I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Australia. I’m here directing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games which are due to take place in April.
As soon as I finish my coffee, it’s back to rehearsals.
So, perhaps this is foolhardy of me to be offering any sort of critique of the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
Ceremonies and entertainments attached to sports fests are increasingly the biggest shared experiences out there. They’re amongst the few remaining recurring events that are truly global; experienced live, en masse and in real time.
I know what it takes to bring these kind of shows to the stage – to strive to create an extraordinary experience on a mammoth scale. It’s often a process of sublime madness; a rollercoaster journey which unfolds over many months, filled with much joy but also a surprising amount of frustration and disappointment, breathtaking epiphanies and inexplicable stupidities, a fair bit of ego but thankfully and most enduringly an inordinate amount of generosity of spirit.
And then on the night, the spotlight usually shines where it really matters, and (usually) it all makes sense.
But what does it all actually amount to? What’s the value?
Opening and closing ceremonies attached to events like the Olympic and the Commonwealth Games are rarified events loaded with a promise appropriated by a diverse array of stakeholders looking for return on their considerable investment. (Some more considerable than others – the stadium in PyeongChang is estimated to have cost $100m, £72m, but is currently slated to be demolished soon after the closing ceremony. So move on please, there’s no sustainability story here).
The ceremonies are fundamentally a unique opportunity to market a country and city brand to the world. Although the targeted demographic and marketing spend might seem incredible, they are essentially no different to any other marketing channel any of us may work with. In this case we’re talking about an experience equivalent to a few hours of prime time advertising.
Whatever your channel, if you want to communicate with an audience, we all know that your creative needs to be driven by an understanding and respect of the people you’re addressing and an insight into their wants, needs, beliefs, desires and aspirations. Your communication needs to be inclusive and welcoming of your audience - more ‘of’ the people than ‘done’ to the people.
Oh, and it also helps if you actually have something meaningful or useful or inspiring to say.
If we fail to meet these prerequisites, it’s bad news for the success of any marketing campaign. And if it happens with a ceremony, that failure is amplified on a global scale – it’s all out there in front of billions of people, there’s nowhere to hide.
Which brings me back to PyeongChang’s opening ceremony.
I know that it doesn’t matter what I think of the ceremonies – there’s no particular reason why anyone should care.
As with all pieces of marketing, it’s for audiences – not so called experts – to determine the true impact, value and lasting effect of these kind of experiences. It’s up to audiences to decide whether to buy, whether they were moved, thrilled, delighted, inspired or if they even give even a fragment of a hoot about anything being put to them.
So, the audience decides, and no amount of intellectualisation or exposition of the conventions and assumed virtues of the genre can change that fact.
So, before I tell you how I felt as a member of the audience, let me ask you…did the experience engage, entertain and move you? Did it reveal something genuine and relevant about the city and country and its people? (Did we actually see or meet any real people?). Was it only for and about them or was it for and about all of us? Did it connect and engage with you? Was it authentic? Despite watching from afar, did you feel invited to the party? Did it show rather than tell? Did any of it feel like it really mattered to you? And when the ceremony was over, what was different? What had changed?
To me, much of what has been lauded about the opening ceremony – the use of technology, record-breaking (prerecorded) drone action, and the use of AR and CGI should in reality be simply a means to an end. The problem is, I couldn’t see a clearly defined end in PyeongChang’s ceremony. There were some awesome stunts but few stories to share. For me it was a ceremony without… point. I felt I was watching a very well assembled International Olympic Committee ceremony recipe. All the ingredients were there. But there was no flavour or spice.
Like the aftermath of an ill-disciplined encounter with an all-you-can-eat (cultural) buffet, after the opening ceremony I found myself full, but far from sated and with no particular desire to repeat the experience any time soon.
The irony is I know I’ll soon be tucking into the closing ceremony. Because ceremonies do matter. I’ll leave it to you the audience to decide if PyeongChang pulls it off next time.
David Zolkwer is director of public events at Jack Morton Worldwide and project & artistic director for the opening and closing ceremonies for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games