San Diego Comic-Con is so much more than what happens inside the San Diego Convention Center. One of the best things about the convention, and one of the reasons it’s considered the crown jewel of pop culture conventions, is the way that the convention spills outside into the surrounding area, extending the con and creating what’s commonly referred to as the “Comic-Con campus” in the Gaslamp.
For well over a decade, many studios and companies bring “offsites” to the convention — experiences related to their properties or products that offer additional immersion or exposure than what can be found inside the convention center.
For years, AMC Networks has been bringing exciting activations for fans — often focused around their The Walking Dead universe, from their The Walking Dead Escape obstacle course at Petco, to last year’s fan-favorite Fan Celebration.
This year, though, they let a newer property really shine, with their Anne Rice’s Immortal Universe, which includes Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches. To bring both series out of the shadows and into the light at San Diego Comic-Con, they tasked award-winning agencies Campfire and 3CS (who also teamed up to create last year’s The Walking Dead Fan Celebration for AMC) with creating an immersive experience that would thrill established fans and create new ones.
Campfire has a long history of creating immersive and beloved activations at San Diego Comic-Con, having served as the creative mind behind The Westworld Experience for HBO in 2017, Purge City for USA Networks in 2018, and more. 3CS was formed in 2020, but has quickly made a name for itself in the experiential marketing space, with CEO & Founder Chelsea Wilson selected as one of the Top Women in Marketing by Chief Marketer in 2022.
“Creating highly-immersive activations like ‘The Street of Immortality’ take tremendous effort, attention to detail, and great collaboration across many teams and disciplines. AMC already delivers exceptional content to its audiences worldwide, so hosting fan-first experiences like this demand a similar level of quality and boldness,” Lauren Collins, Vice President, Promotions Events & Experiences at AMC Networks, said. “This is AMC’s second year working with Campfire and 3CS at Comic-Con, and together these two agencies helped us produce an incredibly unique destination for thousands of fans. Campfire’s emphasis on authentic storytelling (and their in-depth understanding of AMC’s rich universes) made them a natural fit for the campaign. And: once “The Street” concept was greenlit, an intense level of production and creative detail was required to bring the vision to life, which the team at 3CS nailed.”
While AMC Networks had launched Interview with the Vampire at San Diego Comic-Con in 2022 with a panel and wrap on the Pendry hotel, for 2023, they wanted to further showcase Anne Rice’s Immortal Universe with a new experience to explore.
At the Hilton Gaslamp, they took over an exterior courtyard of the hotel to transform it into a street from Storyville in New Orleans, a real destination featured prominently in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.
“We felt the city of New Orleans played such an important role in the first season of both series, and ultimately connects them. New Orleans also offers a unique visual architecture to bring the story’s setting to life. Pitching this notion of the street felt like a no-brainer, especially factoring in the outdoor terrace space AMC had secured at the Hilton Gaslamp,” Coulson said.
With the location being outside, there was an inherent challenge of the outdoor elements — namely, the bright sunshiny San Diego location, and the fact that Interview with the Vampire is a show about, y’know, vampires, and takes place mostly at night.
“We used this to our advantage and crafted a storyline with daytime Storyville residents carrying out their afternoon business, mysteriously hinting at what the evening terrors might bring later,” Coulson said. “There’s a specific vibrancy to New Orleans – alive with music and performance – and so we envisioned a team of experienced and specialty performers who could drive that narrative forward, and leverage it to engage the fans. The residents became central to the concept.”
To bring the world of Storyville to life (and particularly in the daytime), it was important to create the right atmosphere — and that included performers. The activation would eventually be populated with the “residents” of Storyville, who tap danced, created live art, played the piano, and more, to lend a specificity to the world.
“Bringing a concept like this to life requires more than just a set. We knew sound, lighting and talent were key elements that needed to work together to give fans the ultimate in-world experience,” Wilson said. “All performers were dressed in head-to-toe vintage costumes specifically sourced for each role, and they participated in multiple rehearsals to prepare for the event.”
It wasn’t just the performers though that were needed to create the right atmosphere, though. Attendees needed to feel transported to early 1900’s New Orleans, and that meant drastically transforming the modern Hilton Gaslamp space. The teams started with detailed 3D renderings and build drawings from the creative team, then moved into custom fabrication with Honey Badger Fabrication, all while sharing progress photos along the way to ensure they were on the right track.
“In our minds, we were building a set worthy of what viewers would see on screen in Interview with the Vampire,” Coulson said. “It wasn’t simply building and painting flats, but ensuring all the elements were weathered as they’d appear in the real world, with several coats of ‘dirt’ sprayed in layers over several days. The store windows and speakeasy showcased props from the actual series, and we sourced the real vintage costumes worn by our residents.”
“Our creative team supplemented the space with furniture, decor, and actual series props so the experience was authentically New Orleans. We prided ourselves on the final build looking exactly like the renderings, which can be hard to accomplish. Within four days, we transformed a posh hotel space into Anne Rice’s Storyville,” Wilson added.
As with any good activation, though, a physical reminder (often called “swag”) of your time spent in the world goes a long way with the fans. For that, the teams took a thoughtful (and generous) approach to both the in-world items one might find, as well as the series itself. As you made your way through the activation, if you interacted with performers, you could walk away with sheet music of the pivotal “Come to Me” song from Interview with the Vampire, and notebooks and talismans from Mayfair Witches. At the end of the activation, you were also greeted with beignets and posters for Interview with the Vampire.
“Our approach was to focus less on “swag” and more on creating a thoughtful layer of archeology – found objects from the world that you could take back with you,” Coulson said. “Instead of t-shirts or pins, we opted for sheet music, theatrical posters, talismans and Talamasca notebooks. Fans didn’t just walk through and collect, but they physically connected with the curated elements and the narrative we crafted. In an increasingly digital world, physical objects can offer real meaning and connection to an imagined setting.”
One last minute addition to the offsite was the inverse of this — the “offering”. Fans were encouraged to leave their own items, whether they be real flowers or the items in their pockets (more than a few travel-sized hand sanitizer bottles made their way into the offering circle), for Lestat, Louis, and Claudia.
“We always planned to encourage fans to lay talismans at Lestat’s townhouse as seen in the series, but during a walk-through with the AMC social team, we all got excited at the potential to encourage attendees to leave their own offering. It was wildly successful. Fans not only left items they already had, but some went to great lengths to make or choose offerings that had very specific meanings to the story, and represented their own personal connections to AMC’s Immortal Universe,” Coulson said.
Some of the week’s highlights included a recreation of the “Come to Me” record that Lestat makes for Louis, handmade boutonnieres, and more.
Attendees surprised the team in other ways as well, with many interacting with the world either as intended or in unexpected ways.
“One concept we had early on involved the song, ‘Come to Me’, which holds a deep meaning for fans of the series. We directed our singer to ‘lose’ her piano player and urge passers-by to step up to the piano and play the song to accompany her. We did provide a back-up piano player, but we witnessed several fans sit themselves down and play the song live. It was magical,” Coulson said.
“Our goal is always to create an impactful experience, and watching the attendee reactions up and down ‘The Street’ was incredible – from the first reveal at the top of the entrance steps to their entertaining interactions with the various talent. Seeing groups raise glasses together inside the speakeasy and then tour the street, phones in hand to capture every moment, made us all proud,” Wilson said.
In the end, the activation won our own Shruggie Award for Best Offsite at San Diego Comic-Con 2023, as voted by the fans. That love for the offsite is in no small part due to the teams’ ability to get so many fans through, often with a short wait (relative to SDCC), and their utilizing multiple ways to get fans into the activation.
“We credit Lauren Collins at AMC Networks for pushing us to devise a detailed plan that allowed for a maximum number of fans with minimal wait times,” Wilson said. “AMC’s combination of a pre-event reservation system, a stand-by line and participation in Comic-Con’s daily lottery system offered attendees multiple ways ‘in’ to experience the activation. AMC utilized an entirely separate activation space to provide for adequate and comfortable queuing space, and fans were praising our process on social media! We’re proud of the efficient queue system, and the strong throughput we enjoyed across the four-day event. We had a plan for every scenario – tickets, stand-by, ADA, strollers, shade, etc. – to ensure fans had a positive experience from the moment they arrived.”
Photo credit: Shutterstock for AMC Networks