Tribeca Film Festival has everything a geek could wish for

The festival is packing in more VR than ever, many of its traditional films have a geeky bent, and even HBO's Westworld held its second-season premiere here.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
5 min read
Evan Rachel Wood in a white, reflective blazer on the red carpet

Evan Rachel Wood, who stars in Westworld, attended the show's second-season premiere Thursday at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.


Critics who say VR has hit a brick wall aren't making it to the film-festival circuit much.

The Tribeca Film Festival, which kicked off in New York earlier this week, unveils its VR-heavy Immersive program to the public Friday. And it's the biggest one yet.

"We have 33 [projects], two more than we've ever had, and that was not intentional. I was going for less," Loren Hammonds, one of the curators of the festival's Immersive program, said in an interview this month. "But there's so much good work."

Watch this: Westworld stars talk tech

Tribeca's Immersive program has 33 pieces this year, the most ever. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

When we talk about VR's challenges, the scarcity of quality content is a persistent issue. VR has been one of the buzziest tech areas in the last five years, as giants such as Sony, HTC, Samsung, Google and Facebook-owned Oculus have poured resources into launching head-mounted devices that transport viewers into a digital world. But investment in VR media has been more limited. Premium VR experiences, especially compared with gaming, are harder to make, harder to fund and harder for people to find.

Still, VR's unique storytelling capabilities have led to a renaissance of creativity among artists and filmmakers. As a result, the most compelling VR -- rather than ending up on your living room headset -- has tended to land in museums and film festivals.

That means regular people -- and even tech diehards -- are often missing out on the best VR has to offer.

"We're finally at a space in VR now where it's sophisticated enough so ... an artist's vision can be seen and can be made," Yelena Rachitsky, executive producer of experiences at Oculus, said in an interview Wednesday.

In addition to virtual reality, the Tribeca Film Festival has a high number of film screenings likely to appeal to tech geeks. And they aren't all dystopian nightmares for once!

21 different ways VR is thriving as an indie art form

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Virtual reality

As in the past, Tribeca will pack VR and mixed-reality experiences into a space the size of a basketball court at its hub in Spring Street Studios. Its "Virtual Arcade" lineup includes 21 world-premiere VR and augmented-reality exhibits, as well as five "Storyscape" experiences in the festival competition.

The festival is adding a new VR element this year called Tribeca Cinema360. You can get tickets to four synchronized-start curated collections of 360-degree mobile pieces, and watch them all together while seated in a theater. It's an experiment that tries to tackle a few of the main practical problems of film-festival VR exhibits: the background noise and the time you spend waiting in line to try one of the experiences.


Chalkroom flies the viewer through words, drawings, and stories written in chalk by artist Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This year's Tribeca has a rising flow of well-known names from traditional film and art. Legendary director Terrence Malick and The Hills Have Eyes director Alexandre Aja both have experiences at the fest (Aja actually has two), as does artist Laurie Anderson, who brings a piece called Chalkroom.

High-profile actors are lending their voices to a number of pieces, including Lupita Nyong'o in an animal-sanctuary documentary, My Africa (where you get to feed a baby elephant); Alicia Vikander in Arden's Wake: Tide's Fall, an expanded version of Penrose Studio's post-apocalyptic fairy tale that premiered at last year's TFF; Rosario Dawson in punk-rock adventure BattleScar; and actual punk-rock goddess Patti Smith in Spheres: Pale Blue Dot.

Damian Kulash of the band OK Go has also collaborated with VR heavyweight Chris Milk of Within on a social, interactive experience that lets you create music in a farcical land of percussive lemmings and cows that fart guitar-solo rainbows. Look for the people in white coveralls by the project titled Lambchild Superstar: Making Music in the Menagerie of the Holy Cow.


My Africa takes viewers to an elephant sanctuary for play with a baby elephant.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Two projects incorporate interactive experiences and live humans. Jack is a collaboration between VR animation powerhouse Baobab Studios and Mathias Chelebourg, whose previous project Alice generated buzz at the the Venice Film Festival for incorporating live theater actors into an immersive fable. I'm putting my chips on Jack as the piece at TFF that's hardest to get into, followed closely by Hero, a piece that premiered at Sundance earlier this year to acclaim. Tribeca installed the project -- which recreates a town-square bombing -- on a separate floor from the rest of the Immersive program to accommodate its large scale.

Several Immersive projects take timely cultural issues, including racism with 1000 Cut Journey, environmental catastrophe with This is Climate Change, xenophobia with Terminal 3, nuclear war with The Day The World Changed and HIV/AIDS with Queerskins: A love story.

Tribeca's site has more details about the full Immersive program.

Westworld and Cargo

Westworld, HBO's returning sci-fi series, enjoyed a glitzy red-carpet premiere of its second-season opener episode at the festival Thursday, three nights before it airs. The event brought out stars Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton and James Marsden, as well as creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.


Martin Freeman stars in a Netflix zombie-apocalypse movie Cargo.

Matt Nettheim/Netflix

Cargo, a zombie apocalypse movie starring Martin Freeman, also premiered Thursday to a red-carpet opening. The film will be released by Netflix in theaters and online. But unlike Westworld, which will available for one and all to see this weekend, Cargo won't be widely available for another month. People near New York can still try for rush tickets at one of its three remaining screenings.  

Netflix, which continues to grow in dominance with 125 million subscribers worldwide despite getting shut out of festivals such as Cannes, is making another appearance at TFF: Netflix's executive in charge of its interactive originals will be on a panel about interactive-storytelling tech on Friday.

The Apple one, the blockchain one, the meme one

Starting Friday, General Magic brings some old-school Apple credibility to Tribeca. The film is a documentary about a company with the same name as the title, which spun off of Apple in the 1980s. Bringing together some of the brightest tech minds of that era, General Magic shipped its first handheld wireless personal communicator in 1994, and it was a complete failure. The film should provide plenty of sidelong glimpses at Apple back in the day.

In Braid, a psychological horror flick, technology doesn't have much of a role to play -- except when it comes to financing. Braid was funded by a equity crowd sale using cryptocurrency, allegedly the first feature-length movie to raise money that way. In addition to screenings of the film, the filmmaker will join a panel discussing blockchain and cryptocurrency in film financing

American Meme, which premieres late in the festival on April 27, is a documentary about social media stars' lives when they're not pimping themselves out. Apparently the Fat Jew maybe hates his life.

Tech and geek potpourri

Finally, a number of films deal with subjects that might hold some special appeal for the techy or geeky. Netizens is a documentary about three women -- Tina Reine, Carrie Goldberg and Anita Sarkeesian -- who are fighting online abuse and harassment. Mary Shelley is a "lush Gothic period piece about the author of Frankenstein and what led to the writing of the novel. Jonathan is a sci-fi movie with dreamboat Ansel Elgort playing twins, and The Bleeding Edge is a documentary about crazy medical technology that may make you cringe (in a good way).

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