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"There are partners now in the virtual reality microcosm"

Industry Report: New Media

Katayoun Dibamehr and Avi Amar • Producers, Floréal Films


Having triumphed two years in a row in Venice by way of their virtual reality works, the heads of Paris-based firm talk to us about trends and the sector’s potential

Katayoun Dibamehr and Avi Amar  • Producers, Floréal Films
(© Marie Fages)

Awarded this year’s Grand Prize in Venice’s VR Expanded competition thanks to Goliath - Playing with Reality by Barry Gene Murphy and May Abdalla, and Venice Virtual’s Best Film accolade in the previous year via The Hangman at Home by Michelle and Uri Kranot, Floréal Films clearly knows which virtual reality projects to produce or co-produce. The two directors of the Parisian firm (which also works with “traditional” feature films) offer up their views and expertise on an ever-evolving immersive content industry whose exact potential remains largely unknown.

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Cineuropa: Two consecutive VR wins in Venice. What’s your secret, your recipe for success?
Katayoun Dibamehr:
Working with artists who offer unique worlds, who have very strong and solid visions, and who notably hail from the film world. Michelle and Uri Kranot, for example, have a 15-year career in animation behind them: they’re firmly established storytellers, innovators who know how to run with the virtual reality form. It’s the perfect marriage between their artistic visions and this particular technology, with just the right use of interactivity.

What’s the ideal length of a VR work and what does this cost in production terms?
Avi Amar:
You can do whatever you like in terms of length, but you need to think about the viewer/user: you can’t make them wear a headset for four hours! The two works in question are 25-30 minutes long. Our budget was in the region of 500,000 – 600,000 euros for The Hangman at Home.

KD: And around 900,000 for Goliath - Playing with Reality. With the knowledge, of course, that when it comes to animation and CGI, the higher the budget, the easier it is to work, especially in terms of the interactive part, to ensure that viewers know exactly what they need to do during the experience, without it being too didactic, because, ultimately, we’re treading the line between cinema and gaming.

What about distribution?
AA: The Hangman at Home doesn’t have a distributor as such, but it does have a life at festivals, in museums, in media centres, etc. This particular production comes in three formats: a traditional, one-dimensional short film format, screened in cinemas; a "user and headset" format for small spaces; and a multi-user version where four people (using four headsets) share the same experience. They all have the same animation and the same characters, just adapted to fit with the three different formats.

KD: Goliath - Playing with Reality was primarily commissioned by Oculus VR for Good, Facebook’s virtual reality Lab which supports projects aimed at bringing about a positive social impact. So we’re now broadcast by Oculus Store which is the most visible and visited store for game lovers.

AA: Oculus invested money in this project as if it were a TV pre-purchase, with rights for the exclusive use of their headsets. So the work has been broadcast since 9 September via their headsets. Which means it’s clearly a project with a broadcaster, to which you add festivals, events, etc.

You often hear that there isn’t really a market for VR.
There’s not when you compare it with feature films, TV programmes or series, but there are now partners in the virtual reality microcosm. In terms of distributors, aside from Facebook-Oculus, there’s its competitor in terms of headsets, HTC VIVE, who also pre-purchase works, but in Europe there’s also France Télévisions and Arte, who invest in various projects in development and in production every year, and there’s ZDF in Germany, etc. There’s also a buying and broadcasting market in Asia, especially in China with its various regional Telco offices. Behind this buying and content pre-purchasing market, there are also public institutions, mostly hailing from European countries, notably France, Luxembourg, Denmark, Belgium,the Netherlands… Almost all institutions which support feature film now have specific branches and budgets dedicated to immersive, virtual reality works. Obviously, the sums of money allocated are totally different, but when VR projects are really good, when they’re carried by serious production companies and artists who have things to say, they can obtain funding by bringing broadcasters together with these public institutions (the CNC, the Luxembourg Film Fund, the BFI, etc.).

How does the future look for virtual reality works in the context of the "metaverse", a universe where the real world meets the virtual one?
KD: All things relating to augmented reality using glasses, or virtual reality using headsets, are going to evolve. Enthusiasts spend huge amounts of time in the virtual world, so naturally they want it to be really interesting. In fact, in Venice, running parallel to the physical VR programme on the Lido, there was a whole other programme taking place via VRChat, a totally fantastical world where you choose your own avatar. The main objective, for Oculus for example, is to bring out the cheapest, most mobile, most aesthetically pleasing and best performing headset.

AA: And there’s increasingly interesting content out there. International franchises such as Star Wars are also now releasing content for headsets, and increasing numbers of IPs are being released in order to attract viewers. Glasses will become increasingly lightweight, high-performance and financially appealing, which will allow for new content and new creators in years to come. As producers supporting creators and directors, we’re inevitably going to adapt to headsets and to whatever else the market throws up.

Besides VR, Floréal also produces "classic" feature films. Can you explain your development strategy?
Our idea is to retain our cinematic DNA, working on short film and feature film projects, as well as immersive virtual reality – new media projects. Sometimes, it’s a line which is easy to cross. What we really want to do, when it’s possible and when it makes sense, is to diversify in terms of formats, and to pool resources, which is also a kind of response to the complications we’re currently seeing as a result of the congested production landscape, where there are increasing numbers of players but no real rise in funding.

For the time being, we’re going to kick off filming on Bertrand Mandico’s Conan la Barbare (which we’re co-producing with Ecce Films, Les Films Fauves and Novak Productions). It’s a feature film which will also be released in a virtual reality format as well as in other formats, which will piggyback on this global work which is unprecedented in the film and audiovisual landscape. In development on the traditional feature film side, we have La nouvelle Jérusalem by Renaud Barret (System K [+see also:
film review
film profile
, Benda Bilili [+see also:
film review
film profile
), Cécile et l’épicier by Gaëtan Vassart (co-written by Jean-Claude Carrière and set to star Laetitia Casta and Payman Maadi) and the animated project Goliath & Me by Michelle and Uri Kranot, which was selected for this year’s Mifa Pitch in Annecy and for the French In Motion market in New-York. And then in terms of VR, in league with Just Another Production Company and Oculus, we’re developing an experience entitled Blood Speaks: Maya - The Birth of a Superhero by Poulomi Basu and C.J. Clarke.

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(Translated from French)

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