BY AARON COUCH | HollywoodReporter.Com
Director Jonah Tulis and producer Blake J. Harris reveal how their documentary, produced on a tight timeline, managed to beat competing Hollywood projects to the punch.
For documentary filmmaker Jonah Tulis, stepping into the world of GameStop was all about timing.
In January 2021, the video game retailer became a global news story when its once-moribund stock skyrocketed to unprecedented heights. Ordinary investors, organized on the internet, had outsmarted Wall Street hedge funds and were being rewarded handsomely. Bucking conventional wisdom, these friends — gathering on YouTube and Reddit — poured their savings into the stock. They spent hours a day talking about the company online. And during the pandemic, they found an unlikely community.
Just a few weeks before the GameStock revolution, Tulis got a tip from a friend that something was brewing. The friend introduced him to this ragtag group of half-a-dozen or so internet friends who believed GameStop was dramatically undervalued.
“They all had this thesis that GameStop was not going away,” says Tulis, who is known for the 2021 gaming documentary Console Wars. “People as far back as early 2019 were focused on this.”
A year after Tulis met these GameStop true believers, they are the subjects of his new documentary, Game Stop: The Rise of the Players, which Neon’s Super LTD arm is releasing in theaters Friday.
The road was not easy, with Tulis and his team facing headwinds from competing projects from major players like Netflix.
Among the subjects interviewed for the film is Justin Dopierala, the founder of Domo Capital Management, who is credited with kicking off the movement with a 2019 article on the financial commentary site Seeking Alpha in which he detailed his faith in the company.
“You start meeting these people. ‘Holy cow, this is like The Big Short, but they all met on the internet,’” says Tulis.
Back in January 2021, Tulis thought he’d uncovered a cool story that would fly under the radar. Then GameStop shares soared from $19 at the start of the month to a high of $379 by its end. Suddenly, the world was paying attention to his potential documentary subjects.
“These people suddenly became wealthy, and/or famous. At least famous in that community,” says Rise of the Players producer Blake J. Harris, author of Console Wars and the longtime creative partner of Tulis. “Jonah got the chance to get to know them and see this side of them through their eyes as this whole thing exploded.”
Hollywood caught wind, with a flurry of projects announced in just a few weeks. Netflix, Discovery+ and The Wall Street Journal all announced documentaries. High-profile author Ben Mezrich presold a book. Andrew Ross Sorkin and Jason Blum set a scripted series at HBO, and Netflix cast Noah Centineo in a film about the phenomenon.
“Much like GameStop was an underdog stock, this movie is an underdog in a way,” says Tulis, whose subjects were now being approached by major projects. But he already had built trust with them in just a few weeks.
Tulis quickly reached out to Submarine Entertainment, a major player in the doc space behind Oscar winners such as Man on Wire and Searching for Sugarman. The Submarine team was interested and signed on after Tulis crafted a pitch over a marathon 18-hour session. Soon, Neon’s Super LTD boarded to distribute and finance.
Normally, a documentary like this might take 18 months to two years to produce, but with so many competing projects hot on their heels, Tulis and his team worked under an accelerated timeline, turning the film around in about seven months of production. Tulis spent 15-20 hours doing pre-interviews on the phone with each of his subjects and then flew around the country to spend a day or two with them.
Harris, meanwhile, was making progress on his latest book, an upcoming biography of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David. During a visit to David’s home in Los Angeles, Harris started to grasp just how big the GameStop story had become when the TV icon’s wife, producer Ashley Underwood, brought up GameStop in conversation, not knowing Harris was working on a doc.
As Tulis and Harris dug into the story, they found that news articles got the story somewhat wrong. In the media, the stock’s rise was generally credited to investors on the WallStreetBets subreddit, and while the duo credit Reddit for its role, they were interested in going back earlier.
“On The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live or the news, it was these people who bought GameStop at $40 and it went to $400. Our guys were the ones that bought it at $4, or less,” says Harris.
The editing team started work on the project in February 2021, and Tulis enlisted the animation house MindBomb Films to help tell parts of the story in 16-bit video game style.
“There’s not a lot of stuff you can shoot of them at their computers,” says Tulis, who used MindBomb on his previous film, Console Wars. “That is what was happening during these moments. How do we get into their world?”
They also reteamed with Console Wars composer Jeff Beal, who recorded a score with a full orchestra, giving the film a truly theatrical feel.
For Tulis and Harris, GameStop: Rise of the Players was a different experience than Console Wars. Work on that project took place over many years, and while it was well-received when it debuted on the streaming service Paramount+, it never screened in a theater. Covid saw its planned 2020 premiere at South by Southwest canceled.
That’s not the case this time. The duo plan to go around New York over the next few weeks to check it out on the big screen.
Says Tulis: “There are five big theaters in New York playing it. I’m going to try all of them.”