In 1984, “The Last Starfighter” broke new ground as one of the first Hollywood blockbusters to use computer-generated imagery.
A little over 30 years later, “Starfighter” writer Jonathan Betuel is back to do it again. Betuel is working on a new “Starfighter”-themed TV show, and he has teamed up with Los Angeles-based Surreal to once again push the boundaries on what’s technically possible: “The Starfighter Chronicles” aims to be the first TV show to embrace virtual reality.
The new show, which is still in early development, doesn’t directly continue the original “Starfighter” story, which catapulted a teenage video-game fan into outer space to fight in an interstellar war. Instead, it’s a serialized story about alien law enforcement. “It’s about instilling a moral code,” said Betuel during a recent interview.
And while most of it is meant to be viewable on plain old TVs, it would also feature special scenes that break the frame, allowing viewers equipped with virtual reality (VR) headsets to look around and explore the inside of a spaceship or immerse themselves in an alien firefight. “It’s a very interesting blend,” said Betuel. “The otherworldiness of it lends itself to VR.”
Betuel’s partners in crime for this ambitious project are Andy Vick and Rick Rey, co-founders of Surreal.tv, a new virtual-reality entertainment company that aims to combine linear storytelling with VR.
The company has started to work on a number of projects with partners like Fusion, Blackbox TV and Tiny Riot, but the “Starfighter Chronicles” is clearly a passion project. Both Vick and Rey were huge fans of the original movie, and jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with Betuel on a spinoff. “It’s a dream come true, basically,” said Vick.
Vick previously worked as head of development for Maker Studios, and is now Surreal’s chief content officer. Rey, now Surreal’s CEO, also hails from Maker, which he joined by the way of the Blip Networks acquisition. Both said that the virtual reality space right now reminds them of online video at the end of the last decade.
It’s the same pioneering spirit, the same excitement — but also the same focus on technology, not content — which can be even more of a problem if you want people to spend hundreds of dollars on headsets, or even just train them to embrace a whole new form of media consumption. “By focusing on technology, you are not solving the problem of adoption,” Rey said.
What VR instead needs is a big hit, he argued — a major media project that draws people in — and Vick and his partners hope that “The Starfighter Chronicles” will be just that. Of course, development has just begun, and it’s not even clear yet whether a traditional cable network would be willing to pick up a show that plays out partially in VR. Vick said that he has had some initial conversations with potential suitors, and Surreal has now retained United Talent Agency to advance those talks. He added that he could see the show end up on TV or on a streaming service.
Surreal isn’t the first company to try to resurrect “Starfighter.” Over the years, many have taken a stab at it, including Seth Rogen, and even Steven Spielberg. Betuel said that for a while, he wasn’t actually aware that rights to the franchise had reverted to him. In recent years, he had some talks, but those went nowhere, he added.
So why is he now giving two former online video guys a shot? Betuel said that he wanted to people that know both technology and storytelling: “It is important to be aware of both sides,” he said.
Rey and Vick also believe that their experience with online video will help them to succeed with the “Starfighter Chronicles,” and VR in general. The duo were there when online video grew up, and hope to use that knowledge as this new type of media emerges. “We are doing it again, and it’s just as exciting,” said Vick. Except, this time, they hope it’s going to happen a little faster. Said Vick: “I don’t want to wait five years again.”