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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
When Douglas Trumbull was a boy, he fell in love with Cinerama, the ultra-widescreen film format that was briefly popular after WWII. Fast forward to 1968, when Trumbull went wide again, creating visual effects for Stanley Kubrick’s trippy sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“I thought, ‘This is great. I want to be in the movie business,’” Trumbull said. The artistic possibilities of creating in wide-screen formats like Cinerama and Kubrick’s films promised a near-magical immersive experience for audiences that was unique to cinema. But then the movie business got “smart.”
To maximize revenues, studios and exhibitors created digitally shot and projected movies that could run in newly reconfigured collections of small rooms called multiplexes, as well as on subsequent distribution windows such as broadcast TV, mobile, and online outlets. The result, to Trumbull’s mind: a loss of the fundamental, near-magical experience that a widescreen, high-quality movie shot on high-resolution film could provide.
“It just destroyed the immersive spectacle I was looking for,” Trumbull said.
The industry has been in slow decline ever since. Skeptical analysts, doubting the movie business ever will thrive again, point to this summer’s disastrous box office as the predictable product of industry shifts and a rampant reliance on sequels and comic-book heroes.
“The cinema is in rapid decline,” Trumbull said. “I think, obviously, the industry has some challenges ahead.”
It’s possible those challenges have already arrived. Stock prices for theater chains are tumbling and margins are thin. The year has had few hits.
So what to do? Trumbull has some ideas. And so do many of the other people I spent time with this week at the Future of Immersive Leisure conference in Las Vegas.
There was lots to ponder. Can a fading, century-old business model be revived by technologies and experiences that have emerged the past two decades, including virtual reality, augmented reality, “4D” effects, motion platforms, videogaming, esports and more.
Trumbull, an influential director and visual-effects pioneer, has technical and honorary Oscars, and three more nominations for his contributions on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. For the last 15 years, he’s been working in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts, perfecting his next-generation MAGI system. Now he’s raising money to take the next step, while using events such as the Immersive Leisure conference as a chance to learn what others are doing.
His MAGI system is basically a theater in a box. Trumbull said it can create a new kind of movie-going experience for a new century of audience expectations. The screen wraps around the audience’s field of vision, and uses several optimized off-the-shelf technologies to provide five times the frame rate of traditional film, much brighter and more lifelike colors and better audio, along with some patented “secret sauce” Trumbull said he can’t reveal.
“We can go beyond the Uncanny Valley,” said Trumbull, referring to the industry phrase for animation and visual effects that fall just short of believably realistic. “It looks like reality. It creates a new art form.”
Trumbull was the star attraction at the Future of Immersive Leisure conference, where I moderated a panel featuring CEOs of three companies – MediaMation, Awesome Rocketship, and Nomadic VR – who are trying in differing ways to create “immersive theaters” for the future. They’re finding lots of audience interest, especially in Asia and South America.
Such specialized theaters have been around for years, relying on “4DFX” tricks such as fans, motion platforms synched with video, 3D imagery and more to trick audience brains into thinking they’re somewhere else, doing something impossible and cool. These days, creators have more tech tools than ever at their disposal, many of which were on display at the conference.
It also was a chance to see existing immersive-theater experiences, because the casinos in Vegas are prime customers for any compelling entertainment experience that will encourage foot traffic to stick around and spend more money.
At the Mandalay Bay Hotel, I tried a polar exploration ride and other VR and AR experiences from a German company called Attraktion! The next day, I stopped by the MGM Grand Hotel to try out the just-opened Level Up, which includes a free-roaming VR arena where up to eight people at a time can shoot murderous zombies or robots, or jointly work their way through a series of colorful puzzles. A company called Zero Latency runs the VR arena experience.
It’s not hard to see these offerings, as they grow ever more sophisticated and compact, moving beyond the theme-park “ghetto” where earlier generations of such attractions were generally consigned.
Indeed, with Zero Latency’s arena tucked compactly in a busy walkway of the world’s largest hotel, it’s not hard to project that many kinds of entertainment-related venues will want to get into group VR. The talk of the conference was about finding locations and partners with busy venues that already provide some entertainment. Such “elite” locations can be practically foolproof opportunities to make “a lot of money,” opined one vendor.
Theaters are investigating the possibilities too, especially in Asia.
MediaMation CEO Dan Jamele told me his company already has 150 VR-based immersive theaters in China, with many more coming. And his company is working with the TCL Chinese Theater complex in Hollywood, which includes one of the world’s most iconic theaters. One of the Chinese Theater’s secondary screens is being converted into space for VR and esports tournaments, which now are being staged weekly there and broadcast around the world.
Trumbull wasn’t enthusiastic about the Zero Latency game he tried, saying it needed a better backstory. Imagine, he said, Zero Latency’s sci-fi Singularity game rejiggered with a licensed piece to Fox’s Alien franchise. Add the experience of being Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character to the game, rather than just killing generic robots and drones in a space station, and you’d really have something (admittedly, Trumbull had just finished talking with a former Fox executive when we chatted).
That’s a fair criticism. When I played two of Zero Latency’s games, I killed a lot of zombies, drones and robots. It was intense, fun and even riveting at times. But some repetitiveness was inevitable, especially as they stretched to ensure a long-enough experience to provide consumer value. Perhaps a different setting, with additional backstory, or a popular licensed franchise, could add more resonance to what was already a pretty good experience.
“I think storytelling, drama, suspense have all been largely lost in this world of VR, because everybody’s been preoccupied by the tech,” Trumbull told me. “I’ve been on this lifelong hunt to get back to that (immersive) experience. We’re in this world where virtual reality represents the next quest for an immersive experience.”
Technology could bring the venerable movie business into the new century, if financially stressed and notoriously conservative exhibitors can be persuaded to invest. But the difference maker even for systems such as Trumbull’s MAGI will be experiences built on a strong narrative by talented storytellers.
Hollywood has always been rich in storytellers. They need to recognize there’s an opportunity to find new ways to compel audiences to watch.
And the combination of great stories and transformative tech might just be enough to entice audiences to come out to play again. Given how it’s been going lately for studios and exhibitors, what do they have to lose?