Exclusive: One piece of conventional wisdom about the immersive form of entertainment known as virtual reality cinema is that it won't catch on until it acquires some traditional Hollywood cachet.
It looks be getting a boost of just that from a company called MatterVR, which will bring some old-school Hollywood know-how to the new form of entertainment.
Executives from MatterVR are expected to announce Friday they have launched the firm, and that it has an introductory slate of content that includes projects with "Monster House" and "Poltergeist" reboot director Gil Kenan, "Ted" producer Jason Clark and noted Monty Python troupe member Terry Jones.
MatterVR has a Hollywood pedigree at the executive level too: The company is founded and run by the "Cosmos" producer Steven Holtzman and the previsualization specialist Daniel Gregoire (“World War Z,” “Birdman” and "Star Trek Into Darkness" as well as work with George Lucas). Gregoire also worked on “Cosmos" as animatic director.
"We think this is an opportunity to work with some top talent in an exciting new way,” said Holtzman in an interview. "There are so many possibilities for what you can do in VR, and these are some of the best people to help explore that."
The burgeoning category of VR cinema looks to create narrative content in the medium’s 360-degree world, with headsets and other equipment putting viewers in the center of the action.
The last few months have brought a content feeding frenzy of sorts as tech and entertainment figures have linked up to generate material that will be ready when the devices such as the Oculus Rift and HTC's Vive become widely available as early as this year. The thinking is that this content, especially if it's made with veteran entertainment figures, will have a leg up with consumers who buy these devices and are seeking entertainment to watch on them; it can also help establish the content providers as an early power player in the uncharted world of VR.
MatterVR is banking on a diverse mix of creators and genres to pull that off.
Among the films it is developing are Kenan's "Two Moons," a live-action science-fiction piece about an unwanted passenger on an outer space journey; an untitled live-action film from “Ted” producer Jason Clark; and an animated piece called “Aesop & Friends w/Terry Jones” that will feature the noted performer, and has been created and directed by Holtzman.
As with much of the VR world, where lines are a little more blurred than traditional enertainment, the MatterVR principals will often be involved behind the camera; another project, “Soul Transfer,” is being created and directed by Gregoire.
MatterVR is also developing a project with an unidentified tech company that it is expected to debut in the next few months, and the company is in development with “Star Wars” illustrator Ian McCaig and an educational company called Zypre on new works.
Though all of these are in the realm of episodic short-form content—the prefered format for VR content at the moment--the company hopes to develop feature-length films as well.
Holtzman and Gregoire met on “Cosmos,” the science-themed Fox TV hit of last year. Gregoire was later approached to create content for a third party and reached out to his “Cosmos” colleague to partner on the project. That project didn’t pan out, but the two realized they could work together to create VR content in the manner of a traditional independent production company and formed MatterVR. The duo has also brought on Farshid Almassizadeh as executive advsor and board memeber; Almassizadeh is also a former COO of Electronic Arts Interactive, a division of the video game giant.
Gregoire said that his experience with previs—the modern and elaborate art of designing the look of a movie before it’s shot-- will help with VR content, saying that the skills translate pretty easily. "With previs you're not trying to go scene by scene, you're trying to create an event," he said. "And these pieces of VR content aim to be events."
MatterVR has outside funding for some individual projects and also will raise money for a general fund that can bankroll production of its larger slate. Executives say there is not a fixed amount of films they'd like to produce each year but that they do hope it's a mix of live, animated, short- and long-form content.
One of the obstacles in creating a traditional production banner around VR has been the uncertain character of the content itself. How does one, for instance, write a script or storyboard a story that is happening all around a viewer instead of in a defined frame?
Holtzman and Gregoire say they use a system in which there can be as much as an A, B, C and D story happening at once (a spin on Hollywood's traditional approach of an A and B story happening not at the same time) and that consumers will be guided to the particular story by the events in the film; if the action picks up in one area, for instance, it will slow down in another. They are devising scripts that can be written--sometimes literally--across four walls to convey during the creative process that the action is happening simultaneously.
A dearth of edits also is a shift for VR, which unlike traditional entertainment tells its stories not in discrete edited chunks but over long takes.
But that can be a virtue, not a hurdle, says the MatterVR principals.
"We think it's a great opportunity to tell a rich story, slowly paced," Gregoire said.
With people such as Kenan and Jones involved—the former has his new “Poltergeist” hitting theaters this spring while Jones directed some of the Python’s biggest hits such as “Life of Brian”--the number of traditional Hollywood creators involved in VR continues to grow.
A group of Pixar veterans have left the studio to join a new VR animated label at Oculus, “Maleficent” director Robert Stromberg has formed a company that will concentrate on VR and 20th Century Fox has developed a separate lab to work on virtual-reality entertainment. While other mainstream Hollywood figures have been hesitant to dive in, MatterVR’s executives say that it’s only a matter of time for many of these people, who are hesitant due to a lack of direction, not desire.
“Not everyone knows exactly how they want to play in this space. But almost everyone we’ve talked to is curious about how they might be involved,” Holtzman said. He paused. "How often as a creative person do you get to work in an entirely new medium?"