2009 in Review: Virtual Worlds Take Over Hollywood

As James Cameron's 3D epic Avatar surpasses record after record for a newly-released film, many in Hollywood are looking for the next big film. A few years ago it was teen wizards. Last summer it was sparkling vampires.

2009 may well be known as the year virtual worlds got their big-screen endorsement.

Pixels and Policy looks back at how three major films explored virtual reality and attracted new converts to the world of interactive synthetic environments.

Virtual Worlds Take Over the Silver Screen

Major production companies tapped two proven seat-fillers to star in films about the increasing role of virtual worlds in our lives. Bruce Willis took the lead in "Surrogates," a hit-and-miss flick about a time when Americans only ventured out of their homes by using digital representations of themselves. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensues when the avatars start crossing wires.

Gerard Butler got the call for "Gamer," a much better film set in a world where prisoners participate in real-world deathmatches while their actions are controlled by gamers playing from home. Free will and the march of technology took center stage.

Then, of course, we have Cameron's Avatar. It hardly needs any description, and a description might be the most difficult thing to say about the film. It follows much the same concept as Surrogates – soldiers inhabit avatar representations of a native people in order to infiltrate their culture – but the entire film is shot in a stunning 3D. It's definitely the most "out there" of the three major releases.

So why is Hollywood taking such an interest in virtual worlds and the philosophical questions they raise? With more people playing online games than ever before – China reports over 1 billion people spent over a billion dollars on virtual gaming this year – there is an increasing market for films in the genre. Online gaming actually surpassed Hollywood in revenue during 2009, so it's not surprising to see production house bigwigs turning their cameras on an up-and-coming competitor.

Virtual Worlds Come of Age in the Entertainment Industry

The L.A. Times said it well when they mused about America's sudden interest in movies about virtual surrogates, flexible physics and immortality: 

The visions are wildly different but all of the movies speak to the
slippery nature of humanity in an era where millions and millions of
people "live" an alternative existence in Second Life, build their own worlds in Sims or swing swords at strangers in World of Warcraft.

"One life isn't enough for anyone anymore," said Mark Neveldine, who co-directed "Gamer" with Brian Taylor.
"Part of it is people get heavily isolated today and then they also
greedy, they want more than the life they have and what it can offer."

A generation raised on Ultima Online and World of Warcraft is curious about the moral implications of expanding virtual technology while being familiar enough with the science fiction scare stories to find a movie like Gamer thoroughly enjoyable. Cultural tastes are shifting, and Hollywood is responding by producing flicks that closely follow consumer interests.

The trend is also heading the other way, with established film and movie stars lining up to serve as voice actors for much-awaited video game releases. Leonard Nimoy is lending his voice to Star Trek Online, and starlets like Mila Kunis provided voices for the sordid cast of characters in the original Saint's Row. Video game voice acting is increasingly a way to build on an acting career.

So what does this mean for 2010? Of the three virtual reality films released this year, two made money. Surrogates fell nearly $50 million short of breaking even in the United States, and even with international ticket sales still managed to leave a $20 million budget hole. Gamer, on the other hand, dwarfed its $12 million budget by bringing in over $30 million in ticket sales. And Avatar, still in theaters and filling seats every night, has grossed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.

With a few false starts behind them, virtual worlds are poised to become a major source of film entertainment in 2010. The success of Avatar is undeniable, and even Gamer received overall positive reviews despite its (relatively) small budget and lacking publicity campaign. It seems entirely likely that virtual worlds will become a regular fixture in media through 2010.

3 thoughts on “2009 in Review: Virtual Worlds Take Over Hollywood”

  1. Lawnmower Man
    Johnny Mnemonic
    The Net
    Dark City
    a zillion cinemax vr softcore movies.
    All 1993-9. the real age of VR hype in movies.

  2. World of Warcraft – the movie is coming soon, directed by Sam Raimi. A good friend of mine is in it. Should be a great action packed, fantasy, with massive R-rated fights, blood and gore!!

  3. The compression of virtual worlds into 2D or 2-1/2D non-immersive films and even smaller format videogames under-utilizes the medium. When we have full-scale, immersive virtual worlds, then we will really see something happen: new modes of production and presentation, new technology, new theaters, and above all, new ways to tell stories.

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