Sun, Oct 22, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Game-changer or gimmick: Is VR the future of film?

While some people are put off by VR films’ video game-like feel, big filmmakers are preparing to launch VR movie theaters

By Mathew Scott  /  AFP, BUSAN, South Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, wears a virtual reality headset at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea on Sunday last week.

Photo: AFP

Virtual Reality (VR) will change the face of cinema in the next decade — but only if content keeps up with the advances in technology, industry experts at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) said.

VR is already being heavily promoted by the tech giants, with Facebook Inc and Microsoft Corp launching new headsets they hope will ensure the format goes mainstream.

Studios and filmmakers are also poised to capitalize, as cinema industry reports estimate that VR could generate as much as US$75 billion a year in revenues by 2021.

Earlier this year, IMAX Corp opened its first VR cinema in Los Angeles, while the leading film festivals — including Cannes, Venice, and Tribeca — have sections dedicated to recognizing groundbreaking work in the medium.

“Facebook and Apple [Inc] are pouring billions of dollars into this industry and these hardware developments are key, but it will all come down to content and we are excited by the way that is developing,” said South Korean-American filmmaker Eugene Chung, whose production Arden’s Wake last month won the Best Virtual Reality award at the Venice Film Festival.

Chung said the format will shift public perception and expectations of cinema.

“We’re really building the future,” he said.

However, revolutions in cinema do not always play out; despite their early hype, 3D movies have struggled to rival traditional film consumption.

IMAX has scaled back its 3D screenings, while box office figures in the US show declining audience interest, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

However, proponents of VR say that this time, it is different, and the format is likely to succeed because it fully immerses viewers in the imaginary environment.

BIFF programmer Park Jin, who organized the event’s VR section, which comprised more than 30 features, documentaries and animations, described VR as the “future of cinema.”

In Busan there has been a huge buzz around the VR program, with constant queues to experience what is on offer — both individual booths and a cinema are showcasing films.

“It feels a bit strange at first, a bit like a game, but once I got used to the equipment it was quite exciting,” said 60-year-old Kim Young-min, who had come to BIFF to take in a retrospective of legendary South Korean actor Shin Seong-il, but had been lured over to the VR show by her daughter.

Experts say therein lies the catch — the “computer game” feel to some shows can be a little off-putting.

“We need to find some emotion and how to engage the viewer in that,” said filmmaker Che Min-hyuk, a producer at the VR Lab run by South Korean media industry giant CJ Group. “As filmmakers, with VR we still don’t really know how far it will take us and the audience.”

Chung said the industry needs to tread carefully — going to the movies will not be the same social experience if everyone is in their own world wearing headsets.

“We think the impact of this medium is going to be incredibly powerful,” he said, adding that it would be a voyage into the unknown in terms of social impact. “There’s a first spaceship factor. When video games came out I think we as a society underestimated their impact so there are definitely things we need to look out for in VR in the coming years.”

However, film giants are embracing the challenge. At the Cannes Film Festival this year Oscar-winner Alejandro Inarritu showcased his VR production Meat and Sand, while Warner Bros Entertainment Inc created a trailer in the format to promote Stephen King adaptation It.

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