New technologies may soon give you the theatrical experience from the comfort of your own home.
Don’t look now, but this March may go down in history as the month that virtual reality cinema broke through to the mainstream. Two weeks ago, entertainment and technology publications highlighted the world’s first “permanent virtual reality movie theater,” the aptly named VR Cinema in Amsterdam. Over at the Tribeca Film Festival website, critic Matt Barone profiled the future of the horror genre with respect to virtual reality, making note of the various ways that technology will be displayed at this year’s festival. Finally, Sony announced the October release of PlayStation VR, the gaming headset that will allow PS4 owners to access immersive content from over 230 developers, major and minor.
Virtual reality has long been the subject of science fiction or failed experimentation – does anyone else remember Nintendo’s incredibly ugly Virtual Boy? – but each new press release or technology profile only shows how close it may be to transforming the entertainment industry. And that leaves movie theaters once again in something of an awkward position. The theater experience has been declared dead more times than most of us care to remember – with the advent of sound, the emergence of television, and the transition to digital projection – but each of these developments assumed some barrier between movie theaters and the experiences that audiences would have in alternate places. And while we could argue as to whether a three-dimensional virtual space offers an improvement on narrative film or presents itself as a brand new medium entirely, the improvements in virtual reality do ask an important question: at what point would you stop going to the movie theater altogether?
As movie fans, it seems like it should be a pretty easy question to answer. We’ll never stop going to the theater. I’ve made looking at movie theater listings an integral part of my daily routine; each morning I check Screen Slate or the websites for my favorite movie theaters around town to see which new release or repertory screening I can fit into my schedule. We like treat movie theaters as social environments, but for me, the appeal comes from fully disengaging from the outside world. Theaters encourage an attention to detail that cannot be matched elsewhere. No film seen at home can be removed entirely from your environment, certainly not if you live in an urban setting; cars honk their horns, voices float up from the street corners, planes fly overhead, and text messages and chat notifications sing out, unconcerned with the arbitrary ‘zone of immersion’ you have created for yourself around your television. That might work on your significant other or roommate, but the world at large could give two shits about your Jeff Nichols marathon.
That being said, if a virtual reality headset can offer me the equivalent of a private screening room anywhere on earth, it’s hard not to see the appeal in that. When we’re young, a trip to the movies is expensive; as we age, we find that the opportunity cost of going to the movie theater is just as discouraging as the price of a ticket. No matter how much I may love the experience of going to a midnight movie, the thought of waiting twenty minutes for late night subway service makes me physically ill. And that’s even if it’s a high-quality screening; on Wednesday night, film and television critic Matt Zoller Seitz hosted one of his impromptu (and delightful) information sessions about exhibition, this time sharing people’s firsthand encounters of atrocious movie theater behavior. Is the movie theater experience really worth protecting if we have to spend it listening to someone else’s Skype conversation? Add this all together and you might find you can watch two films – and enjoy them more – for the price and time commitment of one night out.
You may not even need to give up the aesthetics of the movie theater if you choose to stay in; some developers are doing their best to capture the traditional movie-going experience in a three-dimensional space. CINEVEO, a virtual reality platform available for the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, allows people to watch traditional 2D cinema in a 3D environment. You can choose from a handful of pre-rendered environments – including a 1940s drive-in – and even share screenings with others, populating a virtual theater with the avatars of your friends and family (minus the sound of them eating or asking you inane questions about the people who show up on the screen). This is a particularly useful option if, like me, many of your cinephile connections have been made through social media. Would you want to invite a half-dozen Twitter followers around the world to a “private” screening of a personal favorite? The potential is real.
Context, of course, is key. Scott Stewart, one of the filmmakers interviewed by Matt Barone in the Tribeca article, points out that the horror genre is a natural fit for virtual reality as the genre’s form has always partially dictated its function. Movies like Paranormal Activity have already shifted the genre towards the appearance of first-person storytelling, so moving that narrative into a virtual space is a smaller leap than it would be otherwise. There are plenty of movies that I would be happy to watch in a virtual environment; Stewart’s own early experience with 3D, the science fiction mish-mash that was Priest, would be just as entertaining in a digital movie theater as it was in any dollar theater across the country. Hollywood produces a large volume of product each year that aspires to be nothing more than entertainment, and I wouldn’t need much of a push to abandon the AMCs and Regal Cinemas of the world in favor of my couch and a headset.