Jeremy, thanks for taking the time for this interview. As the director of the popular film Video Games: The Movie, and as the owner/president of Mediajuice Studios, Successful Student believes that your insight into self-made successful entrepreneurship, filmmaking, and video games will be very valuable to our readers. (See our article the 27 Best Video Game Colleges 2015 for further information about the best video game colleges and programs).
1. Let’s talk a bit about your biographical background with respect to your love of arts and video games in particular. Did you always love video games as a kid? Was there anything that developed in you in your formative years that was brought about by video games that you credit for your love as an adult?
Yes. I think the short answer is ABSOLUTELY. I’ve been a gamer since I was a young kid. My dad had an Atari 2600, and I do remember playing on that system. I didn’t really love it; I thought it was kind of neat to be able to control something on the TV. But for some reason it got put up in my parent’s closet before I was even 10 years old, and there were a few years there with not really having any games around. And then the original Nintendo Entertainment System came out in 1986/87, and with that I was hooked.
I remember playing Mario and Zelda like so many other people did. I remember a particular game called Ikari Warriors for the NES, and I really enjoyed that game. It was brutally difficult. But in particular, why that game was so important to me, is—I remember getting a copy of Nintendo Power magazine, it was the magazine that Nintendo sent out if you were part of the Nintendo Club—and I saw this kind of “behind the scenes” type of piece on Ikari Warriors, where they showed how the characters were drawn and all of the environments and backgrounds, and it kind of just blew my mind. As a kid I didn’t realize that games were made by artists, were drawn. I’ve always been an artist since I was little, drawing on the back of the tithe envelope at church, and in school in class. I’ve always been a sketcher, a painter, since I can remember. So that really resonated with me, and from then on every game I ever played I always wondered who drew that character, I wondered how they made these environments, or who came up with the idea.
For the longest time I wanted to be an animator, I wanted to work at Walt Disney. It was funny because, I remember, I saw those—I think most of them were black and white, kind of behind these scenes episodes—where Walt Disney would walk out and be sitting on the front of his desk there, and saying “Hey, come with us on this journey. We are going to show you how we brought Pinocchio to life” or “Bambi” or whatever it was. I remember thinking one day I’m going to take my portfolio and all of my drawings and sketches and I’m going to send it to Walt Disney. I remember asking my mom to help me send it to Walt Disney. They were always really encouraging, but she did tell me at one point—I can’t remember if it was my mom or my dad—telling me Walt Disney is not alive anymore, but someone else runs his company, some other people. And I thought, oh, if Walt Disney’s not there then I can’t work there. Because for some reason I felt like we were kindred spirits and surely he would see my drawings and hire me on the spot.
So anyway, that’s an aside to seeing this game artwork in that game which really resonated with me as an artist. So from then I’ve pretty much had every system: Nintendo to Sega to where we are now. But it really all goes back to that Ikari Warriors game that sparked my passion for, not just gaming, but games as an art form.
2. Have you followed the gaming industry though the years, and watched its development and progression into what it is now?
Yes I have followed the industry through the years. I’ve had every system, good and bad, and even some of the systems that weren’t successful, like Sega Dreamcast and Sega Saturn. I had those systems, and usually when a system isn’t successful it’s not necessarily because it isn’t a great system. I remember even the Atari Jaguar was one of Atari’s last ditch efforts before they kind of went under before being reborn in the early 2000’s, and the Jaguar was a really cool system. They just didn’t have any games for it or any games that were really great. And that’s really what any system relies on is great games. I think that was the success of the first Xbox. You look at games like HALO and MechAssault and the first generation of games are the same. Atari wouldn’t be where it is without all of those great games that they had, like Pitfall and Asteroids and even some of the ports like Donkey Kong. Even though, admittedly, the 2600 didn’t really compare graphically to the ColecoVision or some of the consoles that came out as competitors, but it was obviously the first commercial success. So, yes, that’s a very long way of saying that I’ve definitely followed the industry, all of the products, and all of the consoles. As I mentioned on the previous question, Ikari Warriors was the first game that really made me appreciate games as an art form, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here.
3. Where did you go to grade school and college? How did you come to create Media Juice Studios? You directed the recently released movie Video Games: The Movie. What inspired you to make this movie?
I grew up in west Texas, a little town called Levelland, just about 30 miles west of Lubbock. I did the college thing for literally about 3 days. I remember I graduated in 1995 from Levelland high school and moved to Amarillo and was going to start going to Amarillo College and then potentially from there go to Savannah College of Art and Design because they had offered me a scholarship. I didn’t last a week. I’ve always had ADD or ADHD, and I remember trying to reach out to my English professor saying ‘man I’m just not really getting this, what can we do?’ and he was a real kind of scrooge, and so I remember calling my mom and saying this isn’t for me, I’m going to just work for uncle Steve. My uncle had a cable construction company that was fairly successful. And of course they tried to tell me the pros and cons, they never pushed me towards college but they just said ‘well be sure that you’ve given it a chance, and if you really feel like this isn’t for you then we understand’.
So from there is a long journey. I worked for my uncle for a couple of months, and then the entrepreneur in me kind of came out. I started my own cell phone dealership there in Amarillo. I was one of the first cell phone dealerships in Amarillo, Texas. And this was back when 100 minutes a month cost you like $300 dollars. I made pretty good money between the ages of 18 and 22, I ran that dealership and made quite a bit of money. From there I moved back to Lubbock and started a mortgage company with a friend of mine, again, kind of during the boom years, this was early 2000’s when interest rates were super low, before the financial melt down. So I sold a lot of mortgages, made a lot of money doing that. All throughout this time I think i was trying to kind of scratch this creative itch that I’d had since I was a kid. And so I kind of got bored with the mortgage thing and so we sold that company and made some good money.
I moved to Dallas just on a whim because a lot of my friends from Amarillo and Lubbock were graduating and naturally moving to the big metroplexes like Dallas and Austin and getting jobs. I wanted to get out of West Texas so I moved to Dallas, and one day was looking on the internet just for jobs that I thought might be fun. I saw this listing for a licensing account manager at a company called FUNimation. I thought the name Funimation, that sounds fun, so I looked at it, it looked interesting. I didn’t really know what licensing was, but I kind of finagled around and got an interview and sat with the CEO of the company, and he asked me why I didn’t have a degree, and I explained that to him, but really sold myself as a salesman.
I said I don’t understand what licensing is but I am a salesman, and I know that from the looks of it it’s sort of somewhat sales—you have to sell your brand to these toy and video game companies and movie studios trying to get them to make products based on these animated shows. So, long story short, he hired me, and within literally a couple of weeks I was on an airplane to Japan because FUNimations primary business partners, the creators of the shows, were based in Japan, and my job was to not only get licensees to come on board to make product, but to also manage that business—the approvals and making sure the creators approved the toys or approved the games, or approved the trading cards that we were creating. So it was a whirlwind of a few years working there at FUNimation.
I learned a ton about the entertainment industry, made lots of contacts in the video game industry and the toy and consumer products industries. But again, as exciting as that was, I think I was still trying to scratch this creative itch of being an artist since I was young, and so I decided to start a production company to create ads and promotional videos for entertainment companies. I called my main contact, a guy named Matt Collins at Atari, this was Atari 2.0, sort of the reboot of Atari after the final ditch effort of the Jaguar in the early 90’s, and he knew me well, we had done a lot of business. Atari had taken our main franchise at FUNimation called Dragonball Z, and become the main video game publisher for that, and sold literally millions of units and made a lot of money. So I had a good relationship with him, and I asked him if I was to go out and start this agency doing promotional videos and taking a stab at this, would you give me some business? He without hesitation said ABSOLUTELY, I believe in you as a businessman, as an artist, and you’ve always been very creative in our dealings, and so my first client was Atari. And so I started Mediajuice. I came up with the idea for it literally on an airplane on a napkin, kind of a romantic story. We started making TV commercials and sizzle videos for Atari for Dragonball Z.
I surrounded myself with a lot of local Dallas film-makers and videographers and editors and hired them and asked them a million questions about shooting and editing, and I learned from them as we were getting business (which of course was the most ideal scenario). But we always consistently put out a good product. We started Mediajuice in 2004, and fast forward to about 7 or 8 years in to it, I felt like I was at a point where I had grown as a filmmaker, as an artist, and of course still had all of my industry contacts in the game world.
And one night I took my nieces and nephews to Dave and Busters, and they were playing games and we were eating dinner and I was playing the one Donkey Kong cabinet over in the corner, and they were playing all of the shooters and driving games. One by one they all came over to me and asked me ‘hey uncle Jeremy what is this that you’re playing?’ and I said ‘oh this is Donkey Kong, let me show you how to play it.’ Of course it was way too hard for any of them, which is kind of the testament to all of those old games, the philosophy of all of those old games was easy to play but impossible to master, code for quarter-munchers.
And so later that night all of the kids went home and I was at home looking through Netflix and I thought, I’m kind of nostalgic for video games playing that Donkey Kong game today, and I said I’m in the mood to see a documentary about video games. I thought surely it existed, because there is a documentary about everything. Long story short, it didn’t. I looked all over, I looked online, I researched, the next couple of days I was looking, and after a while I realized there really is no definitive documentary about games. So that’s the where the germ of the idea of Video Games: The Movie came from. Like I said I felt like I was uniquely suited to bring this story to life because of my contacts and my knowledge of the games industry, and I had grown as a filmmaker over the past 7 or 8 years of running Mediajuice. That’s the origin story of not only Mediajuice but also Video Games: The Movie.
4. Explain what happens after a movie is finished and then sold to a distributor. What does this process involve and how long does it take to sell to a distributor after a movie is finished?
That part I couldn’t really predict. It was only when we were finished, I had shot the movie for almost 3 ½/4 years. We launched a very successful Kickstarter where the gamer community really rallied around us. We raised a little over $100,000.00 to help pay for postproduction costs, and really until it was finished and we had submitted to film festivals and it started to be seen, I had no idea. I’m a salesman, I don’t mind getting on the phone, calling distributors and trying to sell it, but you really want to give the festivals a chance to do its work in getting your film in front of these buyers of these film studios and distributors that are looking for content.
In my case that’s precisely what happened. A guy by the name of Kent Sanderson, who is over at Variance Films, him and his partner Dylan Marchetti saw the film and just loved it, and called me up directly at Mediajuice. I happened to be doing a panel at South by Southwest (SXSW) that very next week, and they were going to be there as well at the SXSW Film Festival, and asked if I could meet up. Of course I said yes. So we sat and had about a two hour breakfast just talking. I asked a million questions just about their model for distribution and my concerns, my thoughts, my ideas. They really impressed me with their strategy of releasing independent films and documentaries in particular. So right then we did a handshake deal at SXSW at breakfast and over the next few weeks the contracts went back and forth; we got all of that agreeable, and set a release date for July 15th.
Just a few months later was the theatrical release date and I couldn’t have been more thrilled with how it all happened. I really have enjoyed working with Variance Films and would highly recommend them to any other filmmakers out there that have a completed film. The distribution process in general, what I just described, is really the most ideal scenario for any filmmaker—to just have a distributor watch it and make you an offer, and then you get theatrical distribution. And of course we’re on VOD and SVOD and Cable and DVD, and Blu-ray is coming out shortly. What I described is the dream scenario for any independent filmmaker, but it is possible, if you really put your heart into it and make a good film, then that’s what’s waiting for you on the other side.
5. Would you please summarize the plot of Video Games: The Movie? Some critics have said that the movie is one-sided—a cheerleading of video games, excluding the critical aspects of the industry. What kind of movie did you intend on making? Were you successful in making that movie?
The short-pitch, the log line of Video Games: The Movie is the story of video games like you’ve never seen it before. In that regard, I do feel like Video Games: The Movie lives up to its tagline. Because before the film there was really no movie, no documentary that really encapsulated not only the history of games but the culture and community of games and gamers, the business of gaming, the technology and then the future of gaming, where gaming is headed. There’s really no film that has done all of that in 90 minutes. So in that regard I do feel very confident that the film that I set out to make is what I made and I was successful in doing that. Yes, there have been some critics, high-level and low-level critics that have said things like ‘well you left out this critical piece, you didn’t talk about women and gaming, or education and gaming and how that’s evolving, or the whole violence debate’.
We did actually talk about the violence debate in Video Games: The Movie. But any of those issues are covered, as you could imagine in a 90-minute film, there’s a lot left on the cutting room floor. In my mind, if the worst criticism of the film is that I’ve left people wanting more, then I’ll take that. Of course I hate to hear anyone have anything negative to say. I’m an artist like anyone else and sensitive about my art. But Video Games: The Movie is a celebration of the medium, and I never set out to tackle all of the many and complex controversial issues of gaming because really you could make one film just about violence and gaming, or you could make one entire film about women and gaming and what that means and everyone’s opinions on that, or one movie about all of the misconceptions or one film just about the gamer community. But you really have to be disciplined if you want to try to take the entire world of games and put it into a 90-minute film that’s not only informative, but also entertaining. Because at the end of the day, no matter what anyone tells you, the purpose of movies is to entertain, is to be an escape from our everyday lives.
Now there are exceptions to that if it’s a movie about a movement or animals or cancer or dolphins, or any of these movies that are caused-based, and I’m not criticizing those movies. Yes, those movies elevate to a different level of being more than entertainment because they can effect change in the world, but that was never the purpose for Video Games: The Movie. Video Games: The Movie, I like to say, if you could imagine taking out a telescope and looking at the moon, and you took pictures of looking through that telescope, and you’re going to get these pictures and you’re going to look at those pictures, and you’re going to get an idea maybe of what the moon looks like. But until you get in a space ship and fly to the moon and get out and walk around, and you’re in that world, you’re not going to really know what the world of the moon is truly like. Or any other planet. And that’s what I like to say about Video Games: The Movie; it really is 90 minutes of the planet of video games. You land and you get to walk around and breathe that air see what all of it’s about; from the history to where we are now, to the relationships to the culture, to the technology. In that regard I do feel like Video Games: The Movie does that task and does it well of putting people in that world.
6. Please explain the Kickstarter role in raising funds for the movie. How did Zach Braff and Sean Astin become involved in the project?
We launched a Kickstarter in June of 2013, which was right about the time that I was finishing the principle photography for the film. I still had a couple of interviews left, but all of the shooting was pretty well done, 3 ½ plus years of that, and I knew that we were going to need some help to pay for the editing and music and licensing and all of the things associated with post-production on a film, documentary or otherwise. So we went to Kickstarter, and were overwhelmed by the gamer nation coming to our aid, spreading the word, which is really a testament to the gamer community and gamer culture that our Kickstarter was funded so quickly and that the word was spread so voraciously. It made me proud to be a gamer and to be a part of that community.
Within our campaign, about half way through, Zach Braff saw our Kickstarter video, contributed about $10,000.00 and then came on board as our executive producer. He and I got on the phone, talked about it, he was very congratulatory about the Kickstarter, and said that it looks like a great film that he’d love to be a part of. So I flew out to L.A. and ended up interviewing him to be in the film which really elevated the profile of the film, and with him as our executive producer and being in the film it really took it to a whole other level, as you can imagine (having one celebrity in your film, much less multiple). So through Zach we then got his Scrubs pal Donald Faison. We were able to get an interview with Donald. Donald has been a gamer like me since he was a kid, and had a lot of great stories. And then right around that same time, a lot of this happened concurrently, about a month before Zach came on board on the Kickstarter, I had met Sean Astin.
I had been pursuing an interview with him for almost two years. We had emailed, we’d connected online, he does a lot of conventions obviously from The Lord of the Rings and Goonies and Rudy and all of the things that he’s been in. He stays pretty busy, not only on conventions but shooting movies and TV shows and he’s got a political radio show that he does, so really busy guy. He finally found some time in May of 2013, just before we did our Kickstarter, and I flew up to Alabama where he was on set for Mom’s Night Out filming, and took an afternoon and shot his interview. He told lots of great stories, and we were in the process of editing him into the film and he and I just started becoming buddies and talking, and he was asking how it’s going and we showed him some rough cuts, and he asked about who are you planning on being the narrator. I said well that’s our next step, we’ve got the Kickstarter money, and we want to have a celebrity narrator just to help elevate the entire film. And he said let me help you out here. Let me lend my celebrity to your film, and he came on board as our narrator, and did just that. Not only did he give a great narration, a great performance, but him being a part of the film elevated it just the way that Zach did. That whole snowball of getting Sean and Zach and Donald Faison—and then before that other celebrities like Wil Wheaton and Chris Hardwick and obviously all of the people from the games industry like Cliff Bleszinski, and Nolan Bushnell founder of Atari, the list goes on and on—all of those things came together to create this alchemy of us getting distribution and the movie so far since July has done really well.
7. Please briefly summarize that process of making an independent movie, and advice you would give to those interested in independent filmmaking.
So I’ve touched on a lot of it in the previous questions, but yeah just sort of a soup-to-nuts process is, of course what I mentioned with the germ of the idea there that I had that night at Dave and Busters, and then taking that into what you’d call production is just a lot of phone calls, a lot of research on the history of games, who’s still alive, who’s not, where do they live, where are they working. That was the 3 year process of flying around the world literally, shooting interviews, location shoots at events like Comic Con and E3 and Quake Con. Getting a bank of footage that would support the skeleton of the structure that I had written out in the early days of having the idea. That is what you’d call production. Pre-production like I said is writing the outline in the early days of what I wanted the film to be, and spring/early summer of 2013 principle photography or production ended. We launched our Kickstarter, got the funds to do the postproduction like editing and music and voiceover narration and motion graphics. Then in July of 2013 we were in postproduction in earnest. Postproduction is taking all the footage that I’d been shooting and getting that into some assembly. You have different cuts, you have assembly edit, which then becomes a rough cut, and then a rough cut 2, 3, 4, and then what you’d call a pre-final cut, pre-final cut 2, 3, 4, and then a final cut.
Lots of collaboration with my editor, with Zach Braff, Sean Astin, showing as many people that were involved with the film that we knew had a vested interest in its success, showing them early cuts and getting their feedback and really crafting it into something that we felt like would be good and would also support my creative vision. You can take as much feedback as you want in the film world, and everybody’s a critic, everybody’s going to have an opinion. That’s the reason there’s a director, you really do need one person at the helm controlling the rudder of the ship, because all of the feedback is coming from different minds and different people’s perspectives and outlooks on creativity, on life, on video games. So I really at the end of the day had to make sure that my creative vision was getting through.
And that’s some advice for any artist, filmmaker or otherwise. You’re going to have a lot of input from a lot of people. Some of it’s great, some of it’s terrible. But take it all and filter it through your creative vision, because it’s really easy to get lost in feedback and in input from people. They’re just giving their thoughts and their notes, and sometimes they’re not good, sometimes they are. There was a lot of that that went on during postproduction. After post we got the deal with the distributor and went back and forth on the contract and got a deal in place and then the movie came out.
A final step is the press tour, which I did the past month or so, doing interviews with magazines and websites and all manner of press. That’s fun. It can be tiresome, but it’s a lot of fun too, just because you’re talking to people that have seen your film and are asking questions and have opinions and it’s great. It’s great to go on the screenings tour and see it with an audience and do Q&A’s, that’s kind of the final final piece of all of it, actually watching it in theaters with people and meeting them, answering questions (which is a huge thrill).
The Independent Film Making Process:
8. Tell us some memorable experiences directing Video Games: The Movie has brought, and doors that it has opened, such as attending a showing in the Santa Fe based private movie theater of George R. R. Martin (author and creator of Game of Thrones).
As I mentioned on the previous question, Video Games: The Movie has opened a lot of doors. From Zach Braff to Sean Astin to Donald Faison to Chris Hardwick to Wil Wheaton to Cliff Bleszinski to Nolan Bushnell to the list goes on and on of people that I’ve met through shooting this film that I’ll know the rest of my life and are great people to know. They’ve become friends and some of them have and are really helping my career. Others are just great friends, like-minded people. The George R. R. Martin thing was an interesting story. Ernie Cline, who’s in the film, author of Ready Player One, is friends with George R. R. Martin author and creator of Game of Thrones, and through his connection with George, George saw my film and really liked it, and asked if we could screen it there. Of course I said yes.
I went there, and was able to have that entire experience there at his theater, and it was really awesome. It can’t be understated, the connections and what Video Games: The Movie has done for my career. That’s really the goal of any filmmaker, and any artist, is to be able to keep working, keep creating your art. If you can be an artist and create your art, whatever it is, and make a living at it, then you’re among a select few. There’s a reason that the old cliche starving artist is still around today. Merging that art and commerce, that show and business, is really difficult, and it takes a real iron will—and I’m not saying this just about myself—I’m saying any artist, any filmmaker, knows this. So if you’re able to really bridge that gap of turning your art into commerce, making a living at it, then consider yourself blessed and lucky, and I absolutely do. Hopefully Video Games: The Movie is the first of many projects to come.
9. What advice would you give students who would like to get into either video game production, and/or movie directing?
It’s a good question. Now more than ever, this wasn’t even true five years ago, but now, there are most major universities and even colleges have game design tracks that the students can go on whether they want to be more technical and do 3-D modeling, and programming, or they’re more artistic and want to do more of the design and illustration or music. Games and film have a lot in common in that they employ so many different disciplines from art. But “breaking-in” to each industry is—while there are parallels to the art of it—it is a very different track.
If you’re an independent filmmaker of course going to film school can’t hurt you. I think what you learn in terms of technique could never hurt you. But I think the fallacy a lot of film students realize pretty early on is that going to film school doesn’t guarantee you a career in film. It really takes a lot of hustle. It takes a lot of luck. There’s an old saying that’s one of my favorites, which is that the definition of luck is the intersection of preparation and opportunity. And I think that’s what it comes down to really for any artist, whether you want to make video games or you want to make films, you want to be prepared. If you want to be a filmmaker then write scripts, shoot short films, all the tools are available now. You don’t have to shoot on film, everything’s digital. You can get all of the equipment that you need at Best Buy or Fry’s; cameras, laptops, and software. Learn your craft, buy books, study tutorials online on how to shoot, how to frame a shot, how to write. There are 101 books on screenwriting and film making technique. It’s not time wasted. Your first few short films and attempts probably aren’t going to be great. They may be, if you’re an auteur then good for you, you get to bypass a lot of that.
The same is true of game design. If you want to be a game designer then start writing code, start programming, start making your own games. All the tutorials and tools and how-to’s are out there online or in book stores (for what book stores are left). That’s the preparation, and the opportunity, as long as you’re staying connected to other artists and trying to reach out to people, to producers, to other game designers online. If you’re doing good work, then it will rise to the top. I know as an artist that’s always frustrating to hear. I used to always think, well yeah you can say that filmmaker or person that I look up to who’s already there, who’s already over the fence, but now that I’ve gone through the entire process of being an independent filmmaker—shooting short films, writing scripts, trying to figure out a way to “break in” to the industry—now with my first film behind me I really can look back and see that all of that advice is true.
Every filmmaker, every interview, every behind the scenes that I’ve ever watched where people are saying practice your art, prepare, learn your craft, and that intersection of preparation and opportunity, you getting lucky, will happen if you just don’t give up. It really is true. So I would encourage any and all of the people reading this to just stick with it. If you’re not cut out for it, and you’re striving for it, and you try and try and try, and you’re consistently not hitting a wall on the business side but hitting a wall on the artistic side, there’s also no shame in realizing that maybe it’s not for you. Some musicians can’t sing but they can play the guitar. Some filmmakers aren’t great at directing but they’re great at lighting. Some artists aren’t great at sculpting but they’re great at painting.
You really have to find not just your path, but you have to find the right vehicle. I think a lot of times that’s sometimes the hardest part. For me it was a 15-year journey from when I graduated high school of starting the cell phone dealership, the mortgage company, doing cable construction for my uncle, working at FUNimation, starting Mediajuice, all of that had to happen before I really realized that I was a filmmaker and that’s what I wanted to do. And that was the thing that was finally going to scratch that creative itch that I had had for all of those years. Sometimes that’s what it takes, just trying a lot of things, until you get hooked with that thing that you know you’re meant to do. Hopefully it doesn’t take you 15 years, but if it does, you learn a lot, you meet a lot of interesting people along the way. So stick with it and don’t give up. If you’re not good at one thing, try something else. Best of luck to everyone.
Video Games: The Movie on IMDb.