How Valve inspired Neill Blomkamp to start his own movie studio

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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!

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