Date: 24th April, 2019

Hollywood’s Love Affair with Pinball

Consumers have limited disposable income, and for many people that money is spent on entertainment.

Ever since the first silent films graced the screens at small community movie houses, audiences have flocked to see Hollywood’s tales of good versus evil.

As the film industry continued to grow, the arcade gaming industry evolved out of rudimentary spring-launched games to create the modern pinball machines we know today. While it might seem as if both industries compete for the same dollars, they actually share a strong symbiotic relationship that dates back decades.

Here’s a look at how Hollywood and pinball manufacturers work together to provide hours of entertainment.

Gaming Tables at Movie Theaters
If you’ve ever spent time waiting for the doors to open for your movie’s showtime you might have noticed other entertainment options in the lobby. Video games are almost always present, but more often than not, it’s the pinball machines that gather a crowd. People of all ages enjoy the real mechanics and knowledge of physics it takes to dominate a table and earn a free play.

Pinball Machines in Movies Themselves
The machines in the lobby might not be the only pinball games you see when you visit the movie theater. Since this type of gaming has long been a part of popular culture, it’s only natural that film-makers have incorporated them into their work.

Paul Newman plays pinball in The Verdict
Paul Newman plays pinball in The Verdict

Here’s a glimpse at some of the most notable pinball appearances on the silver screen.

  1. The Verdict – Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman were both Hollywood heavy-hitters, and they teamed together in The Verdict, a legal drama from 1982. Pinball gets a starring role in the very beginning of the film, as Newman’s character starts the movie playing Disco Fever, a 1978 machine made by Williams.
  2. Dazed and Confused – Richard Linklater’s 1993 coming-of-age tale follows a group of teenagers as they enjoy their newfound summer freedom. One of the group’s favorite haunts is an arcade with pool tables and a wide assortment of pinball machines, some of which are being played or leaned on by main characters.
  3. Whip It – Drew Barrymore’s 2009 directorial debut features Ellen Page by-passing her mother’s wishes of pageant superstardom for a spot on the local roller derby team. In one scene, Page duels with her love interest on a 1977 Gottlieb Bronco machine
Numerous pinballs in this scene from Dazed and Confused
Numerous pinballs in this scene from Dazed and Confused

While these are a few notable appearances by pinball machines in movies, no film has done more for the industry than Tommy, the 1975 movie based on The Who’s 1969 experimental rock opera.

The story revolves around the titular character, a boy who was born without the ability to see, hear or speak. Despite his disabilities, Tommy is able to gain a cult following as a dominant force on the pinball scene,
defeating opponents using his “sense of smell.”

For the film adaptation, Roger Daltrey’s Tommy plays on a Gottlieb Kings & Queens machine as he challenges Elton John’s ‘Pinball Wizard’ character, who played on a Gottlieb Buckaroo table.

Elton John and Roger Daltry battle to be the true Pinball Wizard
Elton John and Roger Daltry battle to be the true Pinball Wizard

Many people credit this movie for helping to bring an end to Chicago’s ban on pinball machines, as the rise in the game’s popularity inspired bar owners to bring in illegal machines.

Nearly 20 years later, the musical got its own licensed table when Data East released their Tommy game in 1994.

Licensed Machines
One of the most obvious examples of Hollywood working with the pinball industry is the licensing of movie and television properties to create machines themed after popular titles.

While older machines had a hard time telling their story to gamers, licensed machines took advantage of existing themes and characters to immerse the player in the game’s familiar world.

Designs range from basic to elaborate, and it’s not uncommon to hear music and dialogue from the films incorporated into gameplay. Some of the
best-selling machines of all time feature elements taken from movies and television shows:

  1. The Addams Family – A year after the release of the 1991 film adaptation of the original television show, Midway’s licensed machine hit the market. With a wide range of objectives and sounds from the movie, this table went on to become the best-selling pinball machine of modern times with more than 20,000 units sold.
  2. Star Trek – More than a decade after the original run of shows went off the air, Bally released a machine themed after Gene Roddenberry’s science-fiction universe, which went on to sell nearly 17,000 units. While the machine was originally supposed to feature artwork inspired by the television show, it was quickly changed to reflect the redesigned uniforms sported by Captain Kirk and his crew for Star Trek: The Motion Picture which was also released in 1979.
  3. Twilight Zone – Nearly three decades after Rod Serling’s creepy television series left the airwaves, Midway created a pinball machine featuring various elements from the show. With more than 15,000 machines sold, it was a successful follow-up for the creators of The Addams Family.
  4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day – The continuation of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s science-fiction franchise broke box office records and it also took a place of honor on the list of best-selling pinball machines. With its gleaming metallic T-800 skull and unique gun-grip launching mechanism, arcades snapped this machine up to the tune of more than 15,000 units.
Successful movies which became successful pinballs
Successful movies which became successful pinballs

Looking Forward
With such a successful track record, it only makes sense for Hollywood’s relationship with pinball to continue, but it should be done with caution.

Like all consumers, gamers are always looking for the next great thing, so manufacturers should avoid repackaging existing machines with new artwork and sound effects. It’s also important to make licensing agreements carefully, since the negative connotation of a box office ‘bomb’ could be enough to sink a machine, even if it features superior elements and gameplay.

About the Author
Gene Goodman is vice president of M&P Amusement, a distributor of new and quality refurbished used arcade games and pinball machines since 1932, with headquarters in York, Pennsylvania.

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  1. jean-pierre cuvier

    28th April, 2019 at 6:28pm

    my english is bad , i am sorry
    the movie of Raoul Walsh with humphrey bogart THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT show the playfield of a pre-war pin.
    this playfied own bumpers ACTIVE by magnets… Bogart play…


  2. Dan Miller

    28th April, 2019 at 10:07pm

    A small point… While there was a TZ movie in 1983, the pinball machine is clearly dedicated to the TV show.


  3. J. Weaver Jr.

    31st May, 2019 at 2:41pm

    Minor correction regarding “Tommy”: he was not “born without the ability to see, hear or speak”, but was traumatized as a child.

    Well before DE’s “Tommy”, there was Bally’s “Wizard!” (1975), also inspired by the movie and featuring Roger Daltry and Ann-Margret on the backglass.


  4. Andrew Moskos

    29th June, 2019 at 1:29pm

    Of course there was the famous Jodie Foster Accused scene. I didn’t know the details of the attack to come, but when she entered the bar I immediately noticed the fake pinball machine. That’s interesting, I thought, why not just use a real pinball machine?

    Later The rape scene cleared up that question. It was like when people board a plane from Freedom Sky Airlines, you know it’s not going to be a smooth flight.


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