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How Sony Is Using Virtual Reality to Market Movies

January 25, 2016, 5:00 PM UTC
Sony Pictures

With Google (GOOGL) Cardboard continuing to expand its reach, Samsung (SSNLF) selling out its $99 Gear VR headset, and other mobile headsets such as Merge VR available at retail, there’s a growing mobile audience looking for virtual reality content. Hollywood has stepped in by developing exclusive short-form virtual reality experiences, originally timed to big consumer events like San Diego’s Comic-Con. But now studios like Sony Pictures are developing virtual reality experiences to promote both theatrical and home entertainment releases of big-budget movies.

Goosebumps, which is available now on digital and comes out on Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, and DVD on Jan. 26, is the latest movie to explore this new marketing opportunity. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released the Goosebumps Virtual Reality Experience app, which features Jack Black as R.L. Stine in a wild car chase as he evades a giant praying mantis. The sequence was directed by Rob Letterman, the director of Goosebumps, and produced by visual effects company MPC.

The free app is available for any iOS or Android smartphone via the 360-degree video mode. And people who have Cardboard, Merge VR, or other headsets will get the full virtual reality experience. Sony (SNE) is cross-promoting Merge VR by offering a $15 discount off the $99 price of the headset through the Goosebumps VR site.

But this is just the second half of the virtual reality marketing effort. When Goosebumps initially hit theaters Oct. 16, 2015, Sony Pictures worked with D-Box, makers of an immersive motion-activated chair, on a four-weekend, 11-city U.S. tour. The same virtual reality experience out now was motion-synced to the action in this initial theatrical tour, which used the Samsung Gear VR headset.

“As a marketing tool, a well-done VR piece can create a lot of social media buzz with people commenting on what they’ve experienced,” says Lexine Wong, senior executive vice president of worldwide marketing at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

This marks the second time that Sony’s theatrical and home entertainment divisions worked together. The first example also incorporated Sony Computer Entertainment and helped market its upcoming PlayStation VR headset through The Walk Virtual Reality Experience in September 2015.

“With The Walk, PlayStation VR gave Sony Pictures Entertainment and its partners access to software and early PlayStation VR hardware that was used for the theatrical tour,” Wong says. “Both our theatrical and home entertainment teams are now looking at ways to develop new VR experiences that will appeal to the 35 million people with a PlayStation 4 in their homes—a very significant potential audience.”

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PlayStation VR will be released publicly this summer, but users were able to test it early thanks to this promotion. Sony PlayStation executives have said trial is very important to sell PlayStation VR hardware.

Based on the movie directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit, The Walk virtual reality experience allows users to walk the 140-foot tightrope between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, looking down at New York City streets 1,300 feet below. It’s a feat Petit performed in 1974 after years of training. The free app for iOS or Android smartphones is also compatible with all mobile virtual reality headsets.

“VR can literally put audiences inside our content, increasing their connection to the characters and the story,” Wong says. “We can take audiences where they’ve never been before.”

Wong says mobile experiences can showcase a subset of the more immersive headset VR experiences and stimulate interest in the fuller experience.

“The scale of the potential audience for a mobile app means they present a huge opportunity to reach a large audience,” Wong says.

Just as these are early days for virtual reality, Wong says Sony’s entertainment divisions are testing the potential for virtual reality experiences now with these mobile experiences for The Walk and Goosebumps and will be studying the results very closely.

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“Over the next five to 10 years we’re going to see a lot of evolution in this space but, for now, apps like these will help us learn more about how consumers are engaging with this content and how we can create more great storytelling experiences using VR,” Wong says.

The great thing about Hollywood licensed experiences is the evergreen nature of the content. Whether a consumer is testing the waters of virtual reality today, or five years from now, The Walk and Goosebumps will be a new experience for them—just as watching either movie for the first time will be.