This summer, Rob Imbs will start filming his second low-budget movie about the subculture of professional video gaming, friendship and obsession in the old Payne Avenue middle school building.
It is one of a series of career stops that has made Western New York a good place to incubate an uncertain, expensive and alluring ambition.
"Personally, my goal is just to make a film that I'm proud of and that's good and that the actors and everyone involved with the film are proud of," said Imbs, 31, a 2003 University at Buffalo graduate and a media studies major. "That's how I determine success."
A Getzville native, Imbs says his childhood of five-hour days of video game playing were often interrupted by his mother trying to get him to stop and go outside.
He has since turned his obsession into a script, and he will spend the month of August shooting "Game Changers" in the old Lowry Middle School.
It is a coming-of-age story about two boys and how their friendship changes as they become successful professional gamers.
He chose North Tonawanda as his location because a friend, with a controversial role in the local film community, has offices at the old school and will let Imbs use the space: William Cowell is president of the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, which has been criticized in the past for associating its name with movie stars who are not involved and charging high promotional fees.
While Imbs is on the festival's board, he said he has been working to distance himself from Cowell's poor record.
"His business reputation is not my reputation," said Imbs, whose day job is as a network administrator at UB Neurosurgery, a private practice of neurosurgeons.
Imbs would rather focus on his passion for making movies.
"I guess a young kid's dream is, 'I want to grow up and make movies,' " he said. "I'd been kind of poking around with making short videos and poking around with a video camera. I said, 'OK. Let's do this. Let's see what I can actually do in this field.' "
>How did you get started at UB?
My sophomore year we did a full movie on VHS. That was called "Parole Violations." We grew up watching these '80s cop action movies. We're kids in our late teens, early 20s, we're making a movie about national drug syndications. It was, "Can we make a full movie?" That was the first time when I saw how you can edit video. That's when I fell in love with being an editor.
I founded SATV, which is the Student Association Television network. And it's still there today.
We were the first people on the network that actually did a show that was kind of similar to "The Daily Show." It was a news show about events on campus. We were not serious people. We made it very comedic. We had comedy skits within the show.
It taught me how to meet deadlines. We had to have a new show every two weeks. We shot, we edited, we were the on-air personalities. It was a tremendous amount of work to bring something from an idea to a finished product in a very short amount of time. I don't know if I work that hard anymore.
>And after graduation?
I quickly realized that whatever notoriety I may have had on campus faded away. I took a job selling computers at Comp USA, which is no longer around.
I met Bill Cowell. He was doing a movie in North Tonawanda called "The Maize." That was in 2004. It was a thriller of young girls who were kind of murdered inside the corn maize on Niagara Falls Boulevard.
I was brought on as editor. I was really just looking for an opportunity to do anything. I took that job and got to know Bill quite well.
We both founded the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. We get submissions from people all over the world. It's been running for at least four years now. It's getting bigger and bigger with more support locally. I'm not really associated with the festival anymore. It's gone on to become its own thing.
>Then you made a movie in 2008 called "Couch"?
It was a success for me because we had an almost sellout crowd when it opened at the Market Arcade. It managed to get distribution in Russia.
It gave me the confidence ultimately to want to write and direct again. I had been on many sets with different local filmmakers. It had always been frustrating that I didn't have control of the set.
>What was it about?
Couch was about a group of college roommates who stay home one night and pick each others' lives apart. It was kind of an homage to films in that vein.
It was about 80 minutes long. That was another thing I learned: You need a 100-page script, because generally, a page equates to a minute.
>I didn't know there was such a thing as "professional gamers."
Most people don't. Actually that's why we're making the movie. In the United States, there's a professional gaming league called Major League Gaming. I've kind of been aware of them for the last five or six years. Every year, they get bigger and bigger. A lot of these top people in the gaming world, they train all day at games like StarCraft II and Halo.
They get sponsored by big companies. Red Bull sponsors players. These competitions pay out over $100,000. There's teenagers making over $100,000 a year.
>So you were into these games?
I had to quit gaming actually because it was getting in the way of filmmaking. I have great parents. My mother would always say, "Go outside and play," and I would be in the basement playing games with my friends. I have that personality, and I would become obsessed. There's a lot of people out there like that who are obsessive.
>If you had a kid who played for five or six hours a day, would you be worried?
As long as I felt as though my child was socially adept and was healthy. I'd really have to monitor it more than anything. My first impulse wouldn't be to stop my son or my daughter from playing games. It wouldn't be a big deal to me.
If it was interferring with their abilty to lead a healthy life, I would intervene because I've been there.
I've played games to the point of it being unhealthy. I've had to come to terms with managing that myself.
>What was that like?
You get behind in life. You put all of your responsibilities aside to feed that interest in playing games.
>What did you do?
It is a constant battle. As someone who is just an obsessive personality, like myself, it is an addiction. You try to lead a more mature life. I quit cold turkey.
I quit playing all games because I couldn't handle the temptation.
It's easy for me to write about this. There is a large group of people my age who grew up in a generation of games. I think we were really the first generation that was exposed to video games in the home.
And so that's why I feel confident that there is a market out there. I really do believe, especially with Major League Gaming, there's a group of aging gamers out there that are my demographic.
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