formed a long line outside the activation on the off-chance there was room for walk-ins. All told, more than 4,000 people went through the experience during its multiday run.

“In the ad world, you try to get people to pay attention to like three seconds of a video ad, but we had people spending three hours of their time inside the activation,” notes Steven Cardwell, director of program marketing at HBO. “When you look at it from an engagement perspective, this is really the most that you can ever ask of someone.”

Staging such an elaborate activation isn’t cheap. HBO invested significantly to put on Westworld, with insiders estimating the experience cost a few million. Giant Spoon and HBO declined to comment on specifics, though Cardwell did note, “It was worth every penny that we spent.”

Driving the value for film studios and television networks is not just creating an in-person experience for fans, but also the potential for a viral marketing hit. Westworld, for example, saw more than 14,000 social shares across platforms like Instagram and Twitter and reached upward of 1.9 billion impressions. Hulu, which is working with New York experiential marketing firm Creative Riff, will look to drum up similar buzz with preplanned photo moments inside the Castle Rock B&B experience. It will then use RFID technology to email guests photos from their stay. “To some degree, all of these experiences are leaning into ‘do it for the gram’ culture,” explains Giant Spoon’s Simons. “We’re creating things that people want to share out as they’re experiencing it.”

This year, Giant Spoon expects to see a significant uptick in business, driven by demand from entertainment companies looking for new ways to engage fans and rise above the noise at big events like SXSW and Comic-Con. But companies are still being selective about which properties will be transformed into real-life experiences. That’s because, per many involved, an elaborately planned activation only works when there’s an elaborately mapped out fictional universe to explore. “The creators behind these shows, they’re building deep and engaging worlds,” says Hulu’s Crosby. “It’s natural to want to remove the glass between the fan and the world and let them touch the world for themselves.”

The trickiest part of planning these activations is meeting the expectations of fans, many of whom know the stories so well that they can easily spot incongruities. For Westworld, that meant working closely with creators Jonah Nolan's and Lisa Joy’s Kilter Films. “The idea can be big and crazy but the devil’s in the details,” notes Cardwell. “You get one thing wrong and it doesn’t feel authentic or all of a sudden it can feel hokey, like you’re in a marketing activation instead of on the set of Westworld.”