The Road to Sundance and Beyond– Indie Game: The Movie

on Wednesday, Jan. 25th

In the years to come, the road from Kickstarter to Sundance will likely be as well traveled as the 101 in Los Angeles. During this year’s festival that path has the dreamy coolness of Route 66 in the 1950s. Yet when the creators of Indie Game: The Movie put their project up on the crowd sourcing site in May of 2010, that road wasn’t even as developed as a backwoods trail. Most people were still trying to figure out if the site was something more than a hip fad, and while many might dream, few would have believed that Sundance was even on the same map.

Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky left behind a comfortable career doing corporate video gigs and other commercial work in order to pursue an unexpected passion project: a documentary about people who set aside stable jobs of their own to pursue the creation of video games without corporate backing.

“I had left CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) a few years earlier, James was doing great work, we were getting awesome contracts. And we were [thinking] ‘Wow. We’re what we want to be’ ” Pajot said. “It’s just this film, and this idea and these people sort of pulled us away. And it just became all-consuming.”

Swirsky and Pajot, who produce together under the name BlinkWorks Media, were introduced to the world of indie games while working on a government funded documentary series on new media. Pajot says the duo saw the game creators as kindred spirits “because they’re kinda like us, but more talented.” Another corporate project led them to the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC).

“We went to the Independent Games Summit,” said Pajot, “[which] at the time was a room with about five hundred people and now it’s much bigger. They were people sharing their experience about making their own stuff. When they were sharing their experience of making these games it was a complete reflection of of the person that was making the game. It was kind of amazing to look on screen and see them describe it and then see the person and it was a very fluid connection.”

As a first step in the production the pair interviewed the creators of the game Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes. Using footage from the McMillen interview they created a pitch video for the Kickstarter campaign and gave themselves two months to collect $15,000. Thanks to the very active indie video game blogging community word about the project spread like wildfire, and the pair met their goal in just two days. It was the kind of rapid-response success that Kickstarter was just beginning to see.

“It was a very overwhelming experience,” said Swirsky, “it’s like you put it out there and all of a sudden your phone starts buzzing because you get updates every time you do a donation. It was electric.”

“We had to turn off the buzzing function,” added Pajot.

“Yeah, because we couldn’t sleep and you don’t sleep actually when you put out a Kickstarter campaign,” Swirsky continued “and it takes off that way, because it happened again for our second one. You become this sleep-deprived zombie that’s just completely checking your phone and…”

“Just high on the internet,” said Pajot.

“Completely,” said Swirsky, “and you don’t feel sleep deprived, it was amazing.”

This finish-each-other’s-sentences dynamic is integral to the duo, and plays into the way they work as much as it does in the way they talk.

Of their professional skills set Swirsky said there is “tons of overlap. We have like this really nice kind of set of complementary and overlapping skill sets, where we can both do everything. In terms of shooting, in terms of graphics in terms of editing, it’s just that–”

“James is way better at graphics,” said Pajot.

“We’re better at certain, different things,” Swirsky concludes. “Like you know, I’m a little better at graphics, might be a little better at shooting but Lisanne can completely do those things too. So we never have a moment in the movie, or the production, where things stop because you’re waiting on the other person. The other person can always pick up the ball and run with it.”

A year into production the pair took a second gamble on Kickstarter, returning to the site to launch a second fundraising drive. Pajot admits she was worried that the well might have run dry, but the duo was running out of cash.

“We were at this point where we had done all this travel and spent all this money… and it was all basically travel. We needed some money for music. We needed some money for just the output of the actual file that was involved,” said Pajot.

“Just a whole bunch of hidden costs that we didn’t–” said Swirsky.

“–didn’t expect,” Pajot continued. “We had made so many pieces before that we didn’t need to have properly sound mixed. We could put it up on the internet and people would still like it. But when you show something in a theater you need to have it properly mixed. All these sort of hidden costs came up and we were figuring out what to try and do. James said ‘Well let’s just do another Kickstarter.’ I was worried but James knew… you were a bit more confident. You had realized that our audience had dramatically changed since we started to this one. We had gained so many followers.”

Lisanne Pajot & James Swirsky. Photo by: Ian MacCausland

“It was a much more broad and a much larger audience,” said Swirsky. “Still small, internet sized. Still a core audience but it was much bigger and a lot of people between… I think the six months, there were six months between the two Kickstarters.”

Pajot: No, it was a year.

Swirsky: Was it a whole year?

Pajot: Yeah.

Nelson: Almost to the day.

Pajot: Yeah, it was almost to the day.

“Oh wow,” said Swirsky. “Okay, yeah. We picked up so many people. So many people have been introduced to the project since then, and one of the things that kind of insulated us from feeling that we were going to the well too many times was the fact that we kind of positioned everything as pre-ordering the movie.

“Even thought the word donation is kind of used a lot with Kickstarter we tried to put our levels at where it was simply a pre-order. You were getting something physical and you were getting something of value when you gave at a certain level. Of course, you could kinda give under that and not get those physical DVDs but it kind of made us more confident in offering it again because we treated it as ‘just pre-order the movie’.”

Pre-orders are a part of gamer culture, with enthusiasts often putting up money months in advance of the release of the most anticipated titles. By applying that model to films, independent creators who use crowd funding sites may in the long run change the way all films are marketed.

Pajot and Swirsky haven’t just reaped the benefits of the site, they’ve also become given back to the community of creators on Kickstarter by backing other projects. Pajot points out that the nature of the site lets you see who has the ability to pull their schemes off, and that talent is the prime motivating factor for financing.

“It’s just so exciting to see people that are really skilled and they prove it to you,” said Pajot. “That’s the hard part about Kickstarter in your communication you have to figure out how to tell the world that ‘Yes I am capable, I can do this. I can fulfill this.’ And I don’t know… I just get really excited to see someone show their skills.”

“Completely,” Swirsky concurred. “Skilled and empowered to pursue those skills. And that’s totally indie games in a nutshell, and like what attracted us to that these really talented people feeling empowered to make their own games and put them out there. Kickstarter is a whole bunch of instances just like that except with different mediums.”

Another medium is in Indie Game: The Movie’s destiny. Thanks to the exposure of the Sundance Film Festival the documentary has been optioned by producer Scott Rudin (Moneyball, There Will Be Blood) to be developed as a half hour long series on HBO. Despite the show’s intended length, and some initial media confusion, Indie Game is not being turned into a sitcom, but a series that will maintain the spirit of the original film.

It’s perhaps the least expected destination possible for a journey that began years ago on an unproven path. That’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

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