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Producers Wonder: How Long Before VR Creates Its ‘Great Train Robbery’?

January 6, 2017

Virtual reality may be the Next Big Thing for Hollywood. But some of the leading evangelists for the sense-altering technology acknowledged today that they don’t know how long it will take before it becomes a viable business, or what it will offer when it reaches that milestone.

“Everybody has to come to the platform with humility,” Skydance Interactive President Peter Akemann, said at a panel about “Hollywood’s Very Real Virtual Reality Push” at the International CES confab in Las Vegas. “We have a ton to learn from each other.”

At the event he disclosed that Skydance is creating an original story-driven shooter VR game called Archangel.

Oculus Story Studio Senior Producer Kim Adams concurs, adding that “the technology is changing every day” and has “no traditional pipeline; no tried and true system.”

VR headsets are still in their infancy as consumer products, although they’re ubiquitous at this year’s CES.

As a result, “everybody in the VR space has to realize it isn’t about the money right now,” says Sony Pictures Entertainment SVP of Virtual Reality Jake Zim. “It’s about building your brand.”

He’s particularly interested in finding ways to connect VR with social media and experiences.  “That’s one of the exciting advances we’re going to see this year,” he says.

But he warns content creators not to use VR as a gimmick.

“If you have a story you can tell in traditional episodic television, do that,” Zim says. “If your story can only be told in VR, then that’s where you should start.” And good VR “makes you feel something. It has to make you confront the fact that you are present in a situation. 

Hulu said today that it hopes to do that with a short-form series, On Stage, it’s producing with Live Nation. The series will take viewers behind the scenes at concerts and major events in musicians’ lives, and launches January 26 with performer Lil Wayne. The episodes will be available on Hulu’s VR app as well as other VR devices. episode will be viewable on the Hulu VR app across all major VR devices.

“For us VR is about these experiences of immediacy,” Hulu VP of Emerging Technolgy Noah Heller says. “I can be transported …in a way 2D television can’t do.”

The streaming video company favors alliances because “we don’t have the luxury to take a flyer” on a money losing project, he says. Hulu looks for VR material that can be replayed, and “that lends itself to integrated brands–product placements.”

The company sees opportunities to develop content where “the experience for the user is very direct” — for example encountering a jaguar, or taking a helicopter ride around Las Vegas.

 It “can be depressing as a creative person that some of our more compelling narratives don’t get played as often,” Heller says. He adds, though, that “we’re in the early days. We haven’t made our version of the Great Train Robbery yet. When we do, people will jump out of their seats.” 

Legendary VP of Virtual Reality and Production Operations Ethan Stearns says he’s confident that story tellers will find a way to work with VR. Video game companies already tell stories, and “even in a movie theater, it’s still interactive entertainment if I can look around and move.”

He acknowledges that the business won’t take off until more consumers have VR headsets. “We need to give them content that gets them excited….It’s a simple number game at a certain point.”