Film and TV

Dallas Filmmaker Jeremy Snead Captures the Video Game Industry on Film

Dallas-based Jeremy Snead has a hot commodity on his hands these days. He's the director, writer, and producer of Video Games: The Movie, a documentary on the history of video games. With his production company MediaJuice, he successfully raised over $100,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, got Zach Braff to be its executive producer, got Sean Astin to narrate it, and he interviewed many of the pioneers of the industry for it. Coupled with interviews by high profile people like Chris Hardwick and Wil Wheaton, the documentary has a panache beyond regular people talking about video games.

Snead had two screenings of the film this past week at the Texas Theatre, but it's already available as a digital download through iTunes and game systems. We caught up with Snead and talked about how the film came together over three years of work, how he got so many people for interviews, and what he hopes to do next with the project.

When you decided to do the documentary, how many people did you know you could interview for it? Well, the short answer is zero. In the entertainment industry, whether it's games, film or music, there's always multiple layers of PR people, publicists, media representatives. Because I was doing one thing for them, I didn't know if that would fit into something that was a personal project for me. It was kind of a leap of faith. [laughs]

Was there a snowball effect where you interviewed one person and that led to interviewing another person he or she knew? Yeah, it was. Getting a handful of interviews with clients through MediaJuice was harder than I thought, but it ended up working out. All of these industry conventions, like E3, Quakecon and ComiCon, I would go there and press for quick interviews with some of the bigger people at those places because I knew they would be there. Conventions are crazy and hard to schedule, those ended up helping because everyone was there in one place.

Was getting Chris Hardwick for an interview just through a text that Wil Wheaton sent to him? Yeah, it really was that simple. It was that old cliché of, it's all about who you know and that couldn't be more true in this case. Once I got Chris and Wil, it snowballed, whether it was celebrities or media celebrities or game industry celebrities. In that world, those two guys will give you a lot of credibility.

Did Zach Braff get onboard through seeing your Kickstarter page? Yeah! We had some traction early on. That's the nature of Kickstarter: you have to really hit the ground running. Start generating dollars and get page views because I think that's how their algorithm works. If you make a big splash, you'll come up on the "Featured" page. We were lucky to get a Kickstarter Staff Pick. We were on the top of the list on the Films page. I think he was wrapping up his Kickstarter and happened to see it. It was one of those 1-in-10,000 chances.

While watching the film, I was reminded of video game-related memories I hadn't thought of in years. Like, playing a baseball game on the Magnavox system or yelling at a 13-inch TV while playing Street Fighter 2. Did you have flashbacks like this while constructing the film? Oh, absolutely. I had them while I was writing the outline of the history portion of the film. There's a really cool coffee table book called High Score. It's like War and Peace for video game history and it's got all these pictures and awesome interviews with people. Early on, I was looking at that as a visual guide. I contacted the author and talked to him. Figuring out what the structure of the film was going to be was probably the most nostalgic. Once I got into it - I hate to sound cynical - but it kinda turned into a job. Once the shooting was done and we were editing, more of that nostalgia came back and then it went away when it got hard again. [laughs] Now it's coming back.

Some popular songs are used in the film. Was licensing a major hurdle? It was. Anyone that's familiar with the music industry knows that it's a convoluted mess of trying to get deals done whether you're an insider or outsider. I called a guy who was the music supervisor for The King of Kong. I really liked the music in that, so I called him. I couldn't afford to hire him so I asked to pick his brain. He told me what I needed to know. Every song, you have to get publishing rights, master recording rights, and you have to do a deal with both sides. The challenge is, the higher the profile song, the more divided the rights are.

I understand a criticism that the documentary is preaching to the choir. Video games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Of course there was a lot of stuff that was familiar. However, the way it was told and what was shared about why people play video games, that was new and interesting to me.

Audiences are really sophisticated these days. You don't have to spend a lot of time for people to get it. It didn't used to be that way. You had to hammer home a dramatic beat. Editing wasn't as fast-paced as it is now because people grew up with MTV and the Information Age with technology. Especially with the subject matter, I wanted it to have an energetic, fast pace.

Strangely, people expect you to make an encyclopedia whenever you do a book or movie about a broad topic. I have yet to meet anyone who enjoyed reading an encyclopedia, other than A.J. Jacobs. In a way, to answer some of that criticism, are you planning on releasing a DVD with extra footage?

Absolutely. Video Games is very much a museum that has been curated with all the peaks and valleys of the industry. Any museum could be a lot more jam-packed than it is, whether the topic is Egypt, gangsters or video games. That's the reason why there's a curator who places the things that people would be entertained by and still represent the subject matter. The DVD/Blu-ray is going to come out later this year, chock full of extra features, production diaries, mash-ups, outtakes, and a gag reel. The DVD will be worth its weight in gold for people looking behind the veil.

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Eric Grubbs is a Dallas-based writer who has published two books, Post: A Look at the Influence of Post-Hardcore 1985-2007 and When We Were the Kids. His writing has been featured in Punk Planet, Popdose, Fort Worth Weekly, The Dentonite and LA Weekly. He supports Manchester City and will never root for Manchester United.
Contact: Eric Grubbs