Bonnie Pan is president of Endemol Shine Beyond USA, a company known for releasing digital video hits like Keys of Christmas (starring Mariah Carey and DJ Khaled on YouTube Red) and launching social media star Michelle Phan on global lifestyle network Icon, among other successes. Like many industry players, Pan will be in Park City, Utah, this weekend for the Sundance Film Festival, where she can look at the surrounding Rocky Mountains and reasonably wonder if what she plans on unveiling at the event can top such glorious scenery.
There's a good content-creation story behind her confidence. Let's backtrack about a year, when, as always, she was on the hunt for compelling ideas. Lauren Selig, a producer that she regularly works with, suddenly called her cellphone and described a project that would film a climb up Mount Everest in virtual reality, which got Pan's creative juices flowing.
Selig informed Pan about how she was collaborating with Garrett Madison of guide service Madison Mountaineering to orchestrate the 29,028-foot hike, which over the decades has taken the lives of at least 280 people. Pan recalled, "Lauren basically said, 'Hey, Garrett's about to climb Everest. Want to partner and do this in VR together?'"
The impromptu-if-not-wild nature of the project was just getting started.
"We didn't get the green light until the team had already arrived in Kathmandu," Selig explained, "so we had to quickly follow up with cameras and cameramen as well as get the necessary permitting. The climb itself is dictated by weather, health of the climbers and unknown elements like earthquakes."
In a matter of days, Time Inc. bought the rights to the film, which is now called Capturing Everest, for Sports Illustrated. Time Inc. and SI execs were updated "during the climb with photos from climbers and radio recordings to share the impact of the story and the passion for the mountain as seen in the first person through the eyes of a climber," Pan said.
She commented that the heroic hike in the VR film represented "the first time climbers could ascend the mountain in two years because of the Gorkha earthquake. So there was also an opportunity to see the mountain with fresh eyes and reverence, which contributed to the importance of telling the story."
The entertainment-minded expedition was led by three veteran mountaineers: Lisa Thompson, Jeff Glasbrenner and Brent Bishop. "About 1,000 people attempt to climb Everest every year, so the additional effort of shooting the first immersive VR climb was ambitious," Pan said.
"You have to remember that one of the things that makes this project so special is that these are not professional filmmakers," she continued. "In some instances, it was also a climber's first time up the mountain. There are physical challenges as well as the emotional and complexity of human relationships that our climber's had to endure, since a climb team includes guides, sherpas, base-camp managers and the unexpected."
Capturing Everest will live on SI's digital properties in the coming weeks as a multipart documentary, but the focus right now is to see how Sundance's audience responds when it premieres today.
"People come to Sundance not just for the depth of its film offerings but for its unmatched originality," said Chris Stone, Sports Illustrated Group's editor in chief. "That's what we believe we have here—an unmatched original viewing experience."
While Pan didn't disclose the cost for the epic endeavor, the studio exec explained what went into the high-wire act from a technical and filmmaking point of view. "The main equipment were GoPros rigged to the climbers' helmets," she said. "[Postproduction] became extremely important because this wasn't a typical production where you had producers and shooting schedules for each day with visibility into what happened on a set."
Selig was emphatic via email when asked to advise first-time VR filmmakers.
"EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW IS WRONG," she wrote in all caps. "Every aspect of VR, from acquisition to delivery is entirely different from any other form of media. VR solves a huge problem marketers have around engagement and awareness. You have to make it immersive, impactful, memorable, novel, tactile, effective and keep brand integrity."
Here's a teaser video for the docuseries: