VR films market bears the brunt of high costs
Chen Tong

Virtual reality is creeping into our lives in many ways and now it's also trying to break into cinemas. Some domestic filmmakers are working on VR films to give audiences a more immersive viewing experience, but the task isn't easy, especially if one wants to make money with it.

Shao Qing is almost the only VR film producer in Shanghai. He founded his film studio two years ago and so far has produced two VR films, both of which have been nominated for the Venice Film Festival. Shao said VR is a more comfortable way for him to tell a story compare with using CG and 3D.

But the business is full of challenges -- high costs among one of them. Shao Qing said it costs him 500,000 to one million yuan to make a five minutes film. But the ticket price for a VR movie is only 30 yuan, and the total box office earnings of one of his movies was only a few hundred yuan.

VCG Photo

VCG Photo

VR video and post production work also takes much longer than a normal movie. And perhaps most importantly, there are only a few people in China who know about VR productions. To watch a VR film, audiences need to go to a VR cinema or have their own VR headsets. But there are only 50 or 60 cinemas in the country set up to show VR films, and they've got a total of only some 300 seats. For that matter, personal VR headsets are not cheap either. Roger Yang, founder of Zixi Tech commented that the distribution channels for VR films are quite narrow.

"There are many online platforms with VR videos, but the daily active users are very low, so it's impossible to recoup your costs of producing the VR contents with online sales. Then it's about offline or location based markets, but most of the location bases here in China are arcades, they are more game focused, not intended for VR videos or art-related contents," he said.

So it's almost impossible to balance art with commercialization, at least for now. Shao said that many of his fellows who used to produce VR films have all quit, but he still wants to try to innovate. "As an artist I need to lead the aesthetics," he said.

At least some industry giants are stepping into the market now. Hollywood studios including 20th Century Fox, Sony and Disney have produced their own VR clips, and technology companies like Huawei and Samsung have launched VR headsets to support the VR movies makers and their films.