Last week Star Wars and Verizon debuted Rogue One: Recon, an immersive 360-degree virtual reality experience available exclusively at Verizon stores. Recon, developed and directed by ILM chief creative officer and Star Wars veteran John Knoll, takes you inside the cockpit of an unnamed X-Wing pilot who, along with his wingman, picks up and decides to investigate some mysterious Imperial communications chatter. As soon as they jump into a system, though, they’re confronted not only with a fleet of Star Destroyers but also an as-yet-incomplete Death Star. The pilot has to transmit what data he’s assembled back to the Rebel base quickly, before the encroaching Tie Fighters or Star Destroyers blow him and his partner out of the sky.
The video, released recently, only shows a fraction of what’s available to anyone who goes and puts on the headsets at Verizon stores themselves. Those people can turn their head to see alternate angles from any perspective outside the virtual cockpit they’re strapped into, giving them even more of an immersive experience. So you can see the underside of the Star Destroyer you’re flying under, watch as Tie Fighters fly past and more.
That’s a pretty incredible leap from where we were 20 years ago when the X-Wing PC video game was essentially a modified flight simulator with Star Wars graphics. Not only was your field of vision limited but you couldn’t fly your ship (different missions let you choose different starfighters) outside of defined areas.
Not only is a massive technological achievement but it’s an important part of the Rogue One story and the marketing for the movie. This week also sees the release of Catalyst, a new novel that tells the story of how Orson Krennic (played by Ben Mendelsohn in the movie) recruited a brilliant scientist, Galen Erso, to eventually build the superweapon that would later become known as the Death Star.
With big movies and franchises like Star Wars it’s quickly becoming insufficient to simply market and release the movie itself. The audience now expects the backstory to be told in some manner. In this case it’s with a VR experience and a novel. With Doctor Strange, released earlier this month, it was a prequel comic from Marvel that setup the magical world and characters the movie would expand on.
Part of this is driven by the companies who are managing these brands. Why just sell one movie ticket when you can also sell a $15 book and drive traffic to a store of a promotional partner? But it’s also becoming part of the customer’s expectations in terms of entertainment media.
Not only do entertainment brands need to constantly stay in front of people’s eyes, even when there isn’t something new to actively promote, but it needs to do so on various and shifting channels. So Twitter needs this, YouTube needs that and Facebook needs another thing. Keep it fresh and offer as many touchpoints with as much original content as possible because you need to hit someone’s attention when they’re waiting at the bus stop or in line at the grocery store or just ignoring their work duties for a few minutes.
Add on to that the proliferation of fan theories online and on social media. Any lingering question from these big, shared-universe franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, DC or other brands will be endlessly debated and questioned by fans and others until all possible answers have been sussed out. So there are dollars to be had in providing official, canonical answers to some while letting others remain hanging out there, with talent and producers usually teasing that it *might* be answered in whatever movie, book or TV episode is coming next. Unanswered questions are the new cliffhangers, with fans anxiously awaiting until a hanging plot point is resolved.
The Rogue One: Recon experience is the second big virtual reality movie-based story to be in the news recently. A fully-immersive VR experience based on last year’s hit Matt Damon drama The Martian is coming this month to PlayStation VR and HTC Vive, with an Oculus version coming soon. A new trailer with narration by Ridley Scott, who directed the movie and oversaw the VR story, teases how this is the closest most all of us will likely come to actually walking on the red planet.
VR is going to be a big part of future movie marketing efforts, especially for tentpole science-fiction movies that have strong built-in appeal with the geek and tech crowds, at least at first. These additional stories – they are to movies what expansion packs are to video games – will eventually hit all genres and audiences. It won’t be enough to simply watch the reboot of Bridget Jones’s Diary in 2036, you’ll also expect to be able to virtually explore her apartment and favorite neighborhood pub. Movie marketing and storytelling will be, by default, immersive.