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Going Rogue: Entertainment industry vets build VR startup with Michael Bay

Michael Bay VR Movie

To longtime film, animation and video game production executive Pete Blumel, the increasingly hot virtual reality space represents the “perfect bridge” to bring together almost every corner of the entertainment world, from Hollywood to technology to game development.

He believes in VR and the fresh opportunities it affords content creators so much that earlier this year he helped launch a Los Angeles-based production studio called The Rogue Initiative. Packed with creative executives and interactive media developers from companies like Pixar, Amblin Entertainment, Disney, Electronic Arts and more, its vision is to build original, cinematic content for VR, feature films and television.

Plenty of companies do that, of course, but not every VR startup can boast a similar bench strength. Or can count, as The Rogue Initiative can, Transformers director Michael Bay as an advisor who also plans to direct a VR project in his signature explosion-loving style for the company. 

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Lynda Obst, a producer whose film credits include Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, is another advisor.

In addition to looking for new investment and strategic partnerships, The Rogue Initiative will be distributing its VR goodies across platforms from all the usual suspects, from the Oculus Rift to the Samsung GearVR as well as services like Netflix and Amazon. For Blumel, The Rogue Initiative’s CEO and creative director, it’s all a continuation of the passion for storytelling and the experience that’s driven his involvement with projects like the Call of Duty Modern Warfare series, which he came into at Infinity Ward when the franchise decided to jump into the modern era.

“We kicked that off with Call of Duty 4, and I still look at that and see a game that holds up really well,” said Blumel, who spent 8 years as a video game producer at Infinity Ward before going on to launch three startups including The Rogue Initiative. “It holds up because it was all about the gameplay and the experience.

“The thing about us at The Rogue Initiative is we’re not pivoting from another industry. We’re real-time immersive storytellers who’ve been working in interactive entertainment and video games for a very long time. We’re a production team that’s also not just tech-savvy and adept, but we’re also creatives. And all the stuff we’re working on, we’re co-creating with big storytellers like Michael Bay.”

The Rogue Initiative team currently includes 15, with other founders including chief production officer Cathy Twigg and chief business development officer Hrish Lotlikar.

Twigg started her career at MTV Films where she was responsible for talent discovery and adding to the project pipeline. She went on to work at Dreamworks Television Animation, Sony Pictures Television and Bandeira Entertainment, among other names, and is currently helping The Rogue Initiative develop its IP for VR, interactive, feature and TV projects.

Lotlikar, meanwhile, brings experience in startups, venture capital, investment banking and management consulting.

“We built The Rogue Initiative from the ground up to be a go-to team for Hollywood creators, to collaborate and co-create and co-own new IP,” Lotlikar said. “That’s really what sets us apart, and really our big vision here is we co-create and co-own new IP in VR, then we take that and can make it into a feature film, TV show, we can take it to arcades, we can take it to merchandising.”

That speaks to what Blumel said he sees as another differentiator of his VR startup compared to others that have launched in recent weeks and months. His wants to create IP that also lives beyond VR – content that eventually become anything from a graphic novel to a TV show.

The reason for the company’s name? It’s simple. The leadership team, Blumel explains, likes to go against the grain, to take the initiative in things that may be considered “rogue” or against the traditional line of thinking.

Its formation earlier this year comes as interest in VR technology and content is exploding. Just this week alone, Twitter confirmed its hire of a former Apple designer for a VR project at the social network. Sony in recent days also made Jake Zim, its senior vice president of digital marketing, the company’s new senior vice president of virtual reality, signaling a firm commitment from the entertainment giant to VR.

The Rogue Initiative, meanwhile, thinks it’s got what it takes to pull ahead of the pack. “We’re a production company with heavy-hitters and amazing storytellers. That’s what we’re building right now,” Blumel said.

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Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming. Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.