Insights into XR Distribution — Antoine Cayrol (Atlas V, Astrea)

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Insights into XR Distribution — Antoin ...

Ahead of the publication of its Study on XR Distribution, Québec/Canada XR is delighted to share some of the interviews we have conducted with key experts in the field of XR from around the world. In addition to these interviews, we will also publish a number of articles focused on key themes that our respondents discussed throughout the research process. 

Whet your appetite with these articles while we prepare to publish the results of our study.

This interview with Antoine Cayrol (Atlas V and Astrea) was conducted by Monique Simard (President, Partenariat Quartier des Spectacles) on May 5, 2021.

Monique Simard: To begin, can you tell us about your background?

Antoine Cayrol : It all started with I, Philip, directed by Pierre Zandrowicz and produced by Okio Studio with ARTE. We were among the first in Europe to do this kind of production. It’s a bet that paid off and we found ourselves to be solicited a great deal afterwards (an advertisement for Jean-Paul Gaultier, another film for Oculus, etc.). It was a sign for us that we had to continue on this path. In October 2017, we founded Atlas V, a VR production studio that has since set up a subsidiary specializing in VFX and real time production Albyon). More recently, we also launched Astrea, a distribution company that works with other producers to publish and distribute VR experiences around the world.

Source : Astrea

MS: As an independent producer, how do you see the evolution of independent VR? How do people perceive the environment?

AC: To answer this question, we have to consider the future but also the past. If we go back to the very beginning—that is, when Facebook bought Oculus—Mark Zuckerberg said at the first conference in 2016: “Be patient, it’s going to take 10 years to work. It won’t go any faster than that.” Despite this, many people decided to forget this warning and invest massively in this new virtual reality market, hoping for a quick return on investment. So there was a first period of enthusiasm where things happened quickly and where several people said to themselves “It’s for tomorrow!” This honeymoon period lasted 3 years.

Spheres. Source : Atlas V

The initial craze gave way to a second wave, which is the one we are in right now, a wave of disillusionment that should end soon. We see this disillusionment in the comments of those who say, “no one is watching VR projects, it does not make money, people are not equipped, new technologies take too long to develop.” It’s this mentality that has led to a slowdown in the sector and the closure of several studios. This period has also been marked by a kind of disillusionment that has made it harder to fund projects. Far fewer people were funding new productions because they were thinking that “it’s not going as fast as expected.” But in fact, it’s going exactly as planned! People who are in it for the long run know this very well. You have to be patient, since it might take ten years, as Zuckerberg said at the time.

Finally, we are approaching the end of this second wave and the beginning of a new, more constructive phase that will be marked by the arrival of many more devices. Several companies in Asia are releasing headsets (Huawei, Pico, etc.) and we should also see members of the GAFA launch their own hardware. We are at the dawn of a phase where technology will be more and more enjoyable and where, thanks to streaming, it will no longer be necessary to connect to a computer. This is what will bring us into a third phase where investors will return. I am convinced that this third phase will be even more interesting and better funded than the very first.

Notes on Blindness. Source : Atlas V

MS: How have these different phases affected your business practices?


AC: The choice of project has sometimes been influenced, but it is mainly the way productions are planned that has changed. We are fortunate to be part of a country (France) with generous public funding for audiovisual productions. This funding is sometimes slower, but it creates jobs, value, catalogue, and heritage in these countries (France, Canada, etc.). When private investment slowed down in the second phase, we were able to count on these more traditional funding strategies: international co-production, applying to several parallel funds (in Luxembourg, the CMF, the CNC,  the tax shelter in Belgium, etc.). In other words, we had to look for sources of funding that are not sensitive to the ups and downs and that are rather there to fund culture.

At the moment, we are in a phase where it takes longer to fund projects.  What is likely to happen in this third wave where private investment will return is that we will have to change the way we choose the projects we produce to invest in projects that will meet market expectations. However, I don’t consider “independent production” and “mainstream market” to be mutually exclusive; I am of the opinion that we can do things aimed for a large audience that are still of independent quality. Only, if we imagine a stronger market with a robust audience, then auteur-driven productions can return. When the market is there, there is room for everyone. For now, the market is not there yet; it is under construction. In the meantime, we will prioritize editorial choices that are a little more mainstream than what we have done in the past and what we might do again in the future.

Mirror: The Signal. Source : Atlas V

MS: How do you manage distribution? Do you do it internally or do you entrust the responsibility to an external company?

AC: At first, we gave out a few mandates, but it wasn’t always done very well. This is what led us to create our own distribution company, Astrea. At the moment, we already have a lot of mandates. It all started with the Atlas V catalogue, but we also broadened our horizons to include catalogues from other studios. For the moment, we have been entrusted with about fifteen projects in addition to the Atlas V catalogue.

Source : Astrea

One of the things we are prioritizing at the moment is localizing projects to ease their international distribution. We are on the verge of making our first releases in Japan, Korea, etc. We also managed to sign agreements for exhibitions in China and Korea. They are sometimes small exhibitions, but they offer us a lot of visibility. It is important to make yourself known to the public and to make your brand known! We also take care of the festivals, but we now ask that they pay us a minimum fee, especially when it is not one of the big three (Tribeca, Venice, Sundance).

Finally, we also sign agreements to distribute projects on major platforms (Oculus, Steam, etc.). Even these amounts, which are sometimes small, add up quickly across the different territories. What’s more, it gives visibility.

Catalogue Astrea. Source : Astrea

The real challenge of distribution will be publishing. You have to get closer to the public. This is what we want to develop with Astrea. Publish the works of our partners, invest in marketing, localization, and get closer to the final audience and the buyer.

MS: While waiting for this third phase of recovery that you described earlier, do you think that there will have to be technical improvements in order to build a larger audience?

AC: Of course! But more than the device, there will also have to be ancillary improvements. For example, streaming  is likely to be increasingly important. Also, I believe there could be big upheavals if PlayStation and Xbox invested more seriously in the market. If these companies that already have tens of millions of consoles in the hands of the public sent them a free headset, the user base would suddenly be huge. People already own these consoles, so headsets are only a small part of the equation on top of that.

Battlescar. Source : Atlas V

MS: Do you think that this audience, oriented towards video games as it is, is less likely to be interested in the independent works we produce in the field?

AC: Not necessarily. First off, gamers  have families who don’t just consume video games. I also think gamers take breaks from their games and they also consume other types of content. Additionally, I think that today’s gamers are people who love—and have the time—to indulge in leisure, at least more than forty years ago.They are also the ones who already know the platforms and the hardware. They are the ones who, at first, will invest in this market and they are also the ones who will buy authors-driven content.

Let’s take Gloomy Eyes as an example. It was gamers who bought the Quest and bought the project, not necessarily cinephiles. Obviously, the profits generated by video games will remain well beyond those of our independent content, but we shouldn’t overlook this market.

Gloomy Eyes Source : Atlas V

MS: Should we adapt our strategies to address this type of audience?

AC: Absolutely! For example, one of the most important lessons we have learned from distributing our works on these platforms is that this audience consumes a lot of content, but they never buy something upon release, and especially never at full price. They usually wait until there are sales a few months after release; they wait until the content is at a 40% discount. It is this kind of mentality that we must get to know and adapt to. You have to plan for slightly more expensive releases and know that this audience will wait for the summer or holiday sales to buy the project at a discount; that’s when the project will sell more.

We must adapt to this way of speaking to these people who, let us remember, are not opposed to artistic or narrative content. On the other hand, they have habits of their own. It is not up to them to change their habits; it is up to us to change ours.

Ayahuasca Source : Atlas V

MS: What do you think of public funding programs in France and Europe?

AC: We are fortunate to be part of one of the five countries that support what we do very well, so we use these funding programs very often. European aids, for example, are very well done. The process is sometimes long and exhausting, but you can file a slate of five projects and receive more development aid, which is not done in France. 

Otherwise, where the CMF (Canada Media Fund) sometimes goes too far in its economic judgment, I find that the CNC (Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image animée) may not go far enough. An in-between would be healthier. It is still important to think about the market and the profitability of a project. 

Madrid Noir. Source : Atlas V

MS: In terms of the format of the works, what do you think of the future of projects with or without an installation portion?

AC: I am of the opinion that in the future there will be more physical venues dedicated to XR exhibitions. In fact, we are launching the  PERROTIN VR – Narrative Experience space in October 2021. Associated with the Perrotin Gallery, in the heart of Paris, the space launches on October 19 with four productions at the crossroads of art and immersive technologies.

I believe that there will always be a place for installation works, but I also think that they will most likely be tied to commissions or thematic exhibitions, for example for natural history museums. It would be difficult to design a project produced with an installation that would not be planned for a particular place, without knowing the technical constraints, the conditions of the place that will host it, etc.

L'espace PERROTIN VR Source : Atlas V

There are also location-based spaces (LBE), for example in shopping centers. At the moment, if we look at what is happening in China, video games are put front and center. I believe that this kind of space will always have its place, especially by proposing things that people will not be able to do at home (haptic or neural interfaces, etc.). On the other hand, I don’t have the impression that many of these LBEs are going to want narrative content, at least for now. Some of them take the opposite bet, like Dreamscape, but the question of profitability still arises, especially in the case of short narrative content without replayability.

In the same vein, we have also begun to take an interest in what we call “immersive without helmets”. As long as you know how to write and design immersive experiences, why limit yourself to headsets? Why not also consider these immersive spaces without helmets? I have tremendous faith in these spaces that stand out from the traditional model of virtual reality (with headset).

This interview was conducted as part of Québec/Canada XR‘s Study on XR Distribution. This, along with several other interviews will lead to the publication of a report on the challenges, trends, and new models for XR distribution among independent producers, here and abroad. 

Stay tuned for the publication of the full report.

Study on XR Distribution

The study on the Distribution of independent XR works and experiences is a project of Québec/Canada XR, in partnership with MUTEK, XN Québec, Phi Center, Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC) and Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM). The project was made possible by the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the City of Montreal as part of their cultural funding agreement with the Quebec Government.

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Proud partner of the City of Montreal.

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