Every year the biggest news out of the Sundance Film Festival is always the hefty sums handed over to independent filmmakers for their passion projects. From Fox Searchlight dropping $1 million for future Oscar nominee Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2012 to Amazon Studios’ massive $12 million buy of The Big Sick at last year’s fest, everyone in Park City is hustling to make a deal. But that hustle has always been reserved for traditional films, not the virtual reality ones. Until now.
In an unprecedented move, VR financing and distribution venture CityLights announced today that it is acquiring Spheres—a three-part series that lets viewers explore the depths of space in VR—in a massive seven-figure deal. Neither side is revealing the exact figure, but for a medium that’s never sold at Sundance, it’s still a very big deal, and one that demonstrates VR filmmaking has the clout and buzz of its traditional film predecessors. It might even show that 360-degree immersive films will one day be as big a part of festivals as movies themselves.
As part of the deal, Spheres, which was executive produced by Protozoa Pictures’ Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel and supported by Oculus and Intel, will premiere on Oculus Rift this year. After that, CityLights—itself a newly formed company—will expand distribution elsewhere. The first episode, Songs of Spacetime, premiered last weekend as part of Sundance’s New Frontier programming. Directed by relative newcomer Eliza McNitt and narrated by Jessica Chastain, it’s a rich, slightly disorienting look at what it’s like to be there when two black holes collide. (It also features a score from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Survive, who performed Stranger Things‘ theme song.)
“The ambition and generative nature of the vision for Spheres perfectly fits with our mission to bring content to broader audiences and showcase the types of experiences only VR can deliver,” CityLights co-founder Joel Newton said in a statement announcing the deal.
So that’s the news. What it means, exactly, is yet to be determined. Virtual reality has been strengthening its toehold in the larger film world since before anyone had heard the term “Oculus Rift”—and each year, as the VR projects available at film festivals continue to multiply, they’ve gotten a little bit more juice, a little bit more attention. This acquisition will likely gain them more. But a VR experience being acquired by a venture looking to back VR is one thing; getting that same buy-in from a traditional studio or other entity is another. Seven figures, even if they’re low seven figures, is still a major buy—and it could mean even bigger ones aren’t very far behind.