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Steam helped one indie movie find a major audience, but couldn’t escape a ban in China

‘The Defector’ has spying, conspiracy theories and sci-fi

On Dec. 17, 1967, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared from a remote beach while swimming with friends.

Despite a herculean search effort, his body was never recovered, and conspiracy theories about his disappearance have blossomed in that darkness. He faked his own death; he was assassinated by the CIA; he boarded a secret Chinese submarine to defect to the safety of the country he’d been spying for while leading Australia.

With “The Defector,” screenwriter and director Scott Mannion has added his own sci-fi twist to the list of conspiracies.

The Defector - looking out through front door at man standing by car Scott Mannion

The 14-minute short film is a clenched fist in the vein of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It opens with a hooded man wearing an ornate metallic collar getting tortured, as Prime Minister Holt (Sean Taylor) watches. A quiet attack on Holt bubbles up in the shadows as his security intelligence director Charles Forwell (Malcolm Kennard) attempts to root out the “Reds,” who he claims are undermining Australian society.

“I find conspiracy theories both absurd and fascinating,” Mannion told Polygon, explaining why he tackled this real-world subject matter. “The paranoia, the lies, the truths. Sometimes they turn out to be real, often they spread like wildfire. They’re memelike. I was alarmed by the growth of fake news and conspiracy theories in our culture. I was frustrated with the lack of critical thinking online and the endless clickbait headlines peddling outrage.

“I made the film to explore these things, not as some political message, but as a drama made through the lens of ‘what is truth in movies and stories?’”

Exquisite in its design and snarling in its execution, the short film has scored millions of views on YouTube and Vimeo, but the most curious place you can find it is Steam.

Valve’s digital distribution platform is a haven for gamers, but it’s still in the nascent stages of providing the kind of entertainment you don’t press buttons during. Its biggest leap forward came when Valve loaded more than a hundred Lionsgate movies into Steam’s library in 2016. While mainstream movie representation has grown in the past two years, and Chappie director Neill Blomkamp uses Steam as the home for his shorts, indie films are almost nonexistent on the platforms. You find yourself tiptoeing between low-rated, shoestring-budget horror titles and backyard gangster films buried by more popular movies. Steam is a portal to an audience of 125 million, and Mannion saw an opening.

The Defector - opening an intricate door Scott Mannion

“When I noticed gamers always responded enthusiastically to [“The Defector”] in testing, I thought Steam could be the ideal place to target our audience,” Mannion says. “With YouTube, you’re competing against the entire world of entertainment. Steam may be crowded with games, but it’s a gold mine for movies. It has internal marketing for projects, so my film gets promoted to and accessed by a huge, informed audience of gamers with a thirst for more content.”

Mannion’s intuition has paid off. “The Defector” currently sits atop the Trending tab ahead of several anime shows, Fireplace for Your Home: Holiday Music Edition and, oddly enough, a Kit Harington spy thriller.

To get “The Defector” on the platform, Mannion had to sell Steam personnel on it. They watched it, thought it was cool and set him up as a Steam Partner. For those looking to replicate the success of “The Defector,” Valve has an open call for videos, although Mannion warns that the process is still highly selective.

One place you won’t be able to watch it? China. Soon after “The Defector” launched, Steam informed Mannion that the country blocked access to the short. He suspects the ban may be due to the film’s supernatural elements (which is what got Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters booted from China), its revisionist history or its inclusion of Soviet-era Communist imagery, but he can’t be sure — and he’s been told nothing explicitly.

“I spoke with the Chinese embassy, then the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) and China Film Group,” Mannion says. “I was told the ban can’t be simply lifted, referred to their film legislation, and told to apply for a cinema release license if I wanted the ban reviewed.”

Mannion says that Valve, for its part, has gone above and beyond to help him with the blockade, but believes the responsibility lies with him to thwart it. It may be a long shot, but he’s applying for a cinema release license.

The Defector is the first Australian movie on Steam, but this dark gem represents a glimmer of hope for indie filmmakers around the globe who need an opportunity to grab eyeballs and who might have the kind of movie gamers would love. It also represents another small step forward for Steam, not just as the dozenth place you can rent Paddington, but as a potential tastemaker.