How Valve inspired Neill Blomkamp to start his own movie studio
Neill Blomkamp has a question: “If you could break apart films and treat them a little bit more like software, what would that look like?”
Whether it’s blindly following Amazon Instant recommendations or waiting for a film to hit Netflix instead of buying it, video streaming has slowly ushered in a new cinematic landscape; the way we consume movies has changed drastically. Yet despite the impact of the internet on movie-watching, filmmakers’ haven’t truly changed their creative process.
Cult sci-fi director Blomkamp wants to do exactly that. After District 9, Elysium and Chappie, the director set up Oats Studio, which has just released three short films — Firebase, Rakku and Zygote (collectively titled Volume 1). With YouTube and Steam as distribution platforms, Blomkamp’s new endeavor is aiming for a more collaborative approach to crafting movies.
While he’s still toying with how best to monetize his creations, the short films are all free on YouTube and Steam. But that’s just the start: Alongside each film, Oats is also selling “DLC” — its 3D assets and raw sound files — on Steam for $5.
For Blomkamp, this video-game-inspired “free to watch” approach is all about collaboration. By putting the shorts online free, Blomkamp and his studio can see which ideas people gravitate toward rather than pouring millions of dollars into an idea that might never recoup its costs. More important, though, the DLC gives young creators access to big-budget assets, allowing fans to recut Oats’ shorts or even use complex CG models for movies of their own.
All the shorts boast cinema-quality visual effects, and Zygote and Rakku feature performances from stars like Dakota Fanning and Sigourney Weaver. After watching Volume 1, I spoke with Neill Blomkamp to find out more about this ambitious project and how he sees the internet shaping his future movies.
The concept for Oats Studios is pretty bold. After years of making big-budget movies, how did the idea for this back-to-basics approach come about?
I think the core place that Oats came from was just me wanting to be more expressive and free to play around with ideas. I want to paint montages, not to fit into the rigid system that filmmaking has become. It’s been really cool because it’s very outside of directing in a traditional sense.
As well as giving you independence, Oats obviously uses the internet to connect you with audiences directly. What inspired the more collaborative approach?
The analogy that I think is quite fitting is thinking of [Volume 1] like an album. Films cost so much money and they’re so regimented that a lot of experimentation and passion gets removed from the process — because it is all so militaristic and hierarchical in how it’s executed. And it has to be like that because so many dollars are being spent.
Yet [albums] don’t require that level of cash, so [artists] can be freer to kind of play around a bit more. Short films also allow for that sort of experimentation. It feels really cool to be able to do that because you can start to tell when something is working and when something isn’t. And once all of the pieces that you feel do work get put out there, you can see whether the audience rejects them or whether they’re actually kind of into them. That can really inform which films, as full-scale features, you can feel confident about making.
Was it always the plan to distribute these shorts free online, or did the ideas for the films come first and then YouTube and Steam come further down the line?
The initial idea was Steam. It was an extremely Steam-centric project, and, well, it could still be pretty Steam-centric. But regardless of the actual distribution method, what felt very strange to me was the idea of charging the audience for something that typically is not charged for. People are OK with digesting something for free, but if you’re going to charge them for it, there’s an expectation. Whether it’s like a one-hour kind of HBO-style piece, a two-hour feature film or, you know, a 30-minute network comedy, they know what they’re getting and they can prepare for it and not feel ripped off.
I felt like that, given the strangeness of the format, people could feel very offended by having paid for them once they’ve seen them. And that just felt kind of innately wrong. I thought, if you release everything for free, whoever likes it is now familiar with what Oats is. So you could then theoretically charge for Volume 2 without feeling too bad. Then we could keep the lights on so that [we] can make Volume 3.
Given Steam is largely known as a gaming store, what made the service attractive to you as a filmmaker?
Well, I mean Valve is a very interesting company. Around the time that I was thinking about building a studio that made short films, I went down to Valve to look at some of their VR technology. I just loved their mind-set and what they did with video games and how they created microtransactions. It’s a very fascinating thing.
And so my initial thing was, I said to Valve, “Would you guys mind if I sold short films on Steam?” And they came back saying, like, “Well, no, we don’t mind, but you should also think about opening up all of the elements that you use to make the film in the way that we do with games, and gamers around the world do, by making skins or maps.”
And that kind of just opened up a bunch of things inside everyone who works at Oats’ mind. We were like, “That’s really interesting. If you could break apart films and treat them a little bit more like software, what would that look like?” And again, we were never sure if anybody would even be interested. [Selling assets] was never, ever going to come close to paying off how many millions we need to make one of these volumes, but it was a way to see if people were actually interested in [Oats]. Which is always like analytical data, really.
And it turns out that they are, which is kind of fascinating!
Given the prominence of crowdfunding, I’m surprised that wasn’t your first port of call. You already have a fanbase — have you considered using something like Kickstarter to fund any of your feature-length movies?
Yes. I mean, we may actually be doing that going forward. I think what we want to do is difficult on Steam because Steam doesn’t really do anything like Kickstarter. Early Access is more a case of having, you know, beta-level games people are kind of experimenting with and knowing that they’re in testing, where for us that isn’t the case. If we were going to make a feature film out of one of the ideas, we would need to crowdfund it from zero, so there’s nothing to beta-test.
So that forces us more into like a Kickstarter, Indiegogo kind of corner, rather than Steam, even though I would prefer to use Steam. The goal is to remain fiercely independent and kind of just always be using our own money. If that means that we reach a point where we kind of really appeal to anybody who likes the stuff so far to help us fund our first feature, and then that means we can then make a feature that then may pay the bills for Volume 2 and 3 — then that’s ideal. So make film, get proceeds, go back into experimentation. And the experimentation is always free.
Can fans expect to see larger asset packs released on Steam at a higher price down the line?
It’s not really about enticing buyers because there’s no universe in which like, $5 ancillary pieces will ever pay off how expensive the films are. So there is no real threshold for us where we’re pushing [asset] sales and then suddenly we break even; it’s never going to happen that way. You could go the other way and actually start making DLC stuff free, eventually, which is probably what we should do. But the reason to charge for it initially was because I wanted to know if we could eventually charge for say, one of the films. So you put out three 20-minute films and then put the fourth 20-minute film only on Steam to be sold.
If you assume the DLC stuff is either cheap or for free going forward, then yeah, I totally want to put more stuff in there, just to give away whatever the tools are that we’re using. You know, I think of myself as a 19-year-old, what would I have been interested to get my hands on? We were thinking of giving away all of the raw footage. Just give away everything. But the problem is the amount of data — it’s just ungodly. We’ve already given away our sound files, music. So they really could actually recut the film. That’s pretty fascinating.
With the newfound focus on Oats, does this mean fans can expect you to retire from directing more traditionally funded films?
In terms of other feature films, which means me just working more like a traditional director, I’m definitely looking for that as well. You know, this doesn’t negate that. There’s a project I’m working on right now with Fox called The Gone World, which is unbelievable. It’s my favorite feature project I think I’ve ever been connected to. It seems very difficult to make, though, so I’m hoping it works out, but that is an amazing film.
What about the long-awaited Alien project you were meant to be working on?
In terms of Alien, there’s just no news. I mean, it’s not happening, and there’s nothing else really to say.