Witnessing the emotional evolution of another person’s intriguing story, which powerfully captures your undivided attention, is often an experience entertainment users often associate with films. But also engaging in the entertaining storytelling aspect of video games, aside from the excitement of winning every level of each title, is something many people don’t often understand or accept. But video games skillfully interweave creative stories and interactive experiences in a unique way that no other entertainment medium can. First-time feature film director Jeremy Snead passionately showcases the history and culture of the video game industry in his new documentary, ‘Video Games: The Movie.’ The film, which is now in theaters and on VOD, proves how emotionally enthralling video games can be for the general public, and not just gamers.
‘Video Games: The Movie’ is an epic feature length documentary chronicling the meteroic rise of video games from nerd niche to multi-billion dollar industry. Featuring in-depth interviews with the godfathers who started it all, the icons of game design and the geek gurus who are leading us into the future, the film is a celebration of gaming from Atari to Xbox, and an eye-opening look at what lies ahead.
Snead generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Video Games: The Movie’ over the phone. Among other things, the writer-director-producer-cinematographer discussed how his life-long passions for film and video games, and wanting to chronicle the history, people, industry and technology of the gaming world, influenced his decision to make the documentary; how surprised, yet appreciative, he was that the public was so interested in the movie, they almost doubled the film’s original Kickstarter goal; and how making the documentary indpendently not only pushed him to focus on the cast’s performances as the director, but also led him to produce, write and help in the film’s editing process, which he found to be exciting and exhilarating, but also challenging.
ShockYa (SY): You wrote and directed the new film, ‘Video Games: The Movie,’ which is the first ever in depth feature length documentary about the video game industry and the culture it has created. What was your inspiration in wanting to make the first movie that chronicles the rise of video games into the multi-billion dollar industry it is today in a film?
Jeremy Snead (JS): I’ve always been a movie buff and gamer my whole life, so I wanted to marry my two passions in a film that would really portray this subject matter for all that it is. I didn’t want to just show the history, the people, the industry or the technology, but the peaks and valleys of all of that in one film, which I haven’t felt was shown in a film before.
I had originally looked for a documentary on video games about three-and-a-half years ago. I was nostalgic to play an 8-bit game from that era. (laughs) I think I had played ‘Donkey Kong’ earlier that day, and that night I went on Netflix to look for a video game documentary. But I couldn’t find anything that really encompassed the subject matter fully. So the next day I started writing an outline.
SY: The documentary was narrated by Sean Astin, and features interviews with Wil Wheaton, Zach Braff, Donald Faison and Atari founder/creator, Nolan Bushnell, among others. What was the process of acquiring the interviews for the film?
JS: Early on, it was tough (getting the interviews). I run an agency here in Dallas, called Mediajuice Studios. We cut trailers, promotional videos and commercials for video game companies. So I do have a lot of contacts in the industry.
But even despite that, early on, it was tough to get the interviews. There are so many “independent filmmakers” out there who say they’re making a documentary. So with the number of requests these companies get, particularly in the past five years when digital filmmaking has become so prevalent, getting interviews is difficult. So until we had our first few big interviews, it was tough. But then it was easier, and we got some bigger names.
During our Kickstarter campaign, which not only helped us finish raising the money we needed to film, it also became a press vehicle of exposure to the world. Then bigger names, like Zach Braff and Sean Astin (who narrated the film), saw that it was legitimate, and people were passionate and backing it.
SY: Speaking of funding the film through a Kickstarter campaign, you received over $47,000 more than your initial goal. Why did you decide to utilize the crowdfunding platform? What did it mean to you that so many people supported your goal to make the film?
JS: I was just blown away by the response. I had tried the year before on Indiegogo, but since we didn’t really have footage, that one wasn’t funded. I think people couldn’t get a clear enough picture of what the film was going to be.
But then a year later, when we had the majority of the films done, we needed money. Any independent filmmaker would say post-production can be more expensive than principal photography. You need editing, motion graphics, licensed music and narration, which cost real money.
So I was nervous when we first launched it, but we raised our initial Kickstarter goal of $60,000 in less than 10 days, which blew me away. It was encouraging to me that this is something people do want to see. The fact that we almost doubled our original goal encouraged me and our whole team that this is worthwhile. It gave us even more fuel to get through the next few months of finishing the film.
SY: Also speaking of shooting the movie independently, did that pose any challenges while you were making the film, or do you feel it added to its creativity?
JS: I think if you asked any filmmaker, would you rather make your film independently without a budget, or make it with a big studio and distributor backing you with a budget, would take the latter. But it is the old cliche, necessity is the mother of invention, and that was definitely the case here. I funded the principal photograph and traveling all around the world to go to these developers and publishers out of my own pocket, and it wasn’t easy.
But part of the story and some of the interviews we got from that did come out of that process of having to get gritty, and having to just do it without a budget. Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything, but that doesn’t make the independent filmmaking process any easier. (laughs)
SY: Besides writing and directing ‘Video Games: The Movie,’ you also served as a producer on the film. Why did you decide to also produce the movie? What was the process of working with Zach Braff, who also served as an executive producer on the documentary?
JS: Going into the independent filmmaking world, you have to wear so many hats. The benefit you have of working with a studio and a budget is that as a director, you get to work with the actors and focus on their performances on screen. Of course, they oversee everyone else, but that’s their number one job.
But on an independent film, you have to do that, as well as produce, write and help in the editing process. There’s really no limit to your involvement, which is exciting and exhilarating, but it’s also challenging. But we did have people like Cliff Bleszinski and Zach Braff come on as executive producers. It’s nice, because it makes you feel like you’re not alone. If you have a question, and say, I’m thinking about doing this, you can get feedback from someone who’s outside of your immediate world say, yes, this is working, or no, that’s not. They can give you advice from an outside filmmaker’s point-of-view.
In Zach’s case, the advice came from an outside independent filmmakers’ perspective. In Cliff’s case, he knew what audiences want to see. He has experience bringing big blockbuster video games to the world. So honestly, it couldn’t have been a better scenario with the producers that came on board. They gave us great perspective.
SY: The film was recently released on VOD and in theaters in the United States and Canada, and it’s also be available in several countries around the world. Why did you decide to release the documentary on both VOD and in theaters? Do you feel the VOD platform is important for smaller films like this one?
JS: The evolution of filmmaking, and movies being delivered to audiences, has changed so much, even in the past five years. Specifically, for gamers, digital is a must, as that audience demands that. They’re so technologically savvy, they want things digitally. That’s how many games are delivered. So that was important to me, as well as the people at Variance (Films) and Amplify, the distributors, that we make it available digitally.
Releasing it theatrically is tough, because with a documentary, you’re limiting your audience already. Documentaries, by their nature, don’t have as big of an audience as a dramatic narrative or a big action movie would. So the fact that we not only got into theaters, but were in almost 35 theaters nationwide was a dream come true for me. It’s really the best possible scenario for a filmmaker with a documentary. I couldn’t be more please that it’s getting as wide of a release as it is.
SY: Atari helped launch the popularity of video games with its launch in 1972 and through the 1980s, and people today have shifted their interest to such game apps as ‘Candy Crush’ and ‘Angry Birds.’ How has the ever-changing technology influenced not only the way people play video games, but also who plays them, as well?
JS: One of my goals with the film is to connect that old nostalgia we all have for the 8-bit and 16-bit games, like ‘Mario Bros.’ and ‘Sonic,’ to modern day games, like X-box and Play Station. I feel like there are so many people don’t realize it really is the same animal. From ‘PacMan’ to ‘Halo,’ that’s all part of the video game industry. It’s evolved so gradually, people don’t realize it. So the film’s goal was for people to walk away, saying “I am a gamer, because I played ‘PacMan’ as a kid, or I play X-box or ‘Angry Birds’ on my phone now.” I think there are more “gamers” than people realize. (laughs)
SY: With the video game industry changing so drastically since its inception, how did you decide which aspects of its history you would include in the movie? What kind of research did you do on the industry before you began filming?
JS: It was difficult, but I knew that all I could do was make a movie I wanted to see. So when I sat down to create the outline, I started with the history of video games, because you obviously have to have that in a film called ‘Video Games: The Movie.” But if that was all it is, I feel like it would be a one-note film. It would have appealed to one set of gamers, the historical enthusiasts, but that would be it.
If you were going to add more to that, what would be the next piece? The next logical piece would be the players. So the next chapter would be the culture. But even with those two things, it would feel like a two-note film. It would only be interesting to a select group of audiences, but not a wider audience. The next logical aspect to add would be the industry and the people making the games. The only thing left was the future of the medium.
So I felt with those four chapters, it was a film that would really appeal to a wide audience. I wanted to cover the peaks and vallies of the medium, in an entertaining way.
SY: What were some of the misconceptions about the gaming industry and gamers you discovered while researching and shooting the movie?
JS: One of the sections that’s in the film deals with violence in video games. One of the reasons we treated that section of the film in the way we did, and show the industry’s point-of-view on it, is because I feel like the other side of that coin, with violence and video games being a time waster, has been covered to death in the media. Everyone has heard all of the headlines about violence in video games, and that they are time wasters, to ad nauseam. But those headlines just sell newspapers.
But what people haven’t heard or seen is the gamers’ point-of-view on all of those topics. Some people have said it seems like a love letter to video games. I don’t take that as criticism-I think it’s terrific. It’s honest about what the medium really is.
Written by: Karen Benardello