Virtual reality (VR) reached a major milestone at the Sundance Film Festival when Spheres, a three-part scientific space-themed narrative series, was picked up by CityLights for a seven-figure sum. The VR experience, which is narrated by Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), executive produced by Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures, and supported by Oculus and Intel, is the first major VR acquisition to come out of Sundance in the six years since the New Frontier section began featuring the medium. A few days later, Zikr: A Sufi Revival became the first VR documentary to be purchased at Sundance when UK company Dogwoof acquired it.
These sales represent a big shift for a medium that has never sold at the film festival before, and the backing of traditional distributors could provide VR with the clout it needs to become mainstream. While CityLights is relatively new, Dogwoof has been documentary distributor for 14 years, and it acquired Zikr through its newly formed VR company, Other Set.
“I’m hopeful that the [Spheres] sale means that the entertainment community at large will start taking VR seriously as a viable medium,” said Loren Hammonds, programmer for film and immersive at the Tribeca Film Festival, speaking with AListDaily. “It’s exciting to see a deal at this level happen so relatively early in the history of VR festival exhibition.”
“One of the biggest things VR has had going against it is how quickly public opinion fluctuates,” added SuperData Research’s VP of research and strategy, Stephanie Llamas. “But a deal of this caliber means mainstream audiences can see the value the entertainment industry—an industry they trust to let them know where media is going next—is placing on VR.”
Llamas said that it’s big studios and celebrities that bring awareness, and the sale of Spheres “brings VR one step closer to widespread interest.” She explains that even though some of the biggest names in entertainment have become involved in VR, they’ve often treated the medium as a side project.
“This sale shows it is becoming more than a side project and that there is faith VR will bring in millions of consumer dollars soon,” said Llamas.
However, Hammonds doesn’t necessarily agree that the sales mean that Hollywood will be paying more attention to VR productions. He explained that people who have been traditionally involved with Hollywood productions, like directors Kathryn Bigelow and Alejandro González Iñárritu, haven’t “moved the needle” of public opinion, even after becoming deeply involved in the creation of popular VR projects.
“What will help Hollywood to truly shift its attention is if these projects get some form of distribution that allows them to reach wide audiences and permeate the popular culture,” said Hammonds.
CityLights will bring Spheres to the Oculus Rift later this year with distribution on other platforms to follow. The first episode, Songs of Spacetime, premiered at Sundance. Meanwhile, Zikr is expected to become available on home VR devices in addition to location-based entertainment venues such as VR arcades, museums or possibly other film festivals.
Hammonds hopes that one day, VR experiences will be featured alongside traditional films at festivals and other events that serve as marketplaces.
“I look at VR as the most exciting storytelling medium to arrive since the invention of cinema,” he said. “I do think that it’s a natural fit for VR to be featured prominently at festivals, as it has been in recent years, but I also see a future where VR will warrant or demand its own large-scale festival platform.”
But VR still has a lot of growing to do before it gets to that point, and that will require strong distribution and monetization to make more deals like the Spheres and Zikr purchases happen.
“Until we have a decent number of marquee pieces that reach wide audiences through an easily accessible platform and fully adopted hardware, the growth will stay measured,” Hammonds said. But he also explained that he’s comfortable with VR’s current pace of growth, so long as creators and developers continue to build on the medium and advance the technology.
“Slow growth is exponentially better than no growth,” he concluded. But as important as the Spheres sale is, festivals may not be the main driver for VR adoption.
“VR’s presence at festivals like Sundance and Tribeca has been a huge help, but while these festivals help make VR interesting, the average consumer isn’t trying it there,” said Llamas. “I think location-based VR is going to be the stepping stone folks need to actually see what VR is all about—which is what needs to happen to get the excitement going.”