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Brief Published: 4 Feb 2016

Sundance 2016: Shifting Distribution

Dear Angelica from Oculus Story Studio

Between strong purchases from Netflix and Amazon, a wave of virtual reality (VR) titles and online publishers launching their video series, Sundance 2016 has seen independent film take a considerable step towards online distribution.

  • Streaming has Arrived: The makers of the festival's top-selling film The Birth of a Nation favoured classic cinema distribution through Fox Searchlight ($17.5m) over an even heftier sum from Netflix. But the streaming video on demand (SVOD) giant and its competitor Amazon each left Park City with six features – among them, the second biggest deal of the festival, Manchester by the Sea ($10m, Amazon).

    When Netflix's coverage climbed to 190 countries in January 2016, CEO Reed Hasting named his company a global TV network. Among reserved traditional Hollywood distributors in Park City, SVOD's global reach made the sector a viable distribution option for independent filmmakers. "The best thing is that because of Netflix and Amazon and all of these places, everyone can see these movies all over the world," Rob Burnett, writer and director of The Fundamentals of Caring ($7m, Netflix), told Wired.
  • Web-Native Formats: Digital distribution channels certainly open up a market for more experimentation. Lifestyle website Refinery29 premiered its web series The Skinny in the Sundance special events section on January 26 before a next-day online release. The scripted comedy from creator Jessie Kahnweiler is produced by Transparent creator Jill Soloway, and deals with a burgeoning YouTube star's struggles with bulimia.

    As we addressed in January's Pop-Culture Round-Up, up-and-coming creators are increasingly exploring digital distribution for original content, as Hollywood sticks to expanding existing franchises. The presence of projects like the Skinny at Sundance underlines how strongly distribution channels and formats are diversifying.
  • New Frontiers of Virtual Reality: Sundance's experimental storytelling showcase, New Frontiers, boasted 30 VR experiences this year. Among them were documentary efforts that illustrated VR's contribution to real events coverage. The United Nations Virtual Reality Lab arrived with Waves of Grace, which puts viewers in the experience of an ebola survivor in Liberia. The British Guardian Media Group's 6x9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement simulates the psychological effects of being placed in isolation in a prison cell.

    Outside of the official festival selection, Oculus Story Studio further pushed the visual language of VR with Dear Angelica. Using Quill, Oculus's proprietary tool that lets artists paint images in digital three-dimensional space (much like HTC's Vive Tilt Brush demonstration in September 2015), the project's artists have sculpted 3D painterly scenes. The Oculus headset's position tracking then lets viewers explore these scenes by walking right into them.

    Android users can experience some of this year's New Frontiers projects through the Sundance VR Google Cardboard app.

For more on how video's visual language is developing, see Video Futures: Digital Dimensions, New Video Marketing Strategies, and The Value of Vertical Video.