While a chilly drizzle washed away late winter with early spring in downtown San Jose, a record-breaking attendance of 105,000-plus poured down on the 28th annual run of the NorCal city’s renowned Cinequest Film & VR Festival.

From February 27-March 11, 2018, the cutting-edge festival in the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley upheld its reputation for technological innovation with a showcase of 130 world and U.S. premiere features and VR experiences—the latter of which were honored with 17 forward-thinking awards categories on closing night. 

Locals, loyalists, and some regional press outlets have speculated that Cinequest, by way of its recruitment of more household name guests and its less risky programming choices, has begun to transition from indie world into the mainstream. Though such claims aren’t entirely baseless, they overlook what Cinequest’s opening night proved to be the 13-day event’s true main attraction: the boundary-pushing new technologies with which A-list talent are now competing for attention. 

The cast and crew of Seeds on the night of the film’s Cinequest Film & VR Festival 2018 premiere. Photograph courtesy of Cinequest Film & VR Festival

Case in point: After Nicolas Cage, honored with the Maverick Spirit Award for his career-spanning achievements, told yarns to a packed house at the historic California Theatre, he yielded the floor to tech talk from the crew behind his first virtual reality work, The Humanity Bureau. When asked to weigh in on the equipment used to shoot the seven-part dystopian thriller, Cage admitted: “As a performer, I develop a relationship with the camera. But in VR, there are cameras on every side of you. You’re trying to get to a camera over there, but you can’t get to that camera, because there’s this camera over here… it’s distracting. I’m going to have to develop new muscles and skills to be able to flirt with all those cameras.” Cage may still be the movie star, but at Cinequest, all eyes—even his— are on the tools. 

Fest-goers step into immersive VR worlds at Cinequest Film & VR Festival 2018

Indeed, the works featured in Cinequest’s VR lineup demonstrated the new heights of formal experimentation and audience identification made possible by VR’s 360-degree approach. “After Solitary,” Cassandra Herrman and Lauren Mucciolo’s PBS Frontline short, steeps itself in the claustrophobic experience of an ex-convict’s solitary confinement; “Knives,” Adam Cosco’s black-and-white short, jumps in and out of first-and third-person perspective to keep viewers on their toes as they observe an angry housewife’s encounter with a traveling salesman after discovering her husband has been unfaithful; Stevo Chang’s “Revoked,” an interactive short about a young Iranian woman fleeing to Canada when the U.S. government orders her capture, gives viewers the eerie power to choose which way its protagonist’s narrative unfolds. 

Of course, Cinequest left plenty of room for intimate networking experiences among those not hellbent on leading a VR-fueled revolution. As I bounced from the fest’s ever-buzzing, coffee and craft beer-stocked meet-and-greet lounge, to a premiere party for Hus Miller’s charming Peter Fonda-starring You Can’t Say No, to some way-late-night open bar affairs littered with local and new-to-town creatives, Cinequest’s down-to-earth, yet straight-to-business attitude had all of its vodka-swigging attendees in good spirits. What unites them all under the festival’s big tent is clear: Being a part of Cinequest is not to follow industry trends, but to witness the moment they’re being set. MM

Cinequest Film & VR Festival 2018 ran from February 27-March 11, 2018. For more information, visit their website here

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2018 issue.