Video Games: The Movie Out Tomorrow, Aims to Tear Down Misconceptions About Gamers and the Industry
We talk with director Jeremy Snead about his upcoming all-encompassing documentary about the video game industry.
"Video games are for loners." "Video games cause violence." "Game development is not a 'real' career."
If you've ever struggled to communicate to your mother, father, brother, sister, or significant other why these claims are false and why you enjoy video games so much, a new movie out this week could be just the solution you're looking for. Video Games: The Movie, launching tomorrow in theaters and through digital platforms, is not the first documentary about our beloved past time, but it sets itself apart from the pack by offering a (nearly) all-encompassing take on the industry. It is this broad nature (unlike movies like Indie Game: The Movie or King of Kong that focused on a single topic) that director Jeremy Snead, a professional documentarian, hopes will make Video Games: The Movie a film that can appeal to a wider audience and help tear down some of the misconceptions about video games.
Snead maintains that gamers--and the game industry itself--are misunderstood by the wider audience of people who don't play games or know much about them. Writing about the movie earlier this year, Snead said one of his major goals for Video Games: The Movie was to create a film that informs the public about the reality of video games and the culture that surrounds them. He also hopes that his film will help people understand the passion that game creators have, by giving viewers a window into their world. "Much of this passion and artistry is overlooked by the mainstream media and all 'game people' are painted with a broad stroke that is incorrect," Snead said at the time. "We know this is not true and our film goes behind the scenes to tell the true story of the people who drive this amazing industry with passion and dedication."
In order to accomplish that, Video Games: The Movie features interviews with dozens of key industry people, including some of the grandfathers of video games (Atari founder Nolan Bushnell among them), all the way up to modern day innovators like Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey. Further helping the movie reach a wider audience is the fact that Zach Braff (Scrubs, Garden State) is an executive producer who provided beneficial creative input, Snead says. On top of that, the movie is narrated by Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin, a man Snead says is known to a mainstream audience, but is also a person who has significant "geek cred."
The film tells its story across four main categories: history, culture, the game-making process, and the future. Shot over the course of nearly three years and capped off by a Kickstarter campaign that brought in more than $100,000 for post-production, Video Games: The Movie is undoubtedly an ambitious project. We got the chance recently to see the film and speak with Snead about his goals for the project, the challenges he faced, and why certain subjects--including the "women in games" discussion--were left out. You can read our full interview below.
GameSpot: I read on your original Kickstarter campaign that one of your visions for the movie was to tear down some of the misconceptions about video games. How are you going to know if you're successful?
Jeremy Snead: With any form of art--whether it's music, film, games--there's the regular barometers of critical reviews and fan reactions; and I think all of those things mixed together will hopefully give me some kind of a temperature of [whether or not] it's being received well...and if then in turn that is affecting public perception [of video games] on a wider audience. As gamers, of course, we know it, we get it. There's no negative perceptions within the community. Our theatrical release, that's really been exciting. Initially, it was ten cities, limited theatrical. But I think the last I've heard it's 30-something theaters nationwide, which for me, is just amazing. Because that's been my goal: to get not just the gamer demographic watching it, but a wider audience to bring some of the real clichéd perceptions to at least erase those.
"I kind of wanted it to be an all-encompassing film that our moms and our aunts can watch and learn something about the medium that they didn't know before" -- Jeremy Snead
GS: On a wider level, outside of just erasing some of those misconceptions, what was your general overall ambition for the movie?
JS: Overall, and this may sound generic, but [it was to] really put all of it in one film. Early on, when I was even just [talking] to friends and some of the people, some of the early interview files, what they would say was, 'What's the movie about?' And I would say, 'Well, it's about the history but it's also about the community...' In sort of explaining to people early on what the film was about, I got a lot of people saying, 'Good luck with that' [laughs]. Because it's so far-encompassing. My goal was really to not tell a niche story. Because while I think that can be an entertaining movie and I like King of Kong or other movies that people would bring up, I would say that's really one story about those two guys and I really want to paint a picture of the entire industry and community and process of game-making and games being art and the technology. So I kind of wanted it to be an all-encompassing film that our moms and our aunts can watch and learn something about the medium that they didn't know before but not be bored but be entertained at the same time.
GS: Obviously, as you're looking at the whole industry there's a wealth of information that you could have covered. So how did you pare it down to 90 minutes or whatever it turned out to be?
JS: The short answer is: not easily [laughs]. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I honestly just looked at it from a filmmaker's point of view first. I'm a gamer and I'm a movie buff, but I knew if I was going to do this, I had to take those hats off and look at it as a filmmaker and say, 'If I was tasked to do this, how would I go about that?' And so, after I had the initial idea, I spent probably a month or so taking all of my sticky notes and ideas and outlines and half-cooked ideas that I had all over my office and my house; and just sort of putting those into some sort of digestible outline. And through that, that's kind of the four-act structure that I came out with.
Obviously the history of games is something that some hardcore people probably know, but the Average Joe doesn't. Once you kind of get past the mid-90s, that's kind of over and I didn't want the film to just be [history]. So I thought if that's where the history ends, where does it go from there? And then it kind of became this melding of the culture, the community of people playing games now, but also games, the technology is really advanced, so it's that as well. And then once you get past that, then what's left? It's the future, where are games headed? So that's how I came up with the four-act structure, and then once I had that I came up with questions that supported that four-act structure that I'd ask everybody that we interviewed.
GS: One of the things I left the movie thinking was it had a very positive tone and it was very hopeful for the future of video games. There wasn't much talk about the percentage of women in the workforce or developer issues like pay, work/life balance, and unions on the development side. Is there a reason you didn't want to touch upon these subjects?
JS: It's interesting. We do have a fair amount of footage of those things that people talked about that we had in early cuts. And to be honest with you, really what it came down to was just timing. I think our first cut of the film was like 3.5 hours [laughs]. And so we started looking at 'What can we cut?' Well, we've got these people talking about women in gaming, we've got these people talking about culture in the workplace; let's take some of that out and leave a little bit of it and then let's keep these other sections that we have to have a fully realized story. But then what ended up happening was if you don't spend as much time on those topics as you are on others, a couple of things happen. One, it feels like the obvious--you're not giving that topic due. And then two, to the Average Joe, it just sort of feels out of place. Like 'Oh, what was that little three-minute thing on women in gaming?' And now we're back to this other section that we spend 15 minutes on. So not easy choices, and if I had my choice, we'd do a ten-part, two-hour per [episode] series covering all of the topics [laughs]. But this hopefully will get people in and then maybe people will become more interested in those topics via the film.
GS: There was another component of the movie...you do have a segment on violence in games. Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton and everything. It was a pretty short segment, and it may have come across as a little defensive, which I think we're all guilty of sometimes. Can you walk me through how you approached this particular segment and why you filmed it the way that you did?
JS: I'm probably a little bit biased on that section because I just feel like it's such a cliché. Essentially, in the games industry every time a new Grand Theft Auto comes out, it's almost like there's some kind of briefing at all the different media news stations and media companies who say 'Oh, when GTA comes out, be sure to talk about the violence issue and bring up these four bullet points' [laughs]. It's so tired. And so what I wanted to do was give a platform in the film for the other side of the coin. I feel like we've heard the one side of the media coin of the violence piece for 20+ years, but there's not really been something in a major film that lets the industry say, 'Well, here's the reality of the situation. Here's what we think.' And I have had some people who say that it's a little one-sided, but I feel like the reality of the press the past 20 years gives the other side and people know that side all too well.
GS: You also made this movie kind of out in the open, in a non-traditional way, where you went to Kickstarter for some additional funding there. How did you balance listening to fan feedback and putting that in the movie with what your original vision was for the movie?
JS: That was tough as well. The community, listening to people...that was probably one of the hardest parts of making the film. As you know, gamer nation is very vocal. Everybody's got thoughts and ideas of what they think would and should be in a film like this. I think probably one of the biggest pieces of feedback that we did take to mind was having some European and Asian developers [appear in the movie]; and we could dive into all of UK game development history with a whole other film, or the Pacific Rim. But through that, we did target people like Hideo Kojima, Peter Molyneux, and tried to pad in those voices in the film. We did have a fair amount of people ask about education in games; 'serious games,' that whole thing. We tried to [incorporate] as much of that as we could, talk about kids being the future of the industry. But again, it's tough stuff to hear everyone's voice and get it all worked in and not be a four-hour film.
GS: Video games are obviously a constantly evolving medium, but this movie, the way it is now, is going to last forever in its current iteration; there's no DLC or expansions for movies. Does it worry you that in 5 to 10 years your movie is going to feel less relevant or do you think the themes are timeless?
JS: Even towards the end the editing process, we were in a position where we had melting ice cream in our hands. Because the industry moves so fast with new games and new technology. I feel like game industry is more progressive and changes faster than the film and music industries. So the short answer is yes, I did feel that--we did feel that--but we tried to get as much to the bleeding edge as we could with Oculus and Omni and what's happening with indie games. And hopefully there will be follow-ups in the future.
GS: I didn't realize at first, but Zach Braff is a producer on this movie. How did he become attached to this movie and what does he bring to the movie?
"Towards the end the editing process, we were in a position where we had melting ice cream in our hands. Because the industry moves so fast with new games and new technology" -- Jeremy Snead
JS: Zach Braff came through about halfway through our Kickstarter; he came on and donated $10,000 to our campaign, which just blew us away. And initially, [we thought] well that's just going to be sort of in name only; he's probably really busy and doesn't want to be an active executive producer. But he actually got in touch; I flew out to LA and met him and we had lots of different talks about the film and our goals for it; he gave input and then we asked him if he would be in the film and he said yes, so we shot an interview with him asking him all of the questions relevant to the film. So yeah, he's just been a real cheerleader for us and just his celebrity name alone has kind of helped to elevate the profile of the film, which I'm thrilled about. Because that was one of my original goals [for the movie] was to get it a really wide audience; not just a niche audience.
GS: Another celebrity attached to the project is Sean Astin (Samwise from Lord of the Rings; Rudy in Rudy; Mikey in The Goonies). I love his work. What would you say he brings to the movie?
JS: Sean, just briefly the story on that; I had pursued him for an interview because I know he's a gamer. And when we shot his interview, after that interview, he and I had dinner for like 3.5 hours and I told him about the film and what I wanted to do with it; and through some course of events, he became very interested and invested in the film and we talked him becoming the narrator. So it sort of happened organically. But now that I look back on it, I think what he brings to the film is that range that we're talking about; reaching a wide audience. Sean Astin is someone that I feel like our parents, aunts, and uncles know and think 'Oh, he's a good guy. Wholesome. Goonies. Rudy. Lord of the Rings. But he's also a guy who also has geek cred [laughs]. He's one of the few people who could bridge that gap and gamers and the geek/nerd audience would accept him. But he'd also be known and accepted by a wider, older audience.
Video Games: The Movie launches in 30+ theaters across the US tomorrow, July 15, and you can also buy the movie through iTunes and other digital formats.