Ninterview: The NES Club and an Epic Collector's Quest
Posted by Darren Calvert
Take a ride on the ultimate 8-bit road trip
A major ongoing strength for Nintendo is its cultural heritage, a history in the games industry that makes the brand immediately recognisable to so many. Younger gamers may be familiar with the DS, Wii, 3DS and gradually the Wii U, but we're approaching 30 years of major home console and gaming handheld history. For some those '80s systems still hold an undying appeal, with the role of the NES in particular being undiminished for those with a love of the 8-bit era.
One project that reflects this is The NES Club, a documentary that was successfully crowdfunded and took on the challenge of completing a full NES game collection in just 30 days, with the added caveat that it would be done with no online purchases. This meant a road trip for collector Jay Bartlett and his friend / film director Rob McCallum, travelling around North America on a tough quest.
We've seen various documentaries covering the retro era, such as The Power of Glove and The King of Kong, so we've caught up with Rob McCallum to talk in detail about The NES Club, and why the culture of collecting and independent game stores remains important to this day.
To kick things off, what is the premise behind your documentary?
The film looks at the cultural impact of the NES and the NES era and the main way we’re doing that is by talking to everyone in the NES club – the gamers, collectors, developers, competitive gamers, etc, all the while following one fanatic collector, Jay Bartlett, as he tries to amass the entire NES library (NTSC retail games) in 30 days with no online purchases.
Can you tell us a bit about your lead Jay and how you met? Is Jay already a games collector?
Jay and I are best friends for over 30 years, so it’s fair to say that I know my subject quite well. And for as long as I can remember, Jay’s been collecting games. He was the one that got me hooked, taught me to preserve boxes, advertisements, promos and manuals in pristine condition and above all, immediately clean anything that comes into your house – unless it’s factory sealed, of course.
What inspired you to make this unique documentary? Why did you choose to collect for the NES as opposed to other systems?
I just finished a sci-fi action-adventure flick called, “Unearthly” and I wanted to do something that had less reliance on VFX, was more manageable in terms of premise, crew and execution. I had done a few documentaries in the past, and there was an exhilarating freedom inherent with shooting anything remotely connected to the basic premise and then, in post, re-starting the writing process but with images.
Like all films and stories, you have to pick something that you absolutely love and gaming had been one subject I always loved. Given my passions and after a few conversations with Jay, who really liked what I was able to pull off in “Unearthly”, the premise came quite quickly. It went from “doing something better than a pick-up video” to an in-depth examination of whatever games he might find, then finally to the game-show like challenge that is the foundation for the film – though we originally had a lot of other rules that we had to disregard for difficulty reasons.
Of course this was all great but oddly enough we knew it was going to be on NES and Nintendo before we really knew why! It was only when we started talking again, almost daring each other to find a reason to feature another company or library of games, or some other era.
What it came down to, was, the NES era didn’t have the brand allegiance that other eras in gaming had; Everyone had a Nintendo, and that immediately puts the focus on the games – plus it helps that’s the console, and era, that Jay and I really grew up in and made us frequent gamers. We know the time period very well.
The NES era didn’t have the brand allegiance that other eras in gaming had; Everyone had a Nintendo, and that immediately puts the focus on the games
Your Kickstarter campaign reached its initial funding goal. Was it a nerve-racking process? Were you overwhelmed by the support of the worldwide retro gaming community?
The Kickstarter campaign wasn’t so much nerve-racking as it was stressful, and I don’t mean that in a passive sense where you watch the clock helpless hoping another pledge comes your way. It’s stress more from the active side, like, “Am I doing enough to gain the support of the community?” or “how are people responding to today’s campaign post?” So it was a lot of trial and error into what works on the interweb to first, get attention, and, second, to gain the audience’s confidence that they actually wanna support your endeavour.
There’s certainly a lot I would do differently next time, from a preparation and execution standpoint. That said, the entire team behind the film was constantly speechless with the names that wanted to become attached to the project and how that in-turn triggered more pledges and that in-turn triggered more participants. It was like the telephone game kept going on, and on and even continued to do so well into production of Jay’s journey and even after his journey with regards to people that wanted to be involved. It really humbles you to see the people you respect find value in your little idea.
What cities did you visit during the shoot?
We’ve crossed over 10,000 miles by car to film this journey - and we’ve got one more chapter still to film! That said, “The NES Club” shows Jay’s hometown of London, Ontario, Canada, Brantford, Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, Buffalo, NY, DuBois, PA, Pittsburgh, PA, Cincinnati, OH, Columbus, OH, Indianapolis, IN, Detroit, MI, St. Louis, MO, Dallas, TX, Austin, TX, Houston, TX, Oklahoma City, OK, and Bedford, IN.
But shooting also occurred throughout New Jersey, at the Portland Retro Game Expo, at ConBravo in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and at Comic Con in San Diego – and of course, some stuff was shot in Las Vegas, where I currently live. We envisioned various routes but in the end, our funds and Jay’s availability made our decision and I think it’s the best possible outcome.
Did spending 30 days on the road put any strain on your friendship with Jay, given your very different roles in this production?
There was no strain that we didn’t anticipate. By that I mean, we’ve been on road trips before and know how to share a hotel room and all that travel stuff. I would say it was probably more difficult for me because I play two roles, regarding the film. You’ll see a good amount of interaction with Jay and I on camera as I act as his sounding board for various ideas and situations as well as being the director. So it was a bit difficult to be his friend at times and point out some perilous situations that “the director” needed to shoot and capture.
In other words, I had to get comfortable watching my friend squirm from time to time in order to make sure the film was entertaining – and Jay knew this was going to be the case. This was always going to be his challenge, right or wrong, he was going to execute the quest his way, just like I’m telling his story my way.
In the documentary do you reveal Jay’s budget to buy all the games, or do you avoid getting too specific about the budget and prices of the carts?
We made a decision very early on to avoid talking about the economics in almost all regards including Jay’s budget, the price of the games, and what the games are worth. There are some exceptions to this but I wanted to keep the focus on the hunt for the games, the act of finding them and not how much something was worth versus what Jay paid for it or suddenly we’re dealing with profit mechanics.
Showing the prices, also, we discussed, could potentially date the film, something we’re hoping to avoid, and a lot of the stores we visited asked us not to show their prices on camera, which we understand. So heads up, you’ll see prices blurred on screen and “bleeped” here and there when mentioned in dialogue.
Jay was asked to look at someone’s NES games they found in their attic and they were under the impression that their gold Zelda cart was worth close to $30,000
Considering that the film crew had to scope the locations first, did it change the dynamic of a shop when Jay walked in?
Jay and I talk about this a lot nowadays; here’s kinda how that happened for the most part: we would arrive at a store, get permission to shoot – because most of the time, the stores didn’t know we were coming, mainly because it would be really easy for them to say, “no” on the phone and hang-up – and then the crew would set up according to how I wanted to block out the shots. I’d give Jay, who would typically wait outside the store for about 15 minutes, the general lay of the land in terms of where the games were and then we’d roll and shoot.
What was hard for Jay is that we were in there and knew what games they had, specifically that I knew what games they had, and he was stuck outside waiting for the green light. And for legal reasons, we had the stores turn off any music that might normally be playing, so a few times Jay would walk in and it would be completely, and awkwardly, silent. So imagine that, silent video game hunting with a camera crew looking at you plus any foot traffic and employees.
Fortunately, I would talk to Jay off-camera a lot and get him into the moment before he became too self-aware of the situation. But this is the kind of thing we would do and sometimes we would drive 10-12 hours before getting to a single store all just for a 25 minute shoot.
How did you determine the value of the carts that you were buying? Did you encounter people with over-inflated ideas about the value of their wares? Were there times when you just had to walk away?
This is definitely more of a “Jay question” because I know I would have bought games that Jay turned down here and there, for right or wrong. He generally used an App from puregaming.org called “NES Collector” I believe. Essentially the App was on his iPad and gave him an idea of what the games go for and then what they’ve gone for on eBay - so there’s definitely a bit of variance. But after going to a few stores, it’s quite easy to see the trend of prices but there are some crazy prices we ran into as well and those times Jay had to walk away and no one could blame him for doing so.
What’s the strangest thing that happened on the road?
There were two. First, running out of gas leaving Houston. A bit of a panic moment but thankfully we were only a ¼ mile away from a gas station on the highway – but unfortunately our cellphones were full of pics and movies so we couldn’t record more than 7 seconds of blurry footage capturing the event. Secondly, Jay was asked to look at someone’s NES games they found in their attic and they were under the impression that their gold Zelda cart was worth close to $30,000 and pretty much expected Jay to plunk every cent of it on the table.
What made it awkward was that the entire family and some extended family members were watching Jay appraise the games in their house – we filmed it all, but there are just something things that you don’t show the world. (laughs) It would’ve been the perfect chance to turn this into a horror movie for the third act as we were in Texas and we had a few looks from the family like we “didn’t belong there.”
Did Jay bump into any retro-gaming celebs along the way?
Nothing that wasn’t planned. We got to hang out with competitive gamers John Pompa, and Mason Cramer, video game media personality Patrick Scott Patterson and have dinner with Greg Pabich who not long ago released Cheetah Men on a stand alone cart - another Kickstarter initiative.
What do you think it is about collecting or treasure hunts that fascinate people so much?
I think it’s easy to participate in the hunt vicariously through the hunters. We all want to unearth some sort of treasure or relic and feel like we’re holding part of history, in turn makes us important for safe keeping said history. We want to borrow the “star power” of that object.
In addition to the treasure hunt aspect of the documentary, are you also able to touch on the rich history of Nintendo along the way?
Yes, it’s a major through line. Structurally, the film is split between Jay’s quest and mine, with mine being an examination of what made the NES and NES era so magical and investigating why it’s lasted, and not only why it has endured but continues to thrive today. So we go back and forth between the two throughout the film and they each serve each other quite well.
I basically explore the history of the NES, talk about the narratives, the music, why those games welcome competitors and competition, box art, unlicensed games, and, how collectors approach that library and what makes collecting for the NES fun – it’s these bits that feature our participants in interview form.
What do you think of the indie game store scene these days?
I love it. You really get to know what’s out there by travelling across the country and as much as GameStop or Best Buy are the go-to destinations for so many gamers, there’s nothing like an indie game store that wreaks of personality and a distinct experience you’ll only get by going there. I mean, once you’ve been in one GameStop, you’ve been in them all, but Indie stores are each their own cool adventure and you never know what will happen inside.
Do you think there is an underlying inspirational message behind Jay’s 30 day quest?
Jay had/has his own reason for agreeing to do the challenge, above and beyond always wanting to have a complete NES collection, but for me, it was always about illustrating how connecting with people is lost nowadays. We live in a world where so many of us engage online in seclusion; we’re plugged into one another – but back in the NES days we weren’t plugged in, we were connected.
Jay’s quest reflects us connecting with the world by venturing to many towns, cities, and far off places. We’ve come away with so many experiences, and memories that are far more valuable than ANY game in that library and that’s the kind of thing you don’t get by playing online, downloading games or interacting through a device.
And I think to a lesser degree, it’s always been about daring to do the impossible and how once you do so, the impossible becomes probable.
There’s nothing like an indie game store that wreaks of personality and a distinct experience you’ll only get by going there
What is your aim for the length of the final cut? Is it a tough call to take out some of the footage to make the run-time more enjoyable for audiences?
This has been a hot topic as of late, but we’re aiming for a 2 hour runtime. We flirted with six 30 minute episodes that would be all included on the same disc, or stream at the same time ala House of Cards, but after reviewing things with the team, a 2 hour film is the better option. Whether it's 2 hours or not, it will be the best time that serves the film in the best way.
What was the biggest challenge in creating this documentary?
The entire team had a lot of different challenges. For me, it was being away from my family for 2 months shooting this epic 8-bit road trip and then coming home and sorting through the footage. That said, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
What was your proudest moment during production?
It’s really hard for me to be specific about this without giving anything away but, probably just sticking to the plan, having the whole schedule play out as imagined and executed without really any issues. That certainly isn’t all my doing though; my team really supported my vision and without them, this film would not exist in any way.
Every good documentary needs a killer soundtrack. Assuming you are going 8-bit, who will be composing this for the film?
Our soundtrack will actually use both 8-bit tracks and contemporary rock artists. It’s a bit early for us to name the artists but it’s cool to say that every track we wanted, we’ve been able to, or are about to, secure the rights for - in a non-exclusive way that doesn’t handcuff any record labels. John McCarthy will compose our 8-bit tunes. He’s our post-audio everything on this flick.
I’ve worked with John on the past 4 productions and it’s really cool to tap into his talents once more, especially on this one, because he works full time as a senior audio designer at HB Studios, a game studio in Lunenburg, a town near Halifax, Nova Scotia.
How is production progressing, and when do you think it will be ready to go on sale to the public?
This is a double-edged sword. Things are going according to plan and we’re exactly where we expected – second cut finished but lots of work to do still. That said, we hope to have it all finished by Fall 2014. Usually, and depending on our distribution partner’s plans, there’s a 6-8 month delay from finished film to retail release, so expect it available mid 2015 assuming we secure a distribution partner in the future - which looks quite promising. Though, we hope to start screenings as soon as we can and bring our own discs with us.
Aside from digital downloads and streaming, will you be producing DVDs / Blu-rays with extras?
The team will be producing physical versions of the film; it’s something inherent to the doc and we hope to have them for sale within in the Indie Game Stores that we visited and perhaps some others as well. While we hope our distributor wants to see this on disc in Best Buy or Walmart, the economics of that get real murky for an indie release. It will be up to the fans and community to make that happen. Extras? Oh ya. Lots of extras!
Are you planning to get The NES Club into cinemas? What are the challenges in doing so with this type of documentary?
We want to do some limited theatrical screenings. A few of our potential distribution partners have echoed this as well. If we’re left to do it independently, it becomes an issue of cost. The good news is a handful of theatres are going to allow us to screen the film by the looks of it without cost to us, but we still have travel to consider which adds up quickly between flights, hotels, food, and rental cars.
We could look at pre-selling events with a minimum threshold needed to make a screening happen - so if you want it in your area, help us bring it there! I’ll take it anywhere I can as long as it makes sense financially and my work schedule allows for it, because after all, I work full time creating video content for a handful of clients before I can do this fun stuff.
Lastly do you have a final message for our readers? How can they find out more about your project?
For more info, visit our website, nesclubmovie.com, like our Facebook page and follow me on Twitter @PyreProductions or the film @theNESClub. On the risk of repeating myself and even sounding preachy, I’d suggest we all play games with people, in-person as often as possible and make the extra effort to go have an adventure, you might just come back a different person. Today will be gone tomorrow, so what are you waiting for?
We'd like to thank Rob McCallum for his time.
Ninterviews are a series of interviews where we get to know interesting people with a passion for Nintendo. Please contact us if you have any suggestions for future Ninterviews. Click here to see the full series.