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AMBITION (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Years ago, Mary and I were talking with an actor about a role in one of our projects. He was a bit of an odd duck, to be honest. The project was about zombies (yes, yes, I know, I know) and he didn't know what zombies were, and when we explained it to him, he found the whole thing grotesque and sacrilegious, and maybe thought we were part of a Satanic cult? So, anyway, that didn't pan out.

Before we went our separate ways, the actor did a little improv where he pretended to bump into us again some years down the road. We didn't realize that at first, because he didn't say that that was what he was doing; all of the sudden, he was just grabbing my hand and shaking it, "Oh my goodness, Tom and Mary, how long has it been?" Which was disorienting. He went on to congratulate us on our latest Oscar-winning box-office smash, and asked what it was like to work with Brad Pitt.

I thanked him for the intended compliment, but felt compelled to mention - and I really don't know why, really, we just needed to get out of there - that there wasn't any of that in our future.

"Well, you'll get there," he said, encouragingly. "That's the highest accomplishment in film." (I wasn't sure if he meant the Oscar or Brad Pitt.)

"We're not really interested in that," I said, and he seemed to genuinely not comprehend what we were saying. I'm pretty sure he thought that he misheard us.

But it was true. While we had ambitions - you can only make so many three hundred dollar movies about people yelling at each other in their kitchen - we didn't want to make films that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, didn't want to work with big stars, didn't want to make films that weren't the films that we wanted to make, the way we wanted to make them. While I certainly wanted us to be significantly better off financially, and to make films full time rather than on weekends, owning a palatial estate and hobnobbing with Hollywood celebs wasn't something we wanted or daydreamed about. (For one thing, I was terrified that Brad Pitt would steal Mary from me, as he is arguably more handsome than I am.)

That actor wasn't the only one who assumed that our end goal was to go Hollywood. Other filmmakers, both locally and those we met online, would give us advice on how to make our films more commercial. One fellow told us that we were doing it all wrong - that we really should be making a horror film. "Your first film isn't really a film, but a calling card, a way to get in the door and let you do what you really want."

"But we are doing what we really want. That's the film we made. And it's not our first film. It's our fourth."

"Why is this first scene twenty-five minutes long?"

"Because we thought it was funny."

"I don't think it's funny."

"Well, that's okay. It's not your film."

Of course he went on to make a film with Susan Sarandon, and we went on to put filmmaking aside for the last ten years while we concentrated on the board games. None of our films ever did manage to get into a festival or engage any kind of audience. We'll get back to it - maybe even next year - but when we do, while I think it's going to be very different than the sorts of films we did before, I can't imagine that it won't be absolutely and stubbornly our film, made our way.

One of the reasons why we made the leap from designing and developing games for other companies to publishing ourselves is because we wanted to try and do things our way. And I'm very proud of that. We've published games that other publishers wouldn't or couldn't touch. Nobody's covers look quite like ours. And we've bucked conventional wisdom, even on things like the very titles of our games. There were a lot of folks who were convinced that calling a game Agricola, Master of Britain when there was a certain popular farming game on the market would be a recipe for confusion and disaster.  It wasn't. When we announced Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777, we had someone literally beg us to change the name to something, to anything but that. Even Richard H. Berg, undisputedly the friendliest person on the internet, suggested that Schnorrerblitz would be a better title. But the game has been very successful, and at least a few sales weren't made despite the title, but because of it.

Now, we're not always right. And we take any feedback we get very seriously. We make changes. We adapt. How we're approaching the business now is different than how we were approaching it six months ago, which is different than how we were approaching it six months before that. The common thread though is that we are still more-or-less doing what we want to do, the way we want to do it. When we're right, we reap the benefits, and when we're wrong, we take the lumps, but it's ours.

More than just how we run the business, though, it's also a matter of what the business is: what we want the business to be and to do. Folks ask us a lot, for example, about doing a kickstarter to fund traditional print runs that can be distributed through traditional channels. We're not really interested in that, though. We've been approached by companies that want to bring our products to a broader market. Some offer a partnership (and on pretty equitable terms), and others have basically offered to buy our company outright, keeping us on as creative staff. We're not really interested in that, either.

We don't really care about seeing our games on store shelves or being available through Amazon. We don't really want that, at least not right now, even if other folks want it for us.

We want to do our little thing, in our scrappy little way, growing our business organically but never beyond the ability of the two of us to control it. We want to make enough money to pay our bills and our taxes, and to get out of the house once in a while. We don't want or need to make a lot of money - if we did, there are easier ways to do it than publishing niche board games.

We'd like to move to a larger house, one with an actual dedicated gaming and working space, when it'd be fiscally responsible for us to do so, and we hope the business will enable us to make that leap at some point in the future. That, right now, is our ambition: to save up enough money to put a down payment on a house. In the grand scheme of things, it's a pretty small one. It's not about dominating the market, or competing with a juggernaut like GMT, or getting our games into European retail stores, or having mounted boards and minis. It's small and quotidian and unabashedly Midwestern, but that's us.


4 comments

  • Berg is a delight.

    Tom Russell

  • Mr. Berg may or may not be the friendliest person on the interwebs, but I could read his stuff all day.

    I don’t know if I enjoy it because I’m smarter than everyone else, or if I’m just too dumb to be outraged by his intolerance of lunacy or his eschewing of basic pleasantries, but whatever. If I’m wrong I don’t want to be right.

    Keep up the good work Tom and Mary. I hope you guys pull the same profit off my wargamevault downloads as you do by shipping out physical copies.

    Christopher Peters

  • Yes, it’s absolutely the best job in the world, and being able to go where you want, and do what you want, is a blessing.

    Tom Russell

  • Speaking of ambition. After working many years for someone else, and being told “you’re good at what you do now, that’s why we’re not going to let you go where you want to go,” or “you don’t know what you’re doing” (by people who did not know what I was doing or what they should be doing either) , my ambition is to go where I want to go. And the best way to do that is to work for myself. And the best thing to “work” on is boardgames – something I’ve done since I was quite young. Nowadays that literally means making them more than playing them, but so far it beats all the other jobs I’ve had by a country mile.

    Steve Jones

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