Jake Zim, SVP of virtual reality at Sony Pictures Entertainment

The movie industry has taken full advantage of virtual reality as a marketing tool to engage audiences by immersing them into the worlds of its blockbuster films. Of the various studios, Lionsgate and Sony Pictures Entertainment have fully embraced both in-home and premium location-based experiences at VR arcades. As more arcades open and audiences become increasingly aware of VR, movie marketers are paying greater attention to the technology as major touchpoints for promotional campaigns.

“We’re looking at all of the VR distribution channels, and now we see in-home and location-based as being complementary,” Jake Zim, senior vice president of VR at Sony Pictures Entertainment, told AListDaily. “Location-based VR is a great way to introduce VR to a new audience and reduce some of the barriers that are inherent to the in-home VR business.”

Zim said Sony’s strategy is based on the idea that the world of the movie can stretch and embrace immersive opportunities like VR, which also include partnerships with The Void for Ghostbusters and IMAX VR for The Walk.  

“We look to create aspirational moments for audiences. When, where and how these immersive experiences take place is dependent on the experience itself, but we believe they can exist in parallel with the movie,” said Zim. “We’re also exploring options for scalable solutions that would allow us to distribute our virtual reality experiences into a larger network of locations.”

Part of that goal includes VRX Networks, which creates premium VR experiences and distributes them to its kiosks found in shopping centers and movie theaters across the US and UK. It helped develop The Emoji Movie VR experience and one based on the horror movie Jigsaw, separate from the one Unity launched in October.

VRX is also distributing Jumanji: The VR Adventure across its kiosks, an experience co-produced by Reality One and developed by MPC that’s related to the upcoming movie Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Although it is being designed as a standalone commercial experience, Sony Pictures will be using it as part of the movie’s promotional campaign. Also, even though these kiosks primarily use Oculus Rift and Touch devices, Jumanji and the Emoji Movie—both being Sony films—will eventually launch longer-form VR experiences for the PlayStation VR.

“Our business model is to create productions that come out in line with the film,” Nicholas Cooper, co-founder and chief creative officer at VRX Networks, told AListDaily. “For us, we leverage the huge marketing spends that are done by other studios. For the studios, we offer the added value of having a direct touchpoint with the consumer that’s not invasive.”

With Jumanji: The VR Adventure, users play a virtual table-top game where they control characters from the movie to lift a curse. Sony has released a wide variety of VR experiences over the past months, including one for Spider-Man: Homecoming, where players get to put their web-slinging skills to the test. That’s in addition to the Ghostbusters attraction that launched in partnership with The Void and Madame Tussauds in 2016.

“Predominantly, we create content that’s exclusive for the location-based market because the in-home market is so small right now,” said Cooper. “To monetize and get the best ROI (return on investment), the best place is location-based. The cost per thousand from a marketing standpoint for studios and IP holders is greatly magnified by the fact that we’re at locations where customers see them.”

VRX currently operates 35 kiosks, with plans to grow that number to 50 by 2018. It’s looking to have 300 worldwide by next summer, with expansions in South America, Europe and Australia. The company is also working with Sony Pictures to create a VR experience that will coincide with the launch of Hotel Transylvania 3 in July.

Cooper said people are willing to pay to try the promotional, interactive and narrative experiences because it’s unlike the passive 360-degree videos that many movie studios rely on.

“After being in the market for a couple of months, we’re starting to see repeat visitors,” said Cooper. “I think it’s value for the money. When people come in, they’re not afraid to come back because they’re happy with the money they’ve spent and the value they’ve received.”

According to Cooper, even though there’s a sales process that occurs before people are willing to slip a headset on, VRX’s conversion rate is near 45 percent.

Additionally, having both the family oriented Emoji Movie experience presented alongside the adult horror-themed Jigsaw one has given VRX some perspective about consumer behavior. Jigsaw tends to do better during weekdays, particularly on Halloween last month, due to how teens and adults have better access to these locations. However, The Emoji Movie remains the top-seller on weekends.

Another added benefit of having location-based VR experiences is that they continue to keep IPs alive well after their time in theaters has passed. Although the peak time for any experience is during the four weeks after a movie launches, when the marketing momentum and buzz fizzles, VRX keeps its experiences running for a minimum of one year. Families are still stepping into The Emoji Movie VR experience months after the film left theaters.

Cooper said that VRX is currently in talks with TV networks to produce VR content for popular shows for its kiosks. He explained that audiences continue to be drawn to locations because they already have an affinity for major IPs, so films, TV and VR could potentially leverage each other as access to the technology expands.

“It’s a growth business,” said Zim. “We believe strongly that the world of movie IP and known brands are the right way to introduce audiences to this powerful, exciting new medium.”