At Sundance—for which Samsung is a leading sponsor—the company has run a popular popup showing off their Gear VR headset, complete with the first Funny or Die sketch shot in virtual reality. It has announced a year-long partnership with Sundance Institute to nurture new talent (details scant). And it made what will perhaps be an even more important announcement: that it's opening a VR production studio inside its NY marketing office.
So, technically, the facility could be nothing but a big room. But since partnering with Oculus and announcing its surprisingly good Gear VR headset, Samsung has been bullish on funding video content for its Milk VR video store—most notably financing indie movie-level budgets for productions like Gone, a mystery series by the creators of The Walking Dead at Skybound Entertainment and the VR playback company Wevr. As Samsung Milk VR exec Matt Apfel told me last year, it’s a necessary strategy to support the burgeoning market:
"We’re a device company. We looked at VR as something that’s starting from zero but has enormous growth potential. We saw we’d have an early device, and what we didn’t want to do is what we’d always do: put a device out that’s brand new and nobody has ever tried, and have no content on it. We don’t want this to be 3-D TV all over again."
Samsung is not the only VR manufacturer with an in-house production studio. Oculus recruited talent from Pixar for its own Story Studio. But Story Studio has developed VR narratives that unfold within traditional game engines, while thus far, Samsung has seemed more attracted to VR spins on live action.
VR is looking more and more certain to acquire a mass audience over the next few years, and we still don’t know who will own narrative storytelling in this new space. Will it be video game companies? Will it be Hollywood? Or will it, in true Netflix style, be totally turned on its head by technology companies that can throw enough money at the problem to produce their own stuff in-house?