LOS ANGELES — The wisteria drips from the archway while classical music plays over the loudspeakers. Powder-wigged valets present champagne to guests who gaze at Empire-waist dresses, peer into a room filled with makeup and accessories or head to a stage for a quick oil portrait (actually a digital photo with a Regency England-esque filter).
This is The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience, an immersive, Instagram-ready confection held in the ballrooms of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles and tailor made for die-hard fans of the global Netflix hit. The 200 to 300 guests aren’t able to meet Regé-Jean Page, the breakout star of the first season of “Bridgerton,” who declined to return to the 19th-century drama. But they can bow before an actress doing her best impression of Queen Charlotte (right down to the haughty glare), learn a dance set to a string quartet version of Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams,” participate in a Lady Whistledown scavenger hunt and possibly even be granted the coveted honor of being named the “diamond of the evening.”
The 90-minute experience — which will open to the public on Thursday and run for at least two months before traveling to Washington, Chicago and Montreal — is Netflix’s most ambitious real-world event to date. (A similar version opened in London this month.) The streaming giant hopes it serves as a marketing tool for “Bridgerton” and appeals to the show’s primarily female fan base, which is often ignored when it comes to fan culture.
It is also a bid to amplify the kind of water-cooler buzz that has been elusive for streaming shows. Since their episodes tend to be released in one batch, the week-to-week anticipation familiar to fans of traditional network television can be diluted.
“This really goes towards my vision of what I’ve always wanted us to be able to do,” the “Bridgerton” creator Shonda Rhimes said in a Zoom interview from her home in New York, before bringing up two of her popular ABC dramas, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” “People who watched ‘Grey’s’ weren’t just watching ‘Grey’s’ on Thursday night — they were trying to find other ways to consume it. ‘Scandal’ was not a show that people watched on Thursday nights and then just didn’t talk about it the rest of the week.”
In its 18th season, “Grey’s Anatomy” is still broadcast television’s No. 1 show in the critical 18-to-49-year-old demographic. “Scandal” ended in 2018 after seven seasons.
“Being at Netflix allows us to take that desire for the fans and to create a thing where you’re allowing them to be part of the experience more than just on one night of the week or one hour a week,” added Ms. Rhimes, who recently renewed her lucrative Netflix deal for five more years, adding additional revenue streams like podcasts and video games.
In addition to The Queen’s Ball, which costs between $49 and $99 to attend, Netflix has teamed up with Bloomingdale’s for a pop-up shop both online and at the flagship Manhattan store ($995 lilac Malone Souliers floral appliquéd pumps, anyone?). There is also a line of cosmetics from Pat McGrath, a British makeup artist whose makeup was used in the production of “Bridgerton”; a soundtrack featuring pop hits played by a string quartet; and a Netflix book club, whose March pick is “The Viscount Who Loved Me,” the second book in the series, by Julia Quinn, that serves as the show’s source material.
Traditional Hollywood studios have been playing this game for a long time. For instance, the second that one of its shows or movies is a hit, Disney starts pumping out related products. But it is a relatively new strategy for Netflix. (The streamer did roll out “Squid Game” tracksuits in partnership with the South Korean brand Musinsa late last year, soon after the series took off.)
Inside the World of “Bridgerton”
The Netflix series, whose second season is out this March, infuses period-drama escapism with modern-day sensibilities.
In the past couple of years, Netflix has placed an emphasis on live, out-of-home experiences. First there was a Covid-conscious “Stranger Things” drive-through event in 2020, then an event where participants searched for a bank vault in a heist experience tied to the series “La Casa de Papel.” Recently, the company held a virtual reality event for Zack Snyder’s zombie film “Army of the Dead.”
What does all this do for Netflix’s bottom line? The company says over one million people have attended its live events, a number it expects to increase significantly as long as Covid-19 remains on the wane.
Netflix wouldn’t discuss the economics of the events, but Ted Sarandos, its co-chief executive, referred to the “Bridgerton” live experience on the company’s January earnings call as part of its efforts to create franchises out of “whole cloth.” He predicted that “fans will flock to and flood their social media feeds with” photos from The Queen’s Ball.
Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s head of global TV, added in a recent interview, “I really love that we’re building these universes and doing these consumer products that are completely just so much about female fandom.”
Organizers say demand for The Queen’s Ball in Los Angeles has been as manic as the early reception for “Bridgerton”: 88 percent of tickets had been bought two weeks before its opening.
Michael Vorhaus, a longtime digital media consultant, said such events helped prolong interest in content that in the Netflix universe is consumed and discarded faster than a sparsely filled-out dance card.
“It’s Harry Potter for adults,” he said of “Bridgerton.” “You’ve got eight books. And if the consumption numbers hold up, then presumably they will make all eight, and who knows beyond that? Every dollar they’re spending now building a community, every dollar that builds buzz for them, they’re getting paid off over eight seasons.”
Plus, with an audience that’s primarily women ages 18 to 45, Netflix is appealing to a group that is traditionally not courted as rabid consumers of pop culture.
“It’s a very underserved fan base,” said Greg Lombardo, head of experiences at Netflix. “In this space there are not a lot of offerings out there that are really geared towards a female audience.”
Indeed, it was a milestone when the cast of the first “Twilight” movie showed up at Comic-Con in 2008, introducing a new demographic to the predominantly male-skewed fan convention. “Fifty Shades of Grey” followed suit with an extensive line of merchandising. “Outlander” and “Downton Abbey” have also proved the purchasing power of a largely female fan base.
“It’s not that revolutionary to suggest that women are enormous consumers of products, and when they are a fan of something, they are hard-core fans of something,” Ms Rhimes said. “I have known that for the 20-something years I’ve been doing my job. The difference here is that we are now in an era in which the people who create those universes are not strictly men.”
But more often than not, big mainstream franchises are still primarily aimed toward young men, with spaces carved out for others to join, said Katherine Morrissey, a professor at Arizona State University who studies fan culture.
“It seems like Netflix is very aware that the audience for ‘Bridgerton’ is not necessarily going to think of itself as a fandom in the way that we kind of stereotype fandoms,” she said. “They’re very aware that their consumers are going to be interested in similar things but are going to want them packaged in totally different ways. They’re not necessarily going to be self-identified like, ‘This is the thing I did at Comic-Con.’”
The soapy, sexy romance novels seem perfect for Ms. Rhimes’s streaming ambitions. Each book focuses on a child of the Bridgerton family and the efforts to marry the child off successfully (i.e., for love) per the customs of early-19th-century England. Each features a self-contained story line — a dream for Ms. Rhimes, who has had to keep churning out plot twists for her long-running network shows. Now she can tell distinct stories, plus a spinoff season dedicated to Queen Charlotte, who was the wife of King George III and may have been England’s first Black queen, a character Ms. Rhimes has been obsessed with for years.
Netflix has already greenlit Seasons 3 and 4 of “Bridgerton” and the Queen Charlotte spinoff, which will enter production shortly.
“It’s an incredible gift,” said Betsy Beers, Ms. Rhimes longtime producing partner. “It really provides for an incredible fluidity of storytelling and also, economically, is very sensible on both the practical and production end.”
It has also allowed for Netflix’s six-person live events team to adapt the “Bridgerton” experience for future seasons. (An anthropomorphized bumblebee makes a foreboding entrance in the new live show, something only the fans who have binged the whole second season will immediately understand.)
Back at the Biltmore, once the guests have curtsied their way to an introduction to the queen and learned their dance moves, they are escorted into a larger ballroom for a dance performance between a handsome duke and a coquettish duchess. With a string quartet playing pop songs, the guests are then encouraged to join in the fun, while the queen evaluates them for their diamond potential. (With bars stationed strategically throughout the experience, Netflix realizes lowered inhibitions augment the event. Sixteen dollars gets you one of an array of cocktails, including the Whistledown & Dirty, which contains Absolut vodka, mint and San Pellegrino limonata.)
From on high, over the quartet’s playing of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” bellows the voice of Lady Whistledown’s protégé, Lady Heartell, who was created for the ball: “I don’t know about all of you, but I got what I came for.”
If Netflix has planned it correctly, the audience did, too.