CES: Fox Is Bullish on Virtual Reality, But Is It the "Real Deal" for Hollywood?

Wild VR project - H 2014
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight / Fox Innovation Lab

Wild VR project - H 2014

Asserting that Fox believes virtual reality is the "real deal," Fox Home Entertainment worldwide president Mike Dunn projects that virtual-reality technology will go mainstream, potentially reaching 25 million households by 2017.

Dunn also believes that VR will be a big story — though still in its infancy — for Hollywood at next week's CES Show in Las Vegas. Samsung launched its Gear VR system in December, and additional VR-related announcements are expected at CES. Meanwhile, insiders anticipate that the closely watched Oculus Rift and Sony Project Morpheus systems will reach the consumer market later in the year.

"This feels like tablets," Dunn told The Hollywood Reporter of the emerging VR technology market. "In the fourth quarter [2015] there will be a few systems out there, and the market could reach 10 million households very quickly. If it's compelling, I think 25 million households is conceivable by 2017."

Read more Filmmakers Look to Virtual Reality and Oculus as the Future of Storytelling

Dunn and others anticipate a wide range of uses, from gaming to narrative content to applications in fields such as medicine and education.

Fox is bullish on the subject and is coming to CES with a three-minute narrative VR experience based on Fox Searchlight's Wild for the Samsung Gear VR and Galaxy Note 4. (Samsung has a relationship with the studio via the Fox Innovation Lab.) The film stars Reese Witherspoon and is based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir about how Strayed (played by Witherspoon) healed from personal loss and destructive behavior by hiking more than one thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. The idea of the VR project is to put the viewer on the trail in a 360-degree environment. Witherspoon shows up in character and sits down next to the viewer. Users also will sit with co-star Laura Dern, who appears as a memory.

David Greenbaum, senior vp production at Fox Searchlight, oversaw this project and said that planning and execution involved Montreal-based directing team Felix and Paul, as well as Witherspoon, Dern and Wild director Jean-Marc Vallee (who is credited as executive producer).

Paul Raphael and Felix Lajeunesse have launched a VR firm that, in addition to production, develops production and post technology. "We developed a camera system. It started out as a rig and now includes a custom camera built with several acquired sensors. And we wrote a new software workflow, not just for [Wild] but for VR production," said Raphael, adding that they also use off-the-shelf software. For the Wild project, the pair reported that the master is 5K resolution, per eye, though playback of course depends on what is supported by the VR viewing device.

Filmmakers such as Felix and Paul are also examining a new visual grammar for VR projects, and there's plenty of experimentation ahead. "The rules for what is a great VR experience have yet to be written," said Lajeunesse.

"We think of the camera as the viewer," Raphael elaborated, adding, "We were blown away by the proximity to Reese [in the Wild project]. It's powerful to be next to a human being. We wanted to explore the emotional relationship between the characters."

In addition to Wild, Fox has completed a test VR game based on The Maze Runner and is looking into the possibility of a Night at the Museum-themed experience and other tests — potentially longform and for Fox franchises such as X-Men or Planet of the Apes. "Our concept right now is you have maybe 10-minute segments that would each be an experience in itself, and it would build. You could binge on it," Dunn explained.

"I think there are two camps — a promotional, marketing medium and a product category, not unlike a video game or movie, and we would sell it as a standalone product," he offered, acknowledging that at this early stage, it's difficult to gauge pricing. "It's probably between $19 and $50, but it depends."

Other insiders believe prices could range from free to $100, though they also acknowledge that it's still early to be putting a dollar amount on the experiences.

Dunn said he hopes Fox will have at least one immersive experience ready for a consumer release later this year.

Sources say all the studios are looking into the potential of VR. "I think it's the most exciting technological medium I've come across in a decade or two," said Fox president of postproduction Ted Gagliano. "The movie is no longer just the movie. If we are going to tap into young audiences, we need to make immersive, complementary experiences. … This takes you into the movie rather than just to the movie. What's exciting to me is it will be different, not a 'normal' VR experience, meaning gaming."

The challenge, he warned, is that these devices are in their infancy but will steadily improve. "We have to anticipate higher resolution and make sure the resolution holds up so that you feel present. [Otherwise] you can be 'technically' pulled out of the experience," Gagliano said.

Added Fox futurist Ted Schilowitz: "Technology is currently driving the equation, but we want the creative to drive and push the technology forward."

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA