One of the first films to explore the inner world of independent video game creators, Indie Game: The Movie is a great example of the ethos of modern DIY filmmaking. Filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot have undertaken the self-distribution route as well, and it seems to be working really well for them. Over a year after their initial digital release, James and Lisanne continue to prove that the life of their film is not yet over. Recently No Film School got together with the filmmakers to get some answers about their recent special-edition self-release and their experience of "building something from nothing." Read on for the full interview.
The Indie Game: The Movie Special Edition is another film's worth of stories, all-new epilogues & short films crafted by the directors of the original, Sundance award-winning, feature documentary. Find out what happened after & about other games and game creators.
NFS: How did your release go?
James: It went really well, it was different this time around though. It was strange because before we had a movie that did a festival circuit and theatrical stuff, so we had a 4-5 month period of showing it around and knowing how the audience was responding to it. So we felt really good on the digital release that it would be similar to audience reaction up to that point. But this time around we had no idea, because no one had seen the content.
Lisanne: We didn't even show family or friends.
James: We didn't have time. Not that we'd ever really focus group, but even to run it by people and say, "What do you think about this?"
Lisanne: We just didn't have time.
NFS: Was it important for you to have a big opening day? How was it?
Lisanne: Really good. That and the pre-order.
James: Pre-order was a really big day and did 50% of what we did on July 24th, our launch day. We're big fans of the pre-order because whenever someone gets interested in your movie you want to give them the ability to act on that and support you. With the internet full of distractions, who knows if they'll actually remember two weeks from now if they care about you anymore.
Lisanne: What's so crazy about pre-orders, and this is what kept us going with the special edition, is there are people who pre-ordered this idea 3 years ago. So there's like a few thousand people who had already purchased this. Like already purchased a physical version of this. So you see these names over and over of these people who had faith in you three years ago saying, "My money was well spent." And that's the best part of the day.
James: A pre-order starts a relationship. And Kickstarter starts a relationship, and if you actually embrace that and reciprocate, by the end of it you just have a wonderful sense of community. It sounds flowery and people like to throw that word around, but it does exist and it does help.
Lisanne: It's very direct. When people talk about self-distribution, direct distribution, this is incredibly direct. It's like, "Hey, I packaged this and put this in the mail for you."
NFS: Are there trolls? How do you deal with them?
James: Two types of trolls, people who are angry just to be angry -- it's just their de-facto response to most things, and those people you'll never win over. But then there are people who are angry, but to find out what type of troll they are, you just kill them with kindness and give them what they want. And more often than not, people do a 180.
Lisanne: People just want to be heard. If someone is having an issue with something, you just say, "I hear you. I hear what you're saying. This is what we were thinking and this is why we did it." Actually the special edition gets into the idea of trolls quite a bit.
NFS: Was the special edition a product of having too much footage from the first round of edits or did you go out and shoot more?
Lisanne: This is all new stuff. It's like an anthology of new short films that we made that are a continuation in part of the narrative of the film, and then also explores other game creators. So we shot the film, edited the film, it was released, we did all the self-distribution, and at the same time as all that, we kept following up and shooting new stuff with the main subjects in the film. When the film ends there's still question marks.
James: While we were touring, Phil Fish released his game and it did really well -- it did amazing actually. It changed his life in the same way it changed Edmund's life and John's life and Tommy's life. There's really interesting dynamics that happened after.
Lisanne: What was particularly interesting to us beyond, "Where are they now," was that there was this undercurrent and this theme that we were seeing of the consequences and the challenges of living a creative life on the internet. And that's what the special edition, at least 40 minutes of it, is about.
It's about what it's like to put out your work and then continue to live your life as a creative person. Edmund sorta left the internet. Tommy got a bunch of trolls on Reddit who hacked into Super Meat World and we talked about the consequences of that. And Phil has consequently become this kind of iconic figure in video games and it all sorta started by a press conference we did when we released the film for the first time and one thing he said has caught on like wildfire. So all these things were milling about and we thought, "There's more story here." So that's half of it, then the other half of it is looking at other creators.
James: There are levels, so you can keep diving in.
NFS: How did you find time to shoot extra stuff while you were touring? You guys are hardcore.
James: It was insane.
Lisanne: We are hardcore.
James: Not by decision though, we sorta just work ourselves into these corners and then work really hard to get out of them.
Lisanne: It all started as a promise to 25 people in our first Kickstarter campaign back in May 2010. At the time we thought, "What can we offer people? How about a special edition that will be 1 or 2 discs?"
James: While shooting we knew we'd get clips and stories and stuff we couldn't fit into the film, so we thought, "Let's use that to make extra content."
Lisanne: It was this thing that was exciting and interesting to keep doing, but it also hung over us. We were working hard on pushing the film out and this was happening simultaneously, and we couldn't start a new project until we finished this. So, we figured if we're gonna stat this we might as well make it good, and that's why it took us 9 months.
James: We thought it would take an extra 3-4 months, but then we just wanted to make it really good. People had been waiting so long for it, and the movie turned into something relatively special and we wanted this to be the final chapter.
Lisanne: It just grew.
James: It all came from this place of just thinking like a fan. Like "Oh, wouldn't that be great if we did that?"
Lisanne: Then it turns into a huge to-do list...
NFS: That's great though. It sounds like an incredibly organic process, and it seems like if the opportunity is there then it's up to you to take it and see how far you can go with it. I think that's a problem for filmmakers: are they gonna go down the rabbit hole? Say you have a successful Kickstarter campaign and drop off after that, I think what filmmakers are starting to learn is that you need to use that opportunity to create momentum for more organic processes and see how far you can push it.
James: Completely. The internet is so temporary. Once you have momentum you need to seize it then. You can't have a little spike of momentum and then go away for a little while and then pick up right where that momentum left off because the internet doesn't care anymore. It moves on so, so quickly. This was a 3 year project, but it was a 3 year constant project. We didn't have any time where we went off the radar, because if we did it would kill everything. That constant attention that you pay to it creates more opportunity, which creates more work, but going forward and not necessarily knowing where you're going to end up will always create opportunity to varying degrees.
Lisanne: All of this stuff is just about walking into chaos and trying to make sense of it. And the people who take that jump are the people who end up succeeding.
James: It's a certain confidence. We knew we were going in the right direction, and we knew we were likely making something good, but we didn't know where it would end up or what it was going to be. I know a lot of filmmakers wait for everything to be perfect, and I'm not a huge advocate of that, for your first film anyways. A certain amount of uncertainty is good. If you wait for everything to be perfect on your first go then it never will be.
Lisanne: It terms of actual filmmaking, those moments of uncertainty when things happen that you're not expecting but you see it as something that you should pursue even though it wasn't technically in your plan, that's where the special stuff is because it's spontaneous and interesting.
NFS: Did your background help you make this film?
James: We could not have made this film 10 years ago. We wouldn't have been good enough and we wouldn't be able to roll with the challenges and recognize the narrative arcs. I started out with things as modest and silly as high-school graduations and wedding videos in the first year and then graduating to corporate gigs and commercials and stuff. And if you're doing that kind of work there's this inherent challenge of making things that are not necessarily cinematically friendly look cinematic and be dynamic.
Because you can be doing a really boring corporate video on something like 'soy protein isolate' and you have to make that as interesting as that possibly could be. So we spent 15 years doing that type of work, and then when we come to make this documentary about making video games, you have this subject that is very interesting and very populous, but the actual process of making a video game is not cinematic at all. It's people sitting at computers for a long period of time.
Lisanne: But we saw potential in that because of years working in corporate stuff. My background is slightly different, I was a journalist and worked at CBC in Canada and ended up as a TV producer. But 6 or 7 years ago I joined James and his company Blinkworks.
NFS: You say on your website that a traditional theatrical run is a money losing situation. What do you think all of this self-distribution has to say about the future of theatrical?
James: I don't think it will go away, I think there will probably be more emphasis on theatrical events. Like added value type of stuff, for an indie film it's like taking your film and treating it like a band, touring it around, doing Q&A's, doing stuff that they couldn't get from iTunes or bought it from your site.
Lisanne: As we watch how digital media has changed the music industry it's all about hearing them in person, and that's where bands are making money. It's not the easiest life touring and you have to be a special kind of person to do it. Even with the internet and having access to everything you want, people are still looking for cultural experiences or artistic experiences in person. We live our lives on our smartphones connecting with people that we don't actually connect with in person, so I think that's what films are gonna do.
James: The weird thing is we did our own theatrical tour and we did really well on it. We did about 20 cities and we made more on that, because of the margins and the crowds that we were able to attract than any of our traditional theatrical distribution -- where we got theatrical runs and a cut of the gate, usually about 30% or so.
Lisanne: We did that in Australia, Scotland, the U.S., Canada, and the tour made way more. Like 10 times more.
James: I can't remember the actual numbers, but it was about 10 times more despite the amount of times the movie was played to an audience. Through theatrical it was almost like 20 times more. When we did our tour we only played our movie 30 times and then when we tallied up the traditional it was like 300 or 400.
NFS: How have you utilized your built-in audience to have a successful distribution model? Isn't it rare for Steam to have a film?
Lisanne: We're the first film on Steam; the only film on Steam. We convinced them -- it took us a year. We went there -- flew there and got a theater and showed them the movie.
James: It was like a courting period.
Lisanne: It was a whole thing.
James: And it's not that they made us do that. We just felt it was such a strong opportunity that we just kept pursuing even after they said "I don't know, I'm not too sure if this is a good fit." Eventually we courted and twisted arms. They really understand digital customers and the nature of digital sales, and they do it in a way that makes audiences and consumers feel great about buying more.
We made a movie knowing video game fans were our core audience, but always with the aim of going beyond that. We knew that video game fans would like this movie if we made a good movie, but we knew they would love it if we could make a movie that people who are not video game fans could enjoy.
NFS: Why haven't we seen more documentaries about the video game world?
James: We finally have a generation of people who were raised on video games and they took video games with them outside of their teen years and still respect and play video games. Now those people are in the position to write the books and make the movies and think about it in a context other than, "We're making this thing for kicks." I just think it's a life cycle and a maturation of the genre and the art form, and the media.
NFS: Advice for other filmmakers who are tentative about taking on all the work of self-distributing? It can be daunting.
Lisanne: If you're passionate about your film and you feel that there is a core group of people who care about something that surrounds your film, then there is opportunity to pursue. But if you're not going to go all the way, and you don't want to spend the time and you're going to resent the whole process -- then just don't do it.
It's like running a small business. It's full-time. Making films this way and marketing this way is like a long tail business. It's not like you make a film, give it to someone and you walk away. If that's not your thing you don't have to do it, you can sell your movie to someone else. But if you do have the energy and the passion, then do it -- there's lots of opportunity. And you're going to learn so many lessons about all sorts of things through this process, because you're creating something out of nothing.
James: If you set aside the money, which is not easy, and you need it to turn a profit or break even. But when you self-distribute, you're creating an audience not only for this film, but for your next film.
If you sell your film and someone else takes that, you won't have that direct connection -- you won't know who bought it, or necessarily how many people bought it. You just lose so much information that can help you later on when you're trying to finance, produce, and market your next film. And you learn all of this amazingly useful stuff that will make the next production that much better or easier. I would recommend it if you're cut out for it.
Lisanne: This is our test to ask, "Does this idea of going back direct to your audience work?" And it does. For us, because we put in the work to make it work, in a lot of ways.
There's a lot of good information in our conversation about releasing independently, and I learned a lot just from speaking to these filmmakers who are on the ground floor of a DIY marketing revolution. From their initial Kickstarter, building an audience and carrying them all the way through to digital distribution and touring the film, James and Lisanne have blazed a path few have taken, but more are embarking on every day.
Are you planning on a self release for your film? Join the discussion in the comments below.