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VR: Theater owners' next biggest challenge

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VR: Theater owners' next biggest challenge

Theaterowners are used to a good fight.

Theyhave been adapting and enhancing their offerings for several years now, fightingagainst video content that is increasingly available through digital channels aswell as compressing release windows.

To answerthe challenge, they stripped out old, springy, low-slung seating to replace it withstadium-configured recliners. They added 3-D and IMAX Corp. screens. They added high-tech digital surroundsound. They upgraded the concession offerings, with many theaters now even offeringalcohol.

In general,2015 was a good year for theaters, with exhibitor revenue up 8.5% in 2015, accordingto SNL Kagan research.

But anothertechnological advancement — virtual reality — could test their business model onceagain.

VR challengesthe very thing that theaters have always been able to offer above the average in-homeexperience: immersion. The big, dark room, the boom of the surround sound shakingthe seats, the massive screen that stretches to the corners of a viewer's peripheryvision. Up until recently that was as close as one could get to "being there."But not anymore. Immersion is VR's native turf, not something it hashad to contrive from a traditional theater experience.

VR, however,could also become the savior of the theater business.

SchuylerMoore, an author and a partner at law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP,said May 3 at a Digital Hollywood panel that he believes VR is the final stage ina process of adaption. More theaters will add tables and cocktail services, pushingthe movie-going experience increasingly toward the high end of the market. Thoseproperties that cannot or do not enhance their offerings will likely go the wayof the bowling alley, with just a few remaining open, Moore said.

The finalstep he envisions, for those theaters that convert toward the high end, will likelybe an increasing dependence on VR experiences. As an example of what these experienceswill look like, he pointed specifically to The Void, a VR extravaganza that mixesimmersive visuals with real-life tactile perception for a kind of live-in videogame. It is narrative, immersive and interactive. Entry is $35, and those that havetried it say it is one of the most immersive experiences available.

"Itwill blow theatrical experiences away," he said. "Instead of the normalboring dinner-and-a-movie date, you're going to absolutely prefer to do virtualreality. I guarantee it."

He saidthat production costs for these experiences are currently "very high,"much higher than an equivalent theatrical production. Of course, those costs willcompress as the technology and talent become more competitive, but as a testamentto the potential of the product, Moore said TV and movie studios are already investingheavily in these kinds of big-budget, theater-replacing VR products.

Mooreand the other panelists were not particularly bullish on the fate of small theatersand independent films. Summing up the mood, one audience member with VR search enginedeveloper Sprawly stood up to say that when VR becomes fully realized, there willbe no place for the 2-D theaters of today. VR is just too thrilling, immersive andcustomizable.

But panelistsdid acknowledge that VR has its limits in capturing the passive storytelling of2-D filmmaking. Therefore, the sit-back or the distracted-viewing experience oftelevision and movies still may have a place in the entertainment landscape of thefuture.

But consideringthe biggest blockbusters today — the escapist superhero and animated films thatrake in massive paychecks on mind-blowing visuals and immersive theatrical experiences— it is easy to see the panelists' point. VR plans to take this immersionto a whole new level.