Facing (Virtual) Reality

Sony Picture Entertainment’s Jake Zim is determined to utilize VR to provoke emotion

Rita and Alice at the Tip Top Cafe in a scene from Groundhog's Day: Like Father Like Son VR Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Jake Zim believes that cutting-edge technology can be utilized to enhance mankind’s oldest entertainment: storytelling. The senior vice president for virtual reality at Sony Pictures Entertainment has consistently found his own professional career at the crossroads of entertainment, technology, and business. “I’m interested in creating new ways to tell stories with the basic understanding that to do that consistently, there has to be a balance of real value to the audience and an economic incentive for the creators,” Zim says.

Zim has been an early adopter, and in some cases originator, of successful digital marketing integration, especially regarding movie releases, and now has his sights set on VR. The son of a mother who stressed the importance of being able to look back proudly on the things he created and a father who espoused that the path to wealth was through writing , Zim has carved his own path at Sony to usher in a new era of transporting its customers to the story.

Jake Zim Sony Pictures Entertainment
Jake Zim, Sony Pictures EntertainmentPhoto: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Sony Pictures’ foray into VR, Sony Pictures Virtual Reality (SPVR), Zim says, is a natural progression. From a hardware standpoint via the PlayStation VR headset, its sister company is already light years ahead of most companies looking to enter the VR game. “At Sony Pictures, there’s a rich pedigree in storytelling,” he says. “And under the larger Sony umbrella, there’s such valuable institutional knowledge about gaming hardware, electronics, and game design. Our goal at SPVR is to build the business of immersive entertainment with a focus on VR, and we think we can do it because the convergence of technology and entertainment is in our company DNA.”

Over the past three years, SPVR has led the way in developing new channels for VR distribution with a wide array of projects. With projects tied to blockbuster brands like Jumanji and Men in Black, SPVR has enabled audiences to experience VR not just in their homes but in popular locations such as malls, movie theaters, and family entertainment centers.

One of the division’s upcoming releases, Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son, highlights both technological innovation and Zim’s commitment to storytelling. The plot of the game, which is a sequel of sorts to the 1993 classic film, involves the same sort of time-looped, repeating-day plot device.

“We’re trying to solve the enigma of how you build an immersive narrative that audiences can participate in, that has an emotional heartbeat to it,” Zim says. “Groundhog Day is a relatable story. It’s the story of someone who evolves over time because he learns what it’s like to be at peace with himself and his family and friends and where he comes from. If VR does one thing very well, it’s to transport you into another person’s shoes. That’s what we’ve done in Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son. You get to live another person’s life, full of laughs, for a day. You just have to do it over and over again until you get it right.”

Zim admits that while the concept of a Groundhog Day VR game may initially seem like a headscratcher, SPVR is committed to bringing fans into the fold who are more than just hardcore gamers. “We love making action games and we’ll continue to do that, and I am excited to give fans a chance to put on the Spider-Man mask and swing from building to building,” he says. “But right now, it’s also important for us to find new ways to move the VR market forward and draw in different audiences through immersive storytelling from other well-known IP, like Groundhog Day.”

Finding the right team committed to that vision has been a thrilling process for Zim.

“VR and Immersive entertainment productions require a broad swath of skill sets to work together in a relatively undefined medium,” Zim says. “As is often the case, we’re charting new waters together, relying on each other’s individual expertise to navigate the overall project direction.” He says that in putting together the teams that work on SPVR projects, leadership focuses on bringing together individuals who demonstrate a level of experience in producing for the medium and a passion for new forms of storytelling.

“The goal for me is for people to take off their headsets having felt genuine human emotions, be they fear, anger, love, or joy. We want to transport them.”

Zim says SPVR has already learned lessons about its audience and says the company’s ability to tap into Sony market data research has been invaluable. “We started with the thinking that we would develop quick and short games almost at phone-app pricing,” Zim says. “What we learned is that people who are willing to invest in a headset, push back their chairs, and pick their kid’s Legos up off the floor are willing to spend more money for a fuller experience, but they needed to see that value.”

Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son, Zim believes, is a prime example of how the company has shifted its strategy from snackable content to full-on real VR games that aim to be transformational for the users.

“What we’ve tried to do in evolving this storytelling platform is to find ways to touch the human psyche and see if we can get our customers to actually feel something,” Zim says. “The goal for me is for people to take off their headsets having felt genuine human emotions, be they fear, anger, love, or joy. We want to transport them and in doing so, give them an opportunity to experience something new, exciting, and impactful.”