Interview with DAAD alumnus Ortwin Sam Freyermuth, co-founder, vice-chairman and general counsel of video games company Cloud Imperium Games in Los Angeles
Mr Freyermuth, it’s a long way from Hanover to California. Did you dream of a Hollywood career as a child?
Far from it! A lot of things just came along unplanned. Albeit I was always interested in other cultures and international exchange, probably in part due my Huguenot family background. In fact, originally I wanted to be a German-French lawyer. When I was studying law in Göttingen, a professor recommended the one-year International Law study programme in Geneva. I was so enthusiastic that I spontaneously marched off to the International Office. You need very good French language skills to apply, so I took a semester off and learned the language in Paris. I was then actually accepted in Geneva. The study year was fantastic, a life-changing experience that was made possible due to a DAAD scholarship. My widowed mother wouldn’t have been able to finance it.
Why exactly did you specialise in entertainment law?
My elder brother insisted that I negotiate his screenplay contracts even during my studies. I found that interesting and got the hang of it. After the first state exam, I started a comparative law doctoral thesis on the reproduction of films for private use. I wanted to become familiar with US copyright law, so again with a DAAD scholarship I went to the University of California where I took a master's degree in International Law. After that, I wanted to spend a few months gaining work experience in the USA.
That turned into decades...
Yes, and it’s the reason that I never completed my dissertation. I started off by filling out export documents for an international film distributor. I was totally overqualified for that, but I could read old business files in the basement late at night after work and learn from them. Then the company suddenly faced bankruptcy and they remembered my legal qualifications. I helped with various problems – and after the takeover by film production company Vestron I was unexpectedly asked to manage their international legal department. From bottom of the food chain to executive – only in America!
But surely you weren’t even accredited to practice law?
No, and at some point I realised this was the reason why I was being grossly underpaid. During my two weeks of annual leave, I studied day and night for the dreaded state bar exam which, contrary to all predictions, I passed. In the meantime, I’d become known in industry circles as a German-American familiar with the entertainment law in both countries. At Vestron, you see, I was able to establish lots of international contacts, including with Dieter Geissler, producer of ‘The NeverEnding Story II’. He poached me in 1989 to take care of securing funding in Munich, a complex international transaction with thousands of pages of contracts. This subsequently involved providing support as the production progressed, so I was also able to gain practical experience on the set.
And how did you then become a film producer yourself?
Scriba & Deyhle Holding, which had facilitated funding of ‘The NeverEnding Story II’ was also involved in ‘Shattered’ – a film written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen. When the producer's funding fell through, I suggested that we simply took over production and distribution ourselves. I always did have an entrepreneurial streak; I’d even imported wine from France during my studies. We founded ‘Capella Films’ in Los Angeles and managed to produce and globally distribute ‘Shattered’. I was the executive producer of five further films in subsequent years. It was my idea to produce the director's cut version of Wolfgang Petersen’s ‘Das Boot’. Three years later I founded a company to produce more special editions of classic films. It became insolvent when the Neuer Markt collapsed. It's an interesting experience when investors no longer pick up the phone. Next I established a law practice in Los Angeles, which fortunately went well.
What led to your switch into video gaming?
It’s related to the film industry in many ways, so I was able to learn the ropes from 2006 onwards. One of my clients was Chris Roberts, the developer of Wing Commander. He proposed in 2011 that we should jointly set up Cloud Imperium Games. Yet it proved difficult to attract investors to provide funding. So we pursued and further developed the crowdfunding model – to date we've raised 500 million dollars, which is a world record in the Guinness Book of Records.
Cloud Imperium Games has several hundred employees who are developing the massive multiplayer video game ‘Star Citizen’, which simulates a particularly detailed science fiction universe. There is some criticism that a commercial version still isn’t ready ten years on. We’re also still waiting for the announced single player game ‘Squadron 42’...
The alpha version of ‘Star Citizen’ has been playable since 2018. Hundreds of thousands of gamers spend many millions of playing hours each year interacting with our planets, moons, space stations and 140 spaceships. We’re introducing totally new and unique technologies. Chris Roberts has huge creative vision, and realising it takes time. The global gaming community is enthusiastically embracing the game, otherwise people wouldn’t be providing such enormous amounts to finance its development. We’re getting ever closer to the commercial beta version.
Do you have any tips for young entrepreneurs who want to operate internationally?
Besides good technical knowledge, of course, the most important thing is an interest in other cultures and ways of doing things. Many negotiations fail due to language barriers and cultural misunderstandings. My job has always been about building cultural bridges between Germans, Americans and French people to create the required basis of trust for successful negotiations. So my main advice would be to pack your bags and head off abroad for a longer period. You then need to position yourself well to be able to effectively exploit this extended cultural and linguistic background on an international stage. My experience is that professional global networks for exchanging ideas with colleagues from other companies are very helpful in this respect. And of course you should never be hesitant when an unexpected opportunity comes along: ‘The harder you try, the luckier you get!’