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April 15 2019
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Are Film Festivals Keeping Virtual Reality Alive?

A look at virtual reality’s presence in upcoming international film festivals.

Like 3-D technology and Plasma screen televisions, we were told virtual reality would be the future of storytelling. This was particularly the case early into the 2010s, when the promise of Facebook buying Oculus was quickly followed by several of the other major tech companies acquiring or developing their own VR equipment. But after the initial hype, things started to cool off in the marketplace. Once it no longer became the “hot” item on holiday wish lists, critics were quick to point out the severe limitations in graphics, usability and head gear. As of early 2019, VR and short film stories have taken a major blow. After just being shortlisted for an Oscar, Google shut down their Google Spotlight Stories. Oculus too shut down their storytelling studio. Many other, more niche VR studios have had to do the same.

Hollywood also took the bait back in 2014, resulting in studios looking to collaborations between research and development teams and filmmakers to create several tie-in VR short films with the year’s biggest releases. But this too has largely failed to take off in the way they’d hoped. Despite a growing dissatisfaction in the marketplace over VR’s lack of mass adoption (and investment funding that’s getting smaller and smaller each quarter) there’s one place where VR storytelling is actually growing in notoriety and innovation: film festivals.

Everywhere from SXSW to Venice to Berlin to Tribeca has learned within the past few years how to embrace the many exciting offerings coming from VR filmmakers, and as a result have poured significant resources and facilities into VR exhibition spaces. In most cases, they are quickly becoming some of the hottest spots in festivals, and the winning films are making headlines in major industry news outlets. Best of all, VR films are actually telling good enough stories and in a way that’s cinematic and visionary enough to make film programmers nod their heads rather than roll their eyes.

Even the Cannes Film Festival, a festival known for being very resistant to change, is welcoming VR into the fold, with a special triptych installationrunning for 10 days throughout the festival. So, the question becomes — if VR storytelling is good enough to win awards and ink six-figure distribution deals, what will it take for a VR short film to find mainstream appeal?

The rollout of 5G technology may help with that. One of the great frustrations for the general VR consumer is the failure to truly feel immersed, which is usually due to current smartphone and wireless technology failing to keep up with the heavy streaming demands.

Besides technological circumstances out of most of our control, the best thing for the future potential of VR storytelling is its continued presence at festivals. After all, it can only take one really good experience with VR to turn consumer expectations around. Now let’s take a brief look at what some of the biggest upcoming film festivals in the world are doing to encourage VR storytelling during a time when much of tech culture is abandoning it.

 

Tribeca Immersive

It shouldn’t be surprising that one of the newest major film festivals (less than twenty years old) would be quick to adopt new modes of storytelling. Called Tribeca Immersive, the New York based festival has curated two unique programs of VR films for its attendees. The first (“Virtual Arcade”) features 22 world premieres and allows you to check in and see the desired exhibits at any time. The second (“Cinema360”) is a unique opportunity to see select programs of VR films in a properly-equipped theater space. A VR theater means a room full of people with headgear can experience the same immersive film simultaneously. It also provides the filmmaker an opportunity to explain the project beforehand and answer any questions about it after the film ends. This intersection of exhibition and education may prove most important towards getting new audiences on board.

 

NEXT Cannes VR Film Market

Almost all of the Cannes lineup remains shrouded in secrecy, but we do expect to see a return of the NEXT VR film market for a third straight year. In it, attendees can expect to see premieres in special screening rooms as well as a large library of available films on tablets for individual viewing. Not only does Cannes offer some of the best streaming technology to ensure a smooth and high definition experience, but they also offer specially reserved rooms for talks and demonstrations of VR. Through first hand analysis of films and hands-on workshops, the hope of Cannes’ organizers is that they will be equipping future filmmakers and enthusiasts of groundbreaking technology.

 

Annecy Animated VR, In Competition

Annecy International Animated Film Festival is the biggest of the big when it comes to animated shorts and features. All of the best talent in 2-D, 3-D, stop motion and beyond can be found right here. There was just one thing missing…until this year! Annecy recently announced that 2019 would be the inaugural year of a virtual reality competition category. The festival has actually been showing VR shorts since 2016, but due to increasing interest in the form by attendees the festival organizers felt it their duty to increase the quality of submissions even more and give VR a more central presence in the lineup.

 

VR Island & Project Funding

Though no official word has come from the Venice Film Festival’s higher ups, we are expecting the return of “VR Island”, the festival’s designated space for all things immersion and virtual reality. Venice has had a designated competition category for two years, and it’s quickly become one of the premiere destinations for the medium. To further encourage virtual reality’s presence in film schools, Venice also screens films from the Beinnale College. Venice continues to back up their support for VR efforts in other ways, such as funding the Venice Production Bridge. In this portion of the festival, filmmakers can pitch their VR projects to investors and producers for increased funding. This is a truly exciting development that confirms the technology can be as financially viable as it is artistically viable already.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of festivals showing their VR support. Other major festivals, like TIFF and NYFF, will show up in the heat of awards season with their own VR offerings, along with dozens of other large fests. Who knows — maybe we’ll one day see a VR category at the Oscars!

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