September 08th, 2021 | by Mathieu Gayet

“Our goal at VIFF is to aim for distribution” - Brian Seth Hurst, Caitlin Burns (VIFF Immersed)

The Vancouver International Film Festival has just announced its selections for the 2021 VIFF Immersed International Competition and Exhibition. The program also includes the VIFF Immersed professional market which will bring together, as it does every year, Canadian and international professionals around the business issues of the sector (XR creators, distributors, investors and audiences).

An essential meeting around XR storytelling that we discuss with these VIFF Immersed curators, Brian Seth Hurst and Caitlin Burns of StoryTech® Immersive. See the official website

Curating for VIFF Immersed

Brian Seth Hurst - I’m a producer at StoryTech Immersive, a XR studio based in Los Angeles. Five years ago, VIFF approached us about their immersive program. And because we were producers and storytellers, we were able to have a point of view and a perspective on what VIFF Immersed could be and the strategy behind it. And since then, we are here! VIFF Immersed went virtual last year, and because Vancouver was uncertain (due to the Covid situation), we decided to stay online for this year with high hopes of returning in-person in 2022., Exhibition and Market - thanks to Artizen and the VR platforms.

Caitlin Burns - Brian and I have known each other forever. We’ve worked in every wave of new media since 2000, and understand creators’ pain points - including the lack of agents, marketplaces and systems to connect with commercial distribution. Our goal at VIFF is to showcase phenomenal work, ready for distribution. That’s why we only accept experiences that are commercially released or ready for it. How do we connect new media work to resources that create actual deals for commercial distribution? We started with the idea that everything that we select should be excellent quality, with a wonderful narrative that's really appealing to audiences and very much ready to go into commercial distribution.


C. B. - This has also been a virtue for our VR distributors because they're always looking for what can be their big “holiday moments”. And with this coming at the end of the early fall season, it means they are ready to figure out what they're going to showcase at the end of the year. And they're excited to see what has been able to mature over the course of the year about the festival season, and also what wasn't ready for Sundance or Tribeca submission in the year prior. It has been a success so far, as last year we had the most accessible headset presence and the most platform presence of any festival - outside the WebXR display.

Selecting VR content ready for distribution

B. S. H. - On quality content, VR continues to go up every year. But this year you could tell that production resources were stalled in live action and documentary, but not in animation for our 2021 line-up. The key requirement for entry is that story-driven content either be available for or already in commercial distribution on consumer XR platforms. There is not much pipeline for distribution yet. A creator is still forced to go out and solicit distribution by himself/herself.WHIle HTC has now focused a lot of attention on enterprise and gaming, other distributors and location-based entertainment providers are seeking more quality content. Still, general audience distribution is challenging for creators.. At VIFF the idea is that all of the existing XR distributors can come together as jury members first, and meet the creators - especially people from the British Columbia state, which is a big area for XR anyway. We’re all about networking, that’s the goal of our marketplace with the help of Artizen.

C. B. - In 2020 everything felt so strange. We were really pleased to see the enthusiasm of our distributors to participate in our online editions - as they had in previous years, and expanded - to be able to ensure that a great range of international works we showcase could be seen. And this year, we're seeing that again, and we're also increasing the amount of networking between distributors and artists. Since the launch of VIFF Immersed, we’ve always been able to exhibit work in these exclusive featured channels on at home devices (Oculus TV, Veer, Museum of Other Realities, Youtube…) so that globally, anyone can see the work of these amazing and emerging creators. . And finally, we are opening up an AR Storytelling competition for the first time in 2021.

B. S. H. - We'll also be programming three panels this year. But the way the in-person conference was programmed in the past, which we hope to return to next year, if there is an open day for, any ticketed attendee who wants to attend. We feature both creators and distributors and and usually we focus on what's coming next. Day two in person has always been programmed workshops for creators to see and learn new tools, workflows and processes for XR storytelling. But our focus is on creators, production and distribution. Our virtual panel topics this year will be a discussion with our finalists, discussion with distributors and a look ahead.

C. B. - We got about 130 submissions in 2020. This year it was closer to 95 eligible submissions from more than 30 countries. We had a lot of first time festival submitters with excellent work. It’s incredible to be a part of connecting newcomers to the people involved in the commercial industry,. This is an essential part of becoming a successful professional artist, great creator as well as the discovery of new talent .


VIFF and the business side of things

C. B. - Of course we are lovers of XR creations. We love seeing the new pieces. And we differentiate VIFF Immersed by featuring work that is either in or ready for distribution. Other XR markets do a wonderful job , showcasing projects in their earlier, creative phases, and VIFF Immersed has a market for works in development with Artizen. . We’ve also been able to have remarkable hands-on programs for both emerging artists and established artists, thanks to the partnership of Canadian, British Columbia and Vancouver based institutions. Maybe our greatest partner is Vancouver itself - which is a phenomenal ecosystem of visual effects, motion capture, animation, games and filmmaking. I can't wait for everyone to return in person in Vancouver. That is where a whole different kind of magic happens. We get the intermingling of all of these different disciplines and a mindset that really fuels the development of creative work not just in British Columbia, but globally.

B. S. H. - Frankly, because of the pandemic we were both really disappointed, but we also were still committed to continue. . Moreover here is something about the culture of Vancouver that has always lended itself to inclusion. It really is very easy to get people of hugely, wildly different backgrounds with expertise, nationality. Everyone has a feeling of welcome there. We have managed to bring this to virtual VIFF Immersed but I imagine there will be a great celebration when everyone is able to gather in Vancouver again. We do however expect the future to be hybrid embracing both in-venue and online. After all, due to the circumstances of the pandemic we achieved a level of distribution of content to which VIFF continues to be committed.

C. B. - We love other big festivals like Cannes, Tribeca and Sundance. A lot of the work that they show can be more installation based. And XR is a different reality than film, we aren’t just looking at other film festivals, , we're also looking at SIGGRAPH, games and tech conferences all year round, all around the world so that we know what is coming in content, distribution and technology. There are few center points in the XR industry. Because VR is such a medium with people coming from every discipline sharing simultaneously, you don’t only find great work at festivals. . Ultimately the most rewarding of the work is when we can find experiences that aren't necessarily getting the same attention at other film festivals, and making sure that they are shown to an interested, global audience.


Funding the XR industry

C. B. - The exciting part of working with XR distributors and platforms is that we now have a maturing marketplace that's growing steadily for hardware. On the creative side , it’s a truth that where funding is applied, more content comes out. The 2020 COVID pandemic definitely created a gap in the funding frameworks, inspiring new funding in many cases - places like the UK, even expanded funding to creators with virtual creation in mind. XR Content production has also always been cyclical, because the difficulties of production are higher. This year we're seeing some really phenomenal work that was produced during 2020.

C. B. - Next year, I expect we're going to see an incredibly powerful cohort of new content coming out based on what people have shown us as works in progress. It’s also a sign of the maturing of the medium, the defining of the language of XR. It will only get better from here.

B. S. H. -The pandemic drew attention to technology that already existed and was previously challenging to market to consumers. . People suddenly had to rely on technology in ways they hadn't had to before. Everything was being called “virtual”, so the leap is not that great into an XR headset. You have Apple's new mixed reality headset coming, better, lighter and higher resolution headsets coming from other manufacturers. There is a predisposition now to a hybrid world. Now you can tell a story across multiple platforms. Big and little tech companies and brands are stepping into the metaverse building worlds in which people can socialize, play and shop. And, in the metaverse there will be a place for entertainment. It is already happening in music and it will happen in XR storytelling- perhaps giving rise to a new genre. And it is VIFF’s mission to recognize excellence in storytelling- so, we will be there too to do just that.

Opening new doors at VIFF Immersed

C. B. - This year we're showing two phenomenal works from British Columbia built for Altpace VR. It’s new for us, but it’s a first step into recognizing creative achievement in social VR storytelling.. . It also represents what a phenomenal group of innovative creators that emerged fromBritish Columbia. We're going into a new realm, where we’re going from building XR like traditional content, to building XR in XR. . That's tremendously exciting. We;re seeing that people are becoming more and more comfortable going into these shared spaces. The technology for multiplayer VR is maturin. It's much more straightforward to enter. As a novice, it's much easier to find your way in and successfully have the experience that was intended for you; which has always been a major hurdle, both for L.B.E. (location-based entertainment) and at home exhibitions.

B. S. H. - There are stories told in virtual worlds in the exhibition this year. It's like the Olympics. We want to see where it goes before creating a new category. In 2021 we welcome AR Storytelling as a new category at VIFF Immersed, in the previous years it was first presented during panels and exhibitions.

RED EYES (2021) Korea, Republic of

C. B. - Over the last five years we have watched the industry grow and innovate. And it continues! We’ve watched all of these different platforms and technologies emerge as very large companies figure out how they fit economically, production wise, and experientially with XR. And we’ve watched great growth in both the Canadian and British Columbian XR and allied industries. Each one of these narrative experiences in competition and exhibition illustrate steps in a road to the evolution of XR as creators deliver great experiences and when audiences love them. In this evolution, you can’t necessarily predict what creators will do, and that's the magic. And, of course you can't predict what audiences will love. But at VIFF Immersed, thanks to our judges and juries, we had great results. XR still, even as it matures, presents the continual opportunity to experiment - the way to test and learn. The more of these content experiments we can present to audiences with artists and amplify the impact of those experiments, the better the work will be, the more thrilled audiences will be.

B. S. H. - We had a period where traditional filmmakers were jumping in and learning VR. Then they left. Now they’re coming back. They've created a convergence of the traditional and the innovative. c XR storytelling is just getting better. Returning visitors to VIFF Immersed can testify to that. And by the way, our juries apply the same high standards to XR as as applied to film entrants in the festival.

Telcos and a new wave of distributors

C. B. - ManyTelco companies in the past have been great distributors and have created very interesting content platforms (like Verizon). Marketing can bring people to a platform but great content creates a business and grows the industry, - That is, of course, the core truth of all media distribution. For creators: there are benefits - and also difficulties - to exclusive distribution. That's something we've often had as part of our conferences - diving into commercial pros and cons. In the early years, more telcos at the time were involved in distribution for XR and the conversation with creators. And today there are more opportunities to stream and distribute 6DOF pieces to headsets exclusively. It will be interesting.

B. S. H. - We have to remind ourselves that XR has no real marketplace like television and film do. BUt there will be! Film festivals have been the first step. The industry will figure it out because there is money to be made. Will it be a B2B virtual marketplace, direct to consumer like , like Sidequest (which is great!)? The question becomes: what is accessible for creators? You know, we had the YouTube democratization of content. You don't have that in XR yet. That part of the market is not matured yet. Categories of business are still missing from the ecosystem.


C. B. - That’s why we are glad to work with distribution partners like VeeR - they sponsor VIFF Immersed’s Audience Award. In addition to being a global at-home headset distributor, VeeR has the opportunity in arcades in Asia to distribute location-based content. This year’s jury platform where review and judging take place is Oculus, which has an expansive vision for the future of the Metaverse. And a lot of creators are innovating on using blockchain technology and NFT that favors them - and on traditional format streaming devices. The vision for distribution for each partner is bigger than any one piece of hardware, and the future of XR content will be more diverse than we can dream today.

B.S.H - This is why we love our work as curators with VIFF. We get to see the vision at 10,000 feet and the reality at ground level. And, the result is a continual raising of the quality bar for immersive storytelling.

VIFF Immersed Exhibition / Oct 1–11, 2021

VIFF Immersed XR Market / October 4–5, 2021

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VIFF Immersed 2021

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