Tetris movie: Inside the great game business deal of all time | Maya Rogers interview
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Maya Rogers, CEO of the Tetris Company, told me that the Tetris film is really about the story of the greatest business development deal of all time.
Naturally, she’s a little biased. After all, her father was the pushy guy who saw the potential of Tetris, sneaked his way into Nintendo to get a meeting with its CEO, and tracked down the rights in the Soviet Union to an obscure agency and a programmer named Alexey Pajitnov.
The film debuted in a premiere at South By Southwest show in Austin, Texas, and it will get a special showing next week at the Game Developers Conference. Tetris, directed by Jon S. Baird, is a biopic work of fiction that captures the essence of the deal — oh, and that car chase in the Soviet Union didn’t really happen.
The movie is about how Henk Rogers, Maya’s father, tracked down the creator of Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov, back in the 1980s and secured the rights to the block-stacking game for Nintendo. There are some Hollywood embellishments to the story, but it tells the story of what it was like to go inside the communist regime of the Soviet Union and emerge with a contract of all contracts for the game rights.
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Maya Rogers said her father and Pajitnov are still great friends and business partners to this day. I talked with her at the recent Dice Summit. I’ve watched the film and I’ll give my impressions later this week. But it was hoot to see characters on the silver screen that I’ve met in real life.
The show will be on Apple TV+ on March 31.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Can you tell me about the Tetris movie?
Maya Rogers: Yes, it’s a biopic. It comes out on March 31 on AppleTV+. It’s the story of Henk Rogers going to the Soviet Union and securing the rights to Tetris. It’s really the story of Henk, of Nintendo and the Game Boy, and of course based on the premise of his friendship with Alexey Pajitnov. We’re super excited. Somebody mentioned to me that this is the first story going behind the scenes with the people that make this happen. It’s not a made-up story. It’s what really happens in the game industry. Most people don’t realize how crazy the Tetris story was, this game coming out of a Communist country.
Henk’s character is played by Taron Egerton, who’s a wonderful actor. I’m in the movie as well, as my 10-year-old self, a little Japanese girl, and so is my mother. It’s also a celebration of Asian representation, with Japanese-speaking actors in the lead. It’s a story that transcends cultural barriers. It’s interesting given what’s happening in Russia today. This story is about the human connection and how Henk and Alexey came together around their love for video games. It’s about the common language spoken by games.
GamesBeat: How did that get started?
Rogers: It was kind of a crazy beginning. Previously we had a deal that was in the works, but it never came to fruition. When that happened there was word out there that we were doing a Tetris movie. A famous director said, “I want to make the Tetris movie.” I got connected with that director because he had said something publicly. That relationship didn’t work out. But from the beginning we were involved, from the script stages and hiring the writers. The script that was created was so good. So many things happened. Things were delayed. But eventually it got picked up by Matthew Vaughn, who directed the Kingsman series, a very famous British director. He fell in love with the script. Then he got connected with Apple.
GamesBeat: Was it always envisioned more as historical fiction, a biopic, as opposed to pure fiction?
Rogers: It was always going to be a biopic, yes. It was kind of like Argo or The Social Network, something with a bit of seriousness to it, based on a true story. Henk and Alexey lived through it. As they were retelling the story, they said, “Our story was even more interesting than what we’re trying to create as the Hollywood version.” Of course there are some embellishments on what happened, but most of it happened. People will probably watch the movie thinking there’s no way this happened, but these things really did happen back in the day. We’re super excited.
We got to see the film back in October for the first time. Henk was in tears. It’s a family story, our family legacy. And, again, going back to what Tetris has become today, people don’t know about the story was, how this game came to be.
GamesBeat: I guess the crazier thing to me was that you got the rights back, and you could share the money with Alexey. I forget how long that took.
Rogers: I think it was in 1996 when they got the rights back, so he could get paid directly from the Tetris proceeds. They’re now co-owners of the IP. But again, this goes back to the handshake friendship they had. This is why they’re still partners today. They completely trust each other when it comes to everything that happens to the IP.
GamesBeat: It’s an amazing non-fiction story. Does the movie get that far into the story, or does it conclude at some point earlier in time?
Rogers: It basically ends with Alexey getting the rights back, yes. It’s that era. Only the beginning. It starts off with Henk discovering Tetris at CES, because it was already published by Spectrum Holobyte. It’s also the story of Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln and Henk Rogers going in to really secure the rights from the Soviet Union. There’s a little bit of spy fiction in there. There’s no car chase that really happened. That’s the Hollywood part. It was an interesting time, because it was right when the Soviet Union was collapsing. All these pieces were falling into place.
GamesBeat: How many years did this wind up taking, making the film?
Rogers: I’d have to look back, but I think it took six years. It’s not as long as people probably expect.
GamesBeat: Did it start with Apple, or did it bounce around a bit?
Rogers: Yes, it bounced around from a few companies.
GamesBeat: It’s funny how it’s landing at a time when this whole trend is a big deal now. We have The Last of Us on HBO and the Super Mario movie coming soon.
Rogers: The movie was shot during the height of the pandemic. January 2020, everything was shut down. Originally it was going to be shot in Moscow. Then it was going to be shot in Berlin. But in the end they shot it in Scotland, because they found out that the same architect that had built a lot of buildings in Moscow had worked in Scotland. The same buildings are there. It worked out in terms of shooting the film there. Unfortunately we weren’t able to go there, because the only way to get there was by train from London. It was super cold, and you had all the restrictions. They had do some reshoots as well, as most movies do, and that took a bit longer than expected. So really, it began in January 2020, and it should have come out in 2021, but the reshoots only happened last year. Now it’s coming here in 2023.
GamesBeat: Did you have any control over things like the facts used in the script?
Rogers: Absolutely, yes. From the beginning we were involved with choosing the writer, Noah Pink. He wrote his draft, and then Henk and Alexey guided him throughout the script. The Tetris Company also provided the facts. We were definitely involved in every step. We approved the script and the actors.
GamesBeat: How will it be released beyond the premiere?
Rogers: We’re premiering officially at SXSW on March 15. Then we’re doing a showing at GDC for the gaming community, so they can all celebrate. Then it’ll finally release on Apple+ on March 31.
GamesBeat: Now that the movie is complete, what’s Henk up to now?
Rogers: I think the question is more like, “What is he not up to?” He’s really going after his mission to save the world from climate change. He’s working on the Blue Planet Alliance, bringing all these non-profits together around sustainability to try to change the world. He’s on that mission now, making the world a better place, a livable place, so the Earth doesn’t die.
GamesBeat: I should talk to him about that one day. There are some things coming out of the metaverse topic that might be interesting. Are he and Alexey still working together?
Rogers: They’re absolutely still doing things together. The pandemic put a damper on things, obviously, but every year they get together and travel.
GamesBeat: And what’s the latest from the Tetris Company otherwise?
Rogers: We’re working on the new mobile game that will be launching at the end of March. That’s our biggest thing. We just launched the Game Boy emulator on the Nintendo Switch. That will be fun. I’m sure people are going to want to play when the movie comes out. We don’t have any other major games coming, like for consoles. But we’re also working on an homage to Alexey’s original Tetris game.
GamesBeat: It’s still a strong IP in general.
Rogers: Very strong, yes. Of course we’re also doing other things like fashion and lifestyle goods, and entertainment now as well. It’s been really neat to see the reaction on YouTube, all the millions of viewers from the trailer. But then of course the gaming press–the IGN video had more than 4 million views. It’s so nice to see that the gaming community is behind the story. Everybody knows the brand so well. It’s been exciting to see that, all the support and feedback we’ve received.
GamesBeat: The interesting thing people are saying about this whole resurgence of Hollywood and games–the barriers aren’t as big anymore. People in both industries understand each other better now. They all grew up in each other’s worlds.
Rogers: They’re complementary, right? It’s all entertainment. To what I said earlier, this is the first movie going behind the scenes of gaming, what it takes to get a game out into the world. I think people are excited to see that. The DICE folks that do the day to day work to make these amazing games come to life, it’s great to know that people are going to see what they do.
GamesBeat: It’s almost a business development story.
Rogers: Yeah! With a crazy entrepreneur. That’s what it takes, right? It’s almost surreal, because we’re so close to the whole thing. Of course we enjoyed the film, but we’re a little bit biased. We thought it was great, but we’ve also gotten so much great feedback. I can confidently say it’s going to be a good movie.
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