Hollywood bets on virtual reality being next great computing platform

Veteran filmmaker Ivan Reitman is an unlikely torchbearer for VR as studios invest money and map out ways to best make use of the new medium

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2016, 5:11pm

Recently in Los Angeles, Hollywood director Ivan Reitman was in the bowels of the Madame Tussauds wax museum talking up an unlikely passion.

“VR is remarkable. What it does is force you to bring yourself into the story,” Reitman says. “If you haven’t tried it, you just need 10 minutes with it to realise it’s an amazing experience.”

Reitman, the 69-year-old filmmaker behind such comedies as Twins and Dave, was not the most likely evangelist for the much hyped new medium. But thanks to Sony’s Ghostbusters: Dimension, a tie-in to the currently running action-comedy film and a new participatory VR experience he was helping launch, Reitman has become a convert – a symbol of a traditional entertainment business dipping its toe in new waters.

For several years, major studios and media companies have largely stood on the sidelines of VR, allowing tech giants such as Facebook-owned Oculus and Samsung to take the lead in the potentially groundbreaking medium. But mainstream Hollywood players are starting to embrace the technology, making a flurry of investments, hires and content deals.

In the past six weeks, the venture arms of entertainment players including Comcast, Fox and talent agency WME have poured at least US$43 million into start-up ventures, setting off a slow-motion scramble for the right VR play. Sony Pictures recently made history when it named Jake Zim the first VR tsar at a major studio.

Specific goals can vary, but the overall mission is simple: get in on the ground floor, financially or creatively, of a medium that one day could represent a chunk of entertainment revenue. VR content, these companies believe, will exist on their slates alongside films and TV shows.

“The question with VR is always why now?,” says Michael Yang, managing director of Comcast Ventures. Yang’s company has invested in a host of VR firms, making the bulk of a nearly US$7 million investment in the Montreal-based VR start-up Felix & Paul Studios and a US$6 million investment in Baobab Studios, co-founded by Madagascar director Eric Darnell.

“We’re always searching for the next great computing platform, and VR is a very good suspect,” he adds.

The question is whether all this activity will help VR avoid the bubble that beset 3D and other next big things that never panned out. And it raises the issue of whether giant media companies, often late to the party when it comes to new tech, can lead the charge.

Ultimately, whether VR will be as much of a player in so-called cinematic (that is, passive) entertainment as in the interactive space of gaming remains to be seen.

The uncertainty surrounding VR’s future, however, hasn’t slowed dealmaking.

“This is an interesting moment, with media companies making multiple investments in VR,” says Drew Larner, the chief operating officer of video director Chris Milk’s firm Within. “Certain companies like to sit back and wait,” he says. “But I think there are many that are smart and recognise what’s happening. It’s an opportunity.”

Last month Within garnered nearly US$13 million in financing from Fox and WME. The company aims to use the money to expand its efforts to produce and distribute short-form VR content.

What the Hollywood firms get out of virtual reality, meanwhile, remains to be seen. But executives hope these deals allow studios to finance and develop VR pieces as they do traditional content.

Ghostbusters: Dimension will allow the user (only at Madame Tussauds New York, for the moment) to sling on a proton pack, gun and headset and wander through a virtual landscape that includes a New York City skyscraper and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. “This is not about watching Ghostbusters,” says Reitman, who helped guide the project. “It’s about being a Ghostbuster.”

And while that, accurately, sounds like more of a ride (and a marketing tie-in) than a film, Ghostbusters: Dimension demonstrates what’s possible when a VR start-up (a Utah-based company called the Void), a known film franchise and a resource-rich studio come together.

Those kinds of pairings are also the goal for Hollywood’s talent agencies.

Agencies such as CAA have sunk their own money into start-ups. UTA has deployed its digital department to package VR films, such as a reboot of The Last Starfighter. Rival WME Entertainment has invested in startps and hired what it dubs as the entertainment business’ first dedicated VR agent.

Additionally, agencies hope to help talent and VR entities find each other. Although full-on packages and financing are not in the immediate future, WME believes it can be a link the same way it is in the flat-screen world.

“What we can do is go to clients who are interested in VR and help them understand the technology and where it’s going,” says WME’s VR agent, Jeffrey Greller. “There’s an opportunity to create the Angry Birds or Uber or Instagram of VR.”

Yet even as these bets have grown, caution and scepticism remain. Players acknowledge that this is a fragile moment for the nascent industry.

Creators are still figuring out how, and if, to tell narrative stories in an immersive form – let alone how to get people to pay for it. (Fox’s decision to charge for its Martian VR piece was one of the first).

Also unclear is how companies such as HBO or Fox might co-exist with VR companies when their products could theoretically compete. (HBO is an investor in a start-up, a next-gen “hologram”-themed outfit called Otoy.)

Questions about length and genre abound – particularly the former because most consumers have yet to demonstrate an appetite for VR content longe rthan 15 minutes. VR, after all, for a long time was thought of primarily as a gaming platform.

Distinguishing between start-ups isn’t easy either – even for pros.

“You’re seeing a large number of companies in the space, and a lot of them look pretty similar. So what’s going to make them stand out? What’s special about the content or about their process?” says Beth Ferreira, managing partner at WME Ventures.

Headset adoption and monetisation remain key variables. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have begun to ship in recent months, with Sony PlayStation’s version still upcoming.

“There’s reason to be cautious,” says Craig Le Clair, an analyst at Forrester Research who has studied VR. “I think a lot of what experts want to happen will happen, but it almost always takes longer than people think.”

Like many executives, Sony’s Zim – whose job is a mix of internal politicking at the studio and talent-courting outside it – concedes there are open questions about what kind of content and companies will flourish.

“We want to put a lot of bets on the table so that when the ball drops, we’re in the right spot,” he says. The trick, he notes, is to do so without “running out of chips”.

Associated Press