Focusing on the waning pinball industry’s last-ditch effort at reinventing their medium, Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball takes a thoughtful and grounded look at the industry’s efforts to adapt to the digital age. Whereas other video game documentaries like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters explore the subcultures surrounding a game’s popular use, Tilt dives into the industrial and economic tensions governing the machine’s production. That’s not to say that the film lacks personality, quite the opposite.
The writer, editor, producer and director of Tilt, Greg Maletic has developed quite an interest the topic. His is a passion shared with the pinball designers and industry officials he interviews,—a passion viewers of this documentary can easily develop, too.
By the late ‘90s the video game industry began to drastically overshadow the pinball market. Local arcades began turning to more graphically diverse video arcade cabinets because they were both smaller and yielded higher profit margins. Many pinball machines were just too bulky and expensive to warrant continued investment, and as a result, many video arcades stopped purchasing as many machines as they had been during the golden age of pinball.
Moreover, in the wake of Atari, and later Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega, Playstation, Xbox and other video game systems designed for home use, consumption shifted from public arcades to private residences. In 1998, Williams, one of the last remaining pinball manufacturers, set its sights on revamping the market with Pinball 2000, a unit that integrated the classic, lever-based, pinball playing field with computer generated graphics.
For Maletic, the focus is not on pinball’s fanatical players, but on the engineers and designers who formulate and fabricate these machines. As a result, the documentary overflows with talking-heads style interviews with the salient personnel. But Tilt is not bloated. The documentary itself is only about an hour long.
The nearly six hours of extras, on the other hand, are a story all on their own. Maletic does a terrific job of capturing the sense of a scene, and the bonus features do wonders for further explication – the interview with 93-year-old pinball flipper inventor and pioneer Steve Kordek is a real gem. But the bonus features do something else, as well. As a bountiful corpus of data, they not only chronicle the narrative thematic, but also Maletic’s exhaustive research on the project. Clearly this was a labor of love.
An Interview with Tilt director, Greg Maletic
So how did you get involved with Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball? Were you always a pinball fan?
I didn’t have much of a relationship to pinball before I started the project. I played as a kid but gave up after video games became popular in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. I really didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about pinball until I happened to be in this café in 1999 and I noticed this really different looking machine.
It was Revenge From Mars, and I thought it was a really clever way to use video technology integrated with pinball. I eventually bought one on Ebay. I was running a software company and I wanted something more. I was keeping the pinball machine in my office, and I noticed how many people were playing it but at the same time noticed that Williams (the manufacturer for Revenge From Mars) was struggling for business. That seemed like an interesting topic for a documentary.
Tilt is also the name of a 1979 pinball movie with Brook Shields. Where did you come up with the title for your film?
Naming the project was a long process, the initial name was The Future of Pinball and I showed it at a couple of film festivals that way. But I thought that The Future of Pinball would only appeal to those who knew something about pinball history. It didn’t attract people that didn’t know that much about it. The key part actually put more focus on the subtitle: The Battle to Save Pinball.
My goal in the project was to try and attract people who only had a peripheral knowledge of pinball, they were aware of it but hadn’t thought about it in a longtime.
It’s a good take. You really go into the business infrastructure of pinball, you aren’t as focused on the players, you are interested in it as a business.
Whenever I interviewed people outside the industry, they felt like intruders. I wanted the viewer to have a very intimate experience, almost like they were on the design team.
Well, it gives it a personality that isn’t idiosyncratic. I imagine you get a lot of comparisons to The King of Kong: A Fistful of Dollars?
It makes a lot of sense, we focus on the designers as opposed to the players and I think we give [the viewer] a chance to determine how different a set of people those are. The players are more monomaniacal in what they are pursuing. The designers are looking for a design challenge, yes they love pinball, but they are looking at it at a higher level.
How did you get involved with George Gomez Pat Lawler and Larry DeMar?
I wrote to the Pinball 2000 website and George Gomez replied. In essence he said now may not be the best time to be thinking about entering the pinball market. I still invited myself out to see him, to find out more about working at Williams, this was before I even started the documentary.
At the moment when I started the documentary I found out that a guy named Greg Dunlap who formerly worked at Williams was doing the exact same documentary – a story about Pinball 2000. So for a few months we actually collaborated on the project. Because Greg worked at Williams, he introduced me to all the key people. I knew George, but I didn’t know Larry DeMar. So Greg was key in getting those people on board. Greg had to drop out for time reasons later on, so I continued the project.
You ended up including about six hours of bonus footage; can you talk about those extras?
The movie ended up being about an hour. I was trying to attract a larger audience than just the pinball community. There are some great interviews on the extras. One of the interviews is with Steve Kordek, one of the legends of the pinball industry. He first started making pinball machines in the late ‘30s and ended up working at Williams until 1999, he was 93 when I interviewed him.
He was the guy that decided it would be a good idea to put two flippers at the bottom of the pinball playing field. Flippers had existed for about two years before that, but they put them on the top, on the sides. Nobody just had two of them at the bottom. That was his invention; he went on to design over 200 games!