Hollywood’s heavy hitters are all betting on virtual reality to some degree, but the size of those wagers varies.
Fox was first with a “Martian” VR experience unveiled at last year’s CES show in Las Vegas and has since gone all-in with multiple projects. tied to some of its biggest franchises, like “Alien” and “Planet of the Apes.” On the other hand, current box office champ Disney recently announced a Marvel VR game, but has been relatively slow to push out VR experiences linked to its big-screen content.
With the box office growing slowly and the pay-TV landscape in flux, studios feel like they can’t miss out on what could be a big part of the future of filmed entertainment. But is it a wise move?
“It’s almost like a chicken-and-the-egg situation,” Aaron Sauceda, a senior analyst with Accenture’s Global Strategy Practice, told TheWrap. “The biggest challenge is obviously going to be adoption, but the challenge with adoption is if there’s no content to consume, then adoption is going to be pretty limited.
“On the flip-side, if content creators are seeing adoption being pretty limited and thus monetization being limited, then they’re not going to really want to invest the time and resources to make that content. It’s a tough situation there, and maybe that’s where Hollywood’s opportunity is — maybe they can invest the resources in the content.”
And as TheWrap takes a look at the state of VR in the entertainment business, here’s where the Big Six stand right now:
20TH CENTURY FOX
Twentieth Century Fox is probably the major studio most enthusiastic about virtual reality, forming a dedicated division for video gaming, location-based entertainment, virtual and augmented reality productions called FoxNext earlier this year.
Fox’s “The Martian VR Experience” was the first foray into the technology from any of the major studios, followed by one tied to “The Revenant” re-creating the experience of being attacked by a bear.
In April, Fox unveiled a VR experience tied to its “Alien: Covenant” film, titled “Alien: Covenant In Utero,” where the user was transported inside a womb alongside a Neomorph, a white-headed creature new to the movie that is born when alien spores are released from pods and enter people’s bloodstreams — before the creature burst from the body in disgustingly impressive fashion.
The experience was developed by the FoxNext VR Studio along with RSA VR, MPC VR, a Technicolor company, Mach 1 and technology partners AMD Radeon and Dell.
“In Utero” was hardly an afterthought to the film. It was produced by Ridley Scott, who directed the first “Alien” movie and both prequels, “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant.” Scott was actively involved in creating the experience, offering advice on details like what the Neomorph’s breathing should sound like, “In Utero” director David Karlak said at a panel following a demo of the experience.
FoxNext has also partnered with VR studio Within to develop more VR experiences tied to some of its big franchises, with new “Planet of the Apes” slated for the fourth quarter and “Alien” on deck for the first half of 2018.
Both of those will be for sale across tethered platforms, including the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. The studio is also developing an “Alien” free-roam VR experience, where users can move around a large, dedicated open space. The studio also is partnering with Annapurna on an original VR film to be produced and directed by Within CEO Chris Milk.
Warner Bros. has also embraced high-end wired VR, making it a major part of the marketing strategy for a movie that seems to be perfectly suited for it, Steven Spielberg’s upcoming sci-fi film “Ready Player One,” which takes place inside a virtual reality game.
The studio partnered with HTC Vive to produce multiple pieces of VR content that will be available on a variety of platforms from the premium-priced, PC-based Vive to mobile headsets. Vive will also bring its “Ready Player One” experiences to its Viveport Arcade platform for location-based entertainment.
Last fall, Warner Bros. VR rolled out a “Batman: Arkham VR” video game first available for PlayStation VR and extended to Vive and Oculus. In addition, the studio signed a co-financing deal with IMAX in March to develop three VR experiences, two of which will be tied to “Justice League and “Aquaman.”
Warner Bros. declined to comment about its future VR projects.
Paramount Pictures held a virtual reality conference, the VRTL Summit, on its Hollywood lot in April, during which new studio chief Jim Gianopulos gave his first public remarks. His boss, National Amusements President Shari Redstone, even strapped on a set of goggles herself.
The studio debuted its first movie-tied VR earlier this year, an Oculus-exclusive “Ghost in the Shell” experience created by Here be Dragons.
Paramount also declined to comment about its upcoming VR releases.
Sony unveiled an experience for its recent comic-book hit “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which allows wannabe Spideys to practice their web-shooting skills and swing above New York. The VR experience, produced by Sony Pictures Virtual Reality and developed by CreateVR, came out June 30 — and is available for free on the Vive, Oculus and PlayStation VR.
The studio also has what’s essentially a slate deal with VR firm Madison Wells Media, headed by veteran Hollywood producer Gigi Pritzker and film finance vet Clint Kisker.
The two have an exclusive partnership to create original, stand-alone VR experiences related to specific Sony titles, including “Passengers: Awakening VR,” released in March and featuring the voice of big-screen “Passengers” star Chris Pratt.
The studio has also produced VR projects for “The Walk,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Goosebumps.”
Sony declined to comment about its future VR initiatives.
Universal may have gotten more buzz for its VR experience tied to Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy” than for the film itself. The project, which premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, was the result of a collaboration between the studio and 5th Wall, an agency specializing in VR, AR and 360-degree video services.
In Austin, viewers were escorted into a fully staged airplane hanger and seated in a hydraulic chair from Positron that mimicked the movements of the “Mummy” experience as they unfolded in an Oculus Rift. The content was a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s buzziest scene — an escape from a crashing plane shot in zero-gravity. The experience rolled out in cinemas in the U.S. and abroad, where the box office numbers fared much better for the film.
5th Wall and Universal had previously partnered for an experience built around “Fifty Shades of Grey,” where users could tour title character Christian Grey’s expensive apartment in 360-degree video — including his notorious “red room” full of BDSM toys.
Disney, which set a record last year and became the first studio ever to gross $7 billion in worldwide box office receipts, may not need the bells and whistles of virtual reality to sell films like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”
However, some of Disney’s franchises like “Star Wars” are natural fits for VR, and there’s a “Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine” experience available for free on the Vive.
The Mouse House is also using VR for other, less lucrative but more fulfilling purposes — like cheering up sick kids. “Star Wars: Force For Change,” developed by Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB, will debut in late 2017, is described as a “physical program geared toward entertainment and distraction purposes for use with children” that incorporates exclusive “Star Wars” content. It will be sent to children’s hospitals and similar facilities across the country.
And just a couple weeks ago, Disney announced a new VR game developed with Oculus, “Marvel Powers United VR,” which is set to hit the Rift exclusively in 2018 — and will be an interesting test of Disney’s ability to monetize its IP, which has been so successful in basically every other medium, in virtual reality.
Disney also declined to comment about its virtual reality pipeline.
Sean Burch contributed reporting to this story.
TheWrap’s Special Report on Virtual Reality: