A few years ago, movie producer Gigi Pritzker was at the Sundance Film Festival when she stumbled upon the New Frontier exhibition, which showcases new and transmedia art—naturally, much of the exhibition focuses on virtual reality.
"I spent all day in that building and was blown away by the stuff I was seeing," Pritzker says. "It really spun my head around. I actually don't think I went and saw movies for the rest of the festival. I kept coming back to New Frontier, because it was so exciting to me and so energizing."
The experience got Pritzker, whose family empire is behind the Hyatt hotel chain and the Pritzker Architecture Prize, seriously thinking about VR and how she could incorporate it into her work as a film and live theater producer. Pritzker's OddLot Entertainment company is behind such indie films as The Way, Way Back and Rabbit Hole, as well as the sci-fi tentpole Ender's Game and the critically-acclaimed Hell or High Water. And her company Relevant Theatricals produced the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet.
The answer came when she met Clint Kisker, who had been running business development at Legendary Entertainment, the company behind such blockbusters as The Dark Knight and The Hangover. At Legendary, Kisker was involved with the company's VR content division, but says he was dreaming bigger. "Even within a company as forward thinking at Legendary," he says, "there wasn't really a significant content budget for large-scale creation of content around known IP." Indeed, across Hollywood, he says, "most of the VR content comes out of a marketing budget. It's for a very short, promotional experience."
When he got talking to Pritzker, a vision—and a company—was born. The duo recently launched Madison Wells Media with the desire to create films, theater productions, and, yes, VR experiences under one umbrella, with the intent to cross-pollinate properties across the platforms in order to "expand on and grow the IP that's born in any one of those units," Kisker says. In other words, to eschew the typical Hollywood route of building up a movie franchise, say, by simply pumping out more sequels, and to create rich, sibling properties with their own unique sets of characteristics. Already, the process is being set in motion. Million Dollar Quartet has become an eight-part series on Country Music Television.
The company—which is named after the corner of Madison and Wells Streets in Chicago, where Pritzker's great-grandfather starting selling newspapers when he was 12—has set up business partnerships and investments to further this endeavor. One investment is with Atom Tickets, the movie ticket-buying app that provides detailed data on moviegoers' viewing and purchasing behavior; another is with the Void, the location-based VR company. And Madison Wells is a partner with the independent movie studio STX Entertainment. And then there's the deal with Sony Pictures to work with the studio's VR content division on non-promotional VR and AR experiences. Under the agreement, Madison Wells's VR division, Reality One, is Sony's exclusive partner on VR episodes, shorts, games—whatever they may be—that are related to Sony movies. The two companies will also produce and finance VR content based on original IP. Those that are related to films will be produced independently as opposed to being promotional offshoots. The hope is to create original, stand-alone pieces so that, when someone "puts this experience on, in the first minute, they've never seen anything like it before," Kisker says.
This is certainly true of Reality One's first project so far, Gnomes & Goblins, a room-scale VR experience created by Jon Favreau. A preview launched earlier this month on the Steam, Viveport, and Wevr Transport platforms for use with the HTV Vive VR headset (it is eventually Oculus-bound). The idea for Gnomes & Goblins was born while Favreau was in postproduction on The Jungle Book and his animation director, Andy Jones, brought the director over to Wevr, the Venice-based VR company, to check out theBlue. Wevr's acclaimed, HTV Vive experience takes the viewer to a coral reef deep below the sea; a surreal jolt comes when a whale swims by.
"I'd done VR before—I'd done early builds of the Oculus," Favreau says. "I visited Valve years before. And it really stuck with me. But [with theBlue], I really felt presence. I felt very vulnerable being with the big whale underwater—it felt very oppressive to me. But I loved doing tilt brush and I could spend 20 minutes in there like it was nothing. And I think the challenge is to make it where you can really feel like you're living in that world."
"I'm a big fantasy fan, I played Dungeons & Dragons when I was younger, and I had some sketches [of gnome characters], so I pitched it. I said, here's the world."
Soon after, Favreau started developing Gnomes & Goblins with Jones and Jake Rowell, who directed theBlue. In the game, the player enters a magical forest, alight with fireflies and glowing candles, where tiny gnomes cautiously emerge from behind trees to interact—as they grow more comfortable with the player, they become more emboldened and start picking up and tossing fallen peaches (which the player can also pick up). Madison Wells became involved in the project through its partnership with Wevr, which came about after Kisker saw theBlue. "My first thought was, who did this? I need to find the people who did this because if they can do this with this circumstance then what else can they do?"
At this point, there are no plans to turn Gnomes & Goblins into a movie or any other medium—but that's fine, too. Kisker says he wants to be mindful not to migrate properties onto new platforms just for the sake of doing it, pointing out that there are many examples of games, books, etc. that are not meant to be turned into films or TV shows.
Favreau seconded this, saying he was building his game "to optimize this particular medium. If I want to do a movie, I'll take it from that direction. It's a lot easier for me to say, 'I want to make a movie about goblins.' That seems to be in line with what audiences like.
"But for me, what's interesting is learning about the build, the machines that they have to construct to make the goblin work a certain way. It feels like being a dungeon master back when I was a kid, and you're creating a world and an experience for people to do anything."
In some cases, Madison Wells will attempt to generate stories themselves, though a division that is currently being staffed. Kisker says it "will be led by a core creative whose job is to staff a room and a team of IP creators and storytellers who can find the best first instance to exploit the IP and the content that they create. Those stories can then be exploited across the company's divisions similar, he says, to "what was created with the Monsterverse at Legendary, or what was created by Lucasfilm or Marvel."
"It's difficult to do, but if you do it, you have one of the rarest assets that exist, and that's what generates value."
Above all else, the company is trying to push the boundaries when it comes to marrying content and technology. Its partnership with the Void gives it expertise and insight into a growing phenomenon: VR experiences that take place not in the privacy of your living room, but in a public space. The company was behind the Ghostbusters: Dimension VR installation in Times Square.
Any by teaming with Atom Tickets, it is able to have access to data and analytics that can help the company customize its marketing and outreach.
"In the short run, it's frankly about understanding what the state of—when you think about it, nobody really owned the data chain from the time you looked at a trailer to the time you bought a Frozen doll," Kisker says. "Nobody owned that chain completely. And they do. So the interesting thing is, what can we learn from them about our businesses?"
And then, "once you know how someone behaves, once you know what someone did or didn't like, you can begin to tailor things to them through time. So for example, we didn't do this for Hell or High Water, but as an example, if we had worked with Atom Tickets, we would know who, for example, clicked on a Hell or High Water trailer but did not go to the movie in its theatrical release. So once you get to an awards campaign—knock, knock—you can revisit those people again. You know exactly who they are and what they're doing. So the idea is this is something that travels through time and you learn who they are and what they like."
"So then, you know, we can show up their houses and drive them to the movie," Pritzker jokes. "And maybe buy them popcorn."