FriendsFest 2018

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A festival of selfies in Kennington Park.

If Friends was a guilty pleasure of a TV show, it’s an even guiltier pleasure as a ‘live’ experience.  But it is one of the great privileges of this job that you can go almost anywhere in the name of ‘professional curiosity’.  So let’s just say that it was in the name of professional curiosity that I attended FriendsFest last Friday night.

FriendsFest is a touring festival of sets and memorabilia from the hit American sitcom.  It is produced by Luna Cinema under a rights deal with Warner Bros and is billed as ‘the ultimate celebration of the world’s greatest TV show’.

The festival is centred on a large marquee containing replica sets from the show, surrounded by a host of smaller marquees, food trucks, a souvenir shop and a large screen playing a continuous stream of favourite clips from Friends.  It is a heady dose of 90s nostalgia repackaged for those younger fans that are still watching it on Netflix and Comedy Central.

On the way there, I was dreading what I might find.  Imagine the wild scrum of teenagers jostling for position on the Central Perk sofa.  And even if you did manage to get there, how good a selfie could that make, with all the latecomers milling about in the background and photobombing every shot like a pack of angry extras?

But FriendsFest is what happens when you combine the Millennial love of the selfie with Britain’s favourite pastime: queuing for stuff.

There was no scrum.  There was no jostling, or milling about, and certainly no photobombing.  There was just an orderly and out-of-frame queue.  Each group patiently waited its turn and then sat on the sofa, while a person behind them graciously offered to take their picture.  Queue, sit, selfie, repeat.  Over and over again.  Nobody spoiled it by walking through the background, because everybody wanted the exact same picture.  With everybody there for essentially the same purpose, a weirdly British sense of self-regulating ‘selfie etiquette’ took over.

Queue, sit, selfie, repeat.

Queue, sit, selfie, repeat

I shouldn’t have been entirely surprised.  We’ve been telling all our clients – from the most high-minded museum to the latest pop culture fad – that they need to provide for the ‘selfie moment’.  An instantly recognisable image that visitors can post to Instagram or Facebook.  Something they can memorialise on Youtube or brag about on Twitter.  It is expected, and people are disappointed if they don’t get it.

Bob Rogers of BRC Imagination calls it the ‘netmark’ – an iconic image that may be inconsequential as a physical thing, but which takes on new meaning and significance in the ethereal world of social media.  Think of the long queues at King’s Cross for that picture at Platform 9¾.  Or the I Amsterdam sign.  Or all those commercial brands that regularly ‘pop up’ in Potters Field Park – if only because it is framed by Tower Bridge, one of the most Instagrammed images of London.

Building selfie-moments into visitor experiences is nothing new.  What is extraordinary about FriendsFest is not that there are a lot of these moments – it’s that that’s all there is.  The whole experience has been meticulously organised and engineered around the hashtagged selfie and that’s how visitors gleefully engage with it.  There is something eerily regimented about the whole thing.  All that selfie-taking isn’t a way to remember an otherwise pleasant experience – it is the experience.  And it is delivered with the industrial efficiency of an assembly line.

An assembly line of selfie-moments

An assembly line of selfie-moments

Take a picture of me in Chandler’s chair. I’ll take your picture in Monica’s kitchen. Now let’s pretend we’re playing foosball. Now point out the window at Ugly Naked Guy. Click-click-click and onto the next one.  It’s like circuit-training for the Snapchat Olympics.

The set tour is introduced with a handful of real props from the show – Phoebe’s guitar, the turkey-with-glasses.  These are actual props left over from the production and they provide just enough ‘authenticity’ to ensure that visitors then experience the sets as the hallowed ground of TV history rather than the obvious replicas that they really are.  It’s a neat trick, but it matters.  If we can’t excitedly caption our Tweet as ‘Joey and Chandler’s foosball table!’, then we are really just two idiots playing pretend foosball on a phony table.

Joey and Chandler's foosball table!

Joey and Chandler’s foosball table!

An interesting byproduct of this approach is the way that minor details from the show are elevated to serve what is now a physical experience.  Take Mockolate.  Only a completist anorak will know that Mockolate refers to ‘mock chocolate’, a throwaway gag from Season 2, Episode 8.  It was never referred to again and, as far as I know, never caught-on as a pop culture catchphrase.  But at FriendsFest it provides a convenient device for theming the hot chocolate that sells briskly on a chilly night in Kennington Park.  If it was instantly forgettable on TV, here it is treated as some sort of cultural touchstone, with the word Mockolate plastered all over posters and food trucks and all manner of souvenir baby bibs and coffee cups.  I never knew that Mockolate was ‘a thing’, but it must be – because there I am on Facebook, giving a thumbs-up sign with one hand, while holding a Hot Mockolate in the other.

None of this is meant as criticism – only observation.  There is no denying the popularity of FriendsFest and the numbers tell their own story.  It has been running successfully for three years in public parks up-and-down the country.  Tickets sell-out within minutes of going online and Tripadvisor reviews are positive to the point of sounding reverential.  It’s hard to argue with that kind of success.  Then again, it’s hard to think of many other properties with as large and loyal a fanbase as Friends.  How many films or TV shows have so many fans that would take so much satisfaction from so little of substance?

The lesson of FriendsFest – because, don’t forget, I was only there … ahem … out of professional curiosity – is how important those selfie-moments are to a whole new generation of visitors.  Not everybody can organise their whole experience around the selfie – nor should they.  But we shouldn’t be snooty or dismissive of it either.