A still from official Sundance New Frontier selection Weirdo Night
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Credit: Jibz Cameron & Mariah Garnett / Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Can’t go to Sundance? Strap on a VR headset as the film festival heads to virtual reality

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Jan 25, 2021, 4:51 PM EST

Getting the full-scale weekend experience at the legendary Sundance Film Festival has always been an exclusive deal — and thanks to limitations posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, spots at this year’s fest are at a higher premium than ever. But with the festival’s bold new push into the VR space, anyone can now get the full-scale cinephile treatment... with nothing more than a $25 access pass and a virtual reality headset.

With the days counting down until the main event kicks off later this week, Sundance has created an alternate film festival campus for movie fans who can’t make it to the real thing in Park City, Utah. It’s not a 1:1 recreation of the real-world atmosphere on the ground, and it’s not meant to be. Instead, it’s a spacey, futuristic parallel reality that takes full advantage of what VR can do.

Via Engadget, Sundance’s new VR platform works with any current Oculus or PC-based VR headset, and offers up an immersive experience that trades Utah’s mountain slopes for a gathering area featuring “a space garden floating above the Earth” surrounded by stars. Instead of trying to emulate the look and feel of the event’s real-world venue, the Sundance Institute is aiming for a bespoke VR environment designed to “capture the global experience of cinema.”

Sundance Institute on YouTube

Even in VR, there’ll still be a cocktail area (called the Film Party room) where guests inhabiting blobby, colorful VR “bodies” can mingle. To distinguish one guest from another, each attendee’s VR body will be crowned with their avatar to make a recognizable “face” (hey, when you’re an intrepid stranger walking the digital pathways of virtual reality, you definitely need to be able to tell people apart.)

The VR experience doesn’t include every film showing at Sundance, according to the report. Rather, it gets you access to five film features that’ll be showing in the VR Cinema House — “a fully realized VR theater” — while offering a way to share your passion for film with guests from all over the world. Even if you don’t have a VR headset, you’ll still be able to hang out in the online-only festival area with a regular tablet or computer by logging on through Sundance’s web portal.

The VR platform was originally aimed at showcasing the festival’s recent emphasis on VR film creations through its recurring New Frontier exhibition. But with the pandemic forcing organizers to think outside the box, it’s grown into a full-fledged Sundance alternative universe — one that probably, in one form or another, is here to stay.

“We're doing this whole thing as a grand experiment — [in terms of] how we're presenting the films, and how we're presenting New Frontier,” New Frontier curator and senior programmer Shari Frilot told Engadget. “I can’t imagine going backward from this.”

With or without VR, you can check out this year’s Sundance Film Festival starting Jan. 28, with the festival running through Feb. 3.