Even with an Academy Award and years of Hollywood experience under his belt, Robert Stromberg knows that in order to really capture kids’ attention in 2017, it pays to step outside of the box—and into a Google Cardboard set.
Stromberg (Avatar, Maleficent) and Guy Primus, who together launched L.A.-based The Virtual Reality Company in 2014, have unveiled Raising a Rukus, the first family-friendly storytelling franchise to be released in the VR industry. The series will be available on virtual reality headsets and VR-compatible US theaters beginning next month.
Rukus follows twins who are transported back in time to live among dinosaurs. Besides being steeped in VR, the first episode has a “choose your own adventure” aspect, where, at one point, the twins get separated and viewers can select which path to take.
“It obviously has a happy ending, but they arrive back with a different attitude,” says chief creative officer Stromberg, whose production design for Alice in Wonderland earned him an Oscar in 2011. “It’s this magical ride. It’s really unique and we think on the cutting edge of what we’re going to see in the future. One of the reasons why we started VRC in the first place was to push this threshold of technology and create new content, and not just exploit VR.”
The show’s first 12-minute episode will be available on all virtual reality headsets, from cheaper options like Google Cardboard, to Oculus Rift and Sony Playstation VR. Episodes two and three are currently in production, with more eps to follow later this year. However, the roll out will take time as each VR platform has different requirements. The official retail price of the show has yet to be announced, but Primus says the cost will be in line with that of a music download.
“We expect that the characters and the stories will be compelling enough that people will come back over and over again,” says Primus. “But the number is still to be determined. The market will tell us that.”
As for the movie theater aspect, Primus says this makes the whole experience more accessible to viewers.
“We think launching in theaters is a really big deal because it democratizes VR. It doesn’t require you to buy a US$600 phone plus the US$99 headset,” says Primus. “You can actually go into any place with the theatrical installation and pay US$10 to US$12 and watch the VR experience.”
VRC is already looking at creating more shows like Rukus, but the company hopes to push the boundaries a little bit further next time around.
“We have other projects that you interact with more. They’re not gaming, but there’s a story involved with the same emotional attachment to the characters and all of that stuff,” says Stromberg. “We have some other projects that are in the same demographic but that are much more interactive.”
The compelling, realistic aspect of VR content is what’s driving companies like VRC into full production mode. Last July, California-based virtual reality animation startup Baobab Studios launched its first short film Invasion! as a VR “experiment.” The six-minute all-ages film led Roth Kirschenbaum Films—headed by Maleficent producer Joe Roth and former Universal production exec Jeffrey Kirschenbaum—to sign a deal with Baobab for a big-screen, non-VR feature version of the short. And earlier this year, XRGames—a new gaming studio launched by UK-based kids entertainment and research company Dubit—raised a seven-figure investment round to spend directly on developing a suite of kids VR apps.
“VR content heightens the viewing experience because you feel like the repercussions could affect you. So I feel like all of those things make it a very powerful new medium,” says Primus. “I don’t see it as replacing television or film. I see it as a brand new exciting alternative.”