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The problem and promise of pop-culture pop-up experiences

As ‘Mean Girls,’ ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ and ‘Stranger Things’ move from the small screen to real-world destinations, we discern which experiences are most likely to pop with die-hard and casual fans alike.

The problem and promise of pop-culture pop-up experiences
Installation view of Infinity Mirrored Room—All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. [Photo: Cathy Carver]

Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibition is a mind-bending artistic spectacle of light and color. Tickets are sold out for its current run at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, just as they were everywhere, including the High Museum in Atlanta last fall and winter. There was no doubt in my mind that this was an exhibit I had to see, but the process of seeing it turned out to be something of an ordeal.

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There were lines and crowds everywhere. Lines to get into the museum. Lines to get into the exhibit space. To spend just several minutes in each one of the breathtaking mirrored rooms required enduring queues of 30 minutes or longer. If you were duly inspired to see something a second time, well, it was back to the end of the line for another half-hour wait.

Was all the standing around and waiting worth a quick peek at the fascinating work of this reclusive artist? It absolutely was. Would I do it all over again? My heart tells me yes, but my tired feet and spent patience say nope, not on your life.

My Kusama journey, good and bad, sprung to mind as a new crop of pop-up experiences based on beloved pop-culture franchises were recently announced. It was exciting to see that two favorites, Schitt’s Creek and Stranger Things, and the classic film Mean Girls, are bringing pop-ups to fans on both coasts before the end of the year. The problem is, I’m having a hard time reconciling my giddy feelings of “OMG, I have to go!” with “Wait, what am I getting myself into?”

Luckily, the bar for these pop-up experiences is getting higher all the time. You can’t just offer a signature cocktail, an Instagram backdrop, pop on the soundtrack, and call it a day. We fans are a discerning bunch. We can spend hours on Reddit analyzing everything from a character’s costume choices to a particular turn of phrase. We see everything—and we expect our pop-ups to see everything, too. If the pop-up is trying to make a quick buck off a particular fandom, they will catch on quick.

To the max

The gold standard and the pop-up worth getting on line early to score tickets for is probably “Saved by the Max.” After its launch last year, Eater Los Angeles described it as a “near-complete recreation of the ’90s Saturday morning staple Saved by the Bell‘s diner.” It feels like it has items from every episode and Easter eggs to inside jokes for both die-hard and casual fans lurking in there somewhere. A $40 ticket gave Chicago and West Hollywood fans an appetizer, an entree, and all the fandom they could handle. Michelin-starred Chicago chef Brian Fisher served guests cheeseburgers, vegetarian Bayside burgers, and themed drinks that received four-star ratings from foodies as well as fans. Fans could sit in either the diner or (!!) Principal Belding’s office.

The combo of the experience and the food was so good that a reviewer from USA Today actually forgot to photograph her meal. That’s probably the technical definition of immersive pop-up experience right there.

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Getting strange

As an ’80s kid totally hooked on the supernatural world of Stranger Things, I might be willing to pack up the car and head to Nashville to check out the Hawkins Arcade opening October 10. The main reason that I’m ready to go with almost no questions asked is because whether or not it’s officially sanctioned, a Stranger Things experience seems pretty hard to screw up. Especially a haunted house, which has become a staple of the events business. The Hawkins Arcade, like all the Stranger Things happenings that went before it, sounds pretty good. The series itself is brimming with at least a dozen unique sets, spooky woods, and enough ’80s references to give creators plenty to work with for jump scares and generally cool creepiness.

Even if a Stranger Things pop-up doesn’t have an official seal of approval—like Baskin-Robbins’ faithful reproduction of Scoops Ahoy, the prime addition to season three, in Burbank, California—it seems well suited for its tropes to be transformed into pop-ups. Last summer, a rogue pop-up bar called The Upside Down set up shop in Chicago’s Logan Square. They seemed to have nailed the spooky period vibe and had found a solution to the problem of crowds and lines. Even after Netflix found out about the unauthorized bar, it still gave the project a backhanded seal of approval. The cease-and-desist request was both funny and very low-key, and the streamer let the bar finish its run before shutting it down.

From this we learn that it’s not necessary to be affiliated with the series or the studios to create a pop-up that really works. True, it might get shut down before the majority of fans have a chance to check it out. But for those who do get to venture inside, it could be enjoyable. It all depends on the passion and the creativity of the promoters.

Even though the upcoming Mean Girls pop-up, a tribute to the 15th anniversary of the iconic 2004 film’s release, is in no way affiliated with anyone or anything related to the original film, this experience, which will be called “Fetch” (see what they did there?) will offer a 90-minute dining experience in a recreated high school cafeteria for $45, which seems about right for what’s on offer.

Sadly, the venue will only be open on weekends, which means there’s no opportunity for any “On Wednesdays, we wear pink” girls’ nights out. The food, however, is literally covered in pink—from the salad dressing to the cheese sauce to the coleslaw. That’s a lot of pink food, and as loyal fans will tell you, the movie is about an awful lot more than pink. Rumors that Paramount Pictures would like to begin developing its own pop-up experiences means the Santa Monica pop-up won’t have access to any of the props or design input. Is it worth the money to have something called a “Bitch Burger” in the reimagined Mean Girls high school cafeteria? That name alone might seal the deal for some.

More than set dressing

But the last thing fans want—or maybe the last thing this fan wants—is a pass-through pop-up. While it might be interesting to take a quick look at the sets and props from Friends (whose pop-up just closed in New York City), it hardly seems worth all the attendant trouble.

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The upcoming “Visit Schitt’s Creek” pop-up planned for New York and Los Angeles so far only promises recreations of the sets but offers few other details. What devoted fan wouldn’t love a close-up look at the Rosebud Motel—the family’s very own Downton—in all its seedy glory?

Tickets will be free, but the success of the experience depends on whether or not PopTV (Schitt’s home network) is going to devote the same attention to the show’s props, signifiers, and deep-cut references from iconic episodes. Because they haven’t given up specifics, it’s probably best to remain cautiously optimistic.

The prices can be too high, and the hassle too draining, but these pop-culture pop-ups don’t appear to be going anywhere.

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