When Sundance sales were tallied this year, one title was left out of many stories: “Spheres,” a three-part virtual reality series from executive producer Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures. VR financing/distribution outfit CityLights’ seven-figure acquisition of the project was reportedly a record for the fest’s 11-year-old New Frontier section.
“The sale signaled that there is a path for independent VR,” Aronofsky says of director Eliza McNitt’s work, which places viewers in the center of outer space with narration by Jessica Chastain and Patti Smith. “The most important films are often made outside the studio system, where creators have the freedom to advance the medium. We now know this can be true of VR, too.”
The sale was promising news for Next, the innovation hub at Cannes Market. The section will showcase more than 25 projects (including VR companion pieces for Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” and Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs”), a theater for VR market screenings equipped with Positron’s pod-like Voyager chairs (programmed to move viewers and literally shake up their senses) and a panel on Cinema VRE [Virtual Reality Experiences] and the Future of Immersive Technologies, moderated by Intel global content technology strategist Ravi Velhal.
“It’s not just for geeks and nerds,” says Velhal, a VR producer-director whose company helped develop the chairs. “All kinds of people are enjoying this format.”
According to a February Research and Markets study, the virtual reality arena is valued at $7.9 billion this year and expected to reach $34.08 billion by 2023, with increasing use of VR in gaming and entertainment cited as the major revenue driver. And the $554 million global box office for Steven Spielberg’s VR-themed “Ready Player One” is only fueling interest. But exactly where VR will be in five years — how it will evolve from such home systems as Facebook’s Oculus Rift (where the first “Spheres” episode will debut later this year) and be integrated into narrative filmmaking and theatrical exhibition — remains an open question.
“I think if you talk to any analyst who looks at VR, it’s largely agreed on that the bullish expectations [of] consumers adopting it in the home are just not coming to fruition,” says National Assn. of Theater Owners director of media & research Phil Contrino. “VR and movies are completely different experiences. But as the MPAA points out every year, heavy consumers of content do so across multiple platforms. So if you can get them excited about VR when they’re at a movie theater, I think that can go a long way to building up momentum for VR in general.”
The VR industry “is still a mix of sponsoring, advertising revenues, brands who attach their name to content, and the beginning of distribution revenues coming from platforms or distributors who install the content in theaters or other places,” says Cannes Market exec director Jerome Paillard. “There is still not a formatted market for VR, and we cannot say the market started in Sundance. One project did one big deal, full stop. It’s now a prototype kind of business, but as it gets a lot of attention and interest from different kinds of brands, it can be great for the technology companies involved.”
Yet exhibitors are also beginning to fuel a market for new projects. Imax has launched seven VR centers, some in partnership with AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas, in New York City; L.A.; Toronto; Manchester, England; Bangkok, and Shanghai. It has developed a $50 million fund for VR content and partnered with Warner Bros. Home Entertainment to co-finance and produce VR projects (including an exclusive “Justice League” presentation out now). AMC (joining 21st Century Fox, MGM, Warner Bros. and others) has reportedly invested more than $40 million in the tech startup Dreamscape Immersive to open up to six “virtual reality multiplexes” by next year. Cinemark will open its first “virtual reality experience” in its flagship West Plano, Texas, theater this summer. And in April, Regal Entertainment Group introduced Moviebill, a magazine featuring an interactive augmented reality (AR) platform with exclusive content, interviews and games that “come to life” when consumers scan it with an app.
Cannes has only been devoting its Next section to VR for the past three years, making it a bit of a Johnny-come-lately after Sundance, SXSW (which has explored interactive content since the mid-1990s), Tribeca (which brought in gaming in 2011) and Venice. Cannes’ street cred got a boost with the 2017 premiere of Alejandro G. Inarritu’s refugee saga “Carne y Arena” — one of the first VR projects to play there — but some filmmakers are said to be holding their presentations for Venice, which launched a VR competition last year. There has been some synergy, however: Eugene Chung’s “Arden’s Wake: The Prologue” won the first Lion for VR in Venice last year after its Cannes premiere.
A few Tribeca projects will get another chance at sales during a Best of Tribeca Cinema 360 @ Next market screening, featuring five projects from the fest: Michael Muller’s extraordinary swimming-with-sharks doc “Into the Now,” an episode from Participant Media/Condition One’s docuseries “This Is Climate Change,” Gabriela Arp’s white supremacist-themed “Meeting a Monster,” Svante Fjaestad’s apocalyptic “02:09” and the horror tale “The Caretaker.”
So where do experts see VR heading five years from now? “Film distribution has changed radically over the past few years, so VR distribution is unlikely to look like anything we’ve seen before,” says Aronofsky, who premiered the second “Spheres” episode at Tribeca. “Audiences expect access to stories anywhere and everywhere. This is a good thing, but likely means that VR exhibitors will need to break the paradigm and reinvent it.”
Arnaud Colinart, co-founder of VR producer Atlas V, which sold its exploration of grief, “Vestige,” to the sales/distribution outfit Other Set ahead of its April Tribeca premiere, sees destination venues as the first stop in a project’s life cycle.
“[We want to use] different windows of distribution to create a sustainable value chain,” he says. “We look at location-based entertainment [i.e. VR theaters] as what the theater is for movies, online distribution is for VOD and platform distribution is for film.”
“In a few years, you will see more VR pods or stations in the multiplex, where you can see a big studio movie and then experience a VR scene outside the theater that was made for the film, or as a tie-in or a film by itself,” predicts Cannes Market head of industry programs Julie Bergeron. “The tricky part is the distribution, because it’s still expensive technology that’s not available to a big audience.”
Paris-based MK2, which will present at least one of its Cirque du Soleil VR film acquisitions at Cannes, is planning to install some 200 MK2 VR Pods in theaters by the end of the year. It just acquired the Sundance/SXSW ISIS-themed project “Sun Ladies VR,” and managing director Elisha Karmitz is also focused on which audiences will leave their homes to view it.
“From our experience, two main targets are people around 30 and those with kids around 10 to 13 who are looking for ways to spend time with them” Karmitz says. “In one group, you have people who haven’t had their first kids. Once they have them and don’t go to cinemas for a few years, you need to find a way to bring them back.”
Teenagers, he’s found, “are more interested in social networks, and the price point of VR is a bit too expensive for them right now.”
More stars are also expected to jump on the bandwagon. At Next this year, Alicia Vikander will voice a lead role in Penrose Studios’ animated VR sequel “Arden’s Wake: Tide’s Fall,” and a graphic novel adaptation from Will.i.am and the Black Eyed Peas will include the voice talents of Queen Latifah, Ice-T and Jamie Foxx.
But there are still several big hurdles in merging VR with cinema, from the difficulty of bringing audiences into narrative storytelling to the isolation viewers experience in headsets or pod chairs, which can make experiencing VR at home no different than trying it out at a venue.
“The challenge that remains is how to create a shared VR experience for multiple users simultaneously,” says Josephine Munis, president of the L.A./Orange County chapter of the VR/AR Assn.
One unexpected source of hope is a sensory miracle first imagined by filmmaking pioneer John Waters, who invented Odorama scratch-and-sniff cards for his cult classic “Polyester.” Thirty-seven years later, Intel’s Velhal is bringing Cannes an updated, equally pungent version of the technology in scent-releasing Voyager chairs with a preview of “Le Musk,” a VR project he co-produced and describes as “a romantic story that revolves around aroma.”