Even before you get in line for the attraction, you know it will be political. A person holding a big stack of cards asks you what role you’d like to play: human or creature. I chose creature, and am handed a card that says, “You’re a mythological scrappy immigrant trying to make it in an oppressive new land.”
The line is for an immersive experience Amazon has set up atthis week for Carnival Row, a show that premieres next month on its Prime Video streaming service. The series is a Victorian fantasy about mythical creatures who leave their war-torn country, starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne.
The fare is unexpectedly topical and weighty for a corporate brand “activation” — basically an elaborate ad that lets conference goers experience elements of a show or movie in real life. Still, it’s hard to detach the fiction from the current political moment, as US immigration policies stoke controversy and people fight over a border wall. Just recently, President Donald Trump tweeted that minority House members including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar should “go back” to their countries instead of being critical of the Trump Administration.
In the Amazon activation, guests are separated into “humans” and “creatures,” and ushered into a marketplace. Humans are treated kindly by police while creatures are insulted and distrusted. Guests are then led into a hidden burlesque house called Carnival Row, a glitzy private club inhabited by both humans and creatures. Dancers mill about the space while a performer sings on stage. The room is full of actors in character who take guests aside to have private conversations.
One actor sums up the place to me: “This is a sanctuary. Outside, there’s segregation. In here, there’s peace.”
As a dancer performs on stage, a creature runs in chased by a cop and the guests help her hide behind the bar. The police get angry and shut down the club. Guests are led out of the room and the activation is over.
Again, pretty heavy for a comic book convention.
Amazon, though, doesn’t want the show to be seen as a political stance for the company. Mike Benson, head of marketing for Amazon Studios, said the show as been in the works for three years.
“We couldn’t predict what would happen in the world. That was never planned,” Benson said in an interview. “From a marketing perspective, we aren’t going to position this show as something that’s topical.” Instead, he wants people to watch it because it’s a well-told story, he said.
Amazon is at Comic Con to spread the word about a trio of shows on its video service. Another new show called The Boys, developed by Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg and Eric Kripke, follows the exploits of a group of ruffians in New York that aim to take down corrupt and entitled superheroes. The third show, The Expanse, is a sci-fi drama returning for its fourth season, about humans trying to prevent a war between Earth and Mars.
The activation for The Boys takes guests into a kind of escape room, where a superhero has crashed his car into the storefront of an electronics store. The Expanse activation puts guests on a UN peacekeeping mission to determine whether an accident was really a terrorist act or not.
Benson, the Amazon Studios marketing head, said the activations are a key part of marketing, especially as people have more choices over what to watch, and what streaming platforms to use.
“You’ve got to get people talking about your show,” he said. “The deeper an audience can get into a world of a show, the more they like to talk about it.”
CNET’s Caitlin Petrakovitz contributed to this report.