David Alpert, CEO and co-founder of Skybound Entertainment, has helped Robert Kirkman steer the business side of the company beyond comic books and television shows. He’s focused on digital media, video games and virtual reality across existing properties like The Walking Dead and brand new IP like the first narrative 360-degree series, Gone, for Samsung Milk VR. He also produced the YouTube Red’s Scare PewDiePie series.
With PlayStation VR now globally available and The Walking Dead returning to AMC on October 23, [a]listdaily caught up with Alpert to discuss how video games, VR and digital are helping Skybound expand its many comic book franchises in this exclusive interview.
What has virtual reality opened up for Skybound Entertainment?
The great things about VR are the possibilities and the challenges, in equal measure. The cool thing about comics and linear media when you tell stories is you really control the POV, so we have this natural inclination to show the audience where to look. The initial challenge of VR is if you can’t control where they look, how do you make sure that they’re seeing what you want them to see? And so the answer that we found, and the thing that’s been mind-opening for us, has been the idea of how we make a 360-degree environment equally compelling in all directions at all times. Or how do you deal with the fact that people might be missing critical components of the narrative?
Is that something you explored with Gone on Samsung Milk VR?
In Gone, we actually embraced that as part of our storytelling device, where we acknowledged you’re going to miss things and now that’s actually part of the story. There were plenty of people at Dealy Plaza when JFK was shot, but they didn’t know where they were supposed to be looking. They heard something happened. Even when you go back and watch the Zapruder film frame by frame knowing what happened, they still can’t tell exactly what happened. So if you embrace that ambiguity, it actually makes things—in a weird way—feel more lifelike. It’s a little more challenging from a storytelling perspective, but it actually makes it more interesting to us.
Open world video games have had the same problem long before VR and audio has always played an important role. What can you learn from gaming and how important is sound in a VR experience?
Sound is hugely important not just in VR, but in linear too. Horror is 60 or 70 percent sound. If you look at the season opener of The Walking Dead season 2, we had some famous production problems in that season, and if you play that scene without the sound it is one of the most boring scenes you’ll ever see on TV. You watch that scene with sound and it has you on the edge of your seat. The score that’s going on tells your mind that this is something that’s tense, as opposed to seeing a bunch of feet walking by and you’re stuck under a truck. Sound is critical in video games, and we believe that the value of sound in a 3D or 360-degree environment is only going to be heightened.
For The Walking Dead season 7, what does Negan open up as a new villain ripped from the comic book?
The great thing about Negan is we’ve seen bad guys at Terminus and we’ve seen The Governor. They’ve been seriously bad and they’ve done horrible things, but they’ve always been on a size of scale that you can wrap your heads around. When you get to Negan, and you see the size and scope of the Saviors, and you see the degree of savagery that this guy is willing to engage in not only physically but psychologically with Rick and our gang survivors—and how he’s imposed himself as a bit of a demigod on these people—it’s really on scale we haven’t seen before. He’s bigger, badder and meaner than anything we’ve seen in this world yet, which is a big thing to say considering we’re in season 7.
Actor Jeffrey Dean Anderson is such a nice guy normally that it takes a minute to realize he’s a bad guy if you haven’t read the comics.
Here’s the thing: if you ask Negan if he’s a good guy or a bad guy, he would tell you he’s a good guy. He would acknowledge that he’s doing horrible things, but he’s a “the ends justify the means” type guy. He sees this as what this world calls for. There’s the argument that Rick tried to kill him.
And Rick has been doing some nasty shit too. Rick doesn’t bash people’s homes in and beat them to death with baseball bats, but Rick has shot people. Rick has not been afraid to put people down. He does it with a semblance of decency, but Negan would argue that they’re the same—that Negan just happens to be more effective and more efficient than Rick, and is less hung up on old world niceties. When it comes to “the ends justify the means,” they both embrace the same philosophy. Negan’s just less tortured about it.
Is there a short list of characters that are “safe” from dying in The Walking Dead TV show?
No. The truth is, when we start the year nobody has to survive. Everybody is on the table. If somebody was to come in the room with a pitch that was incredibly compelling as to why we write-off one of the leads, we’d take it on. We’ve killed major characters on the show, and we’ve killed them before and after they’ve been killed in the comics. Andrea is still alive in the comic, but she was written off in the show a few years ago just because the storyline really seemed to demand it. We really try to cue very closely to what the story demands.
With The Walking Dead: March to War heading to mobile devices in 2017 from Disruptor Beam, what role do video games play for Skybound Entertainment?
The thing we want to do with our games and with our platforms is build out the universe of The Walking Dead such that people love the story of Rick Grimes and know his search for his family and putting it back together and trying to save his group. But beyond that, there’s a lot of stories that demand to be told. We’ve had successful games that have really broadened that universe for us. That’s what we hope to accomplish with Disrupter Beam; another expansion of the world so that people understand that it’s just not Rick Grimes. It’s not just Atlanta. It’s not just the Southeast. It’s the world. We want to explore all those nooks and crannies. We’ve had a great partnership with Telltale doing that. We’ve had a great partnership with Scopely doing that, and we hope that Disruptor Beam follows suit.
And you get to explore Mexico with Fear the Walking Dead?
Yeah, we explore Mexico. We’ve had a novel series, which explores some of the characters in The Walking Dead from a different angle, really giving the Governor’s backstory. We don’t want to tell the same story again and again in different mediums. We want the story to be expanded across all of these different mediums.