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Neill Blomkamp Wants to Bypass the Studios and Go Straight for the Fans

Neill Blomkamp has 180 minutes to prove himself to you.

The critically-beloved and critically-scolded mind behind District 9 and Chappie has the money to produce three hours of weird, wondrous blasts of experimental short film concepts while proudly waving the Oats Studios banner. After that, he’ll have to pass the hat and trust that you want to see more.

“The main goal eventually, if it’s possible, is to raise enough money from the audience to make films independently,” he tells me on the eve of the second Oats short, Firebase, hitting YouTube. He sounds tired, but energized. Surprisingly calm for a filmmaker testing the waters by cannon-balling into the deep end. Blomkamp and his team are working, Roger Corman style, out of a warehouse in Vancouver that houses all their pre- and post-production needs–from VFX to sound to editing. It’s a self-contained movie factory where they churn out tarry lizard-beasts and lift hundreds of M1 Abrams tanks into the stratosphere. The big question is how to pay the bills so the magic assembly line keeps rolling.

Firebase Oats

“There are a few different ways that we speak about it internally,” Blomkamp says. “There are four films in [Oats Studios] Volume 1, and then there are other weird, smaller pieces that go between them. So if the audience online has seen four films by the time Volume 1 is done, and there are enough people who liked what they saw, one option is we make Volume 2 and charge for it so we can make Volume 3.”

He continues,” The other way is that Volume 2 is free and Volume 3 is free and Volume 4 is free. All of the volumes are free forever. And we raise capital to make a film that’s based on whichever one of the shorter pieces that the audience is most receptive to that I would love to direct. Then, release that in theaters and use the profits of that to fund several more of the volumes.”

And finally: “The third option, which is the most unlikely option, but is also kind of the coolest, would be to ask the audience to pre-buy or fund the development of Volume 2 or a film. But I don’t think that’s viable. I don’t think you’d raise enough capital from that directly.”

About 48 hours after our conversation, Firebase already has more than 600k views. The first short film of the grand experiment, Rakka, dropped a washed-out Sigourney Weaver into a wasteland where aliens treat humans like vermin. It’s been seen more than 2.6m times.

Oats Studios Volume 1 Rakka

Yet in a world of short attention spans and shallow loyalty, it’s hard to know whether numbers like that spell success. How can you be sure that the millions coming for the free candy will stay with you? Can you really trust the comments section or the ratio of little thumbs up icons to little thumbs down icons? For now, Blomkamp is trusting his gut, Oats’ creativity, and an experimental model that suggests something popular will emerge.

“Working in a studio environment for huge films, that really are $100 million films, makes sense to me,” he says. “It’s something that I want to go down the road of doing. But I think there’s another space where technology is opening up the way you can distribute and interact with audience members and there seems to be a way where it may be possible to live in an ecosystem where you can be creative as you wanna be and know whether you’ve succeeded or failed based on how the audience feels about things–to make stuff, see if it works or not, and be surprised by the ones that work and surprised by the ones that fail.”

Blomkamp believes that you can’t guess which of these projects will work. Or, maybe, that Oats’ creative model doesn’t afford the luxury of gaming the audience. “You could probably make something that was as streamlined to getting a positive response from the audience as possible, but we haven’t really done that, so whatever happens happens,” he says. “Either people like it or dislike it.”


One reason it might be tough to bet on a single short film’s success? They’re really, really weird. Blomkamp is truly treating this gamble as a gamble. While some filmmakers are using the internet space trying to prove they can utilize a fan-friendly formula to create generic science fiction, Blomkamp has the luxury of trading on his name to teleport to strange worlds and come back to Earth via left field. While others are trying to hook us in under 10 minutes, Blomkamp is hoping he’ll hold our attention for almost half an hour.

Both Rakka and Firebase come with an art house sheen to them–eschewing exposition and scenes of dialogue in favor of atmospheric flashes and shrouded high concepts that promise to give the viewer’s head-scratching arm a workout.

When Rakka landed a few weeks ago, critics all noted how strange and ephemeral it was. Firebase has it beat on that front. The Vietnam War-set allegory circles the story of a Doctor Manhattan-like “God” who roams the jungles ripping soldiers’ insides out, transforming jets to spray fire on their allies, and flummoxing an overconfident American battalion. When discussing it, Blomkamp talks about Simulation Hypothesis, “messing with space-time,” and setting The Matrix in Vietnam. “The tone of it in certain areas was meant to be surreal,” he says. “I like the idea that, if the audience doesn’t explicitly know that it’s a simulation–and that someone from one perspective can now sense that and The River God from another perspective has overcome that–the audience can get these images and feelings and ideas that seem supernatural or seem inexplicable, but to the filmmakers they are explainable and they do follow logic.”

Firebase Short Film

If given the chance–presumably by impressing the money out of your pockets–Blomkamp wants to mess with space-time in Ancient Egypt, too.

It would be naive not to see this move toward independence as at least partially connected to a sophomore stretch of mixed results under a major studio. Namely, making Elysium and Chappie for Sony, and the development hell of his Alien sequel at Fox which Blomkamp says “isn’t gonna get made.”

He reminds me that they started building the Oats warehouse more than a year before he began work on his now-defunct Alien movie, but admits the possibility that his turn toward freedom and risk could be “subconsciously related” to it.

Even it’s an oversimplification to think that a filmmaker has chosen to work outside the system because his visions haven’t always been best served by that system, it’s refreshing to see as bold an experiment as Oats Studios. To see a writer/director carve out a space where oddball ideas can thrive. To build a studio around the films and not the other way around. Yes, Blomkamp is using all of us as guinea pigs to see which of those films work, but it’s also firmly possible that, after he sprints through his 180 minutes, he will have succeeded only in handing over snippets of blockbuster-level material to millions, for free.

Firebase Short Film Oats

Which brings us back to the question at the heart of his experiment. The vast majority of filmmakers releasing the short films online are doing so to catch the eye and pocket book of a major studio, and while Blomkamp is open to working under a major studio’s umbrella if his Cormanesque factory system is left in place, that isn’t Oats’ ultimate objective. “I won’t take options off the table as if we’re mandating things, but the goal is very clear,” Blomkamp says.

“The goal is to communicate with and make films for the audience as if I was an audience member. So I thought, all free, see how it goes, is the best approach. Figure out the insane business model later. The business model right now is like a dumpster fire of money. That’s the model. But you do end up with interesting creativity through it.”

Images: Oats Studios


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