Hollywood beginning to see role for virtual reality

A woman reacts as she uses the Samsung Gear 360 VR during the second day of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year.

Tribune News Service

NEW YORK — On a recent weekday, Hollywood director Ivan Reitman was in the bowels of the Madame Tussauds wax museum here talking up an unlikely passion.

“VR is remarkable. What it does is force you to bring yourself into the story,” Reitman said, using the acronym for the immersive, headset-based viewing experience of virtual reality. “If you haven’t tried it, you just need 10 minutes with it to realize it’s an amazing experience.”

Reitman, the 69-year-old filmmaker behind such comedies as “Twins” and “Dave,” was not the most likely evangelist for the much-hyped new medium. But thanks to Sony’s “Ghostbusters: Dimension,” a tie-in to the currently running action-comedy flick and a shimmering new participatory VR experience he was helping launch, Reitman had become a convert — a symbol of a traditional entertainment business dipping its toe in new waters.

For several years, major studios and media companies have largely stood on the sidelines of VR, allowing tech giants such as Facebook-owned Oculus and Samsung to take the lead in the potentially groundbreaking medium. But mainstream Hollywood players are starting to embrace the technology, making a flurry of investments, hires and content deals.

In the last six weeks, the venture arms of entertainment players including Comcast, Fox and talent agency WME have poured at least $43 million into startup ventures, setting off a slow-motion scramble for the right VR play. Sony Pictures recently made history when it named Jake Zim the first VR czar at a major studio.

Specific goals can vary, but the overall mission is simple: Get in on the ground floor, financially or creatively, of a medium that one day could represent a chunk of entertainment revenue. VR content, these companies believe, will exist on their slates alongside films and TV shows.

“The question with VR is always a ‘why now’ one,” said Michael Yang, managing director of Comcast Ventures, which has invested in a host of VR firms, including the Montreal-based VR startup Felix & Paul Studios and Baobab Studios, the entity co-founded by “Madagascar” director Eric Darnell. “We’re always searching for the next great computing platform, and VR is a very good suspect,” he added.

The question is whether all this activity will help VR avoid the bubble that beset CD-ROM, 3-D and other media-world next-big-things that never panned out. And it further raises the issue of whether giant media companies, often late to the party when it comes to new tech, can themselves lead the charge.

The uncertainty surrounding VR’s future, however, hasn’t slowed deal-making.

“This is an interesting moment, with media companies making multiple investments in VR,” said Drew Larner, the chief operating officer of video director Chris Milk’s firm Within. “Certain companies like to sit back and wait,” he acknowledged. “But I think there are many that are smart and recognize what’s happening. It’s skin in the game, an opportunity.”

Within last month garnered nearly $13 million in financing from the likes of Fox and WME. The company aims to use the money to expand its efforts to produce VR content.

What the Hollywood firms get out of virtual reality, meanwhile, remains to be seen. But executives hope these deals give each party entree to a world they previously lacked _ in the studios’ case, ultimately allowing them to finance and develop VR pieces as they do traditional content.