July 2001

     In the world of entertainment, Star Trek, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Munsters and The Pink Panther would seem to have very little in common. But in the world of pinball (and more recently, slot machines), there's one man who ties them all together -- Joe Kaminkow. From his start in 1981 as a designer of pinball and video games for Williams to his current job as the head of engineering design for slot manufacturer IGT (International Game Technology), Joe has amassed an amazing list of credits, with many of the games based on movies and TV shows during his years with Data East, Sega Pinball and Stern Pinball. This month, Screen Watch goes behind-the-scenes with Joe for a look at what it takes to successfully bring a Hollywood property into the coin-op community.

Scott Voisin:
Where does the process begin in turning a movie or TV show into a pinball machine?

Joe Kaminkow:
It really begins with my personal interests, or the interests of a member in the team. We try to assess the marketplace and devise a strategy that is reasonable and realistic for a product that has enough hype or interest to warrant becoming a game. For instance, when The Simpsons first started, we saw the heat around the show and reacted very, very quickly and became one of the first licenses they granted for merchandise. We were able to catch the wave of the popularity of the show when it was at its zenith. I always used to joke and say that a game has to pass the basement test: Is this a theme of a game that I would one day want sitting in my basement and think would be cool when my friends came over? But we really think hard about who the player is going to be, who we're going to attract. When we did South Park, I think Gary Stern was almost mortified at the thought of us doing the game. We had running arguments as to the content of the game, but eventually the game's success really panned out. So after we decide on what license we like, then we go and deal with the various movie studios or the licensing agent in charge of the property, and then we see if there's any interest on their behalf in doing a licensing agreement with us in order to make a deal for the game.

SV: Have studios ever come to you with ideas?

JK: Sometimes a producer we know or someone we have a past relationship with will call us and say, "Hey, we've got this movie coming, and Mel Gibson would love to have a pinball based on it," or something to that effect. The producers of The Matrix called us when it was coming out and thought it would be great to do. And we worked with the people who produced Hook; they thought it would be a great idea. Probably the best example is when we were working on Back to the Future. Bob Zemeckis, the director of the film, suggested we do Tales from the Crypt. So we met his partner on that, Richard Donner, and he suggested we do Lethal Weapon! It happens that way sometimes.

SV: When you start to work on a licensed property, are there guidelines the studio imposes on you?

JK: Absolutely. They give you a guide and say, "Here are the rules." It's what you do or can't say, and they approve all of the art and everything else.

Have you ever followed those rules and still have the studio unhappy with it?

JK: All the time! (laughs) Art is a very, very subjective thing. You look at it, and everybody has their own opinion of it.

Once you get your mandates from the studio, what comes next?

JK: Besides designing the playfield, we always started with what the foundation of the game was, like the multiball rules. Once we figured out what the multiball was and what the multiball did, then we would build the rest of the rules and features around the game. But that was always the backbone.

When the design is finished, do you have to submit it to the studio?

JK: Sometimes. We always had some kind of approval process, like sending in the playfield, explaining the rules... But some of the studios that had a comfort level with us were much less demanding than others. Some were simply ball-busters, and others knew we were professional in what we did and gave us the room to do the job. The Simpsons was one of the most difficult ones. They were very demanding, but the hotter the property is at the time, the more demanding they are. Batman was very demanding. Michael Keaton kept changing his likeness until it almost didn't look like him anymore.

Have you ever wanted to include something in a game that the studio wouldn't let you?

JK: I'd say that most of the time we got everything we wanted. All in all, the studios have been very reasonable, and we treat their properties with great respect. Some of the titles are a little harder than others, depending on how high-profile the game is. Probably the biggest disappointment ever was Apollo 13, where we thought we were going to have Tom Hanks' likeness, but he decided not to participate. We had everyone but Tom, so his character, Jim Lovell, was in a closed mask. It didn't really hurt the game, but it was just disappointing for all involved. Even director Ron Howard was disappointed that Tom didn't participate, because Ron ended up with a game. But such is life.

How difficult is it to get custom speech from the original actors?

JK: Normally, the time you can get custom speech for a game is when the movie is being made or when the actors are doing looping sessions. Independence Day, Jurassic Park, Lethal Weapon, Maverick... All of those got custom speech because they were made in the context of the time. The first Batman game, obviously, there was no one to draw from at the time. But with Batman Forever, we got Tommy Lee Jones to do some speech, and on Apollo 13, we were on the set with Bill Paxton, and we met with Kevin Bacon and Gary Sinise. It was great!

Have the filmmakers ever been active in the development process?

JK: Some of them are really interested in it, and some aren't. For instance, we worked with director Jan de Bont on Twister, and he was really involved. And Matt Groening from The Simpsons was probably the most active of anyone we ever worked with. He was into pinball, and he had a Phantom of the Opera in his office. He got into it and made a lot of really great suggestions for the game. Pinball is sort of like the ultimate bubble gum trading card, so producers and directors are pretty excited to have a pinball machine made about their property.

I notice many of the games you designed are based on Steven Spielberg's films. Is he a big pinball fan?

JK: Yes, Steven enjoys pinball, and he has many of our games. I've met Steven on several occasions, and I admire his talent tremendously. If I tell you I saw Jaws 100 times, then I've seen Close Encounters 200 times! I guess at one point in time I wanted to be a filmmaker, and I wound up making games, so I always look at the games as little mini-movies.

I also read that you made a custom pinball machine for Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver. What's the story behind that?

JK: We were working with Richard Donner, the director of the Lethal Weapon movies, and he did us a lot of favors in getting us that title and making it happen successfully. He wanted to give Joel a gift, and originally he was going to pay for it and handle the art. Somehow we ended up doing it as a favor (laughs), and he gave it to Joel as a Christmas present. We've done a few custom games... Aaron Spelling got one, which his wife, Candy, gave him as a Hanukkah gift one year. My wife ended up on Melrose Place as a result of that!

IGT has developed several slot machines based on movies and TV shows like Austin Powers, Creature from the Black Lagoon and I Dream of Jeannie. Is there a connection based on your history of designing movie- and TV-themed pinball machines?

JK:  I sort of have some influence on the designs that we're doing, and I try to set the pace of what we're going after. Right now, we're doing The Price is Right, Beetle Bailey and I Love Lucy.

What would you say is the attraction to a movie or TV slot?

JK: Well, think about a 60-year old female customer. In 1965, I Dream of Jeannie was on as a first-run show, and she was probably 25 years-old, raising her family. Her husband would come home, they'd have dinner and watch TV, and they were watching I Dream of Jeannie or The Munsters. Fast-forward 35 years and she's a 60-year old in a casino. When she sees a Jeannie or a Munsters slot machine, that's what she identifies with, those were her shows. And her kids identify with it because they watched the shows in reruns.

Have there been any slots that you wanted to do but couldn't get the rights to the property?

JK: Oh yeah, plenty. You go and ask for things and people decide they don't want to do a Norman Rockwell slot machine because Mr. Rockwell's foundation doesn't see the value in it, things like that. But all in all, most people that have a property look forward to putting it into the licensing community and taking the opportunity to succeed with it. It's all about making money.

Thanks for all the great info, Joe. Any final thoughts?

JK: I hope people that are out there playing pinball keep on playing. Keep it alive!