Charged Up: It's time for a virtual reality category at the Oscars

The hard work of VR filmmakers needs recognition

It's that time of the year. Hollywood is getting ready to honour the films of 2017 with a parade of awards shows and, at the same time, usher in 2018's contenders with a parade of film festivals. This is all standard fare for traditional cinema, but this year's film festivals are seeing some change.

The Sundance Film Festival saw VR storytelling mature to a brand new level this year, but one thing that's missing is the other half. Where are the award shows? Where's the recognition for this budding art form, where creativity is flourishing and filmmakers are experimenting? Where's the encouragement?

Read this: What's next for VR filmmaking

While many people see award shows as a way for Hollywood to pat itself on the back, the reality is that a big award from the Oscars can make a career. It can legitimise someone's creativity and passion, and open doors for them to make even more. All that hard work is not only officially recognised, it's celebrated. It can also push forward an entire art form.

Despite featuring a lot of VR content, the Sundance Film Festival doesn't extend its prized Jury Awards to the medium. Instead, all the VR films are tucked away inside Sundance's New Frontier program, which is all about finding innovative ways to tell stories. The New Frontier program isn't a celebration of great accomplishment in virtual reality, it's about looking forward to what's next.

The problem with looking forward to what's next is that it can miss what's already here. At Sundance, Emily McNitt's Spheres, which is narrated by Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain and produced by Oscar nominee Darren Aronofsky, got purchased by a distributor for seven figures.

That's big money; money that's unseen in the world of VR filmmaking yet standard in traditional filmmaking. See, film festivals are where studios throw around cash to pick up strong indie movies in the hopes of running successful Oscar campaigns, which helps in two ways. They can gain some prestige, and they can hope a prestige bump makes some profit on a small-budget film.

Spending that kind of money on a VR film means that CityLights, the newly formed distributor who picked up Spheres, sees similar potential for it. The missing mechanism for CityLights and Spheres, however, is the award recognition. Where's the award buzz, and award bump, going to come from? Where's the large organisation that nudges its way into the public conversation and goes "Here, these are the experiences we think are great – go check them out"?

It should come from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – keyword sciences – also known as the Oscars. It has the cultural cache to push a conversation forward. It's partly happened before, with the world of animation. Before 2001, there was no Best Animated Feature Film award. Every once in a while, the Oscars would honour a great animated film with a special recognition Oscar. This happened with Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and, finally, with Toy Story in 1996. Five years later, alongside an increase in animated films, the Best Animated Feature Film award debuted.

The difference between VR and animation is that VR isn't hurting for competition. We're seeing VR films come out all the time now, and it's not like they're lacking star power. The Oscars aren't blind to them either, as they'll be giving a special award to Carne Y Arena, the VR film from Oscar winner Alejandro G Inarritu, this year. So next year, how about we get an entire category?


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