The possibility that virtual reality could push the limits of the moviegoing experience took a leap forward with Alejandro G. Inarritu’s immigration-themed installation “Carne y Arena” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
But on the A-list festival circuit, it’s the Venice Film Festival that is leading the way in the VR arena.
There are of course other film festivals around the world that to varying degrees have been dipping their toes into what is becoming the VR craze.
Sundance, which was the first to explore and open up to interactive storytelling, has the New Frontier Story Lab residency program and showcases VR works as a non-competitive sidebar; Tribeca has its immersive Storyscapes and Visual Arcades programs; Toronto last year launched a separate VR strand called POP VR, which featured five pieces; Geneva Intl. Film Festival Tous Ecrans, which runs in November, started a competitive section with roughly 10 virtual reality works in 2016. And the Dubai fest in December has a VR showcase.
But no other festival besides Venice has a VR competition, a dedicated workshop and a market component.
The Lido is launching a 22-title competitive strand dedicated to works made for virtual reality-viewing, the first-ever competition for VR works launched by a major film event.
The world’s oldest film festival has also launched Biennale College Cinema Virtual Reality, an extension in the VR realm of its Biennale College lab, which shepherds micro-budget movies from development through distribution. And the Venice gap financing market for the second consecutive year will feature selected VR pieces to be pitched to international financiers.
Spearheading Venice’s push into VR is Michel Reilhac, a self-described apostle on the Biennale College staff who started advocating for VR three years ago with Venice Biennale president Paolo Baratta and its artistic director, Alberto Barbera.
“I really wanted to convince them that they had to look at VR and see it as a new option to tell stories and a potentially new art form,” he says. After Venice’s first VR foray, Reilhac took it to the next level by suggesting the creation of an official competitive section, since “things were moving very very fast with VR and we needed to be the first ones to do something significant.”
He got the greenlight in January and hired Liz Rosenthal, CEO of London-based Power to the Pixel cross media consulting, as the section’s co-programmer.
Then came Baratta’s decision to occupy previously abandoned buildings on the Lazzaretto, a tiny island a stone’s throw from the Lido that was a leper colony in the 15th century and has never before been opened to the public.
“Barbera’s bold choice deserved a symbolic venue which by contrast I identified in the most ancient area of the Lido, separated by a narrow inlet,” Baratta says. Barbera does not see VR as he next step in the evolution of filmmaking. “Virtual reality will not be the future of cinema,” he says. “It will probably be something else.”
But “it’s an area of experimentation and research that is very interesting and that many directors and auteurs are trying their hand at, even while continuing to make cinema in the traditional sense,” he notes.
The 22 VR works competing for prizes in Venice will include “La Camera Insabbiata,” co-directed by Laurie Anderson and Huang Hsin-Chien, consisting of huge spaces with walls made of chalk boards filled with text that can be explored by flying or gliding; “Greenland Melting” by U.S. VR pioneer Nonny de la Pena in which the viewer is on a Greenland glacier with two scientists who talk about the melting icecaps; and San Francisco-based Eugene YK Chung’s room- scale VR animation “Arden’s Wake,” about a little girl living on the water with her father.
“The works are extraordinary,” Barbera says enthusiastically. “There is a risk of a bit of nausea or a headache if you take them in for a long time, because the technology is not yet perfected. But I assure you it’s worth it!”
Below is a select list of fall film festivals:
Venice Film Festival
Aug. 30-Sept. 9
A strong lineup includes George Clooney’s “Suburbicon,” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” starring Jennifer Lawrence, plus a VR competition.
Telluride Film Festival
The tightly curated festival is famously secretive about its lineup, which is usually stuffed with awards hopefuls. Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer is the guest director this year.
Toronto Intl. Film Festival
The biggest fest in North America programs a wide variety of prestige indies and high-profile foreign films; its Midnight Madness section has also grown in stature, and programs must-see pics for genre fans.
Raindance Film Festival
Sept. 20-Oct. 1
The 25th edition will once again celebrate independent film — from features to shorts to music videos to VR. Raindance also offers classes, training and other events year-round.
Spain’s premier festival showcases the best of its home country as well as Latin America. The festival opens with Wim Wenders’ latest, “Submergence.”
New York Film Festival
Sept. 28-Oct. 15
Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” opens the Gotham event, while Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” is the Centerpiece screening and Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” closes the festival.
BFI London Film Festival
The fest set in the U.K. capital sports the European premiere of Andy Serkis’ directorial debut, “Breathe,” and the recently restored 1928 Indian/British/German silent “Shiraz” will unspool.
San Diego Intl. Film Festival
With more than 100 features, including documentaries and world cinema, the San Diego fest also features Q&A sessions with filmmakers and Variety’s Night of the Stars tribute.
Hamptons Intl. Film Festival
The beach-town festival offers a competitive section. Last year Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s “Glory” won the narrative feature prize.
Just up the road from San Francisco, Mill Valley screens a heady mix of awards-worthy indies, shorts, documentaries and lots of music.
Busan Intl. Film Festival
The massive South Korean event programs the best of Asian and world cinema, and also features the Asian Film Market. It will host Asia’s biggest VR event.
Warsaw Film Festival
Warsaw aims to give festgoers a first look at world film trends. Its CentEast Market features works in progress, and this year the fest is teaming with the Polish Film Institute on Warsaw Industry Days.
Lumiere 2017 Grand Lyon
Created in 2009 by the Institut Lumière, Lyon celebrates classic cinema. This year, the fest honors Wong Kar Wai, and focuses on Westerns, women filmmakers, Giorgio Moroder and Buster Keaton.
Antalya Film Festival
Filmmaker Elia Suleiman will preside over this year’s Antalya jury at Turkey’s most well-established festival. For film biz pros: The Antalya Film Forum, a co-production and development market.
Tokyo Intl. Film Festival
Oct. 25-Nov. 3
The Japanese fest will screen the original “Godzilla” with a live orchestra, with special events celebrating its 30th anniversary, including a Midnight Film Festival of genre films.
Napa Valley Film Festival
Held in the villages of Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga, the five-day affair attracts some 100-plus independent films and 300 filmmakers who enjoy access to 150 wineries and 50 chefs.
Stockholm Film Festival
While the Swedish fest features emerging and established Scandinavian directors, it also screens the best of first-time filmmakers from around the world. Its Impact Award was designed by Ai Weiwei.
The L.A. festival is the best place to catch awards season hopefuls as the filmmakers and stars come out in support via Q&A sessions, talks and masterclasses.
The best place to run into your favorite DP is Bydgoszcz, Poland, during the festival. Fans and pros attend screenings, masterclasses, panels and parties focused on the art of cinematography.
Tallinn Black Nights
The Estonian fest focuses on features as well as animated films, short films and children’s and youth films. Its Industry@Tallinn is a fast-growing event for film professionals.
Mar del Plata
Organized by Argentina’s national film board, fest’s goal is not only to screen the best of international films, but also showcase regional features and talent. It hosts a Works in Progress section for Argentine fare.