In the 130 years that cinema’s been with us it has seen various stages in its evolution. First there was the silent age until the talkies came along. Then came glorious Technicolor, Panavision and other wide-screen formats. And now, it seems like we are on the verge of the next great leap forward with virtual reality starting to attract some serious attention from the traditional studios, as well as seeing the establishment of new ones by several tech giants.
An example of the former is the four-minute VR taster of its 2014 release, Wild, that has been produced by Fox Searchlight Studios. The story of an epic hike across the American wilderness starring Reese Witherspoon and with a script by Nick Hornby has proved to be an inspired choice for the demo which makes the very most of the dramatic scenery.
Then there are the studios like Jaunt that has been set up as a joint enterprise with Sky. If a name like this is starting to make serious investments then we can deduce that something big may well be in the pipeline.
This is important for the future of cinema on a number of fronts. The first of these is the competition that the Hollywood studios now face from content producers like Netflix and Amazon Prime. With many movies only getting a very limited theatrical release before appearing on the streaming services it could be that a novelty like virtual reality could be what it takes to get audiences back into cinemas. Because even if everyone is sitting watching the movie unfold on a headset instead of the big screen, it will still create the communal experience that cinemas uniquely provide.
People also have increased access to other forms of entertainment on which to spend their valuable leisure. That includes an increasing interest in playing online games like bingo and casino favourites like slots, roulette and blackjack. By being able to offer a more compelling alternative, filmmakers to start to rebuild their audiences – but they might have a hard time of it. Here’s a great article that shows the allure of some of the welcome bonuses and offers from online casinos. It also demonstrates that would-be players are spoilt for choice, another aspect that keeps them coming back.
But while virtual reality does present a great opportunity to breathe new life into cinema, the danger is that the tech could start to overshadow the storytelling. If you think of some of the gratuitous shots have been included to show off 3D in the past, or the short-lived gimmicks like Sensurround that was briefly in the vogue in the 1970s it’s easy to see the danger that VR faces.
But if it’s used well, and in the right genres of film, there is a chance that it could be sensational. The cut-down of Wild has shown its potential, and now imagine how it could make horror films truly terrifying.
So maybe, before too long, we’ll be picking up a VR headset with our popcorn and preparing ourselves for a truly immersive experience.