Neill Blomkamp Is Onto Something With His Big Budget Short Films

Neill Blomkamp’s Oats Studio looks like an interesting foray into the world of high-end short film production.
By  · Published on May 30th, 2017

Neill Blomkamp’s Oats Studio looks like an interesting foray into the world of high-end short film production.

In case you missed it amidst the hustle and bustle of Memorial Day weekend, Neill Blomkamp is hard at work on yet-another interesting project. Yesterday afternoon, Blomkamp released the first trailer for Oats Studio (via Bloody Disgusting), a new production company that will allow the filmmaker to shoot and release a series of experimental short films on the digital distribution platform Steam. The trailer, which features a series of clips from several of Blomkamp’s short forms, promises a collection of alien invasion stories not so dissimilar from past projects like District 9 and Blomkamp’s unmade Alien sequel. Don’t blink or you might miss a brief cameo by Sigourney Weaver, one of the director’s biggest Alien-related advocates.

By the sound of things, Oats Studio has been a long time coming. In conversations with his fans on Twitter, Blomkamp has made it clear that Oats Studio will serve two important functions in the film industry. The first is as a pipeline for his own projects. Whatever your issues with movies like Chappie and Elysium, Blomkamp has always been a whiz when it comes to creating a blend of practical and digital effects in his films, and Oats Studio will give the filmmaker an opportunity to turn some of his visual ideas into short vignettes for later use. Blomkamp also raised the possibility that Oats Studio could become a destination for up-and-coming filmmakers or established directors looking to tinker with a short film. A productive partnership with Steam could turn the digital distribution platform into its own miniature studio, a fact I’m sure hasn’t been lost on them.

And while this announcement may be of particular interest to Blomkamp fans or fans of science fiction in general, I’m here to argue that the idea of a production company dedicated entirely to short films is a pretty nifty idea. We’ve always been pretty fierce advocates for short films here at Film School Rejects; we’ve tried to highlight shorts on a daily or weekly basis dating all the way back to the beginning of the site, and often times, these shorts can be more interesting than the movies we spend all summer arguing about. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve gone to a film festival — particularly genre festivals — and walked away more impressed with the five or ten minute experimental films playing before the feature releases. Short films are the great equalizer: all you need is a good idea, a half-decent camera, and a willingness to work for little or no reward.

But short films are also an essential waypoint in the careers of most aspiring filmmaker. Any MFA program worth its salt will require its directing, screenwriting, and producing candidates to collaborate on some form of a short film; once a filmmaker has a 10–20 minute proof of concept, they often work to convert that shorter film into a full-fledged feature. Before Wes Anderson made the 1996 feature Bottle Rocket, he wrote and directed a 13 minute short film of the same name. Paul Thomas Anderson famous turned two of his short films into features: the Sundance Film Festival darling Cigarettes & Coffee, which would later become Hard Eight, and The Dirk Diggler Story, which Anderson would turn into Boogie Nights. Sofia Coppola started her career with two short films, Bed, Bath and Beyond and Lick the StarDenis Villeneuve, now one of the biggest directors in the world, kicked off his career with REW FFWd, a 30 minute documentary short about life in Jamaica. And on, and on, and on, and on.

That’s what makes Blomkamp’s project so exciting. Taken individually, it’s tough to sell an individual short film to audiences when they could spend the same amount of money on a feature film by an established creator. But if Blomkamp is using Oats Studio as a VFX company, production company, and distributor all rolled into one, it’s entirely possible that Oats Studio could find a way to monetize short films and create a self-sustaining environment for new projects and voices. Think of it like an independent game developer competing with the AAA titles, or perhaps an anthology of short stories by different authors collected and edited by a more renowned filmmaker. Hell, think of it like a small-scale version of the Marvel blockbuster system, where an established brand draws upon relatively unknown feature filmmakers and gives them a shared sandbox to play in. With Neil Blomkamp as architect and executive producer, Oats Studio could become an intriguing opportunity to create bite-sized cinema for folks not used to the short film format.

As for right now, it sounds like Blomkamp is still struggling a little to decide what Oats Studio will look like when all is said and done. He’s indicated on social media that he may just release the first wave of short films on Vimeo or YouTube for free and let audiences drive the demand for a second volume of shorts. But there’s a part of me that wonders if Blomkamp hasn’t stumbled on the potential for something bigger here. All of the strengths of the short film format — their potential for brevity, creativity, and intellectual ownership — without any of the marketing and distribution problems that relegate them to the back corners of entertainment websites. If Blomkamp is able to turn Oats Studio into a thing, then I am officially declaring a moratorium on all “That’s Chappie!” jokes, at least until we have a chance to see how things shake out.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)