If 2017 marked the birth of virtual reality on a global scale, this year’s competition roster of 30 world-premiering VR films at Venice Film Festival shows that the medium is coming of age, with star-powered experiences such as “Spheres” and “Crow: The Legend,” and socially-minded titles like “Home After War: Returning to Fear in Fallujah,”“Borderline” and “Made This Way: Redefining Masculinity.” VR competition at Venice runs through Sept. 8.

VR is now luring topnotch talent. “Spheres,” an interactive journey inspired by the iconic “pale blue dot” image of planet Earth, is executive produced by Darren Aronofsky and is narrated by Jessica Chastain, Patti Smith and Millie Bobby Brown, while “Crow: The Legend,” an animated piece inspired by a Native American tale, is narrated by John Legend, Diego Luna and Oprah Winfrey, among others.

“We’re seeing that alongside the more experimental VR experiences, there is a building trend towards experiences with big-name talent in front of and/or behind the camera — and these are geared towards mainstream audiences,” says Antoine Cayrol, who co-produced “Sphere” via Atlas V. The backing of young stars such as “Stranger Things” star Brown, who has a huge following, is key to getting VR into popular culture, says Cayrol.

For Michel Reilhac, the former boss of Arte Cinema who launched Venice’s groundbreaking VR island and spearheads the selection with Liz Rosenthal, this rush of talent coming into the VR space is helping to “democratize” the medium and widen its reach beyond hardcore enthusiasts.

Reilhac points out that many experiences competing this year also address serious topics and were conceived to challenge users rather than merely entertain them. Reilhac cites several of the VR offerings in the lineup as proof: “Home After War: Returning to Fear in Fallujah,” which tells real-life story of an Iraqi family’s return to Fallujah after being displaced during the war; “Borderline,” which centers on a young Israeli soldier faced with a dilemma; and “Made This Way:

Redefining Masculinity,” which explores how transgender men are shaking up gender norms. Another trend observed is the large proportion of interactive installations blending real-life experiences with virtual experiences and using different setups.

Outside of the festival circuit, however, Imax’s decision to shut down two VR centers in New York and Shanghai is casting a shadow over the commercial prospects of VR. But VR industry insiders aren’t fazed.

“What recently happened with Imax brings up several questions, such as how do we consume VR today, which designs work best for location-based VR and how much are people willing to pay. But I’m not worried: for each Imax that closes there are 10 or 15 VR pods opening in the world,” says Elisha Karmitz, co-CEO of MK2, which runs runs MK2 Films & VR.

Karmitz says the venues MK2 has recently launched are successful, especially in Brazil, as in Scandinavia and in several cities in China.
The crux of the battle for VR to reach a more mature stage is to access more financing avenues beyond hardware companies, which have been bearing more of the costs. Funds, TV channels and consumers should also be financing VR, says Karmitz.

Cayrol concurs. “The technology and the ecosystem are there; now the content has to flow in. Big congloms and private investors are having a wait-and-see approach with VR. Some of them got cold feet after investing in 3D and seeing that it’s not the El Dorado they believed … but this time it’s different and they need to get it,” says Cayrol.

“We’re faced with an egg-and-chicken situation: Financiers will start investing when they see that experiences with name recognition like ‘Spheres,’ ‘Discovery of Witches’ or ‘Crow: The Legend’ can attract sizeable audiences and be profitable … but the VR industry needs the cash to deliver more of these ambitious experiences and create a real audience,” says Cayrol.

Reilhac adds that the Biennale festival label is a solid argument to promote VR and generate revenue streams online. The programmer will be partnering up with the premium VOD service Vroom to showcase Venice’s VR titles for a month.