Peter Levin has been running the game and investments division at Lionsgate, one of Hollywood’s biggest studios, for two years. And he is so bullish about virtual reality that Lionsgate is working with 11 partners on more than a dozen VR projects that are targeted at both hardcore and casual gamers.
One of those projects is John Wick: The Impossible Task, a first-person shooter based on the action movie franchise starring actor Keanu Reeves. Levin said that the studio got excited because there were so many VR creators coming out of the woodworks with an “unprecedented appetite” to create new VR content.
Lionsgate is also working on a project for mobile VR platforms based on the popular Now You See Me films. David Jagneaux, the games editor at UploadVR, interviewed Levin about VR games and entertainment at our GamesBeat 2016 conference last week.
Here’s an edited transcript of their interview. You can also watch the video embedded below.
GamesBeat: What about VR got you excited originally?
Peter Levin: It’s a cliché at this point, but the minute you strap that on, you realize that this is a thing. It’s a medium that is here to stay. It’s the inversion of so much of the hype we’ve been inundated with over the last 10-15 years with emerging technologies.
One of the biggest data points for us early on was the number of content creators – filmmakers, showrunners, writers, producers, cinematographers – who wanted to jump in at the deep end of the pool and create. We hadn’t seen that kind of magnetism in a generation. The amount of activity coming from that side has been a bit like drinking from a firehose. In a positive way.
GamesBeat: A lot of people are taking existing content and adapting it for VR, or they’re creating something brand new. I think people would agree that things created from the ground up with VR in mind tend to utilize the medium the best. What are the main areas a content creator should pay attention to when creating something for VR?
Levin: We’re exploring both buckets of activity. We have an extremely aggressive, immersive, on-tone first-person shooter VR game based on our John Wick property. It’s a sub-narrative to the core narrative, which is the “impossible task.” If you remember the film, he was assigned an impossible task, a story told within the body of the film, and then we explore that as its own discrete VR vehicle. Although it’s based on an existing piece of IP, it’s very much its own vehicle.
The thing that’s most impressive, internally and externally, is how involved the filmmakers are in the game. As acute as they were with the film with regard to making sure he reloaded when he ran out of bullets, they’re doing the same thing in the game. There’s no getting cute. It’s very pragmatic. It continues the tone that is John Wick.
At the same time, we have two or three greenlit projects that are original IP. They’ll be, again, discrete commercial VR vehicles. We’re extremely excited about those. We have tremendous talent involved, both in front of the camera, if you will, and directing and writing.
GamesBeat: When it comes to VR products, they’re making games even more interactive. One buzzword people throw around a lot is cinematic. With the way VR is evolving over time, games are evolving as well. But what do you think movies have to learn from the game industry, as games have adapted lessons from film?
Levin: All media learn from one another. It’s such an immersive experience. Some of the horror-themed games are terrifying. I have to rip that thing off my head as fast as I can.
GamesBeat: In VR, no one can see you cry.
Levin: They saw me cry. It wasn’t pretty. But I think the collaboration—again, it’s this unprecedented, in my experience, appetite from the creators to play with the medium. Games have become more cinematic because of the computation power, the ability to tell a larger narrative. The engagement metrics of the consuming constituency are so great that you have to give them more story, more backstory, a portfolio of characters if you want to be a certain type of game.
There’s a lot of borrowing back and forth. Now you see TV and film writers getting involved in the games business in an unprecedented way. You see game creators that are now looking at creating cinematic pieces in VR, and even in more traditional forms of film and television. There’s more crossover now than ever.
GamesBeat: Is there a line anymore, between what is a film, a traditional movie, and what is a game? The lines are getting blurrier as we see more crossover and more streamlining. At a company like Lionsgate, where you deal in both, how do you approach a project and decide whether it would be a best fit for a film or a game?
Levin: I’ve been there two years. Very early, the determination was to treat our games business like a business. We go out and source developers from all over the world. It’s the same exercise we go through for choosing a film director or a showrunner in television. You want a developer and a publisher that have a passion for that IP. They have the acumen to bring that IP to life. In success, that game could live a long time. You want to make sure the chemistry between yourselves and them is in sync.
That’s one of the big differentiators in today’s marketplace. The economics, on the game side in particular, when there is IP at stake, are now substantive enough that they command that kind of attention and that kind of resources from companies like ours. We have to take that business seriously.
GamesBeat: From a consumer perspective, the way that people interact and consume a game versus a movie is now increasingly similar, especially as film goes to VR and there are more VR games. A 360 video versus an interactive environment like a game — how do you navigate the waters of those different sorts of media that are so closely related?
Levin: Like most of our brethren, we have a big initiative with our marketing and promotional vehicles based on some of our biggest IP. What a great way to bring attention to a nascent market like VR. It’s a rising tide. When you can put out a promotional or marketing vehicle based on a Hunger Games or a Nerve or a Divergent, that does nothing but good for everyone involved. At the same time, you need to be able to follow that up with more robust commercial vehicles. Therein does not lie a business. You have to make a business out of it.
There are varying degrees of sophistication with the products that are available. You have products for the hardest core of gamers, and you now have products for the more casual, social consumer. That’s a sign of the health of this emerging space.
GamesBeat: Alluding to those other experiences you mentioned – Hunger Games, Nerve, those cinematic VR bite-sized experiences – how do you see things like that scaling over time for VR? A big concern is the amount of time someone spends inside of a headset. There’s a lot of caution around that now, not wanting to make things too long. How do you see that scaling over time? Will we have full-length features in VR with 360 footage for an entire two-hour experience, or will the medium adapt to VR?
Levin: I don’t have a crystal ball. We’re motivated to say, “Of course that will be the case.” We were the first, I think, first or second to do an electronic sell-through video on demand deal with Oculus, for full-length feature films and TV shows. As everyone here knows if you’re in these conversations, there’s a lot of A/B testing going on with formats and length.
The technology is getting better by the day. We’re not a tech company. We’re a content company, an IP-driven company. Folks like Roy, who just left the stage, could probably speak to the computation power and the calibration that, again, seems to be improving by the day. We’re less concerned about the ability to introduce longer formats into the environment. We’re acutely focused right now on making sure the installed base is there. We’re managing expectations. We’re bullish on the medium. We’re less aggressive on the timeline. We want to make sure we’re in a cadence with how the market is picking up the product.
GamesBeat: Whenever you’re deciding between a TV show or a film or anything like that, whenever you’re adapting that into VR, do you see a way for that to become more integrated with the game industry? In the past, we’ve seen experiments with movies or games that run concurrently together. There’s been some overlap in franchises, like Defiance. With how VR is so immersive, do you think we’ll ever see anything like that again with VR, where there’s an overlap between properties like that?
Levin: We hope so. That was with Trion Worlds and SyFy, Defiance, and it was a great shot on goal. We love that people are putting their necks out there. We’re an investor in Telltale Games, for example. They are their own genre of gaming, if you will. I can’t tell you the amount of developers who come through our halls saying they’ll be the Telltale of VR. No, I think Telltale will be the Telltale of VR.
It’s companies like that, and others out there—they are so narrative-driven, so great at telling stories within their games, and that’s a very natural leap, for them to get into more standard, longer formats. They’ve talked about the supershow concept, for example, where there would be accompanying longer-form content with game products, and VR would fit very nicely into that. Again, we’re bullish on it, but we want to make sure not getting out over our skis.
GamesBeat: You brought up a good point as far as the way content is so much more immersive for the consumer and the viewer, the way they interact with it. Whenever it comes to designing an experience for VR, from a Lionsgate perspective, where you have so many stakeholders and options in the industry, how do you approach a property and decide how it’ll be interactive for the user in VR? Even a 360 film, the way you design that is different from a traditional film. How do you approach that from a design and filming perspective?
Levin: One of the decisions we made early on, right or wrong, was we’re going to work with as many developers as possible. In particular, in the early stages. We’ll not put our eggs in one or two baskets. In the 12 to 15 VR projects we have going, we’re probably working with 11 individual partners. That list is growing.
Again, it’s similar to finding a director on a theatrical project, or a showrunner for television. You want to make sure there’s a vision, and that they have the ability to execute against that vision. We have the advantage of some great IP that’s extremely attractive to developers and publishers. Even as these platforms are emerging, we’re seeing unprecedented investment in the ecosystem. Which is nothing but great. It gives us more opportunity to take more shots on goal.
GamesBeat: With a portfolio so large and working with so many different studios, from your perspective, what should someone look for in a content studio, from an investment perspective?
Levin: It’s an interesting question. For us, all the studios have a slightly different mandate as they look at investing. Ours is pretty straightforward. It comes on high from our CEO, which I holistically agree with. Also he’s my boss. But everything has to be very obviously strategic to what we’re doing. We don’t want to have to explain it to your investors, explain it to your peers. There are other media companies who have sidecar funds. They’re treating that activity in a much more traditional venture role. We’re not.
The companies we’re getting involved with, whether it’s Next Games out of Helsinki or Fifth Journey out of Hong Kong or Telltale out of San Rafael, it’s about making sure there’s commercial traction. Even when we got involved with Mobcrush, we’re huge believers in the space and it was a great way for us to get really far upstream with a great team. We got a lot of insight into what was happening in that space.
For us, knock on wood, in these two years, the bets that we’ve made, we haven’t had to do a lot of explaining. When companies do come in and present — and we meet with a lot of them – first and foremost it has to be a very obvious strategic fit.
Question: What kinds of properties work best in VR? What has the biggest opportunity? You have many genres that your company works with. Do you think any of those will be the sweet spot for the first generation of VR?
Levin: For us, we have 16,000 titles in our library. We have a lot to play with. But some of the more recent titles, whether that’s Divergent or Hunger Games or Nerve, the upcoming Power Rangers, Now You See Me—these are very zeitgeist-ey, popular culture titles that have a lot of fun within their environments.
We’re definitely not going to try to cram a square peg in a round hole. We’re not trying to create VR experiences based on everything that comes down the pipe. But you’d be surprised at some of the wildly creative pitches that come our way based on some of our library of content. Things like Cube, for example, and Expendables.
It’s not a perfect science. We have a lot of fun making that determination. Part of that exercise is also—if a pitch comes in and it is left of center, but it’s from a developer that’s super passionate about it and they’ve built a better mousetrap, we’re as likely to pursue that as some of the more obvious stuff you could think of.
Question: Is there a place where we can access some of the content you guys are creating?
Levin: Gear VR, we have several of our products up there. Our John Wick first-person shooter will launch at the end of the fourth quarter on Vive, and then it will be across all platforms. We have a Now You See Me VR title that’s on Gear VR. That’ll be forthcoming. We’re trying to address both ends of the spectrum, appealing to some of the hardcore gamers with Vive and PlayStation. A lot of energy is being spent on location-based entertainment. We were part of that announcement between Starbreeze and IMAX.
At the same time we want to make sure we reach as many people as possible. In the mobile environment you can find a lot of our product and you will going forward. We have a bunch of messaging coming in the next couple of months on a handful of projects that we’re excited about.