Noah J Nelson on Tuesday, Apr. 9th
Indie games and indie movies are proving to have a lot more in common than the label “indie”. While game creators take a cue from filmmakers in finding their artistic voice, filmmakers can stand to learn a thing or two from how the independent video game scene operates as a business.
Case in point: Devolver Digital.
The Austin based video game publisher is the distributor of indie darlings Hotline Miami and Luftrausers. In Hollywood terms these games are underground, sleeper hits that build up word of mouth over weeks and months. A process which becomes supercharged thanks to social media.
Devolver Digital have turned its attention towards the mess that is online film distribution. A decision driven by cofounder Mike Wilson’s experiences with trying to release a feature by way of Video On Demand (VOD).
“I talked to all the distributors who do that,” said Devolver’s Wilson, “all the new age distributors. They just don’t really do anything to push [films]. They literally just upload as many as they can and hope that one sticks every now and then.”
While initially frustrated, Wilson saw a silver lining.
“Because of where we’re coming from in games, that looked like a great opportunity to do exactly what we do for games, but for films for guys like myself.”
Indie Game Legacy
Wilson got his start during the Doom-era of id Software, then went on to co-found the multi-developer publisher Gathering of Developers in the late 90s. Over the course of his career he’s worked for indie developers and large publishers alike.
Devolver Digital’s game publishing model is informed by Wilson and his partner’s experiences in the games industry. They have a desire is to stay small and passionate about the work they back. It is a passion that indie game developers share, and one that should be familiar to indie filmmakers.
Wilson sees the new breed of indie developers as being quick to say “we don’t need a publisher, screw those guys.” The allure of going it alone is at the heart of the indie ideal.
“But I also think that now they’re starting to realize–in the same way that musicians did with ‘we can just get on iTunes’–you need someone in your corner to push the thing that understands what PR and marketing is. You might need help with localization or testing or whatever it is that you haven’t thought of. That’s what we do.”
Devolver scales its relationship to a developer based on the game maker’s need. That can mean anything from a PR push to finishing funds.
“We look at how much were putting in. How much time and money were putting in and come up with a fair formula. Intellectual property and creative freedom aways stays with the game developers. That’s been true for us whether it’s a multimillion dollar game or a $10,000 game. We don’t care. We believe the artists should stay in control and retain their property rights.”
From Games to Films
With years of game marketing experience under his belt, Wilson was disappointed in what he saw in the VOD market.
“They just shovel as many as they can out there rather than make each one do a little bit better. I talked to a lot of these guys when I was shopping my film and I was mystified that none of them were offering any sort of promotion services unless it was a film of a certain level.”
That “certain level” equates to what you’d expect: a picture with marketable talent.
“Honestly the guys who put out my film told me they didn’t know how. They said they would like to do it, but they would have to learn how. So I was like, I think I’ll just learn how.”
Devolver intends to unleash the community building strategy that helped turned a bizzaro retro game like Hotline Miami into a critical and financial success on their film roster.
“We want to build a network of champions for the films around the country,” said Wilson. “Just make a lot of noise as the thing is releasing on VOD; because that’s when you need the noise when someone can hear about it and then go: ‘Oh I can actually buy it right now on iTunes or cable.’”
Wilson said that Devolver is looking for “super indie” films. Work that has played the festival circuit and has producers who are willing to embrace the reality of digital distribution. Those willing to make the leap to VOD before the festival heat cools off.
This is something we’re beginning to see even with this year’s crop of festival films. Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color will bow on VHX this month. Even the mighty Weinstein’s shoved up the release of the Sundance award winning film Fruitvale from Oscar-season to the summer. Part of the reason there must surely be to retain the festival circuit halo.
When it comes to the financial aspects of their deals, Wilson said Devolver is looking to treat filmmakers like they do game developers.
“Maybe you need a little help finishing. Maybe you need this or that. Maybe you don’t. Just tell me what you need and we can work it out.”
It is a philosophy that flies in the face of how much of the film industry operates. Which could be exactly what the crowded and confusing VOD world needs.