On January 23, 1983 my father, brother, and I found a comfortable spot on the floor in front of our non-flat-panel, non-high-definition, console television, and watched the beginning of one of the greatest television shows in the history of television. My father had prepared us for the debut (along with a copious amount of testosterone-geared commercials filled with explosions and one liners) and needless to say my brother and I were excited. The A-Team was destined to become our family’s favorite show (my mother was outnumbered and Magnum, P.I. was so 1982).
I still watch A-Team reruns to this day because it is important to remember if you have a problem and if you can find them you can hire the A-Team (much like the authors of IBD, minus the mohawks, toting 2.9 GHz computers instead of M-16s, but still sporting sleeveless shirts).
When I heard that A-Team the movie was coming out this summer, my emotions were mixed. I initially thought about how the Incredible Hulk was ruined in the 2003 film (but somewhat revived in 2008 version) but then I was reminded (by myself) how my love the comic book X-Men was revived after the movies of 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009 and the one coming out in 2011. I also was reminded (again by myself) that I was in dire need of a hobby, a friend besides Paul, and that I should read something besides comic books.
So why is it that directors, producers, and movie companies continually re-make movies, or in this case turn a classic TV show into a modern movie? I had to have this question answered, and now I feel compelled to share it with you in this post. Once I learned the answer it seemed simple (much like when I learned how to change a diaper after our third child) and has universal application. Here it is: People love characters, there is an audience for everything, and people like what’s familiar but like to anticipate the unexpected.
People love characters. The A-Team is filled with them and viewers fell in love with Hannibal, BA, Murdock, and Face. Movie goers and visitors to your site are willing to support something if they have a relationship with your site or characters involved. There is no doubt that the interpretive profession is filled with as many characters as the A-Team. In fact I’m pretty sure I worked for Hannibal at one point in time, worked with Face, supervised Murdock, and dated BA. (That looks a little strange in writing but is really true.)
Building relationships with our visitors is just above the importance of meeting their basic needs. Relationships are founded on trust, consistency, and honesty. Relationships with teachers, bus tour organizers, or your basic walk-in visitor can be the foundation for successful mission fulfillment. It is not only about what you can do for them but also what they can do for you. They can come to your programs, spread word on Facebook, and contribute donations of time or money to your site. Keep your communication with them on a personal level when possible. Drop personal thank you notes in the mail from time to time. Don’t always email them even though it is easier and faster than giving them a call occasionally. Personalize their approach to the work they do by sharing it with staff so that they can compliment and give credit when credit is due through PDAs (don’t worry you don’t have to touch them – public displays of accomplishment). If they have a relationship with the interpretation site the visitor will benefit.
There is an audience for everything. I’m not sure what the exact demographic make-up is of the A-Team movie audience is (I’m actually afraid to find out since it may hit a little too close to home) but the research has been done. There’s an audience or it wouldn’t be produced. Interpretive sites need to remember that as well. There are audiences for various programs and media that may not fit in the mainstream. I’m not saying that visitors may show up saying “I pity the fool for using those binoculars higher than 10x on this tour” for you birding program but perhaps we should go out of our way to offer programs to special-interest groups who may or may not visit our sites. Not as focused as muscular men who wear large amounts of gold chains and are afraid to fly but perhaps groups such as runners, motorcyclists, or homeschoolers are audiences that should be specifically catered to. Focused approaches to underserved audiences can be successful at building visitation, support, volunteers, or members.
People like what they are familiar with. By making a movie like the A-Team, Hollywood is making a safer bet on something familiar to the available audience. There is something comforting to humans about being part of something that you already have a connection to or prior knowledge about. I find comfort in blogging about topics that few care about. The concept of familiarity is best illustrated by Disney. The Disney theme parks are built around familiarity. Visitors have seen the movies and get to experience them in a fun, unique and unexpected way. Disney has found some success with this model.
The caveat to this approach is that participants like to see the familiar in unexpected situations. That’s where the story, technology/media, or theme comes into play. Interpretive sites can transform information, stories, and mission into memorable experiences. Again, the Disney approach is a proven success at adapting stories into rides, presentations, and drinks that cost $9.50. Much like the Disney Imagineers, it is up to the interpreters and interpretive designers to use creativity to make those experiences possible. If you work at a historic site host an overnight camp out on the site that explores the paranormal. If people come to your site for birding create a challenge that combines a team approach and physical elements. If you are designing new exhibits for a visitor center add an element that can relate to a specific group by using QR codes.
In the great words of the late George Peppard (Hannibal Smith), “I love it when a plan comes together.” Interpretation can be the glue in that plan or, in the A-Team’s case, the plastic explosives. Oh yeah, and for the record Tron, Red Dawn, and the Karate Kid should have gone untouched as well.