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In the middle of what otherwise appears to be a standard-issue ritzy Los Angeles movie industry office complex–complete with a multi-story parking garage, a tall office building, and meticulous landscaping–a narrow walkway abruptly ends at a security gate so forbidding that it rivals many military installations in conveying a very clear message: Don’t even start to think about coming in here.
If you happen to make it through the gate, the martial dynamic melts away and the scene quickly becomes bucolic: a nicely tended lawn, colored sun umbrellas shading outdoor tables, and small groups of people eating happily or walking around with relaxed purpose.
Finally, you arrive at what could not be a more nondescript, low-slung two-story structure: Fox Studios Building 58, one of a small number of offices that together house the futuristic Twentieth Century Fox Innovation Lab.
Inside, amid a warren of small offices packed with VR gear and built around a narrow, central room with very high ceilings and no natural light, the future of Hollywood’s use of virtual reality content may very well be taking shape.
Welcome to The Bunker.
There’s little question that Hollywood has big VR ambitions. Already, a number of studios have released promotional VR projects. Fox itself released a short VR experience tied to Wild, and won the first-ever Emmy for its VR take on its TV series Sleepy Hollow, while Warner Bros. released a Batman VR experience, Universal did VR for the upcoming fantasy adventure Warcraft, and just this week, Disney released a short clip from their Lion King stage adaptation. Of course, Disney was also the lead investor in a $65 million round of funding for the Silicon Valley VR production and distribution technology company, Jaunt.
Despite all of this, Fox still fashions itself as a little ahead of the pack when it comes to VR, especially in figuring out how to turn the medium into a new form of premium content.
“All the studios are doing good and smart things in VR,” says Ted Schilowitz, Fox’s futurist and, as his business card states, its “consiglieri.” “But if you ask around, the other studios and people within the industry would say that Fox started with a leadership position and has maintained that leadership position.”
With many previous efforts, studios’ VR projects were meant as marketing, just one more thing to try to draw in viewers to the larger project. What the Fox Innovation Lab is doing with VR, on the other hand, is meant to eventually be its own source of revenue–experiences that people will pay more than the price of an app to watch, much as they’ve paid to watch feature films.
Its current effort is a 20-minute-plus interactive VR experience tied to the sci-fi thriller The Martian that will be released for sale sometime next year, most likely after the launches of new VR hardware like the Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive, and Sony’s PlayStation VR. Although the experience should be viewable on any VR platform, including Samsung’s Gear VR, Google Cardboard, or even YouTube or Facebook, it’s really aimed at devices that have controllers allowing viewers to manipulate things with their hands, enriching the story possibilities as they are “essentially directing their own experience,” says David Greenbaum, executive vice president of production at Fox Searchlight Pictures, and one of the leaders of the lab.
“What’s most intriguing and most important to us here in the lab is finding, defining, and learning what the new storytelling techniques are for what we believe is a new medium,” says Greenbaum. “We don’t look at virtual reality and augmented reality as marketing stunts. We look at them first and foremost as stories to be told in a new art form, and we spend a lot of our time really focused on finding the very best creators, storytellers, and technologists in the landscape…and then collaborating with them and creating what we believe are groundbreaking works.”
In a teaser released today for the Gear VR, timed to that device’s consumer launch, viewers are taken on a three-minute tour of some of the scenes from the full-length Martian VR project. It’s a passive experience that hints at what’s possible, shows that Fox has utilized visual assets from the feature film, and makes the case for why audiences should fork over real money to play the role of The Martian’s stranded astronaut.
“You want to be in space,” says Schilowitz. “VR is a great way to take you into space, and live the life of Mark Watney, the protagonist.”
“Audiences today yearn for more immersive, interactive experiences,” says Ted Gagliano, Fox’s president of post production. “With Life of Pi 3-D in theaters, we pierced the screen. Now with The Martian VR Experience, we are able to pierce the story.”
Schilowitz was one of the founders of the Red Camera company, a maker of high-end theatrical cameras, and joined Fox in 2013, lured by the offer to “take on a strange gig, which didn’t have any sensibilities at all, other than figuring out the future.”
In addition to their VR efforts, he and his comrades at the Fox Innovation Lab are developing other immersive systems, such as new high dynamic range technology, and helping create content for Barco Escape theaters.
Along with Greenbaum and Gagliano, Schilowitz is the third of the lab’s group of VR visionaries he called “The Three Amigos” (although Mike Dunn, president of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, is also a vital part of driving Fox’s VR efforts).
Fox isn’t messing around with the Martian project, bringing in top-tier creative talent to bring it to life. The director’s chair was helmed by Robert Stromberg, who also made the full-length Disney film Maleficent. And as Greenbaum pointed out, the Martian director Ridley Scott was involved in the VR project from beginning to end. “He came into the bunker,” Greenbaum says of Scott. “He put the headset on and immediately understood that this was something he wanted to be a part of.”
“And he didn’t want to leave,” Schilowitz jokes.
Within Fox, the lab has a wealth of support reaching all the way to the chairman’s office. As the team, operating in the bunker, has experimented with various projects, “word kind of got out around the studio that [we] have this interesting thing going on,” Schilowitz recalls.
The team has been eager to give anyone at Fox a glimpse of VR’s compelling promise. The rooms in the bunker offer demos of the Vive and Oculus, and the Gear VRs can be taken anywhere inside the building.
What was important was that people throughout Fox understood that the lab was interested in sharing and gaining knowledge throughout the studio’s many divisions, helping everyone discover how VR can be applied to almost any of the many arms of the entertainment giant. “It’s a big playground,” Schilowitz says of Fox. “Word got out that we’re open to [sharing] and that we’re not protectionist….So we got tons of reach-out” from around the company.
Down in the bunker, Schilowitz spends his days having the “sensibility of being a big kid.”
It’s kind of grungy there, somewhat like a college rec room. There are other lab locations at Fox, including its official headquarters in the nearby office tower. “The bunker is where I’m most comfortable,” says Schilowitz. “The other real estate is fancier, but it’s too fancy for a guy who wears ripped jeans. When we’re ready to show off [projects], we take them up to the place with the nicer view.”
The lab has fans all over Hollywood. One is Jeffrey Greller, an agent at William Morris Endeavor who helps broker VR deals throughout the entertainment industry and who spoke enthusiastically about the team in the Fox bunker.
“Those are great guys over there,” Greller tells Fast Company in WME’s own VR lab, in Beverly Hills. “As a studio, for them to be so on the fringe of, on the cutting edge, of this movement, is incredibly important.”
Adds Greller, The Martian VR Experience “is the perfect combination of IP from a big film that’s touching the first-movers of VR, an interactive experience that’s played across Vive, Oculus, and PSVR (and Gear VR) and it’s going to be something that users will pay for. If that works, which I really think it’s lined up to, they’ve got the right content creators in there working on [VR]. I think it’s really going to open up the floodgates for interactive content with IP.”
And why? Because, as Schilowitz puts it, “What any medium needs to succeed is monetizable stuff. Not just what the consumer will pay for, but what they want to pay for.”
As Hollywood gets more excited about virtual reality, it’s inevitable that people will start asking questions about when a studio will produce an entire feature film in VR. The promise, after all, is of fully immersive storytelling allowing viewers to see all around them, choosing where to look and offering filmmakers creative but challenging choices about how to draw attention.
To date there have been no such projects, and one particularly influential VR insider thinks anyone expecting such films anytime soon, particularly months before high-quality VR hardware like the Oculus Rift are commercially available, is fooling themselves.
“If you look at the development time for a major motion picture, if someone started one right now, by the time it came out, we’re going to have gone through a generation or two of headsets,” Oculus founder Palmer Luckey told Fast Company in September. “I don’t think, even if they tried, they could get out a real Hollywood-blockbuster-length and quality film before we ship whatever comes after the Rift. I don’t think they could even hit this generation if they tried. Maybe someone will prove me wrong, but I don’t think so.”