Virtual Reality Grows in Sophistication but Fees Remain a Challenge, Ji.hlava’s VR Section Chief Says

The virtual reality distribution market is like a “jungle” with wildly different fees being asked for projects, says Andrea Slováková, programmer of the VR section at the Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival.

One of the big challenges in organizing Ji.hlava’s VR section, she explains, is that in the emerging VR market there are still no common standards or references for fees for festivals that want to program VR works.

Slováková says that some VR works are offered for free, whereas others might ask for anything from Euros 300 ($332), to Euros 1,000 ($1,108) or even Euros 10,000 ($11,080) for screening rights for five days at the festival. For festivals with a modest budget, the latter is an impossibly high sum.

“Producers and distributors are not sure how to think about fees – it is obvious that it is something that is looking for standards,” says Slováková.

Now in its fourth year, Ji.hlava’s VR program has grown from a modest start – where it featured just two VR works – to a full scale section with its own space dedicated to VR. There are two distinct parts to the program, which presents 18 VR projects.

One sees linear 360 degree films presented in a VR cinema. Comprising 12 films, they are shown in four different blocks that run for 20-30 minutes each, the maximum amount of time that viewers can comfortably enjoy VR, says Slováková.

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Features includes “Ghost Fleet VR,” a harrowingly immersive U.S. documentary of modern slavery on Indonesian fishing ships, directed by Lucas Gath and Shannon Service, and “Daughters of Chibok,” directed by Joel Benson, which explores the Boko Haram terrorist kidnapping of 276 girls in Nigeria in 2014. In both cases, the narrative structure is similar to documentary cinema, but there is a much stronger feeling of being part of the story.

The other section presents six interactive installations in a VR Zone. These allow users to explore worlds, borrowing narrative and visual techniques from video games. In “Re-Animated,” for example, users can walk through a brilliantly imagined ecosystem in a story inspired by the extinction in 1987 of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird. “Master’s Vision: Claude Monet – The Water Lily Obsession” explores the artist’s work, allowing the user to experience the changing seasons at his garden in Giverny and to take a fully immersive look at some of his painting techniques.

Slováková says the program reveals how sophisticated VR has now become, citing huge improvements in the technology in recent years. “360 degree cameras are becoming better in terms of resolution. In the beginning, resolution was a big problem – it was lower than PAL. You can see the speed at which it is developing.”

She also says VR is becoming more sophisticated as a means of expression, with narrative coming to the fore. In the first year of Ji.hlava’s VR program, the ‘wow’ factor was the main excitement – viewers would just enjoy being immersed in water or travelling into space via VR. Now, it is all about stories as well.

For film festivals, Slováková thinks VR is rising up the agenda. Festivals such as Venice, Sundance and Tribeca now have dedicated VR sections that allow festival goers to explore the new aesthetics and trends in the genre. However, the cost of mounting some VR installations, which now often include physical spaces with live elements running alongside the VR, can be prohibitive to medium and smaller sized festivals.

Slováková points out that VR has now become another medium for filmmakers explore reality. “I really think it will be an important – but not dominant – part of the program of film festivals.”

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