Industry: Built Environment
Products: Themed environments
Founder and VP James Powell is seeing gargantuan growth manufacturing eye-catching installations for theme parks, pop-ups for brands, and props for Hollywood.
Powell's career in manufacturing started with his hobby. "It actually started building railroad models and it grew from there," says Powell.
He means that in more ways than one: Early online admirers wanted him to increase the scale of his work. "People would say, 'You should make these things bigger,'" he laughs. "Every time I would make something bigger, they said, 'You should make something even bigger.'"
He enlarged a small-scale doghouse to a life-sized one, followed by playhouses and other designs. In 2000, Powell moved from Ohio to California to work for a company that made high-end, themed treehouses for a national market and other installations on the Central Coast.
In 2012, Powell relocated to Fresno and launched Monster City Studios. Instead of making treehouses for the rich and famous, he's now focused on making props, characters, and other products for theme parks and big consumer brands.
"The majority of what we do now is big theme park stuff for Universal, Disney, Sea World, and parks overseas," he says. Brands like Nike and Southwest Airlines also call Monster City Studios for work on signage, trade show paraphernalia, and pop-up installations.
The company operates in a 20,000-square-foot facility with automated equipment. Initially, 4-axis CNC mill carved pieces exclusively from expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, but a 7-axis KUKA robotic arm has allowed the company to work with other materials since Monster City acquired it in 2018. "The KUKA actually came from Tesla's R&D department," says Powell.
The materials palette now includes wood, fiberglass, structural steel, and plastic, as well as EPS foam. Wood "is something you can't really do on a CNC machine," notes Powell. "You can glue foam together and you can coat foam. With wood, you're producing your final article on the machine. The robot allows us to do that with some pretty good accuracy."
Monster City also offers clients small-scale rotational molding and vacuum forming for plastic components. The company has 3D printers and an in-house fiberglass shop, and can also integrate animatronics. "We recently hired a robotics engineer to be able to animate some of our stuff," says Powell.
The broader set of capabilities has catalyzed a broader client base. The woodworking ability led Monster City Studios to work with fine artists, including a sculptor whose mahogany piece was shown at Art Basel in Miami. The company is also helping The Queen Mary, the ship-turned-hotel in Long Beach, on reproduction lifeboats made of fiberglass.
"We're even doing film stuff now," adds Powell. "You've still got to interact with things. There's a lot of great digital stuff out there, but the actors still need hard surfaces. . . . There's been a little bit of blowback against CGI. That's been good for us." Monster City has worked on projects for Marvel, Warner Brothers, and Lucasfilm.
A focus on the bigger theme parks brought about a boom starting in 2017 as the company mushroomed from 10 to 25 employees. "In the past couple of years, it's really started to curve up," says Powell.
Before that, Monster City "didn't really have a focus so much. We were trying to be all things to everybody," he adds. "We want to provide services for the big parks, because they're the ones that are expanding like crazy. They need the product."
The trick? "Opening ourselves up into the L.A. market and the Orlando market," he says, calling it a natural progression. "We know the specs, we've been through the audits, we know what's needed."
A 2015 project on a 6,000-square-foot, Indiana Jones-inspired "man cave" in Fresno has proven a calling card for Powell and Monster City Studios. Dubbed The Temple of Vroom, the project includes a cave entrance, Moroccan village, faux ancient sculptures, and a military truck navigating a rickety-looking bridge in the rafters.
"This thing is insane," says Powell. "That was a real blank canvas there. It's not a theme park saying, 'Build this stuff, here's the design.'"
Challenges: The company's Fresno location can be "a double-edged sword," says Powell. Local regulations tend to be friendlier to manufacturers than other areas in California, he says, but there's also the phenomenon of being a big fish in a small pond. "We're the only company around here that does anything like this," explains Powell. "We're one of the only creative outlets in the entire area. A couple Facebook posts for a job can attract hundreds of resumes."
That means top talent has a way of finding Monster City, but the lack of competition makes for a different kind of labor market than Hollywood. "In L.A., companies have the luxury of a lot of freelancers." In Fresno, "You've got to hire them full-time," he says, and that makes it difficult to scale up the workforce for one-off projects.
Opportunities: "A huge amount of our theme park work is going to expansions overseas," says Powell. "You would think, 'They're building this place in Beijing so they can make this stuff in Beijing,' but they don't. Because of quality issues, they have it done over here."
"Container after container after container is shipping over there," he adds. "You'd think it would be the reverse, but it's not."
He also sees building pop-up stores for "Instagram activation for brands" as a growth driver in 2020 and beyond. "I don't see social media or Snapchat or Instagram going away soon, and brands are always going to be vying to grab that attention," says Powell. "That attention is grabbed through big visuals and 3D things and interactive pieces."
Working with artists on projects ranging from sculptures to giant-sized designer toys is another opportunity, he adds.
Needs: More space. "We are packed," says Powell of Monster City's 25,000-square-foot facility. "We can barely move." As the company owns four acres, he says the plan is to add another 10,000 square feet in the near term.