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Should you make VR work for new or existing audiences?

In today's episode, we're diving deep into a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. Should you be making VR work for new audiences, or existing ones?


Read on for the full transcription or listen to the podcast episode here


So let's dive into this subject. And I have to be really honest with you, this is a subject I get quite passionate about. And it's also a subject that I get myself in a lot of trouble talking about, because it's a very, very divisive topic. It's also interestingly, a conversation that I have with pretty much everyone in the VR industry behind closed doors. But no one talks about it publicly. We have a huge divide in the creator community in the VR industry, between those that are making work for new audiences, and those that are making work for existing audiences. Now, what do I mean by that? Alos, I don't want to turn this a West Side Story thing where it's us versus them or I've got absolutely no personal preference, you do you, I'm just making an observation. I'm going to talk through my kind of personal

opinion on this situation.

Now obviously, this is heightened massively because of COVID. Because all of a sudden, we don't have the option really to get to new audiences. Because unless you've got a VR headset at home it is going to be very difficult for you to get your work out to new audiences to bring people in, to give people that that opportunity to have their first time VR experience. You know, for example,

the pocket little VR kind of activations that happen in shopping malls, or VR arcades, where you might go for a day out with your friends, or maybe it's like a VR part of a theme park or something bigger. Or maybe you go around to your friend who's got a VR headset and you play some Beat Saber or you experience some things. Even festivals, even when you think about the biggest VR festivals, they've all had to go online, which is amazing, like, phenomenal, because this means that going forward, I'm hoping that a lot of those festivals will always have an online version. So actually, if we're not able to fly to New York, actually, we might still be able to see this selection. And isn't that what we all want at the end of the day, as creators? We want people to actually see the work that we're producing? But the flip side of that, is that because all of these festivals have now gone online, the kind of people that would have stumbled across the VR selection at a film festival or the kind of people that wouldn't go out of their way to try VR, but if it was there, and it looked interesting, you would try it. And we're missing out on these opportunities for new people to come into the ecosystem and become new audiences. I'm not even necessarily just talking about audiences like consumers, I'm talking about creators that work in different areas that might not be aware of VR or inspired to get into the industry because from all they've heard, it's an absolute ball ache. It costs extraordinary amounts of money, and no one actually gets to see your work. Sounds like the worst deal in the world for a creator.


I knew this was going to get ranty very quickly. But what I'm saying is, it's not necessarily a bad thing that these things have gone online, because again, this is sped up the process of being much more accessible on VR headsets. But the fact is, especially during something like the pandemic kind of era, we're missing out on these opportunities to bring new audiences in. So that's kind of, the first point. My worry is that we already had a bit of a divide between people making content for new audiences versus existing ones. And now the creators that go after new audiences have had a massive setback.

The reason that worries me is because without keeping a constant stream of new people coming into VR, whether they be creators or consumers, our industry will die. That is just a cold, hard fact unfortunately, now don't get me wrong, I have all the faith in the world, that enterprise and gaming is absolutely going to keep VR soldiering on. It will keep making the cost of the technology to come down and start to reduce that barrier to entry. If the rumours are true about the new Oculus quest, which looks like it might, an Oculus Quest Light which might replace the Go but be a sixth headset and that would be incredible but also hopefully, you know, a low price point like that could be really exciting for people going after new audiences. But ultimately, what we need to make sure is that, this gap doesn't widen

between creators who were going after new audiences who now can't make work for new audiences, and the creators that are now doubling down on existing audiences.

Now, I've got absolutely no beef with people that are making work for existing audiences. It makes complete sense. You're a creator, you want your work to be seen. Who are you going to go to after? Well, especially if you're a company or a person that wants to actually make a living from this, of course, you're going to go after an audience that actually wants VR. And I'm going to do a whole episode at some point in the future about, you know, trying not to sell the unsellable because it's just a recipe for disaster. But in terms of VR, a lot of it isn't about selling the unsellable. It's not like people don't want these experiences. It's that they just don't know that they exist. And also, it's not even that they don't know it exists, they just don't know that it's for them.


So when it comes to new audiences . I did a six month pop up VR cinema last year, and we only went to new audiences. The whole point of the project was to get people from the community, in Leicester people from all sorts of different backgrounds like age wise, ethnicity wise, like gender wise, like a real range of people, people that would normally go to the cinema. But they saw this pop up VR cinema thing was happening, and they took a chance. And interestingly, the thing that came out of that cinema was pretty much, and I would actually go on record and say, 100% of the people that went to the cinema, loved it. There was some content that wasn't as good as others necessarily and it wasn't even that it wasn't as good, it wasn't quite for them. But audiences loved it. In fact, a lot of the audience's that came out of that experience was super hyped about VR. They were yes, this is the future of everything. Why isn't every film done like this? This is amazing.


In fact, quick segue, because this episode is already all over the place. My mum went to see that film, 1917 that came out last year, which looks like it's a one shot but it's not a one shot that kind of thing. So my parents went to see that and the first thing my Mum said to me: "Do you what Alex, I watched that film and I thought this would be so much better in VR." This is my 60 odd year old mother who's actually saying to me, I would prefer to watch that in VR, like that would have been really cool. Because she said that she really liked it, it was very artistically done and it was cool but at the same time, there was something still missing. And she could actually imagine what that would have been like to see in a VR headset and to actually feel like she was there like, in the trenches with the characters, and I thought - well, isn't that saying something? Isn't that saying something, that someone who is probably the opposite of what Oculus target their headsets at is saying to me, I would have watched that in VR. How amazing is that? And this is the opportunities that we're missing out on if we kind of pump the brakes on making content for new audiences.


So what do I actually mean when it comes to making work for new audiences versus existing ones?

Well, as I'm sure you're all aware, when you get into VR the first thing you see is quite impactful, right? It kind of shapes your passion for the media. Just trying VR, like the first few times are mind blowing and those experiences could be so simple. My first experience wasn't simple, it was the Felix and Paul Cirque de Soleil piece so a really powerful but super simple in terms of it was just a static camera with a performance going around you and of course Felix and Paul, the masters of their craft, beautifully done cinematic as fuck, just gorgeous.But it was simple, right? It wasn't a multi user sensory or crazy installation where I was like, you know, on a platform and I was getting perfume sprayed in my face or something but it still blew my mind. The next thing I watched was the Mr. Robot VR piece and again, loved that because I loved the IP and the past couple of seasons anyway but I was really drawn in and I'm now here with these characters. This is so cool. And given the premise of Mr. Robot really lended itself to la VR experience. And yeah, I was blown away again.


After watching a few things I thought it was weird how there's no drama content, there's nothing really being made like that and then the dramas that were being made were all like animations and you can't access them on a $3 headset. I then though, okay, I'll try some other things. And they were like documentaries, which are okay, but documentaries aren't really my jam. Which is a shame because documentaries and travel content slay in VR. There was no drama. And I thought that was really strange because I as a filmmaker, particularly interested in character driven dramas and I thought, okay, well, if I was a consumer, I wouldn't buy a headset because there's no content on here for me. Like, none of this content appeals to me. A lot a lot of my friends make the kind of content that does really well on VR stores and I'm like, yeah, fantastic. As an artist, I can respect their work, but it's not the kind of thing where I would want to put on my headset and pop off to Uganda or, you know go deep diving in the barrier reef like it's not my vibe.


You might be listening to this and that could absolutely be perfect for you. Because you actually really like documentaries and that kind of stuff. And it is amazing! Good for you. But the thing is, until VR is at a place where we are exploring and experimenting in enough of these different genres, making work for everyone, for new audiences, for people to come in and be like, there is something here for you as well. Then we are basically doing a disservice to the medium. And the reason I get so passionate about this is because ever since I came into the VR industry, ever since I made my first VR drama, I have been told no. I've been told it doesn't work. People don't want it. We're not interested. It doesn't sell. It doesn't get licensed. We don't care. We don't want your drama, okay? We don't want your drama we want space. We want novelty. We want high impact. But I'm not going to give up on making dramas.

I'm not going to change my plan just because the industry doesn't want it, just because there isn't an audience yet. Because every single time I show Keyed Alike to a new audience that has never done VR before and they're filmmakers who appreciate a good independent film (good not to blow my own horn but good script writing) people love it! They come out of it and they go - okay there's something there and don't get me wrong it is super old now and we had no money, it is a one shot. If we'd had all the budget in the world, and we had all the time in the world, yes, we would have done a million things with that project but there was something there. And that's what I've not let go of. And so my new drama Bad News and of course, I'm in a very fortunate position where the BFI have taken a risk on me and said, okay, we don't know what this VR thing is and all of the signals are telling us that this is a terrible idea, and we are going to fail miserably because all of the industry is telling us that drama does not work in VR, BUT we're going to take a risk, because we want to bring in new audiences not just play to the existing audiences of the industry. And I respect the fuck out of that. And I'm so excited to be given the opportunity to try and do that again. And I take it as a massive responsibility to make a new audience member, someone that's never experienced VR before to put on that headset and go, holy shit.

This is for me, there is content here for me. There is a space here for me to create the kind of work that I want to create.


Because at the moment, if you come into the VR industry, it can very easily see like you are, you're already losing, unless you create the kind of content that the current VR audiences want. Now, it could be completely wrong. And I totally own the fact that I am so happy to be proven wrong. I'm so happy for it in five years time a d VR is doing like amazing things and audiences are still like - no, we don't give a fuck about drama. Just let it go, Alex. People want more game based interactive works and again there's a whole discussion to be talked about, where the blurry line is between film and game. And

you know, I'm sure that there's going to be a lot of brilliant IP that is built in that kind of Pixar kind of CGI type. It is a drama, but it's CGI. But I don't know, there's so much, there is so much room for debate in where those lines blur but from what I'm seeing, no one really is focusing on creating the kind of independent drama that was essentially the thing that revolutionised the cinema industry. The bedrock of independent cinema is these character driven dramas that people love to snoop on and be a part of in these weird ways, like seeing that kind of raw side or the fun side of a comedy or, you know, the kind of rom-coms and maybe it's because it's way more expensive but to me, nobody is actually putting in the time to make them or maybe it's just too much of a risk right now because of the fact that there are no audiences for it.


But I really believe that if you're making VR work, you should really make the kind of work that you want to make. And if that means that your VR work happens to be in the area, where the intersection is of existing audiences, and a piece of work that will sell phenomenally well? I couldn't be happier for you. You should absolutely make that work. But ultimately, if you want to make a piece of VR work that currently doesn't have an audience that won't sell, but you just know in your heart that it's the kind of work that you want to make, it's the kind of work that you're passionate about, even if there's not an audience for it right now, I promise you, I promise you that by putting that work out there, you are saying to a new group of people somewhere in the world, this medium is also for you.



There is content here for you. And I will make that content for you, even if it's a small subset of people. I feel like this one has been a real roundabout episode because I haven't actually answered the question. The question was, should you be making VR work for new or existing audiences? I think I've made my point very clear, that I think we need to really look at ourselves as an industry and make sure that we're not taking the easy route by playing into just what works. And although there will be companies and there will be individuals that say it's stupid, and what's the point in making a work that no one's going to see. And I totally understand that point of view. I totally understand that.

You want to make a piece that will be seen. And that will make money. And that will be the kind of content that is licensable. And that will get to go to different festivals and that kind of thing.


Don't get me wrong, I am thinking how do I make Bad News appeal to both? Or can I make a version that I know will play more to an audience that hasn't done much VR before but also an audience that has and where is that line? It's a constant battle. But for me in my heart, I know that if I was to make VR work for existing audiences, it wouldn't be the kind of work that I would want to make. I would be making it purely just to kind of feed into what we've decided is the kind of work that the VR industry wants us too.

But I don't want make that, I want to make the kind of work that I'm passionate about, the kind of thing that I want to see, the kind of stories that I want to tell as a storyteller, the kind of things that get me excited when I see a trailer on TV for a new series. I want to make that kind of content for someone out there that hasn't necessarily felt like VR was for them yet. And I would urge you to think about that, I would urge you to just look at your project or the idea that you've got and if you're not making it, and don't get me wrong, I appreciate the fact that people got bills to pay and it's really, really hard to make a piece that no one wants because no one wants to fund it. And it's really hard to think of how you're going to distribute it because you're gonna have to distribute it yourself and you're gonna have to organise your own little pop up VR cinemas or whatever it might be. But all I would say is that you know, there was no Tarantino movies until Tarantino put out Tarantino movies. Then the world went - oh yeah, we want that. Maybe one of you listening right now, are sitting on an idea that you're not moving on because you know, it's not the kind of content that will work in the current existing VR market. But actually, if you made it, and it was seen by the right kind of people, it would be the catalyst that changes everything. And I am so here for that. I'm so here for the idea of someone listening to this or someone listening to this and then telling their mate, or then telling someone else or it getting shared to the right person who listens to this, decides to do it and becomes a Tarantino or the, you know, the, I can't think of any of the directors names off the top of my head because I'm a bit rubbish with that but the person that puts VR on the map for a certain group of people and I think that's how this is going to work.


This technology is so new and so expensive, that it's gonna take time for someone to make that app that makes the technology all of a sudden go mainstream. Like, that's not going to happen for a long time. I don't think, not until the technology is cheaper, not until it's like super easy to use. And it's, it's the kind of thing that you know, a pair of glasses that connects to your phone, it's like super easy that kind of thing, we're not going to have one of those movements. What we might have is a moment where you make the kind of project that you want to make, and you put out to the kind of audiences that you're already connected in. So for me, I'm a massive fan of sci fi dystopian female characters like Orphan Black Those character driven pieces that have those kind of cool, big philosophical things running through them. But also they're kind of just really cool concepts. Anyway, I'm plugged into those communities and groups of people who are into the same thing and those are the kind of people that I want to reach. And what if I didn't make this piece? Because the VR industry has told me for the last four years, we don't like film based drama, get it through your head woman? What If I think - I'm just gonna go back to traditional filmmaking, I'm just gonna not make this as a VR piece anymore because it's too hard but what if I missed out on the opportunity to make a piece of VR, that all of a sudden

made those kind of people, the fans of those kind of dramas go - oh, hang on a second, have you seen this like? This was kind of cool, I would pay to see this, whether it be like through some kind of pop up thing in future or whether it be like an online version of it or whether whatever it might be. Maybe that's like the gateway into a new little pocket of audiences finding this medium.


So I don't know whether any of this has helped you but mainly, it was my opportunity to rant about my current disdain for for the big divide happening in the industry but the other thing that pains me is to think that VR is getting this reputation as being a little bit elitist, and only for the artist community, when there is a whole world of filmmakers out there that would be dying to try out this medium and dying to get into it, but they don't see a root in for themselves right now. And that's what breaks my heart. And so that's why I think we have a lot to answer for. And we have a lot of work to do in terms of making VR work for new audiences, but also making sure that creators know that this is a space for them too.


But I'm going to stop there because I'm really on my high horse and I'm sorry if anyone got offended from listening to this, but I'm also not sorry, because these are my opinions, this is not factual this is absolutely anecdotal. But I speak to a lot of VR creators about this, behind closed doors and feel like I have a good pulse on the industry, and what people like from all different kinds of backgrounds as creators, our thinking, and so I would just say, when it comes to your VR piece, just do the work that you would want to see. Do the kind of work that you want to work on and that you would want to see. And we will bring new audiences into this industry, and we will make this a space for everyone.


Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.



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