Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at [email protected], or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
One of the happy consequences of the many new entertainment technologies and distribution platforms is a concomitant explosion in new ways to tell stories that use those technologies and platforms.
Yes, humans have been telling stories at least since they were painting animals on the Lascaux cave walls 20,000 years ago. And we’ve been talking about telling stories since at least the ancient Greeks. But I don’t think we’ve seen as much interesting exploration of the form and potential of storytelling in quite a long time, if ever.
To begin with, virtual/augmented/mixed reality is forcing new kinds of storytelling approaches that are both bracing and vexing for creators. A year ago, I moderated a panel featuring the director Randal Kleiser (Grease, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid) and key members of the team behind his Defrost: The Virtual Series.
The tale was adapted into an episodic VR series from a short-film script Kleiser wrote while at USC almost 50 years ago, he said. But Kleiser realized the script’s construct – a woman has been in suspended animation for 30 years and is “defrosted,” but left unable to talk and walk, as friends and family come to her – could be adapted fairly easily to virtual reality. Kleiser called in chits from long-time collaborators such as actors Carl Weathers and Bruce Davison, and tapped his recent experience in directing a play – which relies on cues from lighting, sound and movement to direct the audience’s eye to the relevant place on the virtual “stage.”
Kleiser likened VR to directing for theater in the round, but in an inverted form. Instead of the audience surrounding the performance, the performance surrounds the audience. And that changes everything about how you tell a story.
I ran into Kleiser again this week, freshly returned from the Cannes Film Festival, where he was looking for distribution deals so he could finish more episodes of Defrost. We reconnected at the premiere for the first episode of Crowe: The Drowned Armory, which its creators carefully call a “cinematic virtual reality game experience.”
That odd description signals their ambition to build something that’s more story and narrative than quick-twitch game, but, “we’re making it a game because we’re selling it on game channels” such as Steam, Oculus, and the Sony PS VR store, said Pete Blumel, CEO of the Rogue Initiative.
Expectations of buyers on those platforms helped shape Crowe‘s game-related aspects, Blumel said, including the imminent rollout of an arcade mode. But Blumel said the company plans to debut new episodes of Crowe every few months, as well as a “passive” mode for story-minded types who care less about gameplay. Blumel and co-founder Cathy Twigg, the chief content and production officer, freely admitted their project is an experiment.
“We’ll see how it grabs people,” Blumel said. “This is meant to go out there and see what catches on.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the project’s hybrid nature, the Crowe event was itself an intersection of traditional Hollywood and pieces of its future. Not only was film veteran Kleiser there, so was Steve Schklair, a Defrost investors and the past 12 years, a leading proponent of 3D cinema technologies.
These days, Schklair’s 3eality company is mostly selling 3D experiences into China, where Yi “Eva” Qian, his company’s Asia Pacific VP of business development, was born and has strong ties. They told me that 3D, increasingly marginalized in Hollywood, is going strong in China. The country has a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for 3D movie experiences as it continues to build new theaters at an astonishing pace.
I never thought that 3D technologies changed Hollywood storytelling, certainly not the way VR proponents hope to do.
But 3D’s most significant artistic achievement, Jim Cameron’s 2009 Oscar winner Avatar, continues to be an influence. Crowe is an obvious example, a story set on a lush planet where advanced technologies are uncovered by a shipwrecked alien people who had returned to a primitive lifestyle.
“If there was a VR world for Avatar, people would love it,” Blumel said.
We’re almost certainly going to find out. Fox has planned four Avatar film sequels plus much else, from theme-park rides on. It’s hard to imagine Cameron and his collaborators won’t be creating a lot of VR projects, just as Ridley Scott’s team has been doing around Alien: Covenant and last year’s The Martian.
And expect Blumel’s company to be right there too, with Crowe and a live-action episodic VR story, Agent Emerson, coming at the end of the summer. “I think VR is going to be a great storytelling medium,” Blumel said. “To me it’s very experiential. VR is one way of creating an experience you can be in.”
Rogue, which partnered with Michael Bay on VR projects last year, bills itself as “a 360 full-spectrum entertainment studio generating content powered cinematic Intellectual Properties” focused on a “NEW GENERATION OF STORYTELLING” (their caps, not mine).
We’re seeing other companies straddle formats and platforms in interesting ways too.
The company Seriously, which made its name with two Best Fiends mobile games, has launched its first animated short, built in the same world. The idea, said CEO Andrew Stalbow (like many of his colleagues a studio veteran), is to let fans explore the world suggested by the games on a different platform in a more immersive way.
“We’re focusing really hard on trying to build an entertainment brand focused on mobile devices,” Stalbow said. “We saw an opportunity where people were moving from incumbent platforms to mobile and tablets. We feel the next generation of great brands will be built there.”
Mobile (including tablets) creates different opportunities for creators to build a big entertainment property.
Where traditional Hollywood depended on scarcity, driven by exclusive distribution windows owned by other companies, mobile allows a company to build a direct relationship with customers, and shape its properties based on all the deep data that relationship can create, Stalbow said.
“We feel like if the content is really good, they can really help each other,” Stalbow said. ‘Ultimately, the nice thing about building a brand is that it can work in many places.”
The first animated short, Best Fiends Boot Camp, was created to “show the potential of the brand,” Stalbow said. “We wanted to really show off what could be created for the world. Once you build out the world, you can create all kinds of things.” It already has over 1.5 million viewers in its first week.
The company expects to release two shorts this year, and release a couple of more per year thereafter. The company is considering making the shorts available on an existing subscription video-on-demand platform, and even was approached about a feature-length film but, Stalbow said, “We’re not sure that’s the right approach for us.”
Even small players are trying new things. Beyond Books is an iPhone app that sells what might be called post-modern illuminated texts. Mostly original text-based stories are melded with music, animation, still images and voiceovers to create new kinds of short stories.
And as Stalbow mentioned, even the big traditional players are trying new models, including Universal, SkyDance and Fox.
“I think you’re going to see more and more studios looking to own that relationship with their audience,” Stalbow said. “Second, I think there’s going to be a whole load of innovation that we haven’t even thought about yet.”
Amen to that.