YORK — On a recent weekday, Hollywood director Ivan
Reitman was in the bowels of the Madame Tussauds wax
museum here talking up an unlikely passion.
is remarkable. What it does is force you to bring
yourself into the story," Reitman said, using the
acronym for the immersive, headset-based viewing
experience of virtual reality. "If you haven’t
tried it, you just need 10 minutes with it to realize it’s
an amazing experience."
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 flick
and a shimmering new participatory VR experience he was
helping launch, Reitman had become a convert — a
symbol of a traditional entertainment business dipping
its toe in new waters.
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
the last six weeks, the venture arms of entertainment
players including Comcast, Fox and talent agency WME
have poured at least $43 million into startup 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 czar at a major studio.
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 the
so-called flat-screen entertainment of films and TV
question with VR is always a why now one," said
Michael Yang, managing director of Comcast Ventures.
Yang’s company has invested in a host of VR firms,
making the bulk of a nearly $7 million investment in the
Montreal-based VR startup Felix & Paul Studios and a
$6 million investment in Baobab Studios, the entity
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 added.
question is whether all this activity will help VR avoid
the bubble that beset CD-ROM, 3-D and other media-world
next-big-things that never panned out. And it further
raises the issue of whether giant media companies, often
late to the party when it comes to new tech, can
themselves 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.
uncertainty surrounding VR’s future, however, hasn’t
is an interesting moment, with media companies making
multiple investments in VR," said Drew Larner, the
chief operating officer of video director Chris Milk’s
firm Within. "Certain companies like to sit back
and wait," he acknowledged. "But I think there
are many that are smart and recognize what’s
happening. It’s skin in the game, an
last month garnered nearly $13 million in financing from
the likes of Fox and WME. The company aims to use the
money to expand its efforts to produce and distribute
short-form VR content.
the Hollywood firms get out of virtual reality,
meanwhile, remains to be seen. But executives hope these
deals give each party entree to a world they previously
lacked — in the studios’ case, ultimately allowing
them to finance and develop VR pieces as they do
STORY CAN END HERE)
lot of this is education, for us and the
filmmakers," said David Greenbaum, an executive at
Fox who helps oversee VR efforts there, including the
splashy "Martian VR Experience." "We want
to find the Quentin Tarantino or David Fincher of VR."
has similar ambitions for "Ghostbusters:
Dimension." The experience allows 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, all in the
kind of full-body immersion that can feel like a Philip
K. Dick novel. "This is not about watching ‘Ghostbusters,’"
said Reitman, who helped guide the project. "It’s
about being a Ghostbuster."
STORY CAN END HERE)
while that, accurately, sounds like more of a ride (and
a marketing tie-in) than a movie, "Ghostbusters:
Dimension" demonstrates what’s possible when a VR
startup (a Utah-based company called the Void), a known
film franchise and a resource-rich studio come together.
kinds of pairings are also the goal for Hollywood’s
uber-matchmakers: talent agencies.
such as CAA have sunk their own money into startups. UTA
has deployed its digital department to package VR films,
such as a reboot of "The Last Starfighter."
Rival WME Entertainment has both invested in startups
and hired what it dubs as the entertainment business’
first dedicated VR agent.
agencies hope to help talent and VR entities find each
other. Although full-on packages and financing are a
ways off, WME believes it can be a link the way it is in
the flat-screen world.
we can do is go to clients who are interested in VR and
help them understand the technology and the road map of
where it’s going," said WME’s VR agent, Jeffrey
Greller. "There’s an opportunity out there to
create the ‘Angry Birds’ or Uber or Instagram of VR."
even as these bets have grown, caution and skepticism
remain. Players acknowledge that this is a fragile
moment for the nascent industry.
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).
unclear is how an HBO or a Fox might co-exist with these
companies when, as combination content
providers-distributors themselves, their products could
theoretically compete with VR firms’ offerings. (HBO
is an investor in a startup, a next-gen
"hologram"-themed outfit called Otoy.)
about length and genre abound — particularly the
former because most consumers have yet to demonstrate an
appetite for VR content beyond 15 minutes. VR, after
all, for a long time was thought of primarily as a
between startups 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?" said Beth
Ferreira, managing partner at WME Ventures. "Those
are the questions we’re asking ourselves."
headset adoption — and, thus, monetization — remains
a key variable. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have begun
to ship in recent months, with Sony PlayStation’s
entree still upcoming.
reason to be cautious," said 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
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.
want to put a lot of bets on the table so that when the
ball drops, we’re in the right spot," he said.
The trick, he noted, is to do so without "running
out of chips."