If you’ve heard of Devolver Digital, you’re probably familiar with their support and release of last year’s Hotline Miami, the blood-soaked, neon-drenched top-down action game from Dennaton that made a lot of best-of lists. Devolver co-founder as well as game and film industry vet Mike Wilson wants to make Devolver known not only for their support of indie games, but indie film as well, launching Devolver Digital Films this week at South by Southwest.
Don’t go looking for a Hotline Miami movie right out the gate–right now, Austin-based Devolver is simply looking to get their feet wet with distributing some promising indies based on their experience promoting promising indie games. “We’re not there yet,” Wilson says about Devolver producing their own films. He doesn’t shut out the possibility of working on smaller action and sci-fi films, it’s just not that time yet.
Wilson, laughs about being the game industry since he was “a wee lad,” working his way through management roles at Id Software before co-founding developer Ion Storm, later working underGrand Theft Auto publishers Take-Two Interactive at Gathering of Developers 9another studio he co-founded) at the beginning of the 00′s, leaving only to come back again to work with some recently-acquired indie developers. It got weird there for a bit: the cockiness that marked the advertising and promotion at Ion Storm (whose campaign for Daikatana is legendary in its wrongheadedness) followed at GameCock who put out some interesting titles (notably the WWII-set Velvet Assassin and Dementium for the 3DS), but were often overshadowed by the studios’ awkward self-promotion.
In between games, Wilson earned producing credits on a couple of films, one of them the documentary Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock (2005), which was ultimately distributed by Warner Brothers. It was a big deal: he spent four years working on the movie, going the festival route, and at the end of it Wilson never got paid. “I got to learn the hard way that that’s a very common thing if you’re an artist that they don’t really need for the next thing” he tells me (he likens it to the game industry, where smaller developers would work at the whim of large publishers).
It was when he produced Austin High with distributor Lightning Films that Wilson got to see how indies were put out for public consumption. He started asking questions, learning that distributors employed a fire0and-forget philosophy, dumping their films into what distribution channel was available (Cable, VOD, iTunes) without any kind of promotion or support. “We would never just release a game–just upload it to iTunes or Steam [without promotion]–because no one’s going to find the thing.”
He understands why many of the distributors do this: it’s a volume business, Wilson explains, and the overhead necessary to promote a million dollar or so independent film across the U.S. might often exceed the cost of the film itself. You’ve probably read stories about a hot movie getting picked up by one of the genre labels of a major studio, only to languish and then get shoved out into the market (maybe with a perfunctory theatrical release) before vanishing down the VOD hole. Wilson, along with Devolver VP of Acquisitions Andie Grace want to be cheerleaders for these lost films (Grace and Wilson met while the former was working as member of the executive staff at Burning Man).
Wilson offers that Devolver’s experience with games (and the low overhead inherent in their business model) will allow them to successfully promote and champion the indie partners who are willing to work with them. They’re not targeting any specific genre of film–they’re not going to be a horror boutique–instead, they’ll try to nab films that might have had some limited success on cable VOD for digital distribution through Devolver Digital Films via other games-first platforms similar to Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network (those spaces are already crowded with digital distribution options, but Wilson hints at others for Devolver to target). Their goal is to be the onlydigital distributor on some of these emerging platforms, but Wilson wasn’t willing to talk about which ones Devolver was targeting at this point.
“People who love independent games love independent everything,” Wilson says about keeping Devolver’s focus broad. What they’re trying to counter at this point is the challenge of getting the attention of the indie blogosphere unless a major name is attached. That’s something Devolver hopes to figure out going forward.
Before letting him go, I picked Wilson’s brain about the state of bad movies based on video games (he confesses to being involved with a couple of doomed game-to-film productions) and offers that it’s seldom a collaboration between Hollywood and the video game industry–that typically the tail wags the dog, with studios grabbing the reins and not allowing the game developers any input, resulting in films that had the shape but not the soul of the games they were adapting. “My old friends at Rockstar Games with Grand Theft Auto, and with everyone wanting to make a movie at the time, they were like ‘Look, unless you’re going to make the best movie ever made, because we just made the best game ever made, and that’s going to be damaging to our property.’”
If you’re interested in submitting your film to Devolver Digital Films, you can e-mail Mike and his team. They’ll also be at South By Southwest this week seeking out indies so if you can, grab Mike and tell him all about your completed project and how it’ll be a fit for Devolver.