What Indie Films Can Learn From Games

Veteran game developer Mike Wilson and Devolver Digital aim to create a "culture of curation" to support indie filmmaking.


Filmmakers are fighting for funding. Game companies are rolling in it. So perhaps it makes sense to look to games to revitalize how indie films are released. That’s what Mike Wilson is trying to do. A co-founder of Devolver, the Austin, Texas-based game distribution firm best known for its work on the Serious Sam and Hotline Miami series, Wilson is hoping his 20 years of experience in game development and distribution will crossover nicely into independent film. Last year, Devolver launched its film branch, Devolver Digital, and has since released 20 indie movies including Good Game, a documentary about professional Starcraft II players that hits screens April 29th.

But you won’t find many Devolver Digital titles in mainstream theaters. Wilson is going where his people are—gamer channels like Xbox and PlayStation, curation sites like Humble Bundle that offer digital packages containing several films and/or games, and smaller indie-centric video platforms like Distrify and VHX, where Good Game is already available. To maximize its gamer-centric audience, Good Game will also be live streamed on Twitch.tv April 29.

Simply putting indie movies on gaming platforms won’t be enough to change how viewers find and consume films. Doing that requires creating “a culture of curation” similar to what independent games are experiencing, says Wilson, and restructuring film distribution models from the ground up. Here’s how Devolver is doing it differently.

Get In Media: With Devolver Digital, what specific game distribution tactics are you applying to independent film releases?

Mike Wilson: The status quo right now in the indie film world is that it’s on the producer to continue to promote the film once it’s released. We just feel like that’s kind of a shortsighted model. We understand it’s because the business is very tough and a lot of these distributors, they literally just upload things to these various platforms and they offer no help in promotion. We would certainly never do that for a game. We put together a release strategy for everything we do, no matter how small or large. So far, that’s been the difference that we’re offering our filmmakers, but it’s the platforms and their practices that are really exciting.

We did a Humble Bundle for the films and movies for the first time ever in March. Humble Bundle is a fantastically successful platform a few years old on the game side. We literally bundled together a bunch of digital content and sell it at ridiculously low prices and even part of that goes to charity. You end up selling your product, whether it’s a game or a film or a book or whatever, for maybe 50 cents, maybe less, but they do such volume because people feel so good about supporting indies and about the charity component. People just buy it without regard to whether they ever think they’re going to play the game or watch the movie sometimes, so you do tremendous volume.

As Steam and Good Old Games and some of these others come on board with their film offerings later this year we expect to be able to do the same things we do with games, and that is dynamic pricing, running sales, bundling films with games, just the merchandising opportunities and the sophistication of the back end from a publisher’s standpoint or from an artist’s standpoint if you’re direct on there is just super sophisticated. Everything on the film side is still very much in a black box and you just get these little reports from the cable operators or iTunes or whatever that are almost impossible to discern as far as what you did that actually worked, where your title performed best, all of these things. We’re super excited to introduce filmmakers to those tools that we’ve enjoyed on the game side for a few years now.

GIM: You spoke at South By Southwest about how, in gaming, players are more willing to try new things than in independent film and about how Devolver is trying to create a culture of curation. In your opinion, what’s the roadblock for people just trying indie films?

MW: A lot of it is it’s just hard to find this stuff. Even the indie film blogs still tend to be wrapped around what’s going to get clicks, and in that world it’s celebrities. So unless you have a big-name celebrity or a big-name director or something news worthy, it’s just hard to get any attention. The indie game blogosphere is much more supportive of games small and large. Gamers are just online all the time and ravenous about what they love, and what they love is games. They talk about them all the time, from when they’re a concept all the way through to when they’re on the market. That support system and online community has not been there on the film side to date. That’s one of the huge things that has to change.

Steam, by the time they’re releasing movies, I’m guessing there will be up to 85 million people in their community, which is considerably larger than Netflix. It’s a global community and that’s what they do is talk about things. They discover things. They gift things to each other and they talk about them. That’s a whole support system internal to that platform, then you go adding Humble’s audience and Good Old Games’ audience, and there are several other smaller platforms around the world, and hopefully we can make this transition. It may be that gamers really want stuff that’s aimed at them, but my suspicion is that as these game platforms move more into a living room, we really hope that they enjoy a wide variety of things, which is why Devolver is signing up straight-up dramas and comedies and suspense thrillers and every genre you can imagine. We’re definitely not focused on horror or genre stuff that’s aimed at gamers. If we find out that that’s what they want, we’ll aim more in that direction.

RELATED: Tom Quinn and RadiUs-TWC introduce a new distribution model for independent films.

GIM: There’s so much media about how indie film has no funding. Do statistics like that impact you guys?

MW: If things were going well, the indie film world would not need us. These artists desperately need help. Not that we’re some sort of savior, but from our standpoint, that’s a much more interesting time to get in than if things were just going swimmingly. … If things don’t get better soon, there’s going to be this huge gap of filmmakers that should just be making webisodes for YouTube in hopes of getting discovered and then big stuff, where you can get a couple of celebrity names in there to give you some chance of getting noticed. That would be really tragic because it’s a huge gap. It’s just going to mean that a lot of young filmmakers don’t have a place to get a start. …

Maybe that’s fine, but I don’t think so. Films are just more expensive to make. A lot of the films we’re picking up are being made incredibly inexpensively. I freak out every time I hear about what one of these budgets were, $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 films and totally presentable, festival quality, play-well-in-a-theater films. But to get down to what bands have had to do and back to the world of driving around in your van and selling stuff at shows, that’s just not feasible for filmmakers. There’s only so low you can go when you have to pay a crew and have equipment and photography plus music plus sound. I don’t see how that can be sustainable if something doesn’t change and people don’t start supporting these guys with their dollars.

GM: What do you look for when choosing films that make it onto your roster?

MW: We just look for stuff that we were happy that we spent an hour and a half watching. That’s the way it usually goes with indie films. You either are really happy that you spent time discovering that thing that you would have never seen or you’re really angry. … We look for production quality, we look for something that had a real story to tell, and then we look for things that have an audience that might be fairly easily reachable via social media or fairly inexpensive PR methods.

GM: What are your metrics for determining if the audience is reachable?

MW: Let’s say it’s a drama; just a straight-up drama and it doesn’t have any [celebrities with name recognition] in it. One thing that would make it more reachable is if it did have some up-and-comer celebrity or other well-known person in it. Another thing that might make it more reachable is if it was a drama about bikers or about some audience or about some [specific] place. If it’s a drama that takes place in Miami, you know you can at least hopefully get some interest from people in Miami. If it’s just a straight-up movie with nobody recognizable in a place that could be anywhere and with people that could be anybody, it’s really hard. It’s fine if you just have a story you want to tell, but if you expect somebody to pay you for it, to pay you as a professional to tell that story, I think you’re going to have to identify an audience that might enjoy that story instead of making whatever you want to make.

GM: What do you recommend young filmmakers do to elevate their work?

MW: The production quality has to be professional regardless of your budget. When people watch your film, nobody’s going to forgive bad sound or bad lighting or bad acting. They might forgive a little bit, but on the technical aspects you’ve got to nail it so that people aren’t taken out of the experience. People honestly don’t know or care what your budget was when they’re watching your movie. You have to entertain them. Other than the technical proficiency and keeping your story moving along, you just have to keep your overhead low if you want to be able to look your investor in the eye and tell them that you’re going to try to make their money back. You have to keep those budgets as low as possible so that it’s realistic given the realities in the market. When you’re deciding which script or which story you want to tell, look for something that might be interesting to a particular audience as you’re crafting that. While you might not have the budget for a celebrity, you might just be able to make a slight change to the characters or the subject matter or the location or whatever to be able to have some audience that’s enthusiastic about it.

Good Game live streams on Twitch.tv April 29.

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