The Perfect Storm: XR is Poised for Mass-Market Appeal at the Cannes Marché du Film

The Marché du Film is the business counterpart of the Cannes Film Festival and one of the largest film markets in the world. In more recent years, it’s grown to include XR as a core part of its programming. 

Like many festivals this year, the Cannes Marché du Film struggled to attract the usual number of attendees from all over the world, however, during the three sessions I hosted as a part of Cannes XR live on-site, I watched stories unfold that were unlike any experienced before. 

Hollywood Meets XR at the Cannes Marché du Film    

Thursday night before the main session hosting Evolver-Prologue— a collaboration between Marshmallow Laser Feast, Pressman Film, Terrence Malick, Atlas V, and Orange’s XR division— we gathered on the rooftop terrace overlooking the promenade of La Croisette, the famous walkway that links the city with the golden beaches and green-blue of the Mediterranean Sea. 

Arriving at 9 pm, I was ushered into the side room- away from the hubbub of the filmmakers, producers, directors, actors, and technologists gathered on the balcony-  into a small room adjacent where guests were quietly experiencing a first look at Evolver-Prologue with one of four Oculus Quest headsets available. 

With the headset on, I had to press the headphones into my ears to muffle the sound of the gathering outside. The experience began after a simple click on the menu to begin the 360 plunge into the most anticipated XR piece of the festival. 

I found myself in a dark world as an invisible spectator taken on a journey through the human body. Rivers of red and blue particles rushed by— representing the flow of blood and oxygen through capillaries and veins. Branches of gray particles arched up from either side, and stretched out straight ahead and over my shoulder. The skeletal human frame was bathed in omnipotent melodies that soundtracked the narrative of life, death, rebirth and nature in this audiovisual journey. 

Just over 5 minutes later, Evolver-Prologue was over. I was curious to learn more, understanding that this 360 piece, stylistically reminiscent of previous experiences such as Ocean of Air, was just the prologue the team was sharing to attract funding for the experience. 

As the evening continued and the conversation too, the amount of passion that had gone into the prologue became clear, in addition to a strategic approach for mass-market distribution. 

Festival attendee at the Cannes XR booth, experiencing XR3. Photo credit: Kai Ephron, KaiMediaCorp

Evolver-Prologue VR Piece Situated for Mass-Market Appeal  

The following evening we joined forces once again, this time on stage for the introduction of Evolver-Prologue to the audience of the Cannes Marché du Film with Marshmallow Laser Feast joining remotely from the UK. The panel was an opportunity to learn about each party’s involvement and collective vision for development. 

“Orange is betting more and more on XR content, not only VR. We think the future is XR, which is thinner devices and a mass-market audience,” begins Brunet. 

As Orange rolls out their 5G services, they plan to play a bigger role in the distribution of content as a part of their subscription services, in addition to LBE that makes use of 5G for hybridized events. 

When we broach the subject of the metaverse, Brunet says, “The metaverse approach helps us to be a distributor and creator of social experiences.” 

It’s a trend we’ve seen rising sharply as social gaming platform RecRoom raised $100M as investors bet on user-generated content, Manticore Games raised $100M to build a creator multiverse, and VRChat just a few weeks ago raised $80M as investors are increasingly aware of the growth of digital worlds and the demand for new types of immersive content. 

Market Growth: Where Film, XR and LBVR Collide 

“It’s exciting for us to think about the opportunity of merging the opportunities that film and XR offer us,” says Eleanor (Nell) Whitley, Executive Producer at Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF). 

She refers to the way that film is sold and distributed, and how this model is nearly non-existent in the XR world, where MLF is considered much more a part of the digital arts scene. 

“What we’re interested in in terms of market opportunity, is where is the success,” said Whitley, pointing to Atelier des Lumières in Paris and teamLab’s Borderless digital art museum in Tokyo. These location-based experiences respectively received 1 392 000 visitors in 2018 in Paris, and a record-breaking 2,198,284 visitors in Tokyo in 2019 as officially the most visited museum dedicated to a single group or artist in the world. 

“There’s a huge opportunity for digital media to play a role in these new forms of audience and ticketed experiences. We’ll continue to explore that with Evolver,” she says.

teamLab’s Borderless digital art museum in Tokyo. Image credit: teamLab. 

Cinema is Here to Stay, It Might Just Look a Little Different

As for the film industry, the XR market potential is also catching the eye of influential producers in Hollywood like Edward Pressman and Samual Pressman of Pressman Film. The company is known for American Physco, Wall Street, Never Die Alone and Bad Lieutenant to name just a few of the titles they’ve worked on. 

“In film, after the pandemic, everyone is questioning what is the future of theatrical movie-going experience, and I take the opinion that it’s still going to exist. Theatre goes back to the Greeks. We’re going to want communal experiences, being in the dark and watching two-dimensional frames, whether that’s in our homes or in theatres. Then you get into VR. The more immersive the headsets get and the more our phones are enmeshed with the way we perceive reality… the motion picture that Muybridge and the Lumière’s discovered is just evolving and changing,” says S. Pressman. 

As for his role and the role of the film industry in XR, “There’s space for everyone. People are watching more than they ever have,” he says.   

At this stage, S. Pressman invites his father to join us on stage as I ask about Pressman Film’s relationship with Terrance Mallick and why this seems like a logical next step for their collaboration, one that goes back decades to Badlands in 1973. 

“When we were doing Badlands, we were making the rules up as we went along. Independent cinema was at a very early stage. There were really six companies, major studios, that controlled the whole industry. The evolution of the film industry… we dared to break the rules. When this subject came up, it was similar to breaking rules back then. There’s a new future of cinema and that’s where we started,” says E. Pressman. 

“Taking risks is something that film requires. Not taking rejection as an absolute verdict. What we’re seeing here, is in its early stage, and where it leads, being unknown, is very exciting,” he says. 

He claims to be no expert in this new medium, but when talking about the market opportunity he adds, “The experience is something that doesn’t need much explanation. It’s exciting, and the potential even more so.”

We Live in An Ocean of Air, 2018. Image credit: Barnaby Steel, Marshmallow Laser Feast

Getting a Global Scale Hybrid VR Experience Off the Ground  

The collaborators have one primary focus at the Marché du Film. It’s to demonstrate that now is the right time for the market and that their vision is the right one to be funded for global distribution. 

“For Evolver there are a lot of opportunities. There are European subsidiaries that we know,” says Antoine Cayrol, founder and producer at Atlas V. He names the CNC and BFI as examples, highlighting that this route to funding is very different from the US market

He explains that the goal is to leverage European culture funding, and also private funding from the US market. The various approaches to investment are based on pre-sales, licensing fees, and co-production where money is put upfront based on financial projections and revenue share. 

Cannes XR booth at the Marché du Film 

It’s What Happens When you Take the Headset Off

Storytellers are gravitating towards XR. It presents a unique opportunity to place audiences in the world of the story, with an active or passive role, with profound effect. 

“VR is a technology that is hacking perception. It can trick you into thinking you’re in a different place than you really are. In that sense, it really differs from film where you’re in a room and observing the screen in front of you. In VR, you’re taken from your room and put in another place,” says Barney Steel, founder and Director at MLF. 

“Part of the power of this perspective shift of the medium is that it can take you out of your skin, out of your body and first-person human perspective and occupy these other non-human perspectives. When it comes to 5G, and the convergence of new technologies, it’s all leading to a deeper level of immersion in experiences engineered by human beings. There will be a lot of escapism, but we’re interested in what happens when you take the headset off and how the experience in virtual reality can affect your relationship with reality and other human beings,” says Steel. 

Cannes XR panel: NewImages Festival, Cannes XR, and Tribeca present XR3, a VR platform bringing together nearly 50 incredible works. 

Measuring the Market for XR: An Upward Trajectory 

Just this week Road to VR reported that VR content revenue grew by 30% in 2020, becoming media’s fastest-growing market. At the same time, there are rumors that Netflix is making moves to include virtual reality as a part of its content strategy as the company inks a deal that gives Shondaland Media exclusive rights to produce VR and gaming content for the streaming service. In other news, Facebook’s head of AR/VR content Mike Verdu joins the company to lead Netflix’s push into gaming

As for market returns, VeeR, a premium VR content platform, reported at the Marché du Film during cofounder Jingshu Chen’s keynote that 8 titles in their LBVR ZeroSpace VR Cinema reached over $1M in revenue in the last year, with the top five in-demand genres being sci-fi, fantasy, action, thriller, and horror. While their online audience is over 90% male, location-based audiences demonstrate massive opportunities to reach engaged female audiences, as their findings for LBVR show a balanced audience of 46% male and 52% female. 

Meanwhile, an average of 3000 logins per day has been recorded for the online XR3 exhibition, a collaboration between Cannes, Tribeca, and NewIamges Festival reports Michael Swierczynski, Director of NewImages Festival.

We are seeing the convergence of creators beginning to master storytelling in virtual reality, technology readiness, and distribution channels developing to fuel viral growth in the future. In the same way that content platforms like Amazon, Disney, Hulu, and Netflix made moves to produce huge amounts of content for their subscription services, it’s likely that we will see a similar trend emerge with virtual reality content. 

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