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Is Virtual Reality the Future of Cinema?

Can virtual reality bring people back to movie theaters and give a new boost to the film industry?

There is no doubt that virtual reality has shown its strongest impact in the entertainment industry. VR games are now widely available for various platforms and virtual reality movies are also giving traditional filmmaking a run for its money. Not only do virtual reality movies attract more and more people, but they’ve started making their presence known at prestigious award ceremonies.

Only last year, director Alejandro González Iñárritu received a Special Award at the Academy’s 9th Annual Governors Awards from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for his VR movie experience, Carne y Arena. The question is: will virtual reality movies soon replace traditional films as winners of specialized international awards?

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Between Optimism and Caution

Virtual reality is certainly attractive to moviegoers. It offers a full, immersive experience for viewers, whom we cannot really call viewers, because they feel more like protagonists of the movie itself, immersed in the landscape, the action, and right next to other characters in the movie.

Also, technically speaking, creating VR movies for the cinema is easier compared to traditional films. As Bob Caniglia, the Director of Sales Operations at Americas for Blackmagic, explains: “VR requires very compact and small form factor cameras to be able to capture high quality images, along with the ability to record in production-ready formats without high compression rates… While it used to be that high-end features and new technologies were only reserved for the elite few, today’s industry is a much different place where filmmakers of all levels, disciplines and backgrounds have access to the same professional tools thanks to affordable prices and advances in technologies.”

On the other side of the debate, there are voices stating that VR just doesn’t cut it to become a mainstream cinematic experience. And there are numbers to prove this less than enthusiastic outlook. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, box office figures for VR movies indicate a declining interest from the audience. Even for example IMAX, which specializes in virtual reality movie experiences, has reduced the number and frequency of its 3D screenings.


Content is King

The reason for this variance in opinions is based on a fundamental truth in the movie industry: new technologies create a booming interest for a short while. Afterwards, the technology in itself is no longer enough to bring people into the theater. Movies, no matter how immersive they are, still need to be able to tell a good story.

Thus, it is a matter of creating valuable content and dressing it in virtual reality. As filmmaker Che Min-Hyuk, who works as a producer at the VR Lab, stated: “We need to find some emotion and how to engage the viewer in that. As filmmakers with VR we still don’t really know how far it will take us and the audience.”

While VR experiences are mostly available as short films, the mainstream filmmaking industry is taking steps to catch up with independent producers. So far, Warner Brothers has presented the first VR trailer to promote the adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, It. And the company Dreamscape Immersion, which received investments from Steven Spielberg, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 21st Century Fox, has concluded an agreement with the largest theatre chain in the world, AMC Entertainment. The agreement is for the development of a series of “Virtual Reality Multiplexes” where cinema goers can enjoy VR movie experiences.

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Adding the Social Touch to Virtual Reality Cinema

The only consensus all parties have reached so far is that virtual reality cinema will not replace traditional cinema, but grow from it as a separate branch. The key challenge for VR movie promoters will be to create a social atmosphere for virtual reality cinema theaters, one where the spectator does not feel isolated once they put on the headset. The ability to create group experiences in VR movie watching is just the next challenge the movie industry has to approach regarding VR.

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