Talent Agencies Jockeying to Stake Claim in Virtual Reality

Courtesy of Verve
Verve's Bryan Besser in a wheel chair from client Guy Shelmerdine's Catatonic, where people experience what it's like to be in an insane asylum.

"This is a tsunami coming," says Michael Yanover, CAA's head of business development.

Hollywood studios have been wading into virtual reality cautiously, using it mostly as a tool to promote movies as Sony Pictures did with its Ghostbusters: Dimension VR experience at Madame Tussauds. But that's changing quickly.

On June 27, Sony tapped Jake Zim as its first senior executive dedicated solely to VR production. In his new post, Zim is expected to build an actual slate of VR projects that will be distributed on Sony's PlayStation. Fox is in the game as well, with Ted Schilowitz heading the studio's Innovation Lab, which spawned the 20-minute The Martian VR Experience that made its debut at Sundance in January. On the TV front, NBC will provide VR coverage of the Rio Olympics to users with Samsung Galaxy phones. And in May, Imax said it plans to open six virtual reality hubs worldwide this year, the first of which will be in Los Angeles.

With so much activity, talent agencies are jockeying to stake their claims. But with commissions all but nonexistent until now, the biggest challenge has been finding internal support despite little or no immediate return on investment.

"If you're working with a director who's making $10 million a movie and VR is a question of how you make money, where are you going to put your time and effort?" asks Verve co-founder Bryan Besser. "I say to that, 'Bullshit.' In my experience, that leads to the biggest financial rewards."

Besser, who along with two fellow WME defectors launched Verve in 2010, says his boutique agency is reaping the benefits of its proactive stance in the VR space. About three years ago, it began repping Felix & Paul, now a 40-person VR studio based in Montreal. Besser claims his client is the only VR studio with a Facebook content deal, which he pegs at eight figures. The company, which has created content with Bill Clinton, LeBron James and Steven Spielberg, recently announced a $6.8 million series A investment round led by Comcast Ventures to expand its footprint.

At the bigger agencies, partners are deciding whether VR is a medium or a gimmick and whether to allocate resources. Like Verve, WME and UTA have created VR labs for talent to explore, and CAA has a more informal in-house space for clients. WME has a stake in startup Within (other investors include Fox and Annapurna Pictures), while CAA is invested in four VR outfits: Jaunt, Wevr, Immersv and Sliver.TV.

"This is a tsunami coming," says Michael Yanover, CAA's head of business development. "It will be as transformative as the PC and then the internet and then mobile."

WME continues to expand its roster of VR clients and represents such emerging companies as OTOY, VR Playhouse and Total Cinema 360. The agency has negotiated a number of deals in the past year including Deadliest Catch VR for DiscoveryVR, Zoolander 2 360 for Jaunt and New York Fashion Week Intel Experience for Intel.

Still, it's not clear how talent will interact with the technology. "There is a real necessity to define how you tell a story in this space, which will ultimately drive this thing forward," says WME's Jeffrey Greller, an agent in the digital department who is fully dedicated to VR. "And so there’s an opportunity to be involved in the defining language of this medium."

As the price of headsets comes down (the popular Oculus Rift goes for $599), directors increasingly are eager to explore the medium. For instance, WME client Michael Bay is in talks to create content for Imax.

UTA has been a leader in VR gaming thanks to clients like Playful Corp., which created Lucky’s Tale, a game included with purchase of the Oculus Rift. But in the two years since Oren Rosenbaum left Paradigm to head up UTA’s VR efforts, the emphasis within the agency has shifted to cover more and more star clients like Chuck Lorre and Chris Pratt, who both have VR projects in the works.

"When we first announced that we were focusing in this area and launching a VR lab, the calls I received were mostly from emerging talent," says UTA's Oren Rosenbaum. "But very quickly the calls began coming from A-list writers, directors and talent who wanted to pitch ideas that we could package."

As the number of places to pitch increases, the agencies will continue allocating greater resources to the VR effort. In the meantime, the true potential of VR commissions requires a bit of guesswork.

“There’s going be a number of different revenue models that will be tested over the next 12 to 24 months on the advertising side with brands and on the subscription side and on the transactional VOD side,” says CAA’s David Freeman, co‑head of digital talent and packaging at CAA. “I think we’re in the first inning, if not spring training, for virtual reality.”

But one thing appears certain. All of the agencies are taking this new medium seriously.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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