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Virtual Reality’s unlikely savior: How old school film festivals rescued the future

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Film festivals are glamorous occasions for A-listers to walk the red carpet; places for independent filmmakers to get distribution deals; and, these days, they are one of the few venues for consumers to experience virtual reality films easily and in their best form.

VR headsets have long been heralded as an impending revolution in interactive entertainment. However, there hasn’t yet been the mass consumer adoption that was expected. It’s expensive (the tech and gear required can cost from the high hundreds of dollars to over a thousand); it’s cumbersome, with wires taking the viewer out of the moment; and it’s a solitary experience. Enter film festivals, which not only can resolve those issues but also curate and display the best of what’s available today for a relatively low price.

“It’s important to have out-of-home experiences just to provide exposure to the medium so that it’s not a huge investment to purchase all of this equipment before you understand what it is and what all these experiences can be,” says Loren Hammonds, programmer, film & immersive, at the Tribeca Film Festival. This year Tribeca sold out of tickets for their VR sessions. Attendance at VR experiences at film festivals has exploded recently, along with the slates of VR experiences on offer. Additionally, there are VR-only film festivals cropping up.

“There is a distribution gap with VR,” says Jess Engel, director of original content at Within, a VR media and technology company, while speaking onstage at the inaugural Creativity Summit. The Summit is part of SFFILM’s San Francisco International Film Festival, which offers a robust selection of VR experiences. “That’s why festivals are so powerful,” says Engel. “Film festivals are a natural partner for VR creators,” says Colum Slevin, head of experiences at Oculus, in conversation with Engel. The curators are empowering the creators, giving them a place to show their works.

One major victory for the medium is that this year’s Cannes Film Festival, arguably the chicest of the film festivals, welcomed its first VR film into the official program. Granted, it was by a very high-profile director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Oscar-winning director of Birdman and The Revenant. His film, “Carne y Arena” (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible)—not surprisingly a hot ticket—immersed viewers in the terrifying world of a migrant crossing the border from Mexico to the U.S. at night. Shown at Cannes in an airplane hanger, the viewer was required to don a backpack (filled with VR equipment), remove his or her shoes, and wait in a holding cell before an alarm signaled the viewer to enter a huge dark room with sand on the floor. Vanity Fair called it a “virtual reality art installation.”

The bells and whistles that the producers can build into the festival can enhance the experience in a way that—at this point—home viewing cannot. At Tribeca Film Festival, Milica Zec and Winslow Porter, the co-directors of the immersive VR short film “Tree,” led viewers to experience what it’s like to be a tree, engineering an experience beginning before the viewer even put the headset on. At Tribeca, each person got a seed for one of the largest trees in the Amazonian rainforest, which they planted. During the eight minutes of the film’s run, viewers saw the seed growing. However, the experiential portion isn’t that apparent to passersby. Says Porter, “You can only see something once.” He wants to save the payoff for the immersion, which, in addition to including substance for your eyes and ears, offers a scent track and, through a backpack, heat. “It’s important how we onboard them. And when they are finished, we give them a seed with an envelope to remind them to keep our rainforest standing,” says Porter, who notes how VR can feel like a dream so you need to acclimate viewers back to the real world. “The experience becomes almost like a memory.”

Hammonds points to superstar director Kathryn Bigelow and co-creator Imraan Ismail’s movie “The Protectors: A Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes,” which showed at Tribeca with a big dose of live experience. “There was foliage and graphics to mimic the location of the piece [The Congo]. They gave you a flack vest to wear to feel more in tune with how the rangers feel when they are in the park protecting the elephants,” says Hammonds. “Just that small level of immersion before you start the experience is something that can definitely affect your feel of the piece.” That film had a particularly shared experience for the premiere, as there was a room full of 250 people wearing 250 headsets. This is the VIP version. For those of us who do own the technology to see these at home, the experience may be more comfortable but clearly not as sensorily rich.

Says Zec, “We have two versions. One is pared down.” Festivals are meant to use a more tactile version. She credits festival leaders, such as the team behind Tribeca, for “pushing this medium forward” and daring to experiment with something that was originally viewed as highly risky. The festivals are attracting Hollywood and tech executives, along with museum curators. These players are evaluating potential investments, collaborations, and hosting opportunities in VR. The luxurious VIP setup doesn’t hurt in making this a memorable time for those interested in buying in. “The festival is really crucial to developing entertainment VR,” says Zec.

The Iñárritu film is a good example of where a VR film can go after a festival. “Carne y Arena” heads next to the Prada Foundation in Milan (the Prada Foundation was a producer of the film) followed by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in July and then Mexico City’s Tlatelolco museum.

The downside of the festival experience is that only so many people can get in to experience the film. With “Tree,” for example, it’s six people per hour, making it a maximum of 60 people per day. Managing a day of viewings is physically exhausting for the filmmakers. They often do it all themselves—because at this point, they are barely breaking even. They stand on their feet for 12 hours, set everything up, onboard each person, and then break everything down (To say nothing about the potential for any tech mishaps). Plus, they answer questions and explain the concepts to audiences and members of the press. Porter likens it to being part of a band on a world tour, playing the same song to a single person every 10 minutes. That said, he reiterates that it is also extremely rewarding to get to meet the viewers. Last year, Porter and Zec appeared at 22 different festivals for their film “Giant” about climate change. Says Porter, “The biggest question is how to scale.” He points out that there is usually not much room in these festival setups to accommodate more than three people (each with his or her own headset) at a time; usually it’s just one.

Aside from providing an engaging and enlightening experience for individual consumers, VR experiences can be compelling marketing opportunities for companies positioning themselves as both innovative and associated with a something making a social impact. Partnerships can range from providing the technology, equipment, and expertise to monetary help often in the form of grants. This patronage can take place as an experience is being created, or once a version is out to the public. Porter says that he tinkers with pieces based on feedback and usage patterns at festivals, and beyond that, there are further additions that he would like to make. With “Tree,” currently the user can experience what it’s like to have parrots rest on its branches. One of Porter’s goals, for example, is to continue to use artificial intelligence to add another level of that experience. For that he would need more money and resources. However, he feels strongly that a prospective partner’s values must be aligned with the creator’s—in his case, a strong interest in the environment—so “it all makes sense.” He notes that “it should all be part of an organic story, which makes it easy for us to talk about.”

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