Getting Real: Virtual Reality experiences eye the movie theatre environment

Features
Technology

It’s unnerving when a reporter’s single-focus story is nearly hijacked, in this case the new-tech craze Virtual Reality (VR) and how as an entertainment amenity it might impact motion picture theatres after making inroads everywhere else (gaming, education, medicine, marketing, sports, etc.) But along this VR trail into theatre space and with auditoriums as the Holy Grail, RR (real reality) unexpectedly intervened.

It happened in mid-October with an unprecedented screening of the 3D/4K/120 fps (frames per second) “full shebang” version of TriStar’s new war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Director Ang Lee, having visited over the past few years Hollywood icon and fierce HFR (high frame rate) proponent Douglas Trumbull’s studio/theatre complex in Western Massachusetts where he has been developing the technology, insisted on this “full shebang” even as some his backers initially resisted.

With the important addition of Dolby Atmos, AMC’s Lincoln Square auditorium delivered via the Christie Mirage laser projection system a startling film spectacle with realistic sound, remarkably sharp and vibrant visuals and great luminance (even in 3D) that amounted to a near full-immersion/near-VR experience. Icing on the cake was the emotional punch due to Billy Lynn’s strong storytelling and performances.

The film opened wide on Nov. 11 in traditional formats, while the “shebang” version only hits five theatres in New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Beijing, and Lee’s native Taiwan. These latter dates will be closely watched, as even Trumbull has called the 3D/4K/120 fps experience “very, very close to VR.”

The Oscar-nominated and multiple winning writer/producer/director and VFX guru has, as he puts it, been “working very hard to change the nature of the motion picture experience,” developing his proprietary MAGI systems and avidly promoting adoption of HFR, larger screens and auditorium dimensions more advantageously configured for optimum experiences. But the shebang and other improvements, already on the horizon, for feature film presentation, delivery and experiencing (D-BOX seats, 4DX, etc.) and their deployment is another story (to be continued in part two of this report next month).

For now, it’s the prognosis for headset VR attractions in the theatre space that’s making more measurable progress and growing, thanks to IMAX taking the first max step into theatre location-based VR.

But what is VR? Briefly, it’s a technology that, in the entertainment arena, is a pile-up of competing hardware and software brands (distribution platforms, short film and gaming software downloads, players, cameras, etc.) that allow viewers wearing now-cumbersome headsets to feel totally immersed by simulating entry into and mobility in whatever is being viewed. VR, usually delivering 360-degree viewing access, is totally synthetic and often animated, but AR (Augmented Reality) combines imagery of the real with the synthetic worlds. (MR, or mediated reality, is a better branding of AR in its combining the real and synthetic.) Importantly, everything in VR, including capabilities and gadgetry, is changing very, very rapidly.

While the sustained, approximately two-hour “Wow!” experience for shebang-enhanced features in auditoriums looms a sure bet for whenever it blooms (A big question! Stay tuned!) for more demanding filmgoers, kids of all ages love the “Wow!” “Cool”! “Awesome!” experience of VR.

These “kids” are core multiplex action fans. IMAX knows this and has pounced. So the giant-screen pioneer is set to begin installations of what it calls IMAX VR Centres, beginning with the U.K.’s Odeon & UCI Cinemas Group’s 23-screen Printworks multiplex in Manchester, England. It’s a step that IMAX calls “the next-generation” of entertainment that will deliver to guests “immersive, multi-dimensional VR experiences, including entertainment content and games.”

While the pilot launch date was initially announced for later this year, the Printworks offering is expected to debut in early February, estimates Rob Ellis, Odeon’s marketing and business development manager for the Manchester region.

Over the past few years, small, standalone VR theatres have popped up in Asia, Scandinavia, Toronto, Berlin, and most notably in Amsterdam with Samhoud Media’s small but well-equipped Virtual Reality Cinema. But IMAX’s VR push into multiplexes will take the VR/movie theatre marriage to a whole other level.

Regarding the actual Printworks build-out, Ellis says the IMAX VR Centre (aka the VR Hub) will not violate any of its 23 auditorium spaces or take over any screens. The installation will occupy a foyer area about 65 feet by 41 feet whose configuration is evolving (IMAX says it is employing “a new modular design” proprietary to IMAX) but it’s likely, says Ellis, that the space will comprise 12 separate “pods.”

Guests paying the equivalent of $8 or $9 will go in solo, but friends and family can stand outside and watch. The installation, Ellis continues, is being promoted as the world’s most immersive out-of-home VR experience.”

No doubt because the content is still evolving, IMAX has been pretty tight-lipped regarding headset content except to say it would be “an ongoing array of new, premium interactive content experiences that are expected to range between five and 15 minutes in length each.” Negotiations are “in advanced stages with several content developers, including Hollywood studios and gaming publishers.” Ellis suggests content as “world-famous and matching films playing on IMAX screens currently, meaning global blockbusters.” But Adam Davis, IMAX VP of communications, cites Starbreeze’s (a headset manufacturer IMAX has partnered with) VR experiences with the John Wick and “Walking Dead” horror/action franchises as a reference.

IMAX describes its headset as “next-generation headset-mounted display (HMD) technology that offers industry-leading resolution” and an extra-wide 210 degrees peripheral field of view versus the 110 degrees of other popular headsets. It will also “eventually incorporate premium content resulting from the cinema-grade virtual-reality camera that we are currently developing in partnership with Google” that will be “full interactive VR experiences, not marketing materials or trailers.”

As examples of content to be offered, IMAX names both “The Walking Dead” and “John Wick Chronicles” and its assassins’ battles, so it’s pretty clear they are targeting young male filmgoers with horror and action VR content.

London-based David Hancock, president of the European Digital Cinema Forum (EDCF) and head of film and cinema for IHS Technology, a division of business analysis, data and information provider IHS Markit, suggests that this IMAX VR initiative “might very well be a move to put VR in theatre space for the delivery of trailers and other marketing material and even charge for it. The key word here is that it is an experiment and no one has any idea how it will play out.”

Searching for answers at so early a stage in this venture (its “initial pilot phase”), IMAX is also in the process of opening what it calls a “sales showroom” and the first IMAX VR center in Los Angeles and is targeting other test facilities in coming months in China, Japan, the U.S., the Middle East and Western Europe.

Besides Odeon’s Printworks, IMAX pilot locations or test facilities (IMAX has not clarified the distinction) are planned to launch in the coming months in L.A., China, Japan, the Middle East, Western Europe and apparently other U.S. locations. IMAX says its initial trials will test things like customer response, pricing, and appeal of content. As with the whole-shebang version of Billy Lynn in five sites, a lot of people will be paying attention.

But if VR shows legs outside theatre auditoriums, might it ever take a walk to big screens as a Main Attraction, even as VR feature-film segments (screen titles cueing audiences to put on their headsets)? Says Odeon’s Ellis, “These days you never say never!”

Yet even in these (early) days, VR fans need not be pod-bound. Moving the VR experience from pods to a kind of free-form lobby experience is Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse chief and co-founder head Tim League, known for going his own way but very successfully in the exhibition game.

Leaning toward hipster, film-buff appeal, League pitches to young, “cool” audiences (most recently evidenced by his new Downtown Brooklyn Alamo Drafthouse Cinema multiplex and its morbidly themed House of Wax bar with wax reproductions of diseased intestines displayed). At his Austin, Texas theatre, League runs the successful Fantastic Fest, which this past September featured in its lobby setup three VR horror films from Dark Corner Studios, including one piece titled “Catatonic” that allowed viewers to experience through a headset/headphone combo a visit to an insane asylum. (Fun for VR fans is in the eyes of the helmet-headed beholder.)

“It was great and we got really good audience response,” reports League, “as they consider this lobby attraction option fun for before of after seeing a movie. We don’t need lobbies as we used to as we don’t have queues [because of alternate ticket buying options], so this is extra real estate that would be good for permanent installations as before or after-the-movie fun experiences.”

But does League believe that VR might ever take a seat as a Main Attraction? “I don’t think traditional auditoriums make sense [for VR], although a purpose-built large room like a laser-tag arena where participant gamers with AR (augmented reality) headsets and sensors on their bodies run around in mazes might be the next cool game thing [for the theatre space].”

These VR initiatives into theatres will be helped by companies like Hong Kong-based GDC Technology, the giant digital cinema solutions developer and provider of state-of-the-art equipment and services worldwide to theatres, which is now responding to VR’s popularity and potential for theatres. The focus for this major digital technology player is higher-quality VR experiences for lobbies, with an emphasis on making the experience even more immersive with upgraded sound and visuals. Responding to the RR (real reality) of VR being for now only a novelty factor that the movie industry cannot yet fully exploit, GDC says it will soon introduce new products and services that achieve this upgraded experience.

With VR’s impressive growth in entertainment, important film festivals and trade shows are increasingly paying attention with showcases, panels and the like, which in turn is driving movie industry interest. Significantly, VR has gotten full attention from Hollywood studios and filmmakers, Gone or going active are studios like Lionsgate and Sony, who are partnering with VR production companies and directors like Jon Favreau, Doug Liman, Bryan Singer and Eric Darnell jumping into VR productions. (But a hush-hush surrounds the disappointing VR feature Jesus VR: The Story of Christ, screened in an abridged version at the recent Venice Film Festival.)

Amidst the frenzy over goofball, gimmicky VR shorts and games and the attendant gee-whiz technology and gadgetry comes Eric Darnell’s Baobab Studios VR hit Invasion!, which in a recent deal with Roth Kirschenbaum Films has become the first VR short to be optioned for a feature remake.

Both Baobab chief creative officer and co-founder Darnell (writer-director of four Madagascar films in the DreamWorks Animations franchise and the studio’s first animated feature Antz) and Baobab Studios CEO and co-founder Maureen Fan credit the storytelling more than the tech-driven immersive power of the film for the sale. (Narrated by Ethan Hawke, Invasion! stars two bunnies—one being the viewer in the headset!—who encounter aliens. As filmed entertainment, we’re not in Gone With the Wind territory here, but the short is damn cute, fun and well-told.) No studio is onboard yet for the feature, says Darnell, as “we’re in the early stages of developing the script with our creative people at Baobab and with Roth Kirschenbaum.”

Darnell explains the importance of story: “In the short term, audiences will think of this [VR] as ‘Wow, I want to try on a VR headset to see what people are talking about.’ However, to sustain revenue past a first-time view, there needs to be more story-based content. When the novelty of the technology wears off, stories will still be what audiences crave. I'd rather have a great story told with stick figures than a poor story with beautifully rendered graphics… For VR to spread to the mass market and become sustainable, we need more compelling and engaging stories… The technology services the storytelling rather than the other way around.”

But he’s no fan of branching a story (a VR gimmick that provides multiple story threads for user interactivity) because “it’s tough to even tell one story really well. Storytelling is hard and what makes stories work is not that a viewer is determining a story; this is because people want to be surprised. And the more [options] you give them, the less surprise.”

Responding to the suggestion that just allowing a viewer into the story as VR does is a form of branching, he says, “It’s less a branching and more a modulation off the through-line.” Studio note-givers will have fun with that one.

Stories succeed in VR, he believes, “when they invite participation in an emotional way—not just to win a game, which is self-serving—but in empathizing with the characters in a good story. And because VR is so powerfully immersive, achieving this connection is easier.”

The unique remake option for Baobab prompts the question of whether VR shorts, mimicking the old days when traditional indie shorts led to long-form versions, might be the indie world’s new “calling card.” “Absolutely,” says Darnell. “It worked for us! We all know shorts are not the usual way to fame and fortune, but they can bring new characters to life.”

Darnell is very optimistic about VR, but echoes many in the field about being just at the beginning of something: “We don’t know where VR will be in five or ten years and it will take time to find out what can and cannot be done. We have a lot to learn, as we don’t know its language yet.”

Darnell responds enthusiastically to the idea of writing some interstitial VR into the Invasion! feature script. “We could do that for the story’s climax after cueing theatregoers to put on their headsets!”

But VR features as a main attraction look like a long shot, although “maybe it could happen if we’re able to have a viable VR market in the next couple of years. It’s really early in the game and VR hasn’t matured enough in either quantity or quality. So now we can get away with the gee-whiz stuff.”

While the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, which oversees the standards for film and TV technology and were stewards in the industry’s transition from analog to digital, has much to say about Billy Lynn’s technology and possible deployment, it is only on the verge of bringing VR into its purview and forming a study group. Says SMPTE director of engineering and standards Howard Lukk, “It’s such an early time in the development of VR technology and needs to mature a bit more before it’s ready for standardization. But we’ve begun discussions.”

SMPTE past president Peter Ludé, also chief innovation officer at RealD, feels that most VR supporters “don’t envision VR replacing cinema for long-form storytelling for several reasons. Fundamentally, VR is ideally suited for an interactive experience, where the viewer can look around to explore the virtual world and concentrate on different aspects of a scene. This is good for gaming but is not what the director of a scripted feature wants… VR is a much more intense experience, better suited for short-form content, not a ‘lean-back’ two hour story.” But he does see the possibility of VR-type content being leveraged for immersive cinema experiences in Cinerama-like auditoriums. Barco and Korea’s CGV are testing in this area.”

While VR theatre installations of the IMAX kind and “shebang” feature releases of the Billy Lynn kind could certainly co-exist very nicely, exhibitors and others might be wondering which might deliver the bigger “shebang” for the buck. The two approaches are in a kind of race to be head of state of the art on the movie front to deliver the most immersive, realistic and entertaining experience ever for film fans. It’s the fascinating kind of race that the country, with that nasty race behind us, needs and deserves, because in the spirit of this “More is more” age, we can root for both parties to win, especially as theatres continue to accommodate and adjust to bigger, better and bolder. (To be continued in “VR in Theatres,” Part 2.)