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Deborah Chen • Founder, The VR Cinema, Romania

“It will be my privilege to play a role in the emergence of VR”

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- Virtual reality is edging closer to Romanian audiences, and Cineuropa had a chance to talk to Deborah Chen, founder and head of the advisory board of the first VR Cinema in Bucharest

Deborah Chen • Founder, The VR Cinema, Romania

Romania is actively embracing virtual reality (VR). After CINETic’s initiatives at various festivals, such as the Romanian VR Days at Cannes and InfiniTIFF at Transilvania (see the news), VR is now edging closer to local audiences, and Cineuropa had a chance to talk about it with Deborah Chen, founder and head of the advisory board of the first VR Cinema in Bucharest.

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Cineuropa: How hard was the decision to found something as groundbreaking as a VR cinema?
Deborah Chen: I have to admit that it was not an easy decision, by any means. Our decision was to invest in a budding industry, with the hope of contributing to its development. We've been very impressed with the talent of the current generation of VR filmmakers and other content creators. Unfortunately, a distribution model for VR films is not in place yet, and we would like to fill that space. 

Why did you choose Romania?
I come from London, and I'm British Chinese. I’ve always felt that Romanians are incredibly tech-savvy, and to some extent, they are even more ready to embrace a new concept than Londoners. At the moment, almost all the virtual-reality equipment is still cost-prohibitive, and that’s really the other reason why I wanted to launch a VR cinema. 

Could you give us some more details about the cinema?
The cinema is in Veranda Mall, the most central shopping centre in Bucharest. We have a 20-seat theatre occupying over 150 m2. This might sound quite spacious, but we want to give the maximum amount of personal space and comfort to the viewers. We have eight showings per day, which allows us to accommodate 160 individuals.

What would you define as your target audience?
Our audience is young and adventurous, but VR is for everyone. We are becoming a sort of social destination, as we often see groups of friends or families visiting us and enjoying a collective experience. Of course, even when people come as a group, we are still able to show completely different films to them at the same time thanks to the technology. When you are in VR, you are transported to another reality that’s completely specific to you. Essentially, we want to bring the experience to more people than just millennials; we want to bring it to children, and to grandmas and grandpas who would not have an opportunity to experience it otherwise. 

How do you go about selecting the VR experiences?
Film is our main focus for now. We have options for kids, documentaries, sci-fi, and other varied content. We're excited about future immersive experiences and intend to make them available, but for now, high-quality film content is a perfect introduction to the world of VR.

Do you also include Romanian content?
We intend to show works by Romanian artists during special viewings for discerning visitors. Our favourites include a 360-degree experience in a stunningly beautiful salt mine by an agency called Creative VR and a mesmerising ballet performance produced by a Romanian company called Undivided, and they are one of our special content partners.

CINETIc is quite active; what was its involvement in your cinema?
We have some very good friends at CINETic, and they are wonderful innovators that I admire. They are not involved in creating the cinema per se, but we are constantly bouncing ideas off each other. In addition to this, Ioana Mischie, who is the programmes coordinator for CINETic, happens to be on our advisory board, and we benefit hugely from her vision and creativity.

What led you to invest in VR? Do you feel that there is a financial risk?
The budget for this investment is just over €150,000; we expect to increase that in the future. There's certainly risk, but it's a new industry that I believe will undergo tremendous growth. I'm a financier during the day; I spend most of my time making investment decisions involving very different amounts of money. I wouldn't call myself a risk-seeker, but I'm certainly risk-tolerant. However, this was unlike any of my more standard investment decisions; this was more of a personal project where you pour in a lot of love and you are patient with the lack of any immediate financial return. We are not planning to make any money in the first year, as our company is subsidising all the tickets, but in the future, we hope to become one of the world’s biggest distributors. Give it ten years and VR might bring some fundamental changes to our society. It will be my privilege to play a role, however big or small, in the emergence of this new medium.

Are you expecting to expand to more territories?
Romanians are early adopters, so Bucharest is a fertile place for our first cinema. Going forward, we are definitely hoping to bring this to the rest of Europe.

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