France has a burgeoning eco-system of virtual reality and augmented reality producers, and is one of Europe’s leading VR/AR hubs. The UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in Paris, a showcase of French projects that wraps Monday, included a VR/AR showcase, with recent projects demonstrated by Wide Management VR, VRrOOm and Atlas V. UniFrance’s online MyFrenchFilm Festival also includes three VR projects – “The Scream,” by Sandra Paugam and Charles Ayats, “Isle of the Dead” by Benjamin Nuel, and “A Bar at the Folies Bergère” by Gabrielle Lissot. Variety looks at this emerging sector.

UniFrance published studies in 2018 and 2019 on foreign sales for the country’s VR sector, which revealed that there were 109 foreign sales of VR titles in 2017, generating total sales of €41,963 ($46,600), and 204 foreign sales in 2018, with total sales of $240,000. UniFrance emphasizes that these results show that the market remains embryonic, but notes that French sales agents such as MK2 Films, Orange, Wide and Ymagis have launched VR divisions.

Maxime Montagne of Wide Management VR says that there are some signs that the market is beginning to take off, as suggested by the fivefold increase in global sales between 2017 and 2018.

The immediate concern for sales agents has been to secure screenings in festivals that have launched VR showcases, such as Venice, Cannes, South by Southwest, Tribeca and Sundance. The other main way of showing VR content to the public have been viewing spaces in cafés, art galleries and museums.

In Paris, for example, there is a 3,000-square-foot VR space in MK2’s flagship cinema in Southeast Paris that enables users to test drive VR films. Similar spaces are being launched around the world.

“The business model remains extremely fragile,” says Montagne, “but we are seeing growing opportunities in North America, Europe and Asia. Our expertise as a sales agent has allowed us to build up a VR network.”

Wide Management will have a VR booth next to its traditional booth in Berlin’s European Film Market and has high expectations for a new 8K version of the 2018 Taiwanese VR movie “Your Spiritual Temple Sucks,” produced by Serendipity Films, with support from the Kaohsiung film festival.

This 10-minute comedy, which mixes live action and animation, transports viewers into a spirit world. It is directed by Taiwanese helmer John Hsu, whose horror film “Detention” was Taiwan’s highest-grossing local film last year.

“Your Spiritual Temple Sucks” had its world premiere in Sundance in 2018 and has screened in more than 45 festivals, winning multiple awards, including Best Innovative Storytelling Award at the third annual World VR Forum in 2018.

The 8K version of YSTS will be screened on sixteen 360º cinemas in China. This will serve as a test case for consumer willingness to pay to watch 360º films, and perhaps even one day emulate some of the success of IMAX and 3D films.

Fulldome theaters, often housed in planetariums, now exist around the world, but are based on a hemisphere, i.e. a 180º view. A 360º video projects the film completely around the seated audience.

The directors with VR films screening in the MyFrenchFilm Festival emphasized that the one-month online festival is another important window to show their works simultaneously on five continents.

Ayats states: “Yesterday, a friend who lives in Latin America sent me a photo of our project, ‘The Scream,’ which she saw on the Instagram account of a Brazilian broadcaster. MyFFF helps us reach an international audience.”

Nuel adds: “’The Island of the Dead’ has had a fabulous festival career, starting with a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2018. While it has been generally shown in an installation with VR goggles, and a fairly small number of spectators, in MyFFF it will be visible to a much larger community of Internet users. The conditions may be less optimal, but the audience is much bigger.”

Ayats says that he expects to see large-scale, multi-user projects in the near future: “VR is a medium that generates a sense of presence and proprioception, like amusement parks. In the future, I think there will be multi-user social experiences that will both amaze us and transmit knowledge.”

Paugam adds: “In addition to immersive experiences, I believe interactivity will be key: How do we meet characters in these virtual worlds? What emotional relationships will we build? For example, I’m fascinated by the success of the Japanese virtual singer, Hatsune Miku.”

Nuel believes that immersive 360º theaters, located in cinemas, art galleries or other institutions, may usher in a new golden age for VR.

In terms of upcoming projects, Ayats is finishing an augmented reality novel that immerses users in the year 2040.

Nuel has several VR video-game projects in development, such as “Caravan Concordia,” a multiplayer science fiction game about interspecies diplomacy, and “Sifflenuit,” where users hunt for a dog in a mysterious forest haunted by degenerate technology. He is also preparing a live-action feature film and quips, “I continue to love the old world of traditional cinema, which still has a few surprises up its sleeve.”