(Photo: Seth Porges)
Virtual reality has made film festivals exciting again.
As festival veterans know, the only thing more fun than seeing a new film is being a part of the hive mind hype machine that turns a sleepy Thursday opener into bidding war bait by Sunday. The physical proximity of festivals makes them fantastic at fostering serendipitous interactions as critics, filmmakers, and fans bump into each other on sunny (as with South By Southwest) or snowy (as with Sundance) streets and share tips on what films are blowing minds. Until you've actually had a chance to see the film (and considering the chaos that is a busy film festival, you probably won't), it lives on in your head as something full of hope and hype.
Whether a film emerges as a festival favorite is as much a function of the on-the-ground word of mouth as it is on-screen quality. The more scarce tickets are for a particular film, the more its success relies on buzz and anticipation.
This makes film festivals absolutely great for VR, which is about as a low-bandwidth a medium as one could possibly imagine.
While a single screening room can accommodate hundreds of filmgoers, VR headsets are strictly one-a-time machines. Even as VR experiences begin to literally get the red-carpet treatment at festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca; they'll only be seen by a relatively small number of people in attendance.
Some festivals handle this by turning VR demonstration spaces into separately ticketed events that will only be accessible to a relatively small number of people. Pay a few bucks, and you get an hour or so in a VR demonstration space; where several VR producers are often on hand to personally guide you through their experiences and answer any questions.
But with so few people able to actually try most VR experiences at festivals, the best producers can hope for is an air of mystique. The sense of buzz that people had heard good things, and really wish they had had a chance to experience it for themselves. But, maybe next time.
And so you have VR experiences such Chris Milk's Life of Us and Felix & Paul's Miyubi, both of which showed at both Sundance and SXSW this year, garnering an insane buzz-to-people-who-actually-saw-them ratio. And this may be the best kind of buzz: The kind that isn't easily deflated by the reality that a movie or VR experience is actually just a movie or VR experience; and not some life-changing experience.
Film festivals also offer VR producers something else: The ability to create site-specific installations that aren't easily replicated when somebody pops a headset on at home. This could come in the form of elaborately decorated rooms or mixed-media installations that merge in experimental technologies such as full-body haptic suits that further immerse users in a VR world. Going forward, we'll also likely see more festivals show off VR experiences that are mapped to physical spaces (like The Void's Ghostbusters VR installation in New York). And because some VR experiences might require at least a little bit of explanation ("What am I supposed to do here, exactly?") having knowledgable staff (or the experience's creators!) on hand to walk VR newbies through the process can be absolutely invaluable.