Date: 2nd May 2016

Report and photographs by Chris Frolic

It’s not every day a new pinball related documentary gets a world premiere at a major film festival, but here we are in Toronto at the premiere of Wizard Mode, featuring 2016 PAPA World Champion Robert Gagno.

The poster for Wizard Mode
The poster for Wizard Mode

It is a featured movie at HotDocs, North America’s largest documentary film festival. The 2015 edition had attendance of over 200,000; the 2016 edition has 232 films playing at 11 participating theatres over the 11 day run of the festival.

The Toronto skyline
The Toronto skyline

Toronto is Canada’s largest city with over 2.6 million residents, and 5 million people in the Greater Toronto area. It is the fourth most populous city in North America, after Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles.

Toronto was once famously described as “New York, run by the Swiss”, which is a descriptor most here wouldn’t argue with. It’s a large city of distinct neighborhoods, with a very diverse immigrant population and a thriving and vibrant downtown area, as well as being a home to many cultural attractions and festivals. It regularly places on the top 10 lists of most livable cities in the world.

The Toronto area is also home to several pinball leagues, in and out of the city.

Robert is Canadian but based in the other side of Canada, 3,300 kilometers (2,100 miles) away in Vancouver. I was aware of Robert, seeing the little Canadian flag on his name at the top of the IFPA rankings, but knew nothing else about him and had never met him at any pinball tournaments.

The past year or so there was an awareness of this documentary as they worked on it, bringing to light Robert’s autism. As a parent of two sons on the spectrum myself, Robert’s story hit us close to home and some of his challenges were ones that we were already familiar with from within our own family.

Robert has been a known competitor within the pinball world for several years, and it seems most treat his autism with a collective shrug. Competitors treat him just as another player, albeit an exceptional one.

The timing of his PAPA World Championship in 2016 couldn’t have been better, with the release of the movie only a month later.

The movie promises to be more than a pinball documentary; it’s more a human interest story about the challenges Robert and his family have faced, while he’s obviously gone on to achieve great things in his passionate pursuit.

Robert visits Frolic’s Arcade

The day before the movie premiere, just after Robert, his dad Maurizio, and the film crew arrived in Toronto, they made a friendly visit to Frolic’s Arcade to play some pinball and loosen-up a bit before the heavy week of film promotion and work that lay ahead.

Behind this unassuming residential door is a very exclusive place
Behind this unassuming residential door is a very exclusive place

Frolic's Arcade
Inside Frolic's Arcade

The arcade is also home to the Toronto Pinball Vixens, a monthly league open to 'non-dudes' (women and people who don’t identify as men) as a way to promote pinball beyond the usual demographic.

Frolic’s has a collection of mostly new-release pinballs, including many of the latest LEs like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, as well as Heighway’s Full Throttle and the Medieval Madness remake.

As the movie premiere approached, Robert and his father, Maurizio, were invited to visit Frolic’s Arcade during their visit to Toronto. There’s nothing like a little pinball socializing and camaraderie when visiting a new city! They were joined on their visit by the film makers, Jeff Petry and Nathan Drillot, and the editor of Wizard Mode, Greg Ng.

From left to right: Nathan Drillot, Greg Ng, Robert Gagno, Maurizio Gagno, Robin Frolic, Connor Frolic, Jeff Petry, Gavin Frolic, Chris Frolic
From left to right: Nathan Drillot, Greg Ng, Robert Gagno, Maurizio Gagno,
Robin Frolic, Connor Frolic, Jeff Petry, Gavin Frolic, Chris Frolic

It was a casual fun visit, joined by a few local pinball collectors. Also in attendance were Gavin and Connor Frolic, two young fans of Robert’s, who were thrilled to meet the first famous person they’d ever met in real life.

Nathan was happy to play on some mint machines and recounted their difficulty with getting additional footage of pinball for the movie to match scenes from competition. A Tales from the Crypt was featured in the film, and the only one anywhere near Vancouver they could find was a sad one on location that seemed to have had zero maintenance during its entire life. It made recreating shots from the movie difficult when the flippers didn’t even have enough power to get the ball up a ramp.

The entire crew had just flown in from Vancouver the previous night so they were all feeling a little jet-lagged, as well as knowing a tough week of screenings and media awaited them. In light of that it was nice that they were able to make time to come visit the arcade and relax.

During their visit the initial seat sale information came in regarding the upcoming premiere show; over 200 tickets had been sold so far. That put their minds at ease, since as new film makers they’d been worried about a potentially empty theatre and no one caring about the movie.

Robert was able to demonstrate some of his top skills to the young players, who were duly impressed. He set five grand champion scores on the machines, which considering how many good players visit Frolic’s is no simple achievement.

Maurizio commented that he liked many of the décor decisions of Frolic’s, including the full wall mirror creating an illusion of the arcade being double in size. He now hopes to do the same thing in his home arcade later on.

Robert doubled the GC score on this Mustang, then drained his last two balls so he could try some of the other games
Robert doubled the GC score on this Mustang, then drained his last two balls
so he could try some of the other games

Maurizio commented that he was looking forward to the premiere the next day, as both he and Robert had not seen the film and would be watching it for the first time with the entire audience.

When asked whether it was nerve-racking to see their personal lives on screen, Maurizio responded that he was happy to help other families and promote awareness of autism.

Premiere Night

Wizard Mode was playing at the ScotiaBank Theatre in downtown Toronto, which is one of the largest theatres in Toronto.

The ScotiaBank Theatre
The ScotiaBank Theatre

There is an infamous “escalator of death” that brings you to the screens
There is an infamous 'escalator of death' that brings you to the screens

Robert was hanging out at the top, welcoming people as they entered and taking photos with fans.

Robert tempts fate at the top of the escalator
Robert tempts fate at the top of the escalator

The movie was playing in a large 350-seat screen, and happened to be the same screen where I’d recently seen Star Wars. By a casual head-count, the theatre was approximately 80% full. The filmmakers were very happy with the turnout, especially since this was their first feature film at HotDocs and a whole new experience for them.

Many local pinball fans were visible in the audience, wearing various pinball T-shirts to show their connection. However, the vast majority in attendance were clearly a general movie audience, demonstrating the transcendental interest of Robert’s story with a wider audience, far beyond regular pinball people.

During the the movie, which is 1 hour and 41 minutes long, they visit multiple large competitions, including several years of PAPA and Pinburgh, as well as California Extreme.

The portrayal of competitive pinball is very flattering and serious. It shows the competitions as being well organized and attended, and puts a lot of weight on the story of Robert’s pursuit to be a champion. Many of the top names and competitors we’re familiar with in the world of competitive pinball are featured in the movie.

A lot of footage from the PAPA.tv broadcasts is shown, including commentary from people like Bowen Kerins. For those that are part of competitive pinball and have seen the strides it has taken in growth as well as execution, the movie is an affirmation of all that work and effort.

Those of us aware of Robert’s success in pinball have an outsiders view and knowledge of his performance, but the movie really lets you in on how much difficulty Robert has had trying to manage his frustrations when things don’t go the way he wants. It really takes a toll on him, and is something he continues to try and work through.

As a pinhead watching the movie, knowing Robert’s eventual success in competitive pinball, it removed a little of the uneasiness I would have experienced watching Robert try and come short at multiple events.

The movie was technically very professionally produced. All aspects such as editing, music, and titles are very polished, matching any well-made documentary. The film also does a fair bit of travelling to different cities, and overall has a large feel to it.

There’s a fair bit of levity, mostly from Robert’s whimsical nature, and sometimes the filmmakers have a little fun with a title graphic or edit.

As much as we will talk about the pinball part of the story, that side of it is actually the smaller story compared to Robert trying to compete and win at life itself. His family is very brave opening up their story for the world to see. Robert is the narrator of the movie, featuring his first-person thoughts about how he’s feeling and what he’s going through.

We’re along on the journey as he continues to strive for independence, which is something he really wants but it isn’t coming easy. Things like going on a grocery trip and preparing dinner are life skills he’s working on.

There is a very cute segment of the movie where Robert explains his difficulty in managing hugs. He likes them, but has to learn about when it is appropriate to give and receive hugs, and whom he should be giving them to or receiving them from. Turns out he has spent months researching hugs and is now a hug expert.

We watch as Robert looks for and finds work, experiencing earning his first paycheque and being around an office and employees.

Maurizio has been Robert’s safety net for much of his travelling and competitions, but during an interesting segment of the movie Robert travels to Pittsburgh alone to compete at PAPA and has to learn to manage to not have that immediate support around him. Sometimes he turns to players next to him for affirmation or discussion of his game, only to find out they weren’t paying attention, basically leaving him on his own.

That is not a negative towards any of those people; it was clear this was a valuable lesson that Robert will have to continue to learn, about independence and relying on himself.

Robert also discusses other hopes and aspirations he has, much like any of us, to maybe get married and have a family of his own, to have a driver’s license, and more than anything to just be out there in the world to live on his own.

Robert’s PAPA World Championship win was hastily edited into the final edit of the movie. Apparently some screener DVDs of the movie were sent out before the PAPA win and are missing that element of his story, but the final theatrical version includes footage from PAPA 2016, and it will be on all digital versions of the film.

The filmmakers told me afterward that it was kind of good that Robert didn’t win any large championships while they were filming, as that might have steered the movie more into a straightforward pinball documentary. Because they didn’t have their happy ending at the time, the movie became more about Robert’s challenges and victories in his personal life. The PAPA championship in the end almost becomes an addendum to the personal growth he has worked on over the run of the movie.

When the credits rolled there was a lengthy audience applause, and a few funny bits were thrown in at the end of Robert wrestling with an album title’s play on words. You’ll also want to check your ears to make sure you’re hearing the lyrics of Pinball Wizard properly at the end as the titles roll.

As the lights came on, Jeff and Nathan came back on stage and introduced their special guests that were in the audience, Robert and Maurizio.

The audience watching the film

They then did a brief Q&A segment. Funnily enough, someone brought up Mustang pinball while asking Robert if he liked the game, which led to Maurizio recounting how the day previous Robert had doubled the grand champion score on the Mustang at “a friend’s arcade”, and then drained his last two balls so he could go play something else. You can tell Maurizio will never tire of watching his son’s exceptional pinball playing.

Maurizio got a little emotional answering a question about the biggest misconception people have about Robert.

Jeff and Nathan asked the audience to please vote for Wizard Mode for the HotDocs Audience Award, as it will help raise awareness for the movie and open up more markets for it. Audience members voted by tearing their ticket along a 1 to 5 number and deposited it in a box on the way out.

The Q&A ended as the screen was booked for another movie, so the audience left the theatre. The film makers, Robert, and Maurizio hung out in the lobby posing for photos, as well as signing some posters.

Robert signs some Wizard Mode posters
Robert signs some Wizard Mode posters

After the crowd dispersed, the film makers made their way to an after party at a nearby establishment called Handle Bar. The Google listing describes it as a “Buzzing lounge with a hipster vibe”.

Handle Bar
Handle Bar

Handle Bar is a small bar, but in keeping with the theme of the movie, had a couple of pinballs.

Jungle Lord
Jungle Lord...

...and a White Water
...and a White Water

Robert and Maurizio decided it was a long enough day and they were unable to attend, but the film makers were there, happy to relax now that their movie is out in the world.

Nathan commented to me that it meant a lot to him to see so many pinball T-shirts in the audience and receive that support from the local community. Jeff agreed that seeing an open and welcoming pinball community was a common thread in every city that they visited, and he was really impressed with the hobby and the people in it.

Wizard Mode will play two more times as part of HotDocs, including a 'sensory screening' for people that have difficulty with movie theatres, so the sound will be quieter and the lights left on. This special screening is being put on with the help of a local autism group, Autism Ontario.

Maurizio was looking forward to doing some more tourist things with Robert over the week beyond their movie obligations. They had already enjoyed some of the restaurants and attractions like the CN Tower. I’m sure some more pinball will be squeezed in as well.

After HotDocs the crew are headed back to Vancouver for the west coast premiere of the movie, which is already sold out.

Besides some additional theatrical dates in Canada, the movie is available right now as a pay-per-view digital download through Vimeo, one of the film’s benefactors.

You can access the digital download page here.

That concludes our coverage of the Wizard Mode premiere. Congratulations to all those involved, it is a great human story worthy of attention, and a great pinball story highlighting the growing competitive pinball scene.

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