Saturday, May 8, 2021

JRA: “The One with the Pop-Up”

JRA co-designs experience around iconic FRIENDS TV Show

by Joe Kleiman

ABOVE: Visitors to the FRIENDS New York City Pop-Up can pose in front of the television show’s iconic opening credits fountain and couch. Photo by Colin Kerrigan

Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the iconic TV show FRIENDS, a pop-up FRIENDS attraction in New York City enjoyed huge success, selling out its September 7-October 6, 2019 run in an exhibition space at 76 Mercer Street in the Soho neighborhood of New York City. The FRIENDS New York City Pop-Up was developed through a collaboration between Warner Bros. and branding agency Superfly, which recruited JRA to help master plan, design and project manage the attraction.

“The One with the Viewers”

Superfly is a New York and San Francisco-based branding agency best known for producing music and culture festivals such as Bonnaroo and Outside Lands – festivals that have featured experiences based on hit television shows such as The Office, Seinfeld, and Arrested Development.

“We worked with Warner Bros. Consumer Products and Warner Bros. TV to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of FRIENDS,” says Stacy Moscatelli, Superfly’s EVP of Marketing and Brand Creative. “With our partnership, we were able to leverage the Warner Bros. archives to feature one-of-a-kind items such as Ross’s leather pants and the letter Rachel wrote to Ross in Season 4.”

The show’s ficticious cafe, Central Perk, is recreated in the attraction as a real coffeehouse. Photo by Ryan Muir

Between 1994 and 2004, an average of 23.6 million viewers within the United States (plus millions more worldwide) came to know and love the six young adult characters of FRIENDS: Rachel Green, Phoebe Buffay, Joey Tribbiani, Chandler Bing, and siblings Monica and Ross Geller. The show was a trendsetter, with actress Jennifer Aniston’s hairstyle, known after her character as “The Rachel,” becoming one of the most sought-after looks of the 1990s. The catchphrase of Matt LeBlanc’s character Joey, “How you doin’?” became an endearing greeting among the show’s avid Generation X viewers.

“The One Where JRA Pops Up”

To help design and implement the FRIENDS New York City Pop-Up, Superfly enlisted Cincinnati-based design firm, JRA. Moscatelli says, “When we kicked off the project, we met with a number of master planners and found that JRA were the most suited to our needs. We were impressed by the caliber of their previous work. The creative approach was a highly collaborative process, with two, full-day creative working sessions followed by weekly creative meetings. It was an incredibly quick timeline, with creative being locked in February 2019, and installed in August.” JRA Vice President Shawn McCoy said, “Superfly set the vision for the overall guest experience and partnered with JRA to conceptualize specific exhibits and displays. They also corresponded with Warner Bros. on all creative and approvals, assisted with media production, and served as the executive producer responsible for bringing these projects to reality. JRA provided planning, design, a majority of the graphic design, and project management. Working directly with Superfly, Warner Bros. has been a great partner in providing assets for us to use, collaborating on the creative, and providing approvals.” Additional creative team members included Chicago Scenic Studios, acting as the main scenic fabricator; and Dynamic Productions, who provided audiovisual integration.

Skilled at conveying theme and branding in attractions, JRA’s significant expertise with museums, theme parks, and corporate attractions was successfully applied to the temporary nature of the FRIENDS New York City Pop-Up attraction. “When looking at the master plan of a pop-up experience, we use many of the same techniques and standards we would use on a more permanent experience, with a few wrinkles,” says Colin Cronin, JRA’s Senior Designer on the project. “For example, due to the limited number of tickets available, the experience would be operating at effectively 100% capacity for its entire run – there wasn’t a ‘Design Day’ as we would usually use for a permanent experience.”

SLIDESHOW (photos by Ryan Muir):

The pop-up aspect also meant that materials and fabrication methods had to be taken under serious consideration. “We couldn’t use all the techniques we use in a traditional museum,” says Cronin, “In the FRIENDS New York City Pop-Up, nothing could be permanently affixed to the floor or walls, since the space was a temporary rental. Everything had to be free-standing, and it needed to come into the building and be installed very quickly. It’s basically like a more traditional theater set, in a way. But this did provide us with some opportunities – the temporary walls to create our galleries were able to have custom graphics on every surface, which saves additional expense.”

“The One Where Fans Come First”

Working with an exhibit space of 8,500 square feet, the team was tasked with determining what scenes, sets, and props from the archives would be portrayed, representing a long-running series and story equaling 4,500 hours of television. “With such a rich IP, there were a number of elements that we weren’t able to physically fit into this footprint,” says Moscatelli. “For example, we did not fully build out Monica and Rachel’s apartment, as we felt that Chandler and Joey’s apartment was a less explored build and would be more impactful for fans.”

Cronin adds, “With iconic shows like this, as with any well-known brand, nearly everyone has a unique connection to and perspective on these shows. Every member of the design team and the client team had their personal favorite moments and scenes, and this variety of favorites allowed us to start with a collection of concepts that could then be whittled down and focused based on feedback from Warner Bros. The fact is, Warner Bros. has been the herald of these brands for multiple decades – they know very well which scenes and episodes resonate with the fans.”

The attraction is designed first and foremost for the show’s fans. Superfly attractions are consistently designed with the fans in mind, a strategy that also resonates in JRA’s portfolio. “There are expectations that every fan has when walking into one of these experiences, and we have to meet those expectations,” says Cronin. And within both companies, it was easy to connect with the material. “At JRA, we have an office full of FRIENDS fans. Superfly’s studio is also made up of fans of the show, so everyone can come at this topic from a fan perspective. At the same time, we look at it from a designer perspective. What we do then is take all of those picks from Warner Bros., the show’s creators, the client, and our team and distill them down to the pure essence of the show. What makes that show special? What makes people return to it time and again? What are the most important moments that stick with you? If you develop these core tenets first, they can act as a collective road map towards the development of the concept, ensuring that the experience stays perfectly true to the IP.”

“The One with the Pivot”

What differentiates this pop-up from a traditional exhibit is the level of interactivity. Guests were encouraged to reenact beloved scenes from the show, each optimally designed for capturing on camera. They could sit on the iconic sofa in front of a fountain from the title credits while holding an umbrella, sip on coffee at Central Perk (an operating coffeehouse within the attraction), stick their heads through the doorway of Monica and Rachel’s apartment, and sit in the lounge chairs in front of the world’s longest home entertainment center in Chandler and Joey’s place. One of the most popular interactives let fans relive Ross’ attempt to move a sofa up an all-too-narrow, curved stairway, infuriating his helpers by yelling “PIVOT!” At the FRIENDS New York City Pop-Up, a replica of the sofa was locked in a stationary position at a turn in the stairway. Guests could stand on either side or behind the sofa and get into the act.

Fans can recreate a memorable scene from FRIENDS by posing with a couch in mid-pivot. Photo by Ryan Muir

A central theme of the show was communication (or miscommunication) among friends. This theme carried over in the pop-up to the modern era of mobile communications with its emphasis on social media. “Each room was filled with opportunities to share the experience on Instagram, Snapchat, or any other platform, and in many ways, that was the core guest interaction,” said Cronin. “For the FRIENDS experience, guests actually received photos as part of their ticket that can be shared on those platforms.” • • •

The FRIENDS pop-up experience is headed to Boston November 21 through January 5. Tickets at friends25popup.com.

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