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Spielberg others in Hollywood betting big on VR cinema

Issued: 2018-03-28

LOS ANGELES — The Westfield Century City mall runs a dozen of the latest blockbusters at its modern movie theater here, but recently some of the most cutting-edge entertainment was playing one story below, at a pop-up store across from Bloomingdales.

That’s where groups of six could enter a railed-off area, don backpacks and headsets and wander in the dark around the “Alien Zoo,” a 12-minute virtual-reality outer-space experience with echoes of “Jurassic Park.”

By bringing the piece to the mall, “Zoo” producer Dreamscape Immersive — it counts Steven Spielberg among its investors — hopes it has cracked a major challenge bedeviling the emerging form of entertainment known as cinematic VR.

Cinematic VR allows viewers to live entirely inside a film. They put on goggles and look at the universe around them — behind, above, anywhere they turn their gaze — and still see the world of the movie. Some in the entertainment industry view it as perhaps the greatest advance in entertainment since the addition of sound to movies nearly a century ago, involving the senses in ways they’re not involved when the real world is visible next to a screen.

But while investors in Hollywood and elsewhere have poured in hundreds of millions of dollars, drawing top talent and yielding a creative explosion, cinematic VR has so far produced little in the way of commercial success or popular acceptance.

“I think a lot of people want to be immersed,” Bruce Vaughn, Dreamscape’s CEO, said in an interview at the pop-up. “But the tech has to get out of the way.”

Cinematic VR seeks to fundamentally change the compact between viewer and director, and its struggles show how little even ultramodern developments like Netflix and computer-generated effects have previously revised that agreement.

The new medium promises to make a static experience more interactive. But to do so it must walk a line between the passive consumption of a movie and the fully immersive experience of a video game, and creators haven’t decided how much control they want to give up and consumers seem ambivalent about how much of it they want.

“One threshold that has not been crossed yet is between stories we watch and stories we live,” said Chris Milk, a former music-video director who is considered a pioneer of VR content. “The right balance is very elusive.”

That hasn’t stopped many creators from pressing ahead. January’s Sundance Film Festival, ground zero for cinematic VR, hinted at a future in which consumers can regularly drop into rich participatory worlds. Creators premiered a wide range of short-form content, including a Pixar-style adaptation of a Neil Gaiman graphic novel, socially networked science fiction from animator Tyler Hurd and a plunge into black holes from VR filmmaker Eliza McNitt and Hollywood auteur Darren Aronofsky, the last of which sold for more than $1 million to a start-up company called CityLights.

Yet if the distribution problems aren’t resolved, a nascent industry could contract before many can even sample its product — jeopardizing not only abundant capital but the long-sought ideal of a reinvented cinema itself.

“There is a trough of disillusionment,” said Anthony Batt, co-founder of the VR incubator Wevr, using the phrase that connotes disappointing tech experiments and shakeouts. “Anyone who tells you they’re not feeling the pinch is being disingenuous.” Batt knows this firsthand: Two years ago, Wevr had raised $25 million as it financed a wide range of content, including “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau’s acclaimed “Gnomes & Goblins.” But with few revenue streams, it has scaled back.

Facebook showed its commitment to cinematic VR when it bought headset-maker Oculus for nearly $2 billion in 2014 and built up Oculus Story Studio, a division where many ex-Pixar artists created original VR animation. But Facebook shuttered the unit last year and has since focused on backing outside providers.

“We think working with independent creators allows us to produce a wider range of content,” said Yelena Rachitsky, executive producer of experiences at Oculus VR, referring to “Spheres” as well as other Sundance debuts, such as an interactive comic book from the musician will.i.am.

One impediment has been the numbers for dedicated headsets, the optimal platform both for creators and viewers. (These are more expensive and technologically intricate than the more common mobile VR platforms, such as Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Daydream, which essentially turn phones into makeshift VR-viewers.)

Dedicated headsets can cost $400 or more and often require additional hardware and intensive setup. And the lack of a dominant format means customers must choose between headsets that may not offer everything and may not endure.

“VR is a long-term game. Vendors must be well invested, established a well thought-out strategy to improve, grow and profit,” said Jason Low, a senior analyst at Canalys, a tech-research firm that studies the space.

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