How Time’s Immersive VR Experience Is Emblematic of Its Dream to Build a Modern Media Company

Legacy publisher creates all-encompassing VR project around the March on Washington

Martin Luther King Jr.
Time revisited Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, more than 56 years later. Time
Headshot of Sara Jerde

It started with a photograph, if not a dream.

As Mia Tramz, Time’s editorial director of enterprise and immersive experiences, shuffled between meetings at the publication’s onetime office at 225 Liberty St. in New York, a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, taken six years before the March on Washington, would always catch her eye.

As she gazed up at the image, the lens behind King, his arms outstretched as he looked out on the National Mall in his pastor robes, she saw an opportunity to give others that same feeling of proximity.

This image was captured at the same time as the photograph that inspired the creator of Time's "The March."
Getty Images

“I stopped in front of it and thought, ‘If we recreated the March on Washington, I could give you this perspective and I could put you this close to Dr. King,’” Tramz said during a recent interview with Adweek.

The idea, which had been percolating since 2017, is about to come to fruition in an immersive museum exhibit called “The March,” which features a 10-minute virtual reality experience that transports you back to 1963 to hear part of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Working with a coterie of visual effect companies, as well as the King estate, Time hopes the exhibit will give students a more educational, immersive look at history. Today, Time teased the digital recreation of King, and the thousands who went to see him speak, by putting King’s likeness from the exhibit on the cover of its March 2/March 9 issue about equality, timed to the exhibit’s opening later this month in Chicago.

The project is just one example of how Time is evolving from a legacy publication wholly reliant on print advertising (and digital ads, sure) to a modern-day media company that invests in a wide array of potentially revenue-generating material, from events to Hollywood-quality, educational immersive experiences. Of course, none of it happens by accident.

A behind-the-scenes look at how the project came together.

After Salesforce founder and co-CEO Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne, purchased the then-troubled magazine for $190 million from Meredith in 2018, questions swirled about what a billionaire benefactor helming a publication would do. Would they emulate Jeff Bezos’ hands-off approach—while providing a financial runway to grow both editorial and engineering teams—when he bought The Washington Post? Would they follow Mike Bloomberg’s lead and tear down office walls and sit in the middle of it all, as Bloomberg did at his eponymous media company?

“This project combines the innovation, impact and authority of this iconic brand in an entirely new way. Not only does ‘The March’ push the boundaries of what is possible in virtual reality, it showcases VR as a powerful and valuable educational tool and redefines to the world what Time as a brand is today,” the Benioffs said in a joint statement provided to Adweek.

By all appearances, the Benioffs are finding a balance while entrusting the company to Time CEO and editor in chief Edward Felsenthal, who started at Time the same day as Tramz in April 2013. Felsenthal and the Benioffs think of the publication as a brand, not just a magazine or website, Tramz said.

Time teased the exhibit on its cover released today.

“What we have the opportunity to do now under this new ownership is realize that potential in a way that we couldn’t when we were a part of a larger corporation where we weren’t in control of how our own profits and revenue were invested back into the company,” said Tramz, who is also co-creator of “The March.” “Within this new era of Time, we have an ability to really expand what the company is and what the company does. My hope is that this is a big part of it.”

Tramz led LIFE VR, a virtual reality initiative for Time Inc., and has overseen VR and AR experiences for Time before, including a project about Pearl Harbor in 2016 that showed what the attack looked like as a survivor narrated his experience, to commemorate the event’s 75th anniversary.

Time has done AR and VR before, including with a project about Pearl Harbor.

But “The March” is a first for Time in terms of the number of people who have worked on the project and the number of resources devoted to its completion.

It took months for the King estate (Intellectual Properties Management, Inc., the licensor) to agree to give them access, but Tramz was persistent and, after multiple conversations, got the green light in mid-2018.

Tramz kept pushing forward and brought on cutting-edge production partners to do some heavy lifting: V.A.L.I.S. studios to oversee technical and creative production, Digital Domain to create King and the crowd and RYOT Studios, a content studio from Verizon Media, to oversee audio in the experience. Alton Glass, an award-winning director, came on as a creative partner and co-creator. A slew of historians and filmmakers also consulted on the project. In all, Tramz said, over 200 people worked to bring it to life.

But in the many conversations with those partners, one thread kept popping up: Tramz and her passion and vision for the project. I saw it three months ago when I interrupted a meeting Tramz was having with RYOT. She walked me through how the experience would feel, how important it was, without many visual representations of the work.

That Tramz has gotten this far alone, let alone that Time (read: she) is actually pulling this off is a testament to how much focus—and perseverance—she has to get it off the ground. The inherent chaos of the newsroom would be enough to deter anyone from a yearslong project, but it’s her observant, birds-eye view that has gotten the project this far.

“I think you need that person, that advocate in a newsroom,” Felsenthal said. “What we do today is consuming and also important and week to week.” But you need someone to weigh in, he added, who knows when to say, “Don’t rush that.”

The exhibit will first live at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago.
Getty Images

So, after years of not rushing it, this is what Tramz’s idea looks like.

The exhibit will live at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago for six months, beginning next Friday, and will be free to those who have already paid for a ticket to the museum. The plan is that it will travel elsewhere, though additional stops have not been announced.

Once museumgoers enter the exhibit, they will note the American Family Insurance sponsorship—a seven-figure, two-year deal—with Time. It’s the first project of this scale the two have done, and neither party would say what exactly the investment was.

“We felt really good about the way that the Time team talked about it—the partnership with the King family, the care that they were taking in telling the story and the importance and reverence of being able to tell that story the right way,” said Sherina Smith, vice president and head of marketing at American Family Insurance. “And it felt like they really understood that and felt the gravity of it in the way that we would want to be connected to.”

When visitors first enter the exhibit, a space designed by Local Projects, the design studio behind the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, they will hear additional context surrounding the march, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as told by Fred Gray, Rosa Parks’ attorney.

Academy-, Emmy- and Tony-award-winner Viola Davis’ narration further builds to “The March.” Four people can put on headsets at a time in 15-minute intervals.

“What we set out to achieve is to be able to create a visual representation of a 3D representation of Dr. King that is true to the 2D representation you’ve seen so far,” said John Canning, executive producer at Digital Domain, the company whose projects include The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The entire exhibit takes about 40 minutes, with the VR experience taking 10 minutes and King speaking for about 4.5.

King addresses the crowd during the March on Washington in 1963.
Getty Images

Each person in the crowd has been recreated based on an immense amount of research that considered everything from the clothing to the discussions they might have had while waiting for King to start speaking. King himself was created from a blend of techniques that included motion capture and machine learning, using references like archival footage and photographs.

“To build a fully three-dimensional Dr. King and to get his hand gestures and what he’s doing in terms of using his body during the speech, we needed more angles and we needed wider shots,” Tramz said.

The costumes and props worn and used by those in the crowd are vintage clothing and tools from the 1950s and ’60s that were digitally scanned to create a library of content. Yet more intense research went into what D.C. looked like at the time.

The research started internally at Time before it passed on to producer Wesley Jones.

“We had to do a ton of research on really just what happened that day, what it felt like to be there, what it sounded like, what it was like to be on the ground and one with the crowd,” Tramz said. “That was a big lift.”

The 10-minute headset experience resulted from those details.

“We didn’t have the advantage of creating an audio experience based on real-life objects,” said Erik Lohr, head of audio, RYOT. “Part of the big challenge was to create this sonic world with our eyes closed.”

That research will fully come to life not only when visitors survey the crowd, but when they listen to what people in the crowd say. In part of the experience, you can hear the conversations of those attending, like someone who rode their bike from Brooklyn to be there or someone who packed ham and cheese sandwiches to eat while waiting.

As you get closer and closer to King, the audio becomes clearer. At the very end, he turns and looks right at you.

“It would’ve been difficult, if not impossible, to do this project four years ago. It’s only recently with the evolution of digital human technology, museums’ willingness and interest in these big installations, for this to even find a true home in a way beyond a two-week pop-up,” said Jake Sally, head of immersive development, RYOT.

After the headset experience is over, attendees exit the space and move into a room to reflect on what they’ve seen and take advantage of the additional materials.

Time partnered with Storyfile, an AI company, to interact with a real civil-rights activist.

Time for Kids is also developing a field guide and family guide to talk through the civil rights movement.

“The end goal is really being able to show people that everyone has a voice and a light that they can use to create something that’s empowering and uplifting … and understand what it took for the people that came before you to get to where we are today,” Glass said.

The Melody American Girl doll will also play a part in getting fans to the exhibit.
American Girl

Advertisers are taking notice that Time is not just a magazine you buy on the newsstand or before getting on a plane, Smith said. American Family Insurance coordinated the buy via its media buying agency, Mindshare.

“I think it’s admirable that Time has been able to reinvent themselves,” Smith said.

Buyers had doubts about legacy publications like Time when print sales began to decline. It was a question of whether such titles “had seen their heyday,” said Kristina Nolan, vp of affiliate at DMi Partners.

“It’s very clear [Time] is going to pick up the pieces and be very strategic as to where they’re headed next. They’re testing out new channels, and their consumer base is still loyal. They’re finding ways to make sure they’re still able to provide the knowledge they’ve always had, just distributing it in different ways,” Nolan said.

For this project, Time also won over partners in American Girl, which partnered with Time and Time for Kids to highlight its 1964 doll Melody. American Girl will hold an excursion from the Chicago American Girl store to the DuSable exhibit.

Though the project has been a new one for Time, it’s undergone the same rigorous fact checking any other Time product would. Editors have also approached the topic with an archive of its own coverage of the march when it happened, the same year it named King Man of the Year.

“The feeling that you hopefully get from it is something that is parallel to the feeling that you get from encountering a Time product in another medium that you can trust it and that it’s trying to present what happened,” said Lily Rothman, Time history editor and editor of the equality issue.

The project is also showing the marketplace that Time isn’t just a magazine and has the capacity to develop big movie-quality projects, a significant get for a media industry that has had varying levels of success working with Hollywood.

“Imagine if you can put the red border around whatever our projects might be that comes with that moniker of trust and influence,” said Ian Orefice, head of Time Studios, the company’s award-winning production arm.

Reimagining Time

Time’s ability to up its video production game is evident in its new Bryant Park office, located in the Salesforce Tower, where it moved in October from Meredith’s offices.

The space is new, but not sterile. There are snacks and coffee and tea and a dishwasher, private, comfortable space to sit and chat with colleagues or take a personal call or work away from your desk. There are large, airy conference rooms, artwork on the walls and a studio that is accessible via a direct entrance and a devoted hair and makeup room for guests who need a hair and makeup room and a separate entrance to avoid the rest of the office. It’s clear the Benioffs are investing in the newsroom and are holding true to their word, as Felsenthal said, about staying out of the day-to-day operations. (There are 203 staffers based in New York: 131 in edit, 50 in business and 22 in ops, including events, finance and legal. That’s out of 276 overall at the company and 233 based in the U.S.)

Time has occupied a new office space since October.

“We’re so fortunate to have owners who believe in the brand and the power of the brand, the potential of the business and have allowed and encouraged us to think long-term,” Felsenthal said. “They have certainly given us the permission and encouragement to think bigger than we were able to, particularly, in the last couple of years of Time Inc.”

And it’s showing, somewhat. January revenue was up 8.6% year over year, according to Time, and with billionaire owners, the company can take a longer view on its operations.

The new offices in Salesforce Tower overlook Bryant Park.

“When Time was owned by a public company, it had to think about its strategy on a quarterly basis,” said Keith Grossman, Time’s president. “When we think about our strategy now, we’re thinking three to five years out at any given moment.”

Grossman, who is also chairman of Adweek’s advisory board, has poached a number of execs with deep ties in media, including hires from Bauer, Fusion Media Group and The Player’s Tribune, since joining the company six months ago. And the company is still hiring extensively, especially in engineering roles.

Since coming onboard, Grossman, who reports to Felsenthal, organized the sales team so they weren’t just comped for selling print. “How do you tell a salesperson who’s comped on print to monetize ‘The March’? It changes the entire mentality of the entire organization to think about how they present ideas and listen to their clients and needs,” Grossman said.

It’s that type of bandwidth, and the opportunity to make mistakes, that Time is able to operate with under the Benioffs’ ownership.

“You can’t cut your way to growth,” Felsenthal said, later adding, “The transformation is so massive, you have to have a long-term view, a willingness to invest and some patience.”

@SaraJerde Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.