Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse Isn’t the One to Save Hollywood

No, the metaverse version of Zuckerberg is not the future. But that doesn’t mean the industry should ignore it.

This week, Mark Zuckerberg gave us his take on the metaverse and the averted world. “Meta spent $10 billion developing everything it did with the Metaverse last year, and all it has to show is a doll-faced Zuckerberg hovering in front of a miniature Eiffel Tower. “wrote PC Gamer. “If the future involves avatars that look like the CEO of Facebook,” Kotaku concluded, “then we’re all screwed.”

The internet is always a tough crowd, but in this case, it’s true. The CEO of Meta posted a digital selfie of Horizon Worlds, his company’s metaverse social platform, to announce its launch in Spain and France and the results were painful. A few days later, he admitted that the graphics looked “pretty basic” and promised an update soon, but the damage was done: the billionaire’s robotic avatar against a backdrop of what looked like clip art of the Tower Eiffel has contributed to the growing sense that this metaverse thing is being turned into an even bigger business snafu than Qwikster and Quibi combined.

It’s true – and it’s not. Zuckerberg has been tossing about in the metaverse since pivoting his entire business away from Facebook, but his potential goes way beyond bad illustration and an executive that seemingly takes our interest in him for granted. For Hollywood and the entertainment industry at large, the Metaverse represents pure opportunity, and that’s where this article comes in.

The company has begun to grasp the need to engage the metaverse on its own terms. This month, CAA named Joanna Popper, who led XR initiatives for HP, to the newly created position of Chief Metaverse Officer and she has already announced plans to expand its team. Earlier this summer, Disney hired former Apple executive Mark Bozon as the studio’s vice president for creative next-gen storytelling experiences. Paramount is currently hiring a Metaverse producer. Sony snatched Fortnite developer Epic Games for $1 billion earlier this year, among other big metaverse bets.

It’s all a giant win for the artists and developers who make the Metaverse work, but little attention is paid to potential Metaverse audiences. Yes, the “Tenet” trailer premiered in Fortnite, 2020, but we never got past that. As someone who moonlights as a virtual reality evangelist, please believe me when I say there is gold in these digital hills.

A few weeks ago I wrote about “We Met in Virtual Reality” (a great documentary that I recommend everyone watch on HBO Max). Director Joe Hunting told me he’s infiltrated communities in VRchat, an advanced social platform and metaverse socializing hotspot, but first he needs to get into the Discord servers where a lot of the coordination takes place. It may seem like a lot of inscrutable work with questionable return on investment, but the fact is that audiences spend significant time in many different metaverses, from VRchat to Grand Theft Auto Online. So why not start showing movies there – or at least make sure you engage those hip, tech-savvy users?

Every struggling arthouse distributor who doesn’t have a lucrative release deal should try to crack the metaverse equation. They should talk to companies like BigScreen, which distributes VR movies and sends marketers to these spaces to research potential ways to engage future audiences. The numbers in these spaces aren’t always great — VRchat’s record is close to 100,000 active users on New Year’s Eve — but anyone who cracks the code now can exploit it more fully when those numbers rise. And they will grow.

The need to jump in early has been on my mind lately because of a much older article that was recently pointed out to me by – wait for it – Paul Schrader. The filmmaker and occasional peer sent me a 1971 essay published in Cinema magazine, which he edited early in his early career as a film journalist. The essay, “The New Ballgame/The Cartridge Revolution,” was written by a young executive named Peter Guber, and it reads like a crystal ball.

Guber makes a series of bold predictions about how the new videotape market will transform Hollywood. Between detailed breakdowns of the technology itself, Guber anticipates the existential threat to movie theaters: “The most serious threat posed by pre-recorded home entertainment concerns theatrical exposure,” he writes. “The only benefit the exhibitor will have is the social experience.”

He also acknowledged the vulnerability of the broadcast model: “Live TV will have to pay more for its prerecorded programming due to fierce competition,” he wrote. He literally covered every angle of the impact home viewing technology will have on multiple industries, including this one: “There will be a growth of a great new porn market, as the salacious tape will be given the freedom of expression granted by the courts to books and photographs, rather than the censorship imposed on television and feature films.

Guber pretty much called the streaming wars over 50 years ago and proved that a shrewd ability to ride the curve – well ahead of the curve – is essential to the survival of the industry. When Schrader sent me this article, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. He finally suggested we call Guber, now the 80-year-old owner of the Golden State Warriors who left the film industry years ago, to get a sense of how he had anticipated so much so soon.

“It wasn’t that I was brilliant,” Guber said. “It was just prophetic to see this new real estate forming. It was like when the tsunami started and everyone is walking on the beach and then you realize you’re the only one seeing the tsunami coming.

In 1971, Guber was a 29-year-old executive at Columbia Pictures. He remembers being appalled at how easily the studio sold its libraries rather than anticipating their long-term value. “They never saw that it could be a volume business,” he said. “The inevitability of this didn’t even occur to them. They didn’t know what that meant and they didn’t know what to do with the future. So someone else ate it. They could have owned everything.

Guber’s prescience returned decades later. In 2009, he invested in VR events company NextVR, which Apple acquired for around $100 million in 2020. This is another development he predicted in this movie article: “It will be possible to sit in his living room and see an eight-foot-tall 3-D John Wayne and even walk around him. That didn’t quite happen (except in the metaverse), but Guber was right in seeing that technology would allow audiences to want experiences to come to them. If movies and TV don’t migrate to the metaverse, audiences may forget about them in favor of immersive experiences that are already there.

“People tend to think everything is dead,” Guber told me. “It’s not fair. It’s not an existential threat that the public wants to be entertained in a certain way. You can do it well and make a lot of money. Yes, things will change in shape and substance, but the public’s desire will not change.

The Metaverse offers a serious place for the evolution of creativity – for 3D interactive experiences, 360 cinema, performance art and other creations of new generations of storytellers. It’s also an exhibition space, and for anyone who cares about attracting audiences, ignoring it here is like signing their own death certificate. Sure, there are plenty of trolls and teenagers roaming these virtual spaces, but trolls and teenagers are audiences too. Even if Zuckerberg’s virtual journey remains moribund, the metaverse is definitely going somewhere, whether we choose to understand it or not.

Are you an executive or creator struggling to understand the potential of the metaverse in the work you do? I’d love to hear your take on this week’s column or related areas of interest: [email protected]

Last week’s column on the stigma of accents in Hollywood yielded a number of intriguing answers. Here is one of them:

I can name countless times in the past where the accents didn’t necessarily match, but no one seemed to care. In the opening of Lionel Ritchie’s hit song “All Night Long”, he assumes a Caribbean accent in the opening stanza. The song was a huge hit and I remember no one saying, “Lionel was born in Alabama, what’s up here?” Is Kevin Costner in “Robin Hood” even remotely British in any way, let alone accented? No one cared and the movie was a bigger hit than either of the two “Robin Hood” movies made with British actors! I know the producers of “A Perfect Storm” and they told me that during the first days of filming they did try to get George Clooney to use a New England accent. It didn’t work and they just said, “Go back to your usual accent.” I was born and raised in Texas and have been to many parts of the South. If I raised my anger at every non-Southerner who slaughtered an accent, I wouldn’t have time to think. And there’s a difference between, say, Texas and Arkansas and Tennessee and Mississippi. For me, performance is more important than any principle.

—Michael Huens, producer

Read Eric Kohn’s previous columns here.

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