By Sahil Patel
Does virtual reality have the potential to be a viable commercial platform for the entertainment industry? Maybe!
But first, there needs to be good content.
That’s the message passed on by those who are already active in the field — from the Hollywood studios and producers making VR content to the tech companies building and selling affordable VR devices. It’s the obvious answer, for sure, but also a necessary one: To achieve scale and monetization, first there needs to be videos that people want to watch.
“From a movie studio standpoint, we see VR as one iteration and one toolset for advancing the visual experience,” says Ted Schilowitz, who, as a “futurist” at Fox, is tasked with identifying emerging media platforms for the studio to be active on. Fox has already made some investments in VR, having produced content tied to movies as diverse as the sci-fi blockbuster “The Maze Runner,” the fantasy family comedy “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” and the Reese Witherspoon-starring independent film “Wild.”
With “Wild,” Fox produced a complementary piece that placed viewers in the middle of a chance encounter between the main character and the memory of her mother, deep in the middle of the woods. It was an interesting test case for Fox and VR, as the movie is not the “obvious” choice for a VR short film. “That in and of itself became unique,” says Schilowitz, because the point of the piece was not to wow viewers with the flashy aspects of VR (the awe and wonder would come naturally by the very nature of what VR is). “The idea for us as a movie studio was to take a level of engagement that already exists with the film from a storytelling standpoint and bring that into VR in a way that was compelling.”
Fox’s work with “Wild” points to the creative possibilities available with VR. It’s easy to imagine the medium as a place for effects-heavy content that transport viewers into fantastical, new worlds. But sometimes our own world is equally compelling — it’s just finding the right story and subject matter to hook viewers.
Vice Media, for instance, partnered with filmmakers Chris Milk and Spike Jonze to create a VR news documentary that takes viewers up-close-and-personal with protesters during the 2014 Millions March protest in New York City in December 2014. The piece premiered during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where Fox also showcased the “Wild” VR experience.
Of course, news and documentary are genres that would be served well by VR, but the creative possibilities are truly endless, and, according to Matt Apfel, the VP of strategy and creative content for Samsung’s Media Solutions Center America (including its VR video platform, Milk VR), they’re still growing. “Where we started way back in November has already evolved significantly — the first wave of videos were just kind of experiences, here’s three minutes from this location; inside access to unexplored worlds is where the position has been,” he says. “But what I’m really excited about, and what we’re doing with content partners now is we’re adding storytelling and series.” In other words, instead of just one unconnected experience, Samsung is developing scripted and unscripted projects that span multiple episodes.
These projects vary in size and scope, presenting once again the creative possibilities available in VR. “Every one of our current shows has a situation that would make for a great VR experience,” says Jay Peterson, founder and CEO of Matador, a bicoastal production company that produces TV shows and documentaries like “Epic Bar Builds” for Discovery and “Banksy Does New York” for HBO, and is a content partner for Samsung Milk VR
In addition to the multi-episode content that Matador is producing, Milk VR is also developing its own version of a “Top Gear”-esque car-and-driving series, and, of course, has enlisted “The Walking Dead” executive producer David Alpert to create “tentpole” projects.
One of Alpert’s projects is an interactive, murder-mystery thriller series. “As opposed to a two-minute horror movie set inside my headset, David is trying to storyboard 10, 20, 30 short-form episodes and testing how they can link together and how different choices can lead to different conclusions,” says Apfel.
In a way, projects such as this one are an attempt to answer one of the key questions about VR: The technology is certainly cool and engaging, but what’s the potential for long-form content? Will users be willing to strap on a headset for more than a few minutes at a time?
“In our opinion, long-form storytelling is a little way off but coming fast,” says Peterson. “VR is a different medium and it may take time for people to be able to truly engage in a single, 90-minute piece of content. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to produce long form, we just think that 90 minutes of content needs to be chaptered and packaged very differently to bring viewers along.”
Another important question: While VR has been embraced by content creators of all sizes, will it be anything more than a novel marketing tool for the major studios? Fox has produced some compelling VR pieces to date, but each are in service of a major film property. Ultimately, is that the ceiling for VR among the big-budget spenders in Hollywood?
“I personally don’t think it is,” says Schilowitz. “We are already at an interesting juncture. We are starting
to experiment past the idea of it being a marketing tool for other forms of media.”
It’s still the early days, though, and very much in the experimental stage — which means the focus should remain on the content and experiences that can be made, whether they are in service of something else or are standalone pieces unique to VR.
“Our approach with VR is that it’s an exploration into the future of storytelling,” says Schilowitz. “From a movie studio standpoint — and really for any company that uses tech to tell a story — someone needs to explore things around the next corner. Because if you don’t start somewhere, you never get anywhere.”
This article is part of VideoInk’s “VI Goes VR” special issue, which explores the current opportunity and future potential in virtual reality for the entertainment industry.
For more insights on all things VR, join us at our special event in Los Angeles on February 26, where we will discuss and showcase what VR has to offer.