Insights into XR Distribution — Myriam Achard and Julie Tremblay (PHI)

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Insights into XR Distribution — Myria ...

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 Myriam Achard  (Chief New Media Partnerships and Public Relations, PHI) and Julie Tremblay  (Producer, Installations and Touring Exhibitions, PHI Studio) was conducted by Monique Simard  (Chair of the Board of Directors, Quartier des Spectacles Partnership) on May 28, 2021. An additional interview was conducted by Philippe Bédard  (Quebec/Canada XR) on December 6, 2021.

Monique Simard: To begin with, can you explain how you came to be part of the XR ecosystem?

Myriam Achard: We fell into VR when Phoebe [Greenberg] met Félix [Lajeunesse] and Paul [Raphaël] about 7 years ago, in 2014. Félix and Paul approached Phoebe and offered her a virtual reality experience. They met and showed her Strangers. This was the first VR project they made, and it led them to South by Southwest. After trying it, Phoebe told me, “I want us to be a part of this adventure, I want to show virtual reality in the PHI Centre.” This is how we came into contact with virtual reality.

As I was already travelling a lot as part of my duties and as Phoebe saw that I loved VR, she offered me to tour the major festivals, make discoveries, meet the artists and, in doing so, open doors for us to present these projects.

Julie Tremblay: For my part, I have always been passionate about user experience. As soon as there is a new project—something that has never been done or that is innovative—my curiosity is piqued. What drives me, essentially, is finding ways to make people live these experiences in the best possible context. At the same time, I see myself as a pioneer, always trying to find the right business model so that these projects can be seen and be profitable, both for producers and artists.

MA: To reiterate on what Julie has said, I would also define myself as a pioneer, but for very different reasons. Where Julie is concerned about the financial and logistical issues of a project or exhibition, I focus on the content. That’s why we work so well together.

Chalkroom (Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang, 2017). Credit: Philippe Bédard.

MS: Where do you find the works you program?

MA: Normally, when it is possible to travel, I tour festivals (Tribeca, Sundance, IDFA, Cannes, Venice, FNC, New Images, and so on). I also go to contemporary art biennials. For about four years now, it is also the artists who come knocking on our door.

MS: From your point of view, how does the audience perceive this new type of immersive production?

JT: The field in which we are operating at the moment is still very exploratory. There is still a lot of trial and error. Several things work and others less so, especially at the technological level. It is still common to have technical issues, which can cause significant downtime. Also, we still know little about the durability of the tools in which we are investing, which means that what we present is still often in the exploratory stage. I am not sure the public is fully aware of that.

In fact, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of explaining how risky what we do really is. We still need to make the public understand how innovative what we are doing is, so that it is clear that these technologies can still breakdown, for whatever reason; they are not flawless.

Also, some of the difficulties we encounter come from the term “immersive”, which is used by all kinds of exhibitions that are described as being “fully immersive”. However, this deprives us of a word to describe the experiences we are talking about, which are truly immersive. I am therefore of the opinion that there is work to be done at the level of language in order to increase public awareness.

MA: I totally agree that there is work to be done so that people understand the challenges of presenting XR works. On the other hand, I see an encouraging development in terms of media coverage. When we started, we didn’t offer full-fledged exhibitions. It was more of an VR garden with two or three seats. At that time, the journalists I invited didn’t seem to think their audience would be interested in VR. Now, more recently with experiences like Carne y Arena and The Infinite, we see a real evolution; it’s day and night. This is an important change, because the media plays a decisive role in the evangelization of the field.

MS: Could we say that there is a generational issue?

JT: Not necessarily. I would say that the age group that we have the most difficulty attracting is the 15–25-year-old generation. Maybe that’s because the experiences we program don’t usually have a gaming component. At the same time, we noticed something extraordinary last summer during the exhibition “Emergences and Convergences”. The exhibition wasn’t necessarily designed for this young audience, but  The Pursuit of Time  [a video projection that artist George Fok describes  as an immersive poem], proved to be very popular with this audience.

MA: Someone shared images of the project on TikTok and it went viral. Overnight, we noticed that we no longer recognized our audience, which was suddenly much younger.  This took us by surprise, and it obviously raises questions. Namely, how to get this audience back.

Seeking Stillness (George Fok, 2020), as seen during the Emergence and Convergence exhibition at PHI Centre. Credit : Christian Blais.

MS: What do you think of the future of the XR (with or without headsets)?

JT: I think there’s no other medium than VR that allows you to experience such a sense of presence; to be transported elsewhere. If I look at what we’ve done with  The Infinite,  it’s very bold. We welcome up to 150 visitors at once, each with a HMD and moving about in the same space.

MS: And what do you think about the future of VR at home?

MA: I think it will probably be a very long time before the majority of people have a headset at home. We saw an acceleration in adoption at the beginning of the pandemic, but it happened much later than some people in the community would have liked to, or than some had predicted at the very beginning, seven or eight years ago. While some thought it would only take two or three years, it happened much later.

JT: I think there will always be a place for virtual reality at home. If you think about the concerts, plays or live shows that are already starting to be offered exclusively in VR, I do think it will be more and more common. It may not be something we do every week, but I think it will still become a must.

PHI VR TO GO. Credit: Régina Malo. Source: PHI.ca

MS: What do you think of attempts to launch "VR cinemas" (some of which have closed amid the pandemic, among other reasons)?

MA: In some cases, the content was not necessarily aligned with the place in which it was hosted. Also, I’m not sure that selling access to projects by the minute was the best approach.

MS: In that case, do you think the model is economically viable for the XR?

JT: In terms of business model, absolutely. If we had a higher occupancy rate, similar to that of a movie theater, it is an economic model that would work well, especially  because it only takes one mediator to operate fifty seats. We have developed an application that allows us to launch content simultaneously on several headsets. This makes it a more efficient economic model than an exhibition that requires many more mediators to operate it; up to one per work, sometimes even more.

 

For example, in an exhibition like The Infinite, it takes about fifteen docents on the floor at a time. That’s huge!

Credit: Vivien Gaumand. Source: PHI.ca

MS: Tell me about this application you developed for your VR cinema.

MA: You should know that this is an application that we have developed internally. It allows a single person to operate a twenty-seat VR cinema, whereas previously it took around ten employees, give or take, to operate a twelve-seat theatre.

JT: It’s an idea that came from a need of some studios, like Felix & Paul, who develop their projects in the form of an application, rather than as a video file. All the headsets available on the market at the time allowed to play 360° movies, but none of them  allowed to start applications, nor to maintain the kind of sound quality that was acceptable for studios like Felix & Paul. So, it was in order to present one of their projects that we made the decision to develop our own VR cinema application. We then converted it for the VR TO GO project. We’ve also started making it available to some festivals that would like to manage large numbers of seats, as well as companies that would like to replicate the VR TO GO experience in their area.

PHI immersive : Theatre of Virtuality (Venice, 2019). Credit: Camilla Martini. Source: PHI.ca

MS: What made you choose to explore such different projects, from The Infinite to VR TO GO?

MA: It’s important for us to showcase diversity, but also to diversify our operations. We welcome visitors to the PHI Centre for exhibitions, but when we had to close our doors due to the pandemic, we decided to bring VR to people with VR TO GO. We also wanted to bring VR to other places, whether at the Arsenal with experiences such as Carne y Arena and The Infinite, or in other places that invite us to curate a program for them. We had to diversify, because it was not by doing only one thing that we were going to succeed.

MS: Can you tell me more about the programming you put together in other venues?

MA: In 2020, for example, we were planning to have an exhibition in Milan, London and then New York. The one in London was to be done in partnership with Acute Art, like the exhibition we presented in Montreal. In Milan, the works were mainly the same as those  we had presented in a past exhibition, with some differences due to the preferences of the place where the exhibition was to take place. Finally, in New York, we had to curate an exhibition as part of Tribeca where we would have proposed an installation around  BattleScar.

Battlescar (Venice, 2019). Credit: Frédéric Segard. Source: PHI.ca

MS: How do you manage the business relationship in this context?

JT: In some cases, we act as a distributor for a project. We invest in the work and agree on a revenue sharing favorable the artist.

MA: On the other hand, when we show a project at the PHI Centre (as part of a group exhibition, for example), we pay a license to the artist, but there is no revenue sharing.

JT: Finally, the third model is the one where we are asked to curate a show for a third party. In this case, we choose works and pay a license to the artist which is usually higher due to the income that is generated.

MA: In the context of the exhibitions we do at the PHI center, mediators are the most expensive component, but it is non-negotiable for us. We want people to have an unforgettable experience, so we can’t leave them to their own devices. Onboarding    is part of the experience for us, as is offboarding. That’s why we have so many docents present during exhibitions at the PHI Centre.

The Infinite (2021). Source: PHI.ca

MS: Tell me about The Infinite. How much did the production of the project cost you?

JT: Without going into details, it was a major investment, financed by both private and public sources, including the Fonds d’Investissement de la Culture et des Communications (FICC). We sought out funding and partners with whom we devised recoupment strategies.

MA: An important detail in the context of  The infinite  is that we have created a joint venture with Felix & Paul who is the producer of this experience. As Stéphane [Rituit] often says,”1+1=3″.

JT: This is also the strategy we have put in place for Lashing Skies, an experience that will have its world premiere at the PHI Centre in February 2022. However, we have other projects with interesting financial models for which we have more difficulty finding funding in Canada. Funding agencies also need to support these types of projects.

MS: Who oversees the distribution of your projects?

MA: There are several of us on the PHI team. We knock on several doors, both in the United States and in Europe. Right now, those are the two markets we are primarily targeting. We talk to different types venues, depending on the type of project. For Carne y Arena and The Infinite, for example, you can’t knock on the same doors. A project like Carne would be a good fit for a museum. The Infinite, meanwhile, could go into a museum, but it would required quite a large space. For this experience, we also called on Round Room, a distributor who has already taken care of the distribution of large-scale projects. 

The Infinite (2021). Source: PHI.ca

MS: What is your business model for The Infinite?

JT: Our goal is to tour across twelve cities in five years. Once again, we have several models, depending on whether the partner or space we find is more or less involved. In the first case, we simply rent a space and act as operators ourselves. That’s what happened at Arsenal and that’s what’s happening right now in Houston. The other model is done in partnership with a venue. The model varies depending on the responsibility that the venue is willing to assume.

MA: Again, which scenario we choose will be based on the partner and their level of comfort. If a venue is able to carry out the operation of the experience on its own—which involves having a marketing team, a box office, docents, etc.—all you have to do is pay a license to the various artists involved (in the context of Carne, this involves our partners, as well as Alejandro [González Iñárritu]). In this first scenario, the PHI team goes to the site to install (and dismantle) the experience, as well as to train their teams. Otherwise, the venue takes care of operating the experience alone over the entire duration.

If, on the other hand, a partner wishes to host one of these experiences, but does not have the resources to ensure its operation, then we can enter into a co-production with them as part of the presentation. In this case, the license fee will be less, but there will be a sharing of ticketing revenue.

 

MS: What does the capacity of an experience like The Infinite look like?

JT: In Montreal, the capacity is about 98,000 people over the duration of the exhibition. With the sanitary measures put in place during the first part of the tour in Montreal, I expected to welcome nearly 60,000 people, but we exceeded 70,000 tickets sold.

Because of COVID, the occupancy rate is 150 people per hour, which means we welcome up to 1090 people on a weekend day. For a virtual reality experience, this is unheard of!

MA: Welcoming over 70,000 people in just over three months is a turning point for the VR industry. The fact that a VR experience has welcomed so many people deserves to be recognized. This is a defining moment for the VR community.

It must also be said that 70% of the people who came to see The Infinite were seeing their first VR experience!

Lashing Skies (Brigitte Poupart, 2021), presented at PHI Centre 17 February to 15 Mai, 2022. Source: PHI.ca

Philippe Bédard: What learnings have you learned from experiences like Carne y Arena and L'infini that you are now applying to your next projects?

JT: One of the key things we learned about The Infinite is that the project starts the day you open to the public. Don’t think that your work is over once the project is launched. Quite the opposite! We learned so much from seeing how people were experimenting with the experience. We made many improvements to the project between the version launched last July in Montreal and the one that has gone to Houston a few months later.

For example, we didn’t expect just how many people would come in wheelchairs, or that couples would hold hands and want to sit in the same seat. These are things that can only be learned by observing the behavior of the people who are living the experience. When you welcome hundreds of people a day, you can’t just wait until the next project to solve this kind of problem.

MS: What do you see as a desirable funding model? Does it have to go through public funding programs (CNC, Arts Council, etc.)?

JT: It all depends on the type of project. There are very interesting projects that are worth doing, but that do not have an economic model and that will not be able to be profitable. The fact remains that these projects are important and need to be supported somehow.

Breathe (Diego Galafassi, 2020). Credit: Azikiwe Aboagye. Source: PHI.ca

MS: Would you say that the cost of operating VR works is different from other audiovisual products?

JT: Yes. It must be understood from the beginning of a project that bringing the experience to an audience involves significant costs. Any project will generate an operational cost which necessarily creates an imbalance. From the moment it is presented in public, you have to pay employees.

It is therefore necessary to do the exercise of asking not only whether the project is able to be funded and produced, but also whether the presentation of the project is economically viable.

MA: Producers and creators absolutely have to think about this issue beforehand. Even before the start of production, they need to think about their installation, their operation. Unfortunately, there are too few who do so.

JT: One of the key learnings of The Infinite was also to see that you have to think ahead of time about the kind of venue that will have to host the project. For example, for The Infinite, we need a huge space since the experience spans more than 1000 m2. The venue must be able to accommodate the free-roaming portion of the experience, which means the space must be completely open.

From the very conception of the project, you must consider the type of venue where the project can be presented. This is an important element to take into account in the design of any experience.

PB: Do you think the LBE operating model is here to stay or is it a short-term solution pending the mass adoption of headsets?

MA: I think there will always be a place for the kind of exhibitions we produce. There are excellent VR projects that can be experienced at home, but there is no contextualization, mediation, scenography etc. I don’t see mass adoption as a threat to what we do at PHI. On the contrary. It is important as it helps for the medium gain visibility. That said, a place like the PHI Centre will always have its place for more complete experiences.

JT: I agree, but I also think that we need to think seriously about developing the consumer market. This goes beyond our immediate concerns (since we focus on the LBE market), but the consumer market also needs to grow if we want VR projects to live on.

Venice VR Expanded (1-19 Septembre, 2021). Credit: Charlotte Guirestante Ghomeshi. Source: PHI.ca

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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