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Coco VR & The Gradual, Potentially Fun Takeover of the Movie Theater Lobby

There’s a photo booth in the lobby of my local, Regal Cinema-owned movie theater. I don’t know how long it’s been there, but I first noticed it two weeks ago when I saw a group of excited teenagers taking selfies of themselves outside the booth. Clearly, the notion of actually paying to sit behind a curtain and take pictures either as a group or individually was lost on them, but the larger meaning of this bizarre meeting of old technology and new attitudes was not lost on me: the gradual takeover of the movie theater lobby has begun.

That might seem like an extreme takeaway from something as simple as a photo booth, and I admit it might only have occurred to me because this particular theater had been locally owned and fiercely independent for years before only recently being sold to Regal. Now, in a matter of months, there’s a photo booth in the lobby in a place where there used to be movie posters and a simple padded bench. Clearly, someone up the corporate chain saw the potential to monetize an unused space.

It’s the wave of the future, though, because anything movie theaters can do to enhance the moviegoing experience is in their best interest. Bigger screens? Check. Better sound systems? Check. Nicer seats and concessions? Double check. Photo booths? Meh. That’s more like a stop-gap on the way to full-blown VR experience centers, the kind select theaters around the country will be offering next week to complement the release of Pixar’s Coco.

Say hello to Coco VR:

Created by Pixar, Oculus and VR design company Magnopus, Coco VR offers users the experience of meeting up and exploring the land of the dead together. The idea being, of course, that either on your way into or out of seeing Coco you and a friend can interact with a virtual reality simulation of the world from the film. Coco VR is already available to play for free on the Oculus Rift and will soon make it to Gear VR.

The Verge got a hands-on experience with it, and here’s how they described the game with an eye toward how well it will play in a movie theater lobby:

After a hasty introduction from protagonist Miguel, it drops you into Coco’s land of the dead, where a resident tells you to get ready for showtime. You inhabit a skeletal body with the Rift’s head tracking and motion controllers, donning various dapper outfits and hairstyles in front of a mirror. Once you’re dressed, you can wander around the afterlife’s town square, before catching a train through the city and performing a musical number.

You can go through Coco VR alone, but Oculus and Pixar are promoting it as a social space, where up to four players can hang out together. You can try on glasses and mustaches in a VR photo booth, or talk to each other while tossing your skull heads around, literally throwing your voice in the process. Coco’s more serious elements aren’t translated to Coco VR. Miguel briefly explains the purpose of Día de los Muertos and shows off a memorial ofrenda, but the piece glosses over anything too melancholy, like afterlife residents “dying” again if their families forget them.

Personally, if that photo booth at my local theater is replaced next week with a Coco VR booth I will welcome the sight of it because I know my niece and nephew will love it, and that’s a net positive.

Further down the road, VR will probably leap from the lobby and into the actual movie theater where we’ll all just look like this:

But the move-in will happen in stages. Right now, we’re only realistically at the “let’s set up a couple of VR booths in theater lobbies to see how people react” stage. The theater owners, usually so reluctant to change, are amenable to this idea because it’s still just a bonus which compliments their core business model of getting people into theaters to see movies. However, considering how hard VR was pushed onto the theater owners by various upstart companies at this year’s CinemaCon embracing VR now might be an attempt to safeguard for the future, as, again, The Verge argued:

It’s easy to connect the dots: if studios shorten the release window, movies will likely run for a shorter time, and so theaters will have to find new ways to monetize the locations and screens they already have. Location-based VR is an option, and a company called Nomadic VR was demoing a modular, scalable, easily-installed system on CinemaCon’s show floor.

This illuminates one potential future for movie theaters, one in which they are not the high church for cineastes that they are today, but in which their brick-and-mortar physicality makes them ripe for transformation into entertainment destinations that offer a variety of options — ones that go far beyond just films and popcorn. And if audience trends continue, that may not be just one option; it may be the only option, no matter how many big screens and deluxe sound systems exhibitors throw at the problem.

So, let’s all go the lobby, let’s all go the lobby, to have ourselves a VR experience.

Sources: Verge (Coco VR), Verge (CinemaCon)

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