by Stacy Wiedmaier
Northland lawyer and Tiffany Springs resident Steve Sanders sits enveloped in leather cushions in his living room on a recent Friday afternoon wearing a flowered, teal Hawaiian shirt. He explains how he’s come home early from the office to meet a cameraman from KSHB 41 to film him for the KC Live show as he rewinds a DVD of the syndicated movie review television show, “Ebert & Roeper.”
“They hated all five of them but ours,” he says smiling. “Check this out, it’s unbelievable.”
Sanders, 43, plays himself in a newly released documentary highlighting classic video arcade fans as they compete to break world records in the Nintendo game “Donkey Kong.”
The acclaimed documentary, titled “The King of Kong: A fistful of Quarters,” follows two avid gamers “engaged in a cross-country duel to see who could set the high score that would be included in the Guinness World Record book and become the ‘King of Kong.’”
Featured in four film festivals across the country since January, “Kong” was meant to be a limited release documentary to 25 cities. After Aug. 17 premiers on both coasts, it played in four theatres. But it is now featured in 30 theatres after only two weeks, with more than 30 more expected by late November.
Receiving five stars and thumbs-up reviews across the board, critics are demanding the “Kong” documentary receive Oscar nominations and referring to it as, “a miniature masterpiece and human epic.”
Robert Wilonsky of the Village Voice was featured on Sanders recorded version of Ebert &Roeper stating, “This is one of my favorite movies, it makes up for the whole year. It’s a funny, fascinating and intriguing story. It has real characters, genuine suspense and I just loved it.”
Film critic Richard Roeper describes the documentary as taking viewers, “into the seven circles of geekdom where players obsess over rivalries and record scores past their mid-30’s and beyond.”
Sanders embraces the “geekdom” title and has fun with it. He states he plays a secondary role to narrate the film and producer Ed Cunningham and director Seth Gordon shot him on camera in his law office for three days. The 90-minute, PG-13 film took 18 months to complete. Of the three times Sanders has viewed the film, audiences have given a standing ovation in theatres.
But how did a Northland attorney become involved with a Donkey Kong documentary where his face can be viewed on movie screens by people everywhere?
Sanders is a world record holder and avid gamer himself, previously acting as the team captain of a national video game team. His basement features arcade games like Pac Man and Donkey Kong. He was considered the authoritative source at age 17 on how to beat the game and even wrote a tell-all book on the subject.
“I hung up my gaming hat in 1983,” he says laughing. “I became involved in this because I used to be the ‘The King of Kong’ in 1982 during the golden age of arcade games. The early 80’s was when the whole boom started.”
As a senior in high school in 1981 he won a Pac Man competition in Lawrence, Kan. scoring 2.8 million points. As the world record holder, his friends told him to write a book spilling his secrets. He then decides he has nothing to lose and calls Bantam Books headquarters.
“I literally called them and asked to speak to their person in charge of video game books,” he says. “I was just a kid, what did I know? But then they actually connected me to someone! This man said someone was already writing a Pac Man book and ‘Was I an expert in anything else?’ So I mentioned Donkey Kong and he gave me a contract.”
Sanders was paid $5,000 to write the 83-page book titled, “The Video Masters Guide to Donkey Kong.” It sold 38,000 copies and is currently out of publication. If it had sold 40,000 or more copies, Sanders would have received another paycheck. The subtitle of the book read, “Now a champion reveals tricks and twists to boost your score. You’ll go ape!”
An arcade owner named Walter Day had proclaimed himself “The world record score center,” where he informed Sanders his 175,000 Donkey Kong score was the unofficial world record, making him the authoratative source to write a book.
He was later the team captain of a national traveling video game team with 12 members. As one of the first set of professional players in the 1980’s, Sanders said they made no money. They also did not wear matching outfits to tournaments.
Sanders later graduated college, married his wife Nancy and had four boys ranging in age from 3 to 14 years. Now working as an attorney in The Law Offices of Steve Sanders, of counsel with Gunn, Shank & Stover, he was approached in 2004 when the “Kong” documentary was launched.
“The 1980’s retro craze was back and I was told a classic arcade gaming documentary was being made,” he says. “I had this 15 minutes of fame in 1982 and now it’s back somehow. I’m totally blown away by this whole thing, it’s been a surreal trip. Even though the film obviously isn’t about me, it’s still great to have even a small part.”
Although Sanders does not play a starring role in the film, word soon got out his son does. Isaiah, a freshman at Platte County R-3 High School in Platte City, had a short cameo while crews were filming at their family home.
“If you blink, you’ll miss me,” Isaiah says shaking his head. “Dad called my principal and told him about all this. During announcements today I heard “Isaiah Sanders has a starring role in the upcoming documentary The King of Kong. It was a little embarassing. He didn’t have to do that!”
The story goes that a top film executive of New Line Cinema, Richard Brener, enjoyed “Kong” so much he viewed it more than 20 times in his office suite. New Line Cinema owns Picturehouse, their independent film bureau who distributes “Kong.” Brener has also optioned the rights to remake this documentary into a scripted film.
The man marketing this documentary, Bob Berney, was behind such past success stories as “The Passion of the Christ” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” The “Kong” documentary has also jumpstarted director Seth Gordon’s career who is under contract to direct a Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn comedy.
If this film receives Oscar nods like critics are pulling for, maybe two men in the Sander’s family will see their movie career catapulted straight to Hollywood.
You can view “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” at The AMC Studio in Olathe at 119th and Strangline. The film also comes to Liberty Hall Sept. 14.