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Sony’s ‘Passengers’ Marks VR First for Studio

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — For the first commercial endeavor of Sony Pictures VR, the sci-fi space adventure “Passengers” was a perfect fit, with the virtual reality arm of the studio releasing the 20 minute-plus “Passengers Awakening: VR Experience” for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift March 14, the same day as the DVD and Blu-ray Disc release of the film.

And “Passengers” is just the beginning, according to Jake Zim, SVP of VR for Sony Pictures, with the studio looking to not only pair new releases with VR companions, but also to mine its extensive catalogue of content for new virtual reality storytelling.

“We start with the world of the story: does the movie have something we can make unique in virtual reality? Is there a slice of the story that can we can allow you to relive in a relevant way?” Zim said during a promotional event for “Passengers.” “What we try to accomplish is comfort, so people want to stay in there longer. We want people to feel excited to be inside the spaceship, give them something immersive and enjoyable.”

The $9.99 “Passengers Awakening: VR Experience” puts the user in the hallways of the spaceship Avalon, and gives them a series of puzzles to solve in order to save the ship and it’s 5,000-plus passengers. You’ll run into the synthetic bartender “Arthur,” be directed to different tasks by Chris Pratt’s character, and end the experience with a breathtaking walk on the outer hull of the ship.

Sony has delved into VR with other properties — most notably for the remake of “Ghostbusters” — but the “Passengers” experience is the first made available across major platforms, and with a price point. Zim said it was important for the studio to establish early in its VR business that it’s just that: a business.

“There’s risk [charging for content], but there’s also risk not developing this as a business,” he said, pointing out that VR experiences like this requires significant manpower to put together. “It’s not easy to make, and it makes sense to define it as a business now. If we give it away for free, we’re not doing the industry a service.”

Next up, look for VR companions for Sony’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and the “Jumanji” remake, but also don’t be surprised if some of the studio’s greatest catalogue properties are revisited in virtual reality.

“I think right now we look at the worlds that are ready to be expanded on, but how great would it be to expand on what’s in the Sony library?” Zim said, suggesting that classics like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Groundhog Day” could be great fits for VR treatment. “The concepts of what you could do in those worlds is what’s most interesting to us.”

Also at the “Passengers” event, Sony brought out production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, whose team earned an Oscar nomination for the film, specifically for the design of the Avalon, which, in a way, served as one of the film’s few characters, Dyas said.

“The unique thing about this script was that we had a spaceship that had no monsters, no guns, a film born out of the science fiction films of the ‘70s, films that were more about asking moral question than having a big explosion in space,” he said. “It was very appealing in that way, but it was also very obvious that if you have just a few actors on a spaceship of such enormous size, that ship is going to become another character. There was a big responsibility.”

In the bonus features on the disc and digital releases, the featurette “Creating the Avalon” looks at how the design of the film came about — in a nearly unheard of 10 weeks — with special mention of the ship’s Art Deco-designed bar, which also served as a nod to the bar featured in “The Shining.”

“It was a very big decision to make, because you have to be respectful when it comes to Stanley Kubrick, and for me, what we tried to do was create a tasteful homage to what is one of the classic scenes in cinematic history,” Dyas said. “And the relationship between Jack Nicholson and his imaginary barman and Chris Pratt’s character Jim and Michael Sheen’s synthetic barman, there was just such a parallel in their interaction and introduction.”

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s March 14 release of “Passengers” includes a 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray 3D and Blu-ray combo pack, Blu-ray and DVD, with bonus features including deleted scenes, outtakes, featurettes and more.