After a year of experiments, Hollywood has begun to embrace virtual reality as a potentially lucrative part of its future.
21st Century Fox Inc. (FOXA) has crafted an immersive clip using the film “Wild,” while Time Warner Inc. (TWX)’s HBO has created a similar experience with the cable TV drama “Game of Thrones.” Fox uses a Samsung headset to give users a 3-D, 360-degree view.
While the clips are only demos getting shown off at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, they point to where Hollywood is headed with virtual reality. Fox is betting consumers will one day buy immersive video products just as they now purchase DVDs or songs.
“We’re pretty excited about what this means for the future,” Mike Dunn, Fox’s president of worldwide home entertainment, said in an interview. “This technology will not just be good in the movie business and gaming, but expand into other parts of lifestyle.”
Virtual reality offers studios a way to sell motion pictures as experiences, like the holographic playground in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Fox’s clip tied to “Wild” gives users a panoramic view of the forest, along with visits from actresses Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. The studio will take the presentation to the Sundance Film Festival later this month as it begins to entice filmmakers to use the technology.
“We hope we’ll be able to use that as a platform,” Dunn said. “We have established filmmakers and up-and-coming ones. We can show the starting vision of what this will be. They are the most important constituents we have right now.”
Some of the biggest names in technology are staking out positions. Samsung Electronics Co. (005930) began selling its Gear VR headset in December, offering games and clips, and Google Inc. has Cardboard, a lower-cost model. Facebook Inc.’s Oculus division, which supplies the technology to Samsung, is working on a headset of its own.
“People now see that mass-market adoption could be much greater than previously anticipated,” said Jens Christensen, chief executive officer of virtual reality startup Jaunt Inc. To sell headsets, the companies that create them will need more than good software. They need compelling content as well.
“If you’re going to go and buy a headset, you want things to go and watch on it,” Christensen said. “They go hand in hand.”
In November, Jaunt released a 360-degree video from a Paul McCartney concert at Candlestick Park, the final performance at the San Francisco stadium before it closed. It later released a clip from musician Jack White and will bring a few narrative videos to Sundance.
Samsung announced in Las Vegas this week that David Alpert, executive producer of the hit zombie show “The Walking Dead,” to create a series of short videos for its new headset.
HBO will bring a “Game of Thrones” exhibit featuring a virtual-reality demonstration to seven cities outside the U.S. this year, including London and Paris, according to a statement today. Fans can use the 4D Oculus Rift headset to climb a 700-foot wall by stepping into a physical re-creation of the Castle Black winch elevator.
Not everyone is as confident in the medium’s near-term commercial potential for Hollywood.
“It doesn’t feel like movies match well to VR,” said Keith Calder, a feature film producer whose credits include “The Guest” and “The Wackness.” “The image quality is not what you’re used to from a professional display, and the resolution is pretty low. It’s just not there yet.”
While some clips on display at a December expo in Los Angeles were enthralling, such as a light-saber fighting demo, none of the exhibits involved a story of any kind, Calder said. The video-game industry will have to innovate with the technology before Hollywood figures out how best to use it, he said.
The medium requires filmmakers to rethink how they shoot. Conventional cuts and camera movements don’t have the same effect in a 3-D, 360-degree environment. The steep learning curve has limited most videos to no more than a few minutes, whether that’s a trip up the wall in “Game of Thrones” or panoramic concert.
The length of the videos will evolve with the technology.
Even if mass adoption is still a few years away, enough film and television studios believe in its future to invest now. Reel FX Inc., the animation studio that produced the 2014 film “The Book of Life,” has created a department dedicated to virtual reality. The producers of the “Wild” clip, Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael, have dedicated their company to it.
“What you’ll see in the next couple of years is that medium going from its current user base, which is mainly video gamers, quickly expand and reach a place in culture that is as wide and diverse as music or cinema,” Lajeunesse said.