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From gimmick to main attraction: virtual reality is coming to Hollywood

Fox Searchlight is betting Wild — The Experience is a sign of things to come

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Last March I donned a pair of goggles that whisked me from Austin, Texas to the frigid white Wall of Westeros. Over Thanksgiving, I watched as my parents sat back, strapped in, and explored the space station from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. For studios looking to promote movies and TV shows, virtual reality has become a go-to gimmick, giving audiences a sneak peek at new technology that’s just around the corner.

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At CES, Fox Searchlight is taking that a step further with the debut of Wild — The Experience. Based on the movie of the same name, it’s a 3-minute narrative that puts the viewer in an original scene right alongside Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. And those behind the project are betting that one day, VR won’t just be a promotional tool — but the main attraction itself.

The Wild experience is the first official title from the Fox Innovation Lab, a think tank and experimentation center for 20th Century Fox and its sister studios. "We started [the lab] about a year ago, and the idea was that our relationship with consumer electronics manufacturers — just in general between Hollywood and CE — it just seemed we were out of sync," says Mike Dunn, president of Fox Home Entertainment.

With physical media sales shrinking faster than expected and theatrical attendance steadily declining, the need to get ahead of the next big thing before it becomes the next big thing is obvious. Media disruption has already arrived; it’s just a matter of what side of tech history movie studios will end up on. For Fox, that meant teaming up with Samsung (Wild runs on the Gear VR, and the studio partnered on the new SUHD TVs) and branching out to virtual reality.

One day, VR won’t just be a promotional tool — but the main attraction itself

In Los Angeles, Fox’s resident futurist Ted Schilowitz works out of the lab’s "VR bunker." It’s a large conference room with a massive bank of flat-panel screens against one wall, and two smaller rooms off to the side. One of the side rooms has an array of computers, displays, and Oculus gear, while the other is filled with props from the Wild shoot. (It also has projectors trained against each wall; Schilowitz tells me they use it for four-wall immersive experiments.)

Schilowitz, who also co-founded RED Camera, worked with Fox on several of its prior VR experiments, including the Sleepy Hollow and X-Men Comic-Con pieces. But creating something from a slow-paced drama like Wild — the real-life story of Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon), who hiked a thousand miles along the Pacific Crest Trail in an effort to deal with her mother’s death — was a different challenge. "This was this interesting kind of wild card, because it’s this very naturalistic movie that you wouldn’t expect something tied to technology," says Schilowitz. The team chose to depict a single moment along Strayed’s trek where she stops, takes a breath, and is visited by the ghost of her mother (Dern).

Directors Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël were chosen to tackle the project due to their ability to create slow, more emotional VR experiences — a far cry from bombastic VR demos like EVE Valkyrie or Alien: Isolation. The result is a VR narrative that rewards patience, with the interactive components keying off subtle cues from the viewer. Look one way at a given moment, and you may see Strayed’s mother watching over her; look at a different time, and she may never appear at all.

Hollywood VR Laura Reese

Wild — The Experience is largely a proof-of-concept, Schilowitz says, designed as a starting point for narrative experimentation. "Now we’re more intrigued to take it further. And some of the very high-level execs that we’ve shown [this to] at Fox said the same thing: we should look at doing something like this for every movie and TV show that we have."

Fox currently has around 40 movies in development, and the lab has been looking at which new projects would be well-suited for a VR tie-in; they expect to launch up to three new experiences in 2015 alone. The Wild piece will be traveling to this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it’ll premiere to the general public, but as the medium develops, Schilowitz and Dunn expect that these virtual reality narratives will become standalone pieces of content that people will purchase for viewing on their own.

"I’m sure that this technology will be used as a promotional means for the movie in the theatrical window, and maybe home entertainment," Dunn says, "but I think for it to be really relevant to the consumer it needs to be a real product. If it tends to be just promotional, then it’s more like an innovative gimmick than the real deal."

"What we do is we make stories. And if there’s a new way to tell those stories, we need to be involved."

That, of course, is a hill that far too many cool ideas and technological trends have fought and died on without ever going mainstream. (QR codes and alternate reality games, I’m looking at you.) But as Dunn sees it, the vast potential of virtual reality makes it too useful to fail: with applications across gaming, entertainment, education, and more, it’s the kind of transformative technology that will inevitably become integrated into people’s lives.

Meanwhile, it’s up to Fox and others to develop content that makes using the technology worthwhile — and that’s a challenge Schilowitz and his team are up for. "We’re not just going to stay in place because we’re a movie studio, and the thing that movie studios do is put up pictures on a rectangle," Schilowitz says. "What we do is we make stories. And if there’s a new way to tell those stories, we need to be involved in it, and we need to be figuring it out."