For all the talk about the movies at the Sundance Film Festival, the little secret is that a good chunk of the Utah event’s appeal lies elsewhere.
The annual gathering in mountain-ringed Park City is, of course, a place where film stars, film producers and film fans gather for 11 days each January to watch films, deal films and hobnob about films. But for the briefest moment each winter, what Sundance really offers is the chance to plunge into a hermetic world of almost computer-generated beauty where everything else feels very far away.
In other words, Sundance is just like the metaverse — this year, it turns out, quite literally.
With the omicron surge, festival organizers decided to go fully virtual again this year. Much of the festival, which ended Sunday, took place in the same traditional nontraditional way that’s become common these days — via laptop webinars. Attendees logged on to watch films and the following Q&A sessions with directors, alone, sometimes days after they happened. Nice, but a little familiar.
Yet a different, more cutting-edge festival took place alongside it. In this version, festivalgoers could put on an Oculus Quest 2, pick up a controller and experience the festival immersively. For as little as $50 and up to $750 and beyond, attendees could re-create the communal experience that in previous years had been a hallmark of real-world Sundance.
Yes, you could absorb the metaverse that is Sundance inside the metaverse.
So what previously had happened on the snowy ground in Utah was re-created inside headsets. There were parties. And panels. And screenings (in VR movie theaters). A festivalgoer could have that essential festival feeling — of wandering into a space and not knowing what they’ll find but leaving with an experience they were glad they’d had — without every stepping foot in the place.
At a “virtual cinema,” festivalgoers took actual (“actual”) seats and watched a movie as though in a physical theater. At one such screening, heads bobbed in the row in front, people talked to the left and right. The thrill of seeing a movie with a group was there, and so were many of the distractions. (Incidentally, sneaking out mid-screening — a festival tradition — was unusually hard; the lights were on and an avatar moves like a rhinoceros. Maybe it’s a good idea to fix this bug: Can a metaverse really compete with real life if it doesn’t allow us to slip out of a room unnoticed?)
After the screening, a Q&A with filmmakers popped up, avatars beaming in at the front of the theater from somewhere else, too. A Sundance curator, Shari Frilot, also appeared on the screen. “It’s unique to come together and talk like this,” Frilot said.
Indeed, indeed. Except, wait a second — if one could see the filmmakers, doesn’t that mean the filmmakers could see the audience, too? See the audience, say, swiveling one’s avatar head restlessly, or, just to take a random example, slumping in a state of half-napping repose?
It turns out the upside of the metaverse is you can see everyone else. The downside of the metaverse is everyone else can see you.
After screenings, the festival hosted film parties; attendees could enter a waiting area known as The Spaceship and then step into a virtual film lounge. At a cantina-like bar, the avatars of filmmakers and agents, executives and media people, stood, moving every once in a while and breaking into text chat. Old pals and new acquaintances, talking about movies seen, rights sold, awards potentially won.
Slowly it became clear what the appeal of the metaverse was: It was the same as the real-world Sundance. Identity didn’t matter here. The rest of the world, its troubles and its pettiness and its social codes, didn’t matter here. In this space, taste was identity, and your relationship with your non-metaverse self went only as far as you wanted it to.
But shoot, there was a publicist. And a certain reporter did not want to see a certain publicist because a certain publicist really wanted coverage of something a certain reporter wasn’t going to cover. The reporter spun around, realizing he was too far from the exit. In a brief, crazed moment of panic, he even tried to turn the video off. What was he thinking?! This wasn’t Zoom. The publicist was getting closer. The reporter had no choice. He was going to face what every film-festival avatar dreads: He was going to get pitched.
Upon reflection later that night (in the safety of two-dimensional webinar Sundance), the interaction felt telling. One of the aspects said to distinguish the immersive and interconnected “Web3” from the current social Web is that turning off and shrinking away won’t be easy. You can’t just toggle your video off and blend into a sea of white text on black grids. When you enter the metaverse — with your distinct avatar and clothing and face — you are most decidedly in the metaverse. There’s no mistaking that it is you.
Still, one of the consolations might be that, well, it also isn’t you.
Among the most interesting movies that played at Sundance this year was a documentary called “We Met in Virtual Reality.” The director, Joe Hunting, spent months during lockdown shooting inside the VRChat platform. It’s an illuminating lens — people meeting, driving, learning, hanging out, falling in love, going to amusement parks, watching performances, finding connection. Basically doing what anyone might do in any observational documentary, except it was shot entirely inside the VRChat world.
You could watch the film as part of your Sundance experiment. (Yes, you could enter the metaverse inside the metaverse.) The movie felt as though it had been scripted and animated, and one had to remind oneself that these were real people doing real things via their avatars for hours at a time. And why wouldn’t they? As an avatar in the film explained, the metaverse offers some concrete advantages over the real world.
“In real life, you have expectations — people feel you need to act a certain way and do things a certain way and you may not agree with those things,” he said. “And you come in here and no one knows who you are and no one cares who you were. They just know who you are now. So you’re free to be yourself.”
That can make our heads spin a bit — you can be who you truly are by being someone different? — but it may also reveal an interesting truth. The biggest argument for the metaverse, it turns out, is the same as the one for real-world Sundance: how much it’s not like the rest of our lives.
It can be hard to conceive of the appeal of the metaverse: Why on earth would we want to shop and hang in a metaverse when a work deadline made us blow off that coffee date and our fridge is half-empty because we delayed that trip to the supermarket? What possible new experiences await in all this?
But it turns out it may offer another advantage — like real Sundance, the advantage lies in the expectations that you’re able to escape, a chance not so much to see something new but be seen anew.
Or, if you’re lucky sometimes, to avoid being seen.