As virtual reality evolves beyond the realms of gaming and advertising and becomes an alternative medium for filmmakers and storytellers, Cannes has taken note. The festival this year launches a full-on VR lineup, including screenings, round-tables and workshops, as part of its digital program Next.

The buzz around VR has traveled well beyond the U.S market. Michel Reilhac, the former head of film at Arte and director of “Viens!” (“Come!”), a tantric short that will screen at the festival, helped curate the selection of 35 films from multiple countries, to be presented over two VR Days on May 15 and 16.

Having sifted through the range of international submissions, Reilhac proclaims that the “French touch” is still alive. “French VR films distinguish themselves for their narrative qualities, singular look or audio — they are not necessarily seeking technological performance, as is often the case in the U.S.,” he says.

In addition to “Viens!,” the French VR lineup at the festival will include “Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness,” a short based on an audio diary chronicling the story of a man losing his sight; Pierre Zandrowicz’s “I, Philip,” a short fiction plunging viewers into the memories of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick 23 years after his death; and three others.

When it comes to technological innovation, France and the rest of Europe lack a global powerhouse VR backer like Facebook, Google, Apple and Samsung.

“In France, the main challenge is to get big media companies to start investing in research and development,” Reilhac says. “This wait-and-see approach is a handicap.”

Indeed, Jérôme Paillard, executive director of the Cannes film market, says he wasn’t able to enlist Orange, France’s leading telco and owner of pay TV group OCS, to sponsor Next. Vivendi, owner of UMG, Canal Plus and DailyMotion, also has been MIA when it comes to injecting money into VR.

Rather than the big congloms, it’s the startups, indie producers and creatives working in 3D, marketing and videogames that constitute the driving force behind today’s VR innovations in France, Paillard says.
Yet the country has been able to deliver critically acclaimed shorts thanks to the support of its deep-pocketed national film board, the CNC, and avant-garde Franco-German net Arte.

The CNC boasts two subsidies for VR — one for development, another for production; Arte, meanwhile, has commissioned most of the VR shorts that have come out in recent years, including “Notes on Blindness” and “I, Philip.”

The latter film was produced by Paris-based Okio for €500,000 ($570,000), with the CNC kicking in a little over €200,000; Arte about €150,000; and additional funds from guilds. In total, Okio put €80,000 into the 12-minute film.

“It’s still two to three times the budget of a U.S. VR short,” says Zandrowicz, who launched Okio with Antoine Cayrol and Lorenzo Benedetti, Canal Plus’ boss of digital creation and founder of YouTube’s comedy channel Studio Bagel. The company, which has created VR commercials for big brands like fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, is in negotiations to join forces with a U.S. outfit in order to develop higher-budgeted projects, Cayrol says.

Monetization prospects in France are dicier than in North America, where dozens of channels, such as Discovery, and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon dig into VR. Apart from a handful of platforms such as Arte’s or French pubcaster France Televisions’ mobile apps, mainstream access to VR content in France is limited. Cayrol says “I, Philip” will be sold on Oculus Share, Samsung store, PlayStation store and Steam for $4.99.

PickupVR, a company headed by Hadrien Lanvin and Brice Rocton, has been increasing exposure for locally made VR content with pop-up sessions and in late May will launch a VR screening room in the 11th district of Paris. Hosted in the basement of a hip restaurant, the room will accomodate 20 people per 30-minute session.

“Until the equipment becomes less expensive and more accessible, we can play a role in bringing French people together in public places to discover virtual reality,” says Lanvin, adding that even when wearing a headset, watching VR can be a collective experience.