How Sundance reinvented itself in VR

How Sundance reinvented itself in VR

The prestigious Sundance Film Festival, which officially begins Thursday, looks very different this year: After being held in Park City, Utah for nearly 40 years, the pandemic is forcing Sundance to go online. In addition to a fairly traditional web event with scheduled film screenings, the festival also includes a number of immersive and VR spaces, courtesy of its New Frontier showcase.

Sundance New Frontier selection chief curator Shari Frilot recently shared all the details with me:

  • The New Frontier Gallery features a number of AR, VR and interactive pieces. “People will be able to experience a wide range of XR works, ranging from live theater performances to VR works, and will be able to move around in avatar and do live audio chats and live webcam chats,” Frilot said. The platform, which has been built by Active Theory, will be accessible with both VR headsets and desktop computers.
  • The Sundance Cinema House is a VR theater that will be used to screen a number of short films. “That is a massive-screen theater [where] 200 of us can come together,” Frilot said.
  • Film Party is a virtual bar where festivalgoers can hang out. “Filmmakers can meet their audiences for the first time in a virtual environment,” Frilot said. The bar is limited to 250 people at a time, but once that cap is met, Sundance is simply spinning up a new instance for the next 250 attendees.

Sundance isn’t the first festival to embrace VR as a way to replace the in-person experience. Earlier this month, Tribeca held the premiere for the VR film “Baba Yaga” in VR itself. Frilot credited those efforts, as well as those of the London Film Festival, Burning Man and other events, for inspiring Sundance.

  • Even with those proof points, Frilot admitted that she was a bit nervous about putting together this year’s New Frontier program. “We weren’t sure how much work would come,” she told me, which led to the decision to feature a smaller slate than in previous years.
  • “In the end, we had just as many submissions as we’ve always had,” she said. “It means that the quality is really high.”

Film festivals like Sundance long played a key role in popularizing immersive storytelling, giving many festivalgoers an opportunity to try VR for the very first time. But with the growing popularity of VR headsets like Facebook’s Oculus Quest, and the pandemic forcing festivals to go virtual, filmmakers suddenly find that the medium can help them attract global audiences.

  • “We realized we can bring this festival to people on their computers at home as opposed to our venues, and in headsets at home as opposed to our venues,” Frilot said.
  • This approach may continue even when Sundance is able to return to Utah. “I don’t see going back from that,” she added.