Bad news for fans of VR film: Oculus Story Studio is being shuttered, effective immediately. The decision was announced on Thursday by Jason Rubin, Oculus’ vice president of content.
The move means that Facebook-owned Oculus is no longer the heir apparent to Pixar’s small, cutting-edge digital animation studio, charged with driving Hollywood into the next phase of interactive entertainment. Instead, says Rubin, the company will fund outside VR experiences.
“We’re still absolutely committed to growing the VR film and creative content ecosystem,” says Rubin. “Last year, we committed an additional $250M to fund VR content from developers all over the world … We’re going to carve out $50M from that financial commitment to exclusively fund non-gaming, experiential VR content. This money will go directly to artists to help jumpstart the most innovative and groundbreaking VR ideas.”
Nevertheless, the major backpedal will be read by some as a sign that non-gaming VR content may be dead on arrival as a serious, mainstream form of entertainment.
“We’re still absolutely committed to growing the VR film and creative content ecosystem.”
Not only was Oculus Story Studio one of the guiding lights of the burgeoning VR film community, it actually had a couple successes under its belt. In 2016, the studio’s short VR experience Henry won an Emmy for Outstanding Original Interactive Program and at the last Sundance the studio showed off another VR short called Dear Angelica, which received many positive reviews.
The studio’s shutdown will also result in the immediate end of production on the VR adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s children’s book “The Wolves in the Walls,” according to Variety, an experience that was slated to debut in 2018.
Rubin’s statement doesn’t elaborate on the reasons behind the closure other than to say that it will allow the company to focus more on internal development of VR and AR (augmented reality) hardware and software.
But that won’t stop the chatter from the VR skeptics. Despite recent announcements from heavyweight filmmakers like Ridley Scott, who is opening his own studio dedicated to VR, and a number of traditional filmmakers making innovative inroads into VR, there’s still no clear path to profitability (for now). Without mass adoption of VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, or even the lower quality, mobile-friendly Samsung Gear VR, virtual reality films are still an exercise in “betting on the future” (unlike the somewhat more viable space of VR gaming, which is on the rise).
Yes, Facebook has doubled down on social VR, but that’s closer to the company’s core competency, and we can expect all manner of experiments from Facebook when it comes to social networking. But VR films are still a big gamble at this point. One that Facebook doesn’t appear to be willing to bet its own team on.
Nevertheless, with ventures like IMAX VR gaining popularity in Los Angeles (they’re also rolling out nationally), it may be too early to make a call on the future of VR films as a mainstream activity with real, financially viable, legs.