Jessie Cohen started representing immersive stories back at Sundance 2013 when she was working for the Sundance Film Festival for the New Frontier section. She eventually transitioned from trying to represent every New Frontier project through the festival into working directly with virtual reality directors and artists who were exhibiting their work through Jessie Cohen PR and Consulting. She then came back to represent festivals like Sundance New Frontier, Venice Immersive, and London International Film Festival while also representing immersive storytellers as well as working with Chris Milk and Supernatural to represent the emerging market of VR fitness.
Cohen spoke up at the Art of Reviewing Immersive Art and Entertainment panel at Venice Immersive that I was speaking at, and we had set an intention to find a time to capture more about her insights from having a front-row seat of navigating the relationship to the press and emerging artists and storytellers for the past decade. I had a chance to catch up with Cohen at SXSW where she recounts some of the highlights of coverage that she’s been able to help facilitate, as well as reflect on how ultimately it comes down the stories and creative processes of these artists that keeps her engaged in this emerging market and ecosystem for immersive art and entertainment.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the future of spatial computing and the structures of immersive storytelling. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. So continuing on my 24-episode series of all the different things that are happening at South by Southwest, today's episode is actually with a public relations consultant named Jessie Cohen, who has been representing lots of different immersive stories over the years. I've been working with her for many different festivals. She's represented Sundance Film Festival and Venice Film Festival and the London International Film Festival. So since 2013, working with Sundance New Frontier and the official festival context, trying to work with these different journalists to have them cover what's happening in these emerging technology scenes of the future forms of immersive storytelling and really focusing on the artists and the artist stories and how to see how this process of creative innovation is happening through the lens of these artists as they explore the new potentials of these immersive storytelling technologies. And so she's been at the forefront of working with artists of trying to tell their stories to a broader press context. And so, like I said, I've been working with her for a number of years with each of the different immersive festivals. There's a number of different experiences that she's representing and helping to coordinate different session times to see the pieces and also work with the different artists and also trying to be this interface into the broader cultural spheres of these different journalists across the different spectrum of the art scene and tech scene and overall new scene when it comes to covering this space. And so, I think this conversation was sort of catalyzed after a couple of conversations that happened, first of all, at Venice 2019, and then a second edition of a conversation at Venice 2022, where there was a panel discussion that I was on with other film critics talking about, you know, how do we cover these new immersive storytelling pieces? And so, Jesse and a lot of her colleagues there at the Jesse Cohen PR and Consulting have been at the front lines of that interface between how to tell the story of these immersive stories to either film critics or other broader news journalists. I wanted to get a bit of her journey into this unique space of representing these immersive stories and some of her highlights and milestones over the years of different coverage that she's been able to get. But also she's been working with Chris Milk and Supernatural, which was recently acquired by Meta. That's been held up by the FTC for a while, but now that's actually gone through. And so she's been also representing Chris Milk and Supernatural and telling the story of that aspect of VR fitness. So we talk a little bit about VR fitness here at the end. And yeah, she's really at the intersection of these artists and these artists' stories and the ways that they're trying to find their own creative inspiration and expression of their imagination within the context of these new technologies. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the VSVR podcast. So this interview with Jessie happened on Tuesday, March 14th, 2022 at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:03:03.675] Jessie Cohen: I'm Jesse Cohen, and I'm a publicist. I have a small PR agency called Jesse Cohen PR and Consulting, or JCPRNC. And we operate in the realm of entertainment, fine art, new media, some consumer tech, and quite a bit in virtual reality.
[00:03:23.140] Kent Bye: Awesome. Yeah, maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into this unique intersection of publicity, PR, and immersive media, emerging technologies.
[00:03:34.263] Jessie Cohen: Well, I think that my childhood actually did shape how I ended up at least in PR. I was always wanting to be close to artists and kind of outsiders, and I couldn't find my own contributions in that space, so I didn't think I could. I wasn't an artist or into theater, I wasn't a professional skateboarder or snowboarder, but I did realize that I was very good at sharing those stories somewhere along the way. And I am one of the few people that actually got a degree in PR. And that was 20 years ago, about at this point. So I have been a publicist for about that long. And I worked in-house for eight or so years for a distribution company that sold brands here in the U.S. from Sweden and from Iceland, and was working in Sweden and in Iceland. And both of those brands were endorsed by a group of artists and actors, musicians, just interesting creative people that when I left that company in 2008 or so, those people actually became my first clients. And when I went off on my own, I was really trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself. It was literally just myself in my dining room. And I had some artist clients, and I had some friends that would bring me projects, and I knew that I wanted to work more in film and in entertainment. And I spent a few years applying to Sundance, like really applying to them through their HR website with zero connections and sending my resume and a cover letter and I did that in I think 2010, 2011 and in 2012 I got a call back and they ended up hiring me for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and I was super excited and I thought of Sundance as the place for independent films, but I had no idea about the other work that they did. I didn't realize that they did theater, and I had no idea that they did an exploration of new forms of storytelling. And the category that they assigned me was New Frontier. So that was, yeah, like I said, it was the 2013 Film Festival, and I remember thinking that I am not a tech publicist, but I think that the reason that they hired me was because I have a background in the fine arts, And Shari Frillo, the curator of that category, operates, I think, more like a curator than a programmer in terms of the way that she identifies works. And I also think that maybe Sundance didn't quite know what to do with the category in terms of talking about it. And I think that other publicists definitely didn't know what to do with it or didn't have interest in it. And I think that I was just green enough to approach it in a way that was very unrestrained. I didn't have any sort of blueprint and I was unknowingly entering an industry that also had no blueprint. So it has been very fitting. And that was 10 years ago now, I guess.
[00:06:49.243] Kent Bye: Yeah, and you had mentioned that you had come across and saw Nani LaPainian, Hunger in LA, which was at Sundance in 2012, which is, as you were saying, I guess that would be a year before you were officially working for Sundance. And so how did you come across getting connected with Nani, and were you representing her? Or how did Nani and her VR piece come into your journey?
[00:07:08.815] Jessie Cohen: Yeah, so no, I wasn't representing Nani at the time, though we have since worked together and I really admire Nani and consider her a close friend. But basically, when I started at Sundance, they gave me the new frontier category and the PR person who hired me, who I love to this day, Casey de la Rosa, he's now head of PR and comms at IMDB. He was like, this is New Frontier. It's the category of the film festival that explores the intersection of storytelling, cinema, and technology. And these are the types of projects we have. And I just had no idea about any of the things that he was talking about. And I had been working with the Sono Studio in LA. I had launched some headphones with a Swedish brand that I was working with. I had a little bit of understanding of tech and consumer tech that was interesting and that was cool. But then when Shari and I met for the very first time, I remember her telling me about putting on a headset and what virtual reality was and just having, I did not understand what the fuck she was talking about. I mean, I loved listening to her kind of wax poetics at me. And I remember feeling very inspired, like, okay, yeah, I can do something with this but I don't understand so she sent me to USC to go and see Hunger in Los Angeles and I actually think in 2013 there was no VR at the Sundance Film Festival but in my exploration of learning about the category and learning about how to talk about New Frontier which there was very little VR You know, it wasn't until 2016 that VR really kind of took over that category. But yeah, I remember going to USC for the very first time. I remember parking there and feeling very excited and also kind of out of my element and really honored to be able to be invited into such a space. And I went to Nani's lab and one of her interns strapped on this big, giant headset. And I watched my first VR documentary, maybe the first VR documentary, and I think, I don't know what to say, like if the content, I don't know if the content blew my mind as much as the creator did. And I felt and still feel very inspired by Nani's work and I remember that kind of emotional reaction that she was able to conjure up in me and the way that she talked about her work as an immersive journalist and she was just setting off light bulbs in my mind and Shari was doing the same thing. Yeah, so that was like the groundwork. That was the very first VR project that I saw. And then that first year in 2013, I think that the projects, there were probably 15 or maybe 20 or so projects, but Young Jake had an augmented reality project that was there. I think Lynette Walworth had Coral there. There was a three-channel projection film by Meredith Danluck. And I just remember thinking that every single one of the artists in that category were so uncompromised in what they were doing. They weren't trying to do things any way that the outside world was telling them they should. They were really exploring how to tell stories. And at the time, I didn't approach that category the way that a film publicist would. I thought I wanted to be a film publicist. But I didn't know to go to Hollywood Reporter, or Variety, or Deadline, or even IndieWire. Those outlets weren't on my radar at all. So I spent the few months before the festival pitching outlets that I had worked with in the past. And these are people who never had heard of things like augmented reality. And they typically didn't get access to Sundance, because they weren't on the press list. And so it ended up being a really nice alchemy to kind of put together and lay the groundwork for media conversations. Had I known better, I probably would have tried to go to all the entertainment outlets that were on the accredited press list. But the problem with those outlets is they weren't at the festival on assignment to cover New Frontier. They were there for feature films and all these other things. And so it actually worked out that I didn't know any better. And we had really beautiful conversations that first year with outlets that I think, you know, just typically would not have taken an interest in the space or even known about the space. And I really got to know Shari. We spent a lot of time together. We did a lot of interviews together and And I think behind the scenes, VR was just brewing. So the next year is actually when I think VR came back. I can't remember if that was Chris Milch showing Clouds Over Sidra.
[00:11:56.242] Kent Bye: I think in 2014, there was a piece called Clouds, which was a piece that was originally meant to be in just 2D. And I think Clouds Over Sidra didn't come until the following year. I think there was a song that was I forget the name of the musician, but there was a song that was kind of a spatialized audio song that was maybe before that, 2014, and came back in 2015, was Clouds of Astigia. But I don't think Clouds of Astigia was actually ever officially programmed. I think they had finished it, and they started showing it alongside of something else that was programmed in the next year of 2015. But yeah, the DK-1 had come out. actually March 29th of 2013, which we're coming up on the 10-year anniversary. And so by the time 2014 had come out, so it had already been out for, say, a little over eight months, where people had some 3D projects that were being translated into virtual reality experiences. So like Clouds was not meant to originally be on a VR headset, but it was built to very easily have a VR display. So I feel like there was still kind of very early in terms of like the storytelling and the game engine and everything else was still being fleshed out, but I got my Oculus DK1 on January 1st, 2014, and I remember checking out that there were pieces at Sundance that were VR, and I got very excited because I'd been to Sundance back in 1999, 2000, 2001, so I remember that time period of being aware of what some of those projects were. Actually, in 2015, that's when Upload VR was there and covering a lot of stuff. And I was like, ah, I need to actually go back to Sundance. And 2016 is when I came back. And so 2014 and 2015, that seemed like it was kind of accelerating. And then by the time I was there in 2016, there was like a full selection.
[00:13:31.926] Jessie Cohen: Yeah, that's right. 2013 was a learning, well they're all learning years. 2013 and 2014 I was just learning how to festival, I think, and understanding the culture of the Sundance Film Festival and where I fit in and But I don't think I understood the value of my approach, actually, until a few years later. In that category, in those first few years, there were no other publicists. So there would be 20 projects in the category and not a single agency, really. I mean, maybe there would be one or two. I don't remember. But not like it is now, where there's multiple agencies or publicists touching on things. And I think it was in 2015 where there was a bunch of work there. I can't remember the projects, but there was more VR. I mean, you're a better historian than I am. I should be better at this. But Chris Milk had Sound and Vision. That was like a big one that sticks out. And I remember booking press for him. And I think he was working with a publicist that I really love, Bebe Lerner, or really admire her from a big agency. And I remember it clicking with me. that maybe I should shift my focus from, rather than working in-house as the festival publicist, maybe we should be taking our own clients, a handful of them, and that was a huge shift for us. And I think 2016, it was either 2016 or 2017 where where I didn't do the category, but I instead took a handful, a large handful of my own clients to Sundance and was therefore able to focus on their individual works rather than being spread so thin trying to tell 20 or so different stories. But I remained in really close contact with Shari. and with Sundance and with their PR contacts and tried to be as much of a resource as I can. And then I kind of ping pong back and forth. So I think in 2018, 2019 and 2020, we actually did work with Sundance, but as contractors, and we also had our own projects that were there. Yeah.
[00:15:36.570] Kent Bye: So you've had a front row seat to a lot of the intersection of both what was happening at the festival circuit and both the artists and the challenging aspect of trying to get broader press coverage for some of these different projects. I see that the natural evolution would be that There's new technology. An artist is able to take that technology and have the funding and resources to make some art. And then there's a distribution channel, which in this case would be like the film festival circuit. And eventually there's the audiences that are seeing these pieces of work. And mostly in the context of a film festival, it's getting people to see the pieces of work. But then the press is actually kind of like getting announcement that this exists and then trying to contextualize something that most people will never be able to see. So there's like this distribution of the festival context is like in the context of the festival but what about the distribution for people to actually see it? So I found that over time what my experience was is that like there'd be different people that maybe would have a very early coverage but then they would see the numbers come back that maybe there weren't enough readers that were reading those articles and then over time I saw a dwindling of how much resources were being assigned by these different organizations for even covering the stuff that was there. people that were there were off covering the film stuff, and the New Frontier was still this kind of emerging thing, but because it was emerging, there wasn't a mass market for the coverage that would happen to even have an audience that would be able to read it and understand it and be able to extrapolate themselves into, like, what would it mean to read something about something that you would have no concept of what it even was. So here you are in that middle of that, trying to figure out how to bridge these gaps. So what was your approach for trying to do that?
[00:17:16.801] Jessie Cohen: Well, it was not intentional. I mean, I think that is like the biggest thing is I, what I did was I came to the category with a lot of energy because I was so grateful to have Shari's trust and Casey's trust and also Sarah Eaton, who was the director of PR for the Sundance Institute at the time. And I think, yeah, they just didn't really know what to do with it. Not Shari, but the PR folks there. And so there was a lot of trust in me. And then there was a lot of trust on my end. Like, I would hear Shari talk about virtual reality or what was happening in the space with creators or what was the potential of distribution. where I would hear Chris Milk or Aaron Koblen talk about the space and I would feel inspired and I would trust that they were right and I would take those messages to media who trusted me, you know, that at least it was a good story and there were, you know, there are ups and downs for sure, because what I have been through is like all the hype cycles. So when I started in 2012, 2013, that was the time right around then, I don't know exactly when, but that Palmer Luckey had his big deal with Oculus. And so there was this huge media cycle that was happening about virtual reality being the thing.
[00:18:33.880] Kent Bye: Yeah, that was in March of 2014 was when they got acquired.
[00:18:37.662] Jessie Cohen: So that was a little bit later. But I mean, I've been pitching media through that. I've been pitching media through down cycles, up cycles. For the most part, I was staying away from tech outlets in the first few years. I didn't even know who the tech outlets weren't on my radar. And also, they did not have reporters that were on the entertainment beat. I mean, that came a few years later. And then the entertainment. outlets did not have reporters that were on the tech beat because it didn't really exist. So I went to arts outlets, you know, Art Forum and Art Info, Art News, Art in America, W Magazine, Interview Magazine, Vogue, The Cut at New York Magazine. Those were like some of the first super exciting stories that I got. And I was pitching Not really the content. I was pitching the creators because I think, I mean, I do find the content interesting for sure, but I find the creators even more interesting because I feel like you have to compromise so much to make a virtual reality project specifically because it's just a huge experiment at this point. So for people who are more established working in this space, I mean, they're really going like, I'm going to try something new. And even if it fails, I'm going to learn from it. And I found that process of extracting all of the power from failure. Really, really beautiful and really, really compelling for press. And then there were also people, like, the first standout press moment that I have with a reporter at the festival was with Kenneth Turan, Kenny Turan from the LA Times, who's an incredible film critic. And I was so persistent. I mean, I was so persistent. I still am, like, will email you until you respond, at least with a stop emailing me. And Kenny made time for me at the Sundance Film Festival, and I remember walking around mainstream with him, and he was telling me he had just gotten out of an interview with some huge A-list star, and he was going to go to New Frontier with me. And he had taken time in past years to go and walk this space, as lots of journalists have. His first VR experience was Chris Milk's Sound and Vision and I think that was the first time I had a really big reporter in the headset and I just remember him being like lost in the wonder of it, like really going to the place that your brain has never ever been before. And also this was, I mean this has all happened so fast. We've simultaneously made these huge strides and maybe haven't come as far as we thought we would all at the same time, but But when you put on a VR headset and you don't know anything about what you're going to see, it does take you to another reality. And in your talk the other day, you were saying people say that this isn't real. But then you're like, but it is real. It totally is real. These experiences that we're having, they are real. They are unlocking somewhere that we haven't had access to before.
[00:21:24.515] Kent Bye: Yeah, and so you start to represent some of the different individual creators, you start to represent Chris Milk, and then I guess at Venice in 2019 and Venice in 2022, there were panels that were looking at how is the press going to be covering these immersive space. And I was on both of those panels, and I think you were in the audience for both of those. It was at the second panel where you were asking questions, because you are really at this intersection for how do you get more press coverage for these works, and you have a lot of, I guess, insight from being on the front lines of those trenches. What has been the challenges for you of trying to get people to, first of all, be interested to see it, and then if they see it, how to write about it, and then how to contextualize it for an audience who may never have access to see it? So, like, what was your approach of trying to solve some of those different barriers?
[00:22:13.942] Jessie Cohen: Yeah, I think at some point we identified that what we do best is translate what is happening in this space into the language of whichever media bucket we are pitching. You know, we talk to projects all the time that want a certain type of coverage and we tell projects or companies all the time that maybe it's just not the right time. Like 80% of our work is the creators, is the product, and then we take this 20% that is important and we just try to figure out how to talk about it. For arts and culture outlets, the most interesting thing for them is going to be high-profile talent or something that is really changing the artistic landscape. And so we have to identify those value points in each project. You know, we try to create press notes and media kits that are going to extract all of those highlights for the type of coverage that we want to see, but I know for sure that if you've made a VR experience and you want to be in a glossy publication, going to a glossy publication and leading first with the fact that you're a VR experience is not going to do it. They just don't understand. And there was a time when VR alone was exciting enough, and that was 2015, 2016, and there was a big media cycle that was happening then. But I think that there's a lot of skepticism because the market, consumer market, hasn't quite caught up. And so reporters now are like, they're still looking for the lower hanging fruit. And we try to just identify what is the most exciting thing about each project and go with that.
[00:24:06.793] Kent Bye: Yeah, I guess when I start to think about virtual reality as an ecosystem, you know, there's, I guess, some end goals that creators may want. Like maybe they want to get distribution. Maybe they want to get attention so that it gets the attention of someone else who's going to maybe acquire it or get funding or reach a certain audience. Or maybe it's just like a bucket list to be in a certain magazine or newspaper article where there's like a prestige with making it and being validated or to be seen. And so, I guess, as you're talking to these different creators, what is it from their perspective that they want out of the press? Like, they can get something, but then what comes after it? And what are the type of goals that they're trying to get out of the type of coverage?
[00:24:48.835] Jessie Cohen: Well, I think people want to be acknowledged for their work and for their place in this time in history. The distribution thing is really worth exploring, though, or at least worth talking about, because I will say, you know, we don't only work in VR. We do a lot of work in VR because this Space had space for me and for my team to spread our wings and to make mistakes right alongside the creators and to learn right alongside the creators and we ended up being really good at it because we really just didn't know any better and we were willing to work very, very hard and we've had the opportunity to work alongside just some amazing creators in this space. But the problem of distribution at film festivals and press that will or will not cover a project at a film festival does not only apply to VR. Extra hard in the VR category, but if you're a short film if you're an independent documentary With a subject matter that is maybe a little bit niche if you don't have high-profile talent if you're not a studio film I mean reporters are at film festivals on assignment to cover films that are gonna get clicks and that are also gonna get distribution and so even if you're a film that doesn't have a distribution deal like your only chance to see something as an audience member might be at a film festival and that's something that a roadblock that everybody runs up against but then with virtual reality specifically there really is no functional distribution system at all so these exhibitions at South by where we are now or at Sundance or Tribeca or Venice London wherever like they are the place to come and learn about what is happening in this space. And then you have like a moment for some of these projects where down the road they get distribution with Meta, for example, and they are able to be in an app or something like this. But then only headset users are able to access them so the other thing that we think about all the time is in our work before we can even get a reporter to write a critical piece on a fantastic piece of content we first have to get them to get a headset and before they get a headset if we don't send it to them we have to convince them or they have to be convinced by someone that VR is not so niche that it excludes them because there is still the perception that it's like not ready for the consumer market or that it's not cool or that it's not the best way to view content. There's so many hurdles to get people here. So the film festival environment or an exhibition space is so valuable for creators to be invited to exhibit their work here. And then you just have to be relentless at how you approach those press lists or have really, really, really amazing, compelling content. like a month or six weeks in advance to have your stellar publicist, whoever they are, or your intern or your producer hammer press and share the work with them early and see if they might like to write about it in advance. I think that there's a lot of value still to this day and not even fussing with the press list at film festivals and just kind of going your own way and doing your own thing. I still think that You know, there are some best practices in VR and in experimental arts in general, but also there's no one way to do things and there's a lot of value in just, you know, kind of going about it however you'd like and building a list from there.
[00:28:30.502] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'd love to have you maybe reflect on some of your big milestones in terms of like projects that you're representing and media coverage that came out of it that you felt like really captured the essence of it or were kind of like turning points or milestones that you look back on and are really proud of.
[00:28:46.542] Jessie Cohen: Yeah. There was an article that came out in 2016 that The Cut ran with New York Magazine that was about women in VR that we worked on for like a year. They kept pushing it out and pushing it out and that was something that I had kind of brainstormed I think with Shari because Shari had done a panel, I think, I can't remember exactly what the panel was, but it was about women in the space in general and we spent a lot of time talking about why there are so many women in VR and we kind of just landed on because it's a nascent format and there was just room, like no one was gonna say get out and the space wasn't already taken and that applied to me as much as any of the developers or producers or directors. So I was really happy because, not just to tell that story, but specifically to tell it to New York Magazine because of their audience and for them to acknowledge the format and the form and all of these things felt very exciting. We did a piece with Tom Brooks, who's a correspondent for the BBC, that was really exciting. Having Kenny Turan cover for the LA Times. The LA Times has actually always been pretty open to hearing about this stuff. Steve Zajcik. who's now at the Washington Post, would take time to come through New Frontier. Interview Magazine did a piece on Felix and Paul when Felix and Paul had strangers. That was really exciting. Anytime I have the opportunity to share this work or this space or these technologies with a popular culture outlet, I feel like a bit of a like a desk flip. I get super excited where I feel like we're really hitting the mark. We can't promise that to anybody and we can't always do it, but I do think that there are reporters who are open to hearing about works like this and I love connecting with them. Even, like, there's a reporter, Laura Regensdorf at Vanity Fair, who sometimes will include virtual reality in her coverage. She interviewed Roxanne Gay and talked about Roxanne liking to work out using VR. We've sent her a headset. She's come to some media events for Supernatural. She hasn't covered Supernatural specifically, but she is, like, very open to it and likes exploring it and likes hearing about it. I think that that's fantastic. Kevin Ruse wrote a story about two years ago now or a year and a half ago on VR Fitness for the New York Times that we worked on for like a year. I was just pitching him and he was like, it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen soon, it'll happen. It kept getting pushed out and I also remind myself and our clients all the times that the media has their own schedule, calendar, events, like they know when the time is right. to do something where just like this messenger and to be patient and some of those big almost all those big stories happen on a timeline that I can't quite predict. Well of course like having spheres at Sundance in 2018 I think. I mean that was just massive that was the project that Eliza McNitt directed and Darren Aronofsky produced it and it had Millie Bobby Brown, Patti Smith, Jessica Chastain. It just had like all of the elements to talk to high-level press about. So we did coverage with T Magazine, We did coverage with nylon, like lots of cool hip outlets because we had the talent that made a wide access point really identifiable. And then they cut a huge distribution deal and we had Darren, you know, kind of navigating like, this is how you talk about a film break. Let's do it like that. And that was like the light bulb moment of our role translating for these things. Like, okay, you want to have press and variety, like tell this story to variety in a way that they can, talk about it because otherwise it doesn't make sense to the reporter or to the editor. And so we ran an announcement at a Sundance that Spheres had sold for, you know, a seven-figure deal and that there was going to be distribution in virtual reality. And I don't know how much of that came together like rolled out perfectly in the end. But I mean, we made a huge, huge, huge splash. We did the Today Show, all sorts of mainstream press. Angela Watercutter, I think, did the exclusive on that, if I remember correctly. Angela Watercutter, who's a deputy editor at Wired, is another reporter that has been super open to following this space for a very, very long time and also she's an entertainment editor too, so she's not just covering technology, certainly not just VR or what's happening in this space, but she can identify what is valuable about the momentum in this space for her audience. Joe Volpe, who's now at Mashable, I worked with him on a story about Nani de la Peña, where he called her the godmother of virtual reality. So, I mean, I think we all kind of know what happened with that. That was really massive. I mean, there's so many stories that we've been behind. There's also stories that we haven't been behind that I wish that we would have been. Like, I know the New Yorker has done some cool coverage on VR even for like better or worse even sometimes reporters don't get it and when they don't get it then I really go I wish I could have been like the one to tell them about this because a lot of times when I talk to reporters I also like Start the conversation by saying like the technology you're gonna see isn't gonna be perfect and that there might be hiccups But the beauty is in the hiccups and the excitement is in the hiccups and shari said this to me once and I talked about it all the time shari in talking about VR was like, it's the baby in the sonogram, where we see the baby, we see the body parts, okay, it's got 10 digits on the hands, it's got 10 toes, heartbeat, it's healthy, but like, we don't know exactly how it's gonna come out. And that's the perfect setup for VR, is like, we don't know how it's gonna come out, but like, we're baking it, you know, we're growing it right now together as a community, and And I think that that's the right way to talk about it to media, too, is not to sell them that this is like a consumer ready. Anything is totally consumer ready for the masses right now. I mean, even the products, in my opinion, you know, have some way to go before everybody can really wants to be using a VR headset. For people like you and I and for people who are in this space all the time, I mean, every small step is super duper exciting and I fully drink that punch. But I also think it's very, it's as important to look objectively at how others are perceiving what's happening here. And if you can't do that, then you can't be successful as a PR person, as a messenger in this space.
[00:35:37.358] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know that you've mentioned Shari a number of times and Shari's also been really formative in my own way that I look at the space because, you know, I first went to Sundance in 2016 and have interviewed Shari a number of times over the years where, you know, she says again and again that she always goes back to the artists and listens to the artists and follows what the artists are doing. I think there's that aspect of really understanding, and I think this is actually something that Meta hasn't quite figured out, the role of how, like, indie developers have been the source of so much innovation in the XR space and that how the immersive storytellers are really tuned in very deeply into like their organ of imagination to tap into this potential for how to translate what the affordances of VR into an experience that really lands with people. And so I guess as Shari has been going back to the artists again and again, I think that's and form my own approach of just really understanding where the future of the medium is going by coming to events like this and trying to really listen to what the artists are doing and what they're saying. And I think you and I, I guess, have came to the same conclusion where, for me, it was difficult to just purely talk about an experience that people haven't been able to see. So for me to add this element of oral history to get people's stories about the artists, about their journey, because it ends up being like, even if it's an experience that's not going to be available, or even if it's an experience that I don't necessarily think the most of like it didn't move me or just you know there's things with wrong with it but I can always find a way to talk to the artist and their creative journey and their process of creation that always kind of lands into like that people can identify and help to at least find a way to cover stuff that is through that lens of like oral history and through that personal narrative that I think has been really helpful but yeah just Shari being able to point things back to the artists again and listen to what they're doing so Yeah, I don't know if there's other things that you really kind of keep with you and provide guidance as you navigate this space that you learned by working with Shari.
[00:37:35.490] Jessie Cohen: Oh my gosh. I mean everything. I think Shari totally cued me up for how to approach this space. she also trusted me and I hadn't been trusted by a client really in the way, like, she just did that for me in a way that I hadn't experienced with another client. I mean, I was a young publicist, I was in my late 20s probably when I started with Sundance and I was, you know, I had already worked in PR for nearly 10 years but I had just been asking for permission and guidance And I wasn't really getting either from my in-house positions that I was at. And I was starting to get more trust from clients. But Shari really just was like, this is the thing, this is what it is. And she was just like, OK, you're a publicist. She never questioned anything. But she also just gave me golden material all the time. I would ask her about a project, and she would explain the project. And I would sit there, and I would just write down my notes. And then I would pitch whatever anecdote Shari had just given me to press. And I mean, it wasn't, and it still isn't me. This is the exact same way that I work with my clients to this day. And I know if we want to work on a project before we ever see the project, just by talking to the creators. How are they talking about their work? Do they really believe in it? Is their authenticity there? All of these things. Yeah, I mean, Shari is an artist. I think her approach as a curator or programmer or however you want to give her title is like very similar to many of the studio artists that I work with in our other kind of PR buckets. So, I mean, I don't even know where to start really with that question, but Sari gave me so many tools. Language, she gave me trust, she gave me contacts, she gave me recommendations, referrals, she gave me relationships, she set me up with Nani. There was a reason I got to work on projects like notes on blindness. I mean with Lynette early on, like so many of the best projects in my opinion are because Shari was able to identify them and bring them to New Frontier and then she would just introduce me to these people like I knew what I was doing and I don't know that I really did know what I was doing. I mean I knew how to work really hard and that was one thing that just lined up really well. And also, like, Nani has trusted us, and also the clients that have questioned us every step of the way have been equally as valuable. But, you know, now we work with, we also do the PR for the Venice Biennale's Venice International Film Festival, the Venice Immersive, which is now what it's called. And I remember approaching Liz Rosenthal back in, I think it was 2017. you know I wanted to do PR and would she recommend me for projects and I remember her saying no like she wouldn't recommend me because she didn't know me yet but that she would like you know share some names with me and we built a relationship and I also like really I want to say like I really respected that and I also felt like okay well now I'm just gonna like kill it. We're going to do such a good job of Venice and we are going to bring people there. We're going to introduce them to these creators, to this content, to the island of Venice, all of these things. And we did that. And now we have this really beautiful relationship with Liz and Michelle. Um, Michelle had also worked with a little bit at Sundance because he had a project. I'm blanking on the name.
[00:40:59.349] Kent Bye: So in 2016 I forget the name of it, but yeah, I saw it and actually did an interview with them there.
[00:41:04.730] Jessie Cohen: Yeah, so we went to Venice and now we work for the Biennale. We bring our own clients there, but we also roll out these really pretty extensive press campaigns at one of the world's most prestigious, if not the most prestigious, film festivals, the oldest one in the world. And that is an amazing honor and super fun every single year. if you can get to Venice. I honestly think that Venice is the best possible introduction to VR. Getting to see these creators in this massive gallery space on an island that is dedicated to their work is the most incredible thing. The Biennale does the most beautiful job presenting it. We work with the BFI and the London Film Festival Expanded, or we have the last two years with Ulrich Schuroth, who's the curator there. He also does a really stellar job, and it's completely different. It's completely different than Venice. It's completely different than Sundance. They all have their own unique approach. And they all, they kind of just like do the work, and I think we just set things up. There's a saying that we have, which is like, you can't polish a turd. And I do, oftentimes, like I know when something isn't right, when a product isn't right, or a creator isn't ready, rather. Not right, ready. I think when people have a vision you know, and when they share their vision in a concise way, then you're like, okay, this is something that there could be a story here. This would make sense for coverage. It's got to make sense for press.
[00:42:37.110] Kent Bye: Yeah, Venice is great. It's like a lot more expansive in terms of like there's 10 days and you can register ahead of time. And so this is a little bit of just three days and you know, open up the doors and mad rush to be able to get there. Tribeca has had that. So there's lots of different things with registration and just the challenges of doing just exhibition over the years. It's evolved but still it's kind of like very difficult with this constraints of resources and time. But I wanted to also ask you because you established a relationship with Chris Milk and then working with him for a number of years and then at some point pivoted into Supernatural, which has been just a home run, out of the park, grand slam hit when it comes to like really nailing the experiential design of fitness. And so maybe you could just share a little bit of your story of working with Chris Milk and then into Supernatural, which has then since been acquired by Meta. But I'd love to just hear your retrospective looking at what was it like for you to work with creating press for something that was really kind of a revolutionary thing in the VR industry, which is VR fitness.
[00:43:38.636] Jessie Cohen: Yeah. Well, I remember being introduced to Chris and he's quite reserved. And I remember being able to listen to him talk and talk about his work and feeling like, OK, this is something that I want to share with people, like I want to be able to tell people about this project because of the way that he was sharing it with me or even the way that I was overhearing him share it with others. So he had like a few different projects at Sundance. several years in a row. Some of them, gosh, I'm forgetting the name, which is terrible, but he had a big exhibition that was on main street where you, um, angels or something. I'm gonna have to come back to that cause I'm just blanking.
[00:44:17.152] Kent Bye: Well, I remember seeing it in 2016 it was like you move your arms up and down and you have like something kind of projected map. So it was using like a connect camera to trace your body and then it's projected in a giant screen and you turn into a bird.
[00:44:29.103] Jessie Cohen: So I wasn't thinking of Chris as like a VR director. I was like, this is Chris Milk. He makes these really dynamic experimental music videos, and he's a very respected artist and director, and yet he's working in VR, and he sees something here. And I just kind of slowly got to know Chris a little bit, and that took several years, I think. And at some point, I sent Chris an email. And I just said, like, hey, I'm here. I'm working on my own now. And if you ever needed support, like, just I hope you would think of me. And he was like, yeah, you know, he responded. Yeah, I'll think of you. And I had also gotten to know Sam Storer. She's a really important part of my journey here. She was a producer on Another project that Within, which was Verse Works at the time, had had at Sundance and I was like, oh my God, she's such a badass. She was so on it. She didn't know who I was at all, but she was approaching this space with a lot of professionalism, which sometimes isn't always the case and I was like there's someone I want to know I want to be like so I think at Venice in I guess it was probably 2017 I think it was 2017 at Venice they had the project with Gabbo Aurora that verse works had Produced that I'm blanking on the name of that one too. Just because there's like a hundred projects in my brain, but Sam had Asked if I could support some press on some of their projects as well And then I stayed in touch with her and Chris and eventually I bumped into Chris's former executive that was working on what was now within And he was with Yelena Richitsky from Oculus at the time. And Yelena was like, oh, do you know Jesse Cohen? And this guy's name was Colin. And he didn't. And eventually, they were looking for someone to do their PR for Within. And he asked if I could do that. And I said, well, I have this business set up, but I think that I could do both. I think that we could offer kind of the transparency of an in-house person and the deliverables of an agency. And at that time, Within was working on several different projects, and they were also, they had the app, and so they were acquiring and distributing VR works as well. And so that was in 2018, I think, when I started. working with them more closely and again I was like super excited and I felt like I had really played the long game there like I identified really on like intuitively that I wanted to get to know Chris and also Aaron Koblen more like these are the people that I thought talked about what was happening in this space in a way that other people could understand that weren't just developers in the space. And then a couple years in, in 2019, I guess, they were started to talk about, you know, shifting their focus to a fitness app. And that fitness app became Supernatural. And they launched the app straight into the pandemic. And I think at the time, everybody knew that there was something that was really special about it, including myself, but I don't think anybody could have predicted the not just the stickiness of the app, but the genuine impact that it was going to have on people's lives. And how many people were going to decide to buy headsets just so they could work out and build a fitness routine that made them feel joyful and happy. So it has been a huge honor to be able to just see the rollout of Supernatural. And of course, for them to be acquired by Meta is extremely exciting. I mean, not just for them, but I think for the whole space, really. And I'm really proud of the work that I have contributed and also fully acknowledge just how many incredible people Chris and Aaron were able to bring together to make that app happen. the best engineers and developers in the space. Chris and Aaron are visionary. The marketing team is so on it, so passionate. They believe strongly in what they're doing. It's like all of the things need to happen to make something like this come to life. And that is, I think what happened here. So yeah, we'll see what's next, but it has been a really amazing journey just to not just kind of like be a part of in a small way, but to witness, like to see it. I've learned so much and I have a lot of respect for how they've gone about it.
[00:48:49.004] Kent Bye: Yeah, with the pandemic, people were sheltering in place. They couldn't necessarily go outside. They're working remotely. And so Supernatural came at this time when they could actually have exercise, but feel like they were going on a journey and traveling and having music and having Guidance from trainers who are helping support them and direct them and give them the type of encouragement So yeah It was really a combination of all their experiential design that they learned from all these more weird indie art storytelling projects and take all that knowledge of experiential design and tied into something that was a little bit more closer to the consumer market because there was so many things that they were producing and they tried to solve the distribution issues with Within and trying to get these pieces out there But I don't know that must have been some point where they started to try to figure out how to really ground what they're making into something that was going to land with the consumer market and I feel like what they're able to do with the experience was really just quite amazing and yeah, I'd love to hear any milestones from that journey of supernatural because it's quite a unique application of VR that is one of the killer apps that makes people buy a headset and by that definition if there's an app that makes you buy a headset that For that person is the killer app for them But yeah, what were some of the different highlights for this phenomena of your fitness and you seeing the front line of that aspect?
[00:50:06.429] Jessie Cohen: Well, I mean I haven't I'm not a developer so there's so much that I cannot speak to here and But I will say when you're launching a product, a really good thing to ask yourself, and this is not new news, but a really good thing to ask yourself is, does this solve a problem? And I think what is happening in VR, in terms of thinking about it, if it's ready for consumers is like consumers have a lot of entertainment that's already working really well for them and there isn't really much of a problem there and again like this isn't my thought this is something that I've heard Chris discuss in interviews and that has really made sense to me like yeah I mean It's really hard to convince somebody to watch a documentary in virtual reality if it might look better watching it at home on Netflix. And that doesn't mean that there's not value in creators working in this space. That is not what I'm saying. But if you're thinking critically about where consumers are coming from, they don't really have a problem getting access to great entertainment. But most people have a really hard time sticking to a workout. And Supernatural is a culmination of all the things that were working in VR, and it kind of leaves out all the things that weren't working in VR. So we all know that when you put on a headset and you watch a really great experience, it's easy to spend an hour in there and think you were only in there for 15 minutes. Oh my God, if you can do that while you're working out, that's great. Because most of the time when you're on a treadmill or on a stationary bike, you're trying to distract yourself from the thing that you're doing. You're reading a book, you're watching television, you're telling yourself no pain, no gain, you're doing all these things, but you put on a headset and you can lose yourself while A coach is telling you that you're a badass and you're listening to a soundtrack that you love and compels you to move or might even conjure up emotions. I mean, that's an incredible experience for someone to have while they're challenging their physical self as well. One of the things that Chris said early on that I was always like, yes, that's the anecdote was it's all the things you love about premium in-home fitness, namely like there's music that you know and love, there's coaching, it's effective, it makes you feel great without all of the things that you don't, namely the walking, the hiking, the climbing in place. And it's also just really great because, you know, you just put it in your drawer when you're done or you can take it with you. It's like a real thing that I truly believe is transforming people's lives. There are so many people that, I mean they don't come to me, they just put it in the Facebook group or in the community that say day in and day out, every single day of the year, like this is the first time I've ever been able to stick to a fitness routine. They're not looking at their bodies when they're working out. There's no mirror. You're not distracted. Your phone isn't going off. You can't, even if you're, you know, God help your cat or your dog that might be at your foot when you're doing it, but like you, there's nothing to distract you. You're fully immersed. And also like the graphics are incredible. It is easy to put on a headset and turn on supernatural and really feel like you are in Tahiti or on some beautiful, I mean, my, I love, the island scenes but some people talk about feeling like they're in a snowy landscape and they put on a fan and it actually cools them down. But I'm really personally very excited for what's to come with fitness in VR and I think I'm excited about other directions as well but I think that it is the most consumer ready application that I'm aware of and I really believe that because I just hear from consumers all the time or from beauty and wellness editors that are just shocked by how fun it is or how great they feel after a supernatural workout. I will say that I'm also, I'm really excited and kind of shockingly so at some of the concert experiences. I think that that's really cool. Like we're here right now at South by with the Amaze VR team and they have that VR, a spa VR concert. And another thing that Shari said is she taught me about product versus platform or that intersection, like how important the artist is for the platform. And I think they've got this K-pop project here. And it looks incredible, like it's pushing the limitations of the MetaQuest tech, the maximum capacity, but it just looks crystal clear. And then you have this massively popular band, Aespa, with millions and millions and millions of followers all over the world, a huge market. And then their market, which is Korean market, is also very open to this technology. And so there's a lot of possibility there when you talk about an open audience. an audience that's dedicated to the content, and then the content looking fantastic, and then the platform getting much better.
[00:54:59.305] Kent Bye: Yeah, yeah, it's definitely, we're at this inflection point, it feels like, with 20 million headsets that came out, with Alex Heath's reporting from the roadmap as we look ahead, and getting at least some indication as to, like, there's a critical mass of headsets that are out there. Now, whether or not people are using them regularly or not, I think is another question, but at least the potential is there, so. Yeah, but I guess as we start to wrap up here, I'm very curious to hear what you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and these immersive stories and the applications of VR, what that might be and what it might be able to enable.
[00:55:35.837] Jessie Cohen: I kind of think that we're unlocking a new dimension. It sounds a little bit far out, but I think, I mean, maybe the developers of the cell phones, however long ago, did have a clue. But I mean, I remember having a big, giant, clunky cell phone and just having no idea that it was going to live in my pocket 20 years later or hold my calendar, my connection to friends and family all over the world, or just what a tool it was going to become in my life. And so I think about VR like that a little bit. We don't really know, but I could tell that we're unlocking something. And we need the creators, we need the artists to do that, and we need them to not be thinking about consumerism to make those big strides. They have to be willing to just try, cast a big net, and maybe not come back with anything, or to try and to just fail to get to the next level. But in your talk when you were talking about people who say that VR isn't real. I mean, it's hard to argue that. I mean, it's clearly it is real. You go into a headset and an experience makes you cry or a workout makes you sweat and crunch calories and feel like a badass or a narrative makes you think in a different way or whatever it is like that is a real experience. And I don't get the sense that most of these apps are asking us to spend all of our time in the headset either. I think it's like, how do we use our time in the headset in the best possible way? I think we still have a long, long way to go and only looking back in maybe another 10 or even 20 years will hindsight to conversation like this be 2020. But yeah, I mean, I think we're just like, we're like mid baby strides right now, really. I think we still are discovering, yeah, I mean, that is the question. We don't know what the potential is, because we don't quite know the problems that VR solves. I think that that's a really good question, is what are the problems that VR solves? And then maybe we'll have a little bit more direction.
[00:57:39.913] Kent Bye: MARK MANDEL – Awesome. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?
[00:57:46.623] Jessie Cohen: No, I don't think so. Just everybody is so inspiring and brave. And I love how much space there is for so many young people, for women, especially to come in and to be bosses and badasses in this space. And I love the diversity of the community and the openness of it. And yeah, I'm so grateful that I got to come in when I did and that I still get to be here.
[00:58:11.805] Kent Bye: Awesome. Yeah, well, it's been a pleasure to cross paths with you many times over the years at these festivals and you've really had like a front row seat from all this stuff that's been unfolding over the years. So I'm really glad to have a chance to sit down with you and get more of that story that I've never heard before. So it's really cool to hear your own path and the evolution of the medium as we move forward. And it does really feel like we're on this inflection point where things are you know, all the puzzle pieces are kind of coming into place for where we're going to see the storytelling and the entertainment and the other aspects that maybe are beyond the gaming that are helping to grow out this diversity of the ecosystem. And yeah, just to see that role of having the art that's being created, but also it needs to be seen and witnessed and covered by different elements of the press to be able to get it into the audiences that you're trying to reach. And so, yeah, it's really interesting to hear how you think about that and where it's at now and where it may go in the future. So thanks again for joining me. So that was Jessie Cohen. She's the founder of Jessie Cohen PR and Consulting and has been representing a number of different immersive artists and these artist stories and immersive festivals in the context of the XR industry since 2013 and PR in general even before that. So I have a number of different takeaways from this interview is that first of all, it was really great to sit down with Jesse to get her story because she's a lot of times representing other people's stories and telling their stories. But it was nice just to get a little bit more of her story as she's in this very unique intersection of, like she said, there wasn't certainly in the beginning, a lot of different publicists that were covering these different immersive stories. And so she's really had a front row seat to the unfolding of immersive storytelling into the broader culture. And, you know, going back and seeing Nani de la Peña's piece back in 2012 of Hunger in LA and USC, and then representing the Sundance Film Festival starting in 2013. And then since then, having a slate of different immersive creators that she's representing at each of these different festivals that I think I first interacted with her back in like 2016, and working with a number of different creators there. And yeah, just helping to coordinate times to be able to see these different pieces, giving tours of the different experiences, trying to break down the different themes of different projects and help bring the different film critics that are in Venice over onto the island at Venice Film Festival. Like she said, I do agree with her that the Venice Immersive Festival is probably the premier place to go and see immersive storytelling experiences, not only because it's a beautiful place to be in Venice, but also because it's on its own dedicated island. And on that island, they've got like 10 different days in a system of being able to reserve different times, that I think is really good, especially if you actually want to see the content, I think something like South by Southwest, it's only like three days of exhibition. And so it's a bit of a mad rush to try to see everything. Luckily, because I am pressed and have access to the industry day, I have an extra day of seeing stuff, but also have relationships with a lot of different folks to be able to see stuff. And it's very difficult to be able to see all the different experiences, which is something that I personally pride myself of being able to go into these different places and try to see as much of everything and if possible, everything that I can. And so working with the different folks to be able to coordinate some of these different times ahead of time is a key part of my own process of trying to see everything. But Venice is a great place to go to. In terms of the different festivals, I think that's also a place where a lot of folks are premiering really big experiences because it's got the prestige of having an award that is being given at the same ceremony as all the other awards that are given at the Venice Film Festival, which is the longest running film festival in the world. Yeah, really love always going to Venice and, you know, it's a unique opportunity to bring people to take a tour of all the different latest immersive experiences. I think this past year at Venice Immersive, they had like 75 different immersive experiences, both from their competition, but also the stuff they curated and all these VR chat worlds and special events and everything. So yeah, just a lot of amazing pieces that they've been doing there at Venice Immersive. And also, you know, Sundance New Frontier has taken a little bit of a pause this year. She's been historically working with that and We talked about Shari Frilo and all the influences that Shari has had on both Jesse as well as myself to be able to chat with Shari and to get her perspectives on, you know, how she sees this industry and how she makes sense of it. And, you know, Shari is like an artist in her own right and the way that she does this curatorial process is like a creative and artistic process of trying to highlight all these different creators. And yeah, just to hear her framing of how it's all about the stories of the individual artists and the creators and really focusing on the individuals, even sometimes more so than the experiences themselves and just the creative process and everything else, especially because when you start to think about How do you talk about a piece when you can't always see the piece in the audience on the other end? You don't want to spoil a piece but you also want to convey the essence of the piece and so trying to figure out a way to cover this new medium in a way that there aren't a lot of like reference points that you can point to because it's such a new confluence of all these different things and that there isn't like an established vocabulary of understanding for the wider audience and so finding ways to cover it for myself has been challenging. The way I do it is I try to at least do this kind of oral history with the different creators to have them talk about their own experience but then to be able to share my own experiences of their experience that is a way of documenting my own memories but also to be a launching point into discussing more of the trade-offs in the design process that they have. And so taking this process relational approach of the creative process that the creator is doing, the story of the creator and the story that they've created themselves is like these three different braids that are used to cover it. But that's not necessarily a technique that all the broader journalists are being able to use. But Jesse is, I think, also kind of tuned into that same dimension of telling the story of the artists themselves rather than just purely the piece. So, framing it for these journalists covering this space of how to even make sense of this as well. Anyway, really great to be able to catch up with her and, you know, Supernatural is also a home run out of the park. Lots of different, amazing stuff there. Hope to be able to catch up with more folks from that team to be able to break down their whole journey. Now that they've been acquired by Meta, they're going to be able to take what they're doing onto the next level. They've been able to blend so many different aspects of experiential design and their lessons from this field of immersive storytelling and experiential design and create something that's solving a real problem of creating the use case of embodied movement, exercise and fitness in the realm of XR. And so yeah, Supernatural has been an amazing application and has really transformed a lot of people's lives. And so looking forward to catching up more with the Supernatural team to be able to unpack their journey and what's coming next for them. So, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.