"When asked what we have that sets us apart, we can say we have the best guy in the world doing this show. We haven't seen a single competitor who, in our own opinion and from a qualitative perspective, comes anywhere near what we're doing."
The once tentative tiptoe towards the re-emergence of the arts is gaining speed, and Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Co-Producer, Corey Ross, has been at the forefront of the race to return. As founder of Starvox Entertainment and co-founder of Lighthouse Immersive, Corey strives to reinvent theatre, art, magic, music and the performing arts in ways never before seen. Navigating the wild waters of the entertainment world, he has found freedom and fun in blurring the lines between performer and patron to present something truly unique. When the pandemic storm pressed in, that wide ocean of possibility became turbulent and unpredictable, forcing entertainment companies across the globe to moor up and take stock of what was possible and where they stood.
What was available in abundance was time, and the Lighthouse Immersive team used theirs wisely, strategizing and honing in on the few projects that could still be launched. In conversation with smART Magazine, Corey describes how Starvox and Lighthouse Immersive weathered the changes in circumstance to make Immersive Van Gogh even greater than they had thought possible. He talks about the myriad events and challenges on the road to success, which ultimately contributed to the exhibit’s reinvention and perpetual improvement. Corey stresses the importance of strong, open communication with the creative team, respecting and enhancing the significance of each location, adding new levels of craftsmanship via David Korins, and just what makes IVG stand out in a crowded market of various Van Goghs.
by Tash Cowley
Meet the Team:
by Kalya Ramu
When you started on IVG, did you foresee it getting this big? How has the success of the exhibit surprised you?
I think this has absolutely exceeded what we’d dreamed of. I mean, I didn't get here by not being ambitious! But there have been a set of circumstances that have driven us to push further, and faster than we ever would have otherwise, and maybe we're lucky that those circumstances presented themselves. One of these was COVID, which allowed us to shift focus away from our other live theatrical events. My entire team was able to focus strictly on the Immersive show because it was the only kind of show that we could put on.
Other things have happened along the way that drove it forward; for example, we met partners who helped us roll out in the U.S., and we received funding from the Canadian government.
Because it’s the only thing that was working, we've had several parties attempting to knock off what we're doing. So, we've had competitors, and those competitors forced us to make a choice; do we want them to get into all these cities, or do we want to get there first? Maybe it's my competitive nature, but I chose all the cities that I thought were good bets, and we moved quickly to put the shows on sale. It was a high level of “blitz-scaling”, as I call it.
We never anticipated that our focus would be exclusively on this, that we would have the great partners that we have in the different cities, like Maria Shclover, Irina Shabshis and the rest of the Lighthouse troop. But moreover, we certainly never anticipated that we would wake up one morning and find some guy down in Florida advertising with our graphics for his own exhibit! Or that the day after we announced New York, someone else would announce New York, and that all of a sudden there would be an explosion of people running to put on some version of what we do. All of this really is part of what drove the growth to be this fast.
I didn't get here by not being ambitious! But there has been a set of circumstances that have driven us to push further, faster than we ever would have otherwise.
Speaking of these “Immersive” Van Gogh exhibits that seem to be copying IVG—how is IVG maintaining its creative ownership of the concept?
The core of this really goes back to Massimiliano and his work in Europe because the copycat shows started from there. They already existed in the market, and we were aware of them at a certain level before we jumped into North America, but there were none in the North American market and we couldn't anticipate what would occur after we started our business. So why is this possible? It’s possible because Van Gogh's been dead for 130 years and his works are public domain, so there's no copyright on his works or on the concept. The idea of using a projector to display a piece of Van Gogh’s art on the wall is not something that's easily protected.
However, there is copyright on the way in which Massimiliano executes this concept, and certainly on our images of Massimiliano's work, so we immediately got the party that was using our images to cease. When asked what we have that sets us apart, we can say we have the best guy in the world doing this show. We haven't seen a single competitor who, in our own opinion and from a qualitative perspective, comes anywhere near what we're doing.
At the end of the day, this is an artistic endeavor and so it's really about how these three artists (Massimiliano, Korins and Van Gogh) refract off of each other, and what that creates.
We also have a very different approach to our installations because most of what we're rolling out is permanent. We're not doing pop-ups, so it's very expensive for us but it also delivers a higher quality experience for the customers because we are investing in the venues. The competition forced us to up our game, which is why David Korins has joined us to design the physical spaces that we're projecting into. Now, it's not only Massimiliano's art; we have started reflecting on the physical space of the exhibit too. It has increased our investment, but it has also increased what the public gets to see when they come into these shows.
What's interesting to me about all the competitors is that none of them really speak to their artistic team. Everybody knows that we have the guy that made this movement in Europe what it is, and now we also have the guy that designed Hamilton. And, of course, we have the same guy that everyone else has – Mr. Van Gogh. At the end of the day, this is an artistic endeavor and so it's really about how these three artists (Massimiliano, Korins, and Van Gogh) refract off each other, and what that creates. I think that's the reason why we have the most interesting project.
that I think looks interesting and that would be exciting for myself, for the team and for the public to experience. I think we will continue to look at the genre of Immersive Experience for a while longer, because I feel it has several more directions in which it can grow, and I find it an interesting world to explore. But I'm also not about to give up on some of the gems that we've had over the years in the theater business.
The NYC Exhibit has been a real meeting of minds, in what order were the different aspects developed, and what were some of the challenges of collaborating creatively during a pandemic?
In terms of the order of events, the Massimiliano-Lombardi team was already established when we came to New York. They had created the core elements of Immersive Van Gogh, which are the same core elements in every city. So, after that point, it became about the localization of the exhibit, which is typically an adaptation to the architecture of the building. It also becomes about figuring out how we become rooted locally in some form in every city we go to, which is typically something we have brought to the table.
Bringing in David Korins as our Creative Director, the guy who designed the sets for several Broadway hits, is a very New York thing to do. That was a creative way of localizing this exhibit to New York and, additionally, it meant that the Creative Director was physically present in New York. Finally, we weren't solely dealing with artists who were stuck in Italy and trying to do everything by Zoom. So that was a really good thing; around the site, he could say, “Let's move this thing 10 feet to the right, let’s throw that out, that didn't work, this idea worked.” And that's been wonderful. Meanwhile we still have the same challenge that we've had on every one of the exhibits, which is that the Italian team, two-thirds of our creative team, were not able to come. They are dealing with us over Zoom, which is always a challenge.
Bringing in David Korins as our Creative Director, the guy who designed the sets for several Broadway hits, is a very New York thing to do. That was a creative way of localizing this exhibit to New York.
How do you plan on replicating what you’ve learned with IVG in future exhibits?
Artistically and in terms of execution, each exhibit is an individual project. There's certainly been a lot of learning on the marketing side of things, having done as much as we've done for Van Gogh. It has allowed us to learn about where to market, how to market and how to use Facebook in a new way. We've gone from being a group that maybe spends $5000 a month on Facebook to a group that spends a million on Facebook! So there have been a lot of marketing lessons along the way that will certainly be rolled out across all our shows, and the team's gotten better and stronger at ticketing too. That’s the business side. The other side is learning about where the public meets the art, which is the thing that's always fascinated me and driven me as a Producer; that moment when the public finally sees what you've prepared for them, and you see their reaction.
There is a very special meeting that's happening right now between the public and the arts as people come out of COVID. It has a different gravitas and a different meaning for people, to come out and finally be able to begin to do things. To be the Producer that instigates that, being the midwife or doula of it all, that’s really rewarding and interesting.
There is a very special meeting that's happening right now between the public and the arts as people come out of COVID. It has a different gravitas and a different meaning for people, to come out and finally be able to begin to do things.
As for Illusionarium—the poor show that we've never been able to open but we just keep working on—the bottom line is that I think we have a show that's been fascinating with regards to how it's developed. With an extra six months of having nothing to do but develop it, it's just gotten better and better, and we're going to finally open it at the end of July. I hope that the public embraces it; when you've been waiting and looking forward to something, and then you get to look forward to it for an extra seven months because of Toronto’s lockdown policies... let’s say I certainly hope that the public is as excited about it as I am!
We've added more and more magic into the show, including an entire extra room where you can see Houdini’s great escape closer than ever before. We've taken full advantage of seven months of lockdown, and I hope that people are looking forward to it.
Are there any genres of entertainment that you haven’t yet explored that you are interested in?
There are tons I haven't done yet! It's been a while since I was in the concert business, and I've never done anything in sports entertainment. I was eyeing a Mexican wrestling project for a while that looked like great fun. I really like to chase new ideas, I like to try different things and that's part of what drives me as a Producer. I’ve historically tried my hand at anything