In April of this year, Caine’s Arcade became a viral phenomenon; Nirvan Mullick’s short film has so far gathered almost 3 million views on YouTube and more than that on Vimeo. It seemed that everyone was fascinated by the story of the inventive 9-year-old and his cardboard arcade. I got Mullick on the phone for a short conversation to follow up on what’s happened with Caine and his arcade since the story broke.
Jim MacQuarrie: I thought we should do a follow-up since I know there have been a lot of appearances and awards; can you tell me about some of those?
Nirvan Mullick: Caine spoke at the USC Marshall School of Business; the youngest entrepreneur ever to speak there, a lot of well-known entrepreneurs have preceded him. He went up to Sacramento and got the Latino Spirit Award. His arcade was taken up to the Exploratorium in San Francisco; he also went up to the Maker Faire and led a workshop with kids, teaching kids how to make their own cardboard games. And we’ve started a foundation, the Caine’s Arcade Imagination Foundation.
MacQuarrie: When I visited Caine’s Arcade, there were an awful lot of people coming up to George (Caine’s dad), all kinds of Hollywood types, all trying to get their hands on something; are you policing that?
Mullick: We’re working together with that, and I’m working with an agency now, and we’re sorting that out.
MacQuarrie: That’s good. It’s nice to be getting all this attention, but I know there are a lot of predatory people in the industry.
Mullick: There is an incredible number of sharks, but fortunately this story is so positive that it’s repulsed most of them.
MacQuarrie: It’s a self-selecting crowd.
Mullick: So far, so good.
MacQuarrie: I did get to talk to George for a few minutes that day, and I was really impressed by his demeanor and the way he was dealing with everything. At one point, somebody came over to where the ice chest was, and asked how much the sodas were, and he said they’re free, take one. The guy looked at him like he was crazy and said “why aren’t you charging? You could make a killing!” And George just looked at him as if he were the stupidest man in the world and said “how can I charge people when they’re doing all this for my son?” I turned to him and said, “We need a hundred more like you.”
Mullick: I’m really glad to hear that; that’s George entirely, and I think he’s shared that with Caine; when Caine approaches his business, he’s trying to make people happy. That’s their approach. People have been so generous to Caine, everyone has just been overwhelmed by it. George has been moved to tears by it; I’ve been moved to tears; a lot of people have been crying and smiling. The world’s opened up its heart to this little kid, and nobody’s going to charge movie prices for a soda. People have sent this kid to college if he wants to go, and we’re going to pay it forward and keep it a happy story.”
MacQuarrie: I noticed that it seems the whole neighborhood has embraced it; all the shops on the street had people out selling chicken or musicians playing, it seemed like the whole town has turned into a festival; I wonder if you can speak to that?
Mullick: We’ve had a few other events; every weekend that the arcade is open has been super-fun. I try to go as often as I can. It’s like the Mecca of Childhood going there; kids come and they bring games that they’ve made and they share them with Caine; parents come, it’s a great place to hang out and be inspired. The neighbors, neighboring businesses, they’ve all seen Caine grow up; since he was four years old, he’s been coming to his dad’s auto parts store; everybody’s just super proud of Caine and the light he’s shined on the neighborhood. It’s a great neighborhood.
MacQuarrie: It is. I actually need to get over there and get my windshield repaired next door.
Mullick: You’ll get a good deal. That’s how I started going down there; my car would get broken into, I’d go get a piece of used glass; you get the best price you can find there.
MacQuarrie: I haven’t heard a whole lot about Caine’s mom in all of this; can you tell me a little about her?
Mullick: Well, she doesn’t work at the auto parts store. It was just a short film about Caine’s summer with his dad, so she wasn’t in the film. She’s gone to some of the events; she was at the Maker Faire with Caine, she went to Sacramento with him to get the Spirit Award, she’s super proud.
MacQuarrie: That’s great. I was just curious because in all the articles that I’ve seen, it’s just Caine and Dad, and nobody’s asked. So I asked.
Mullick: It think that’s just that the short film can only tell so much.
MacQuarrie: The other thought I had was, being an old guy, when I was a kid, we had a lot of time to do stuff like what Caine’s doing; do you think there would be more kids doing this sort of thing if they weren’t so over-programmed with activities, parents running them from one activity to another?
Mullick: I’ve read about of that in some of the online discussions; I’m not a parent yet, so it’s hard for me to speculate, but I certainly would advocate for a certain amount of free time for kids to figure out. You know, make it themselves, and not always have a tight schedule, I think having free time where you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do is important for any form of creativity; for myself as a filmmaker, just giving myself some unstructured time or unstructured projects; you always end up filling that time that you give yourself with something you wouldn’t have come up with if it had been preassigned that you have to do this during this time. So I think having that kind of time is an important part of being innovative and creative.
MacQuarrie: Last year, before Christmas, we ran an article called “The 5 Best Toys of All Time,” and the toys were a cardboard box, a stick, dirt, a cardboard tube, and string, with the idea that these primitive, simple things feed the imagination in a way that prepackaged toys don’t. Do you think there will be a resurgence — Caine has gotten a lot of attention, and the idea has gotten a lot of attention, and we have things like Maker Faire — are people starting to move away from the idea of having everything done for them?
Mullick: I think there is clearly a growing community in the “maker” space, young makers, older makers, Burning Man makers, people who have grown up and are having kids who are younger makers; certainly through this project I’ve been exposed to a whole world of kids being inspired by Caine’s film to put down their XBox and pick up the cardboard box it came in and start building stuff. I’ve heard countless anecdotes of parents whose kids have seen this film and immediately started working on a project that had been sitting forgotten. That certainly brings a smile to my face.
MacQuarrie: That is a really great thing. Now, for you personally, this has kind of been a left turn in your career, hasn’t it?
Mullick: Left turn doesn’t even begin to describe it. More like if you could turn straight up and then launch yourself into space.
MacQuarrie: What does the future hold for you?
Mullick: It’s hard to say, but hopefully I’ll get to create projects that I love; I’m really excited about the foundation that we’re starting, and I see my role as helping to get that started and I look forward to passing that on to an experienced CEO who can run a foundation of this nature. There’s a lot of film and other stories, media related projects that I look forward to getting off the ground.
MacQuarrie: I saw the article about a matching grant; did you meet the requirement for that?
Mullick: We’re getting close. It’s matching dollar for dollar, we’re currently at $204,000 (note: since I spoke to Nirvan, the total has risen to $207,900), the target is $250,000. It’s a grant from the Goldhirsh Foundation; for every dollar being donated on cainesarcade.com for Caine’s scholarship fund, the Goldhirsh Foundation is matching it dollar for dollar for us to start the Caine’s Arcade Imagination Foundation, which will help find, foster, and fund creativity and entrepreneurship among kids.
MacQuarrie: is there a target date?
Mullick: No. We’re currently doing a beta-kind-of-pilot curriculum for schools, we have about 60 schools currently in six different countries that are building with cardboard, inspired by Caine, and the teachers are developing, collaboratively, a curriculum, based on these activities; we’ve got a wiki, and we’re just hashing it all out. The plan is to make a follow-up video, and a platform once school starts, to relaunch with the foundation and formally start growing it from there.
MacQuarrie: I saw that George had a heart attack.
Mullick: Yes, he had a heart attack, and he’s been recovering, and switching to a plant-based diet; he’s actually started a little blog on Facebook, called Smart Hearts Aftermarket, kind of a play on his parts store, which is Smart Parts Aftermarket. He’s lost 10 pounds and has been eating healthy, and we’re all really proud of him.
MacQuarrie: I’m glad he’s recovering; I saw the report when it happened and it was shocking.
Mullick: It was his first heart attack, and it was a major shock, it was really scary, and everybody’s just really grateful that it was caught in time.
MacQuarrie: Good. Like I said, we need a hundred more like him.
Mullick: Yeah, we don’t want to lose George. Not only is Caine inspiring people, but now George is starting to inspire people; they’re taking this diet pledge with him, and making lifestyle changes so they can stick around and be there for their kids.
MacQuarrie: What is George like as a dad? When I was talking to him, he said his dad would have killed him if he used up all the packing tape; is that just George’s personality? Did he help Caine build any of this stuff, give him advice, or show him how to do stuff, or did Caine just figure it out on his own?
Mullick: I don’t think George showed him how to build any of the games; I think George gave him space in his store, and it would keep growing; when Caine would say, hey dad, I need prizes, he would take him to the Dollar Store, and they would pick out prizes together; when he said, I want a cash register, George called up a friend and they got one from another junk shop; so he was definitely helping to power his son’s imagination. At the same time, when Caine said, can I tear down this wall and put a bowling alley on the side of the junkyard, he said no; when he said, I want to get a billboard for my arcade, he said “Now hold on, those things are pretty expensive!” When Caine said, I want a claw machine, he said “Why don’t you just build it?”
I know that George was initially embarrassed by the arcade; he was there to sell auto parts, and people would come in and Caine would ask them for a nickel and try to get them to play a game, and George was a little bit embarrassed, wasn’t sure what customers would think, but he didn’t let that interfere; his son still came first. It’s been a good story in terms of giving your kid space and encouragement. One of the most gratifying things that I’ve heard are comments of parents after watching this film, saying “I used to tell my kids to clean up after themselves, to clean up their art projects right away, and now I’m giving them a little more room.” To me, that’s a tangible change; in some small way, this film has made a difference.
MacQuarrie: It’s a very moving, very powerful film; have you gotten other film offers?
Mullick: I have; people want to know about the feature film for this project, and we’re putting that together. I’ve got a couple of scripts and projects that I’d been working on before, Doors are being opened. It’s been a pretty amazing experience for me.
MacQuarrie: It couldn’t happen to nicer people.
MacQuarrie: It comes across in the film; and I saw you at the arcade that day, but we didn’t get a chance to talk, with all the hubbub going on….
Mullick: I consider Caine and George good buddies, and you never know; I honestly just went in there to buy a door handle, and they ended up changing my life, and we ended up changing each other’s lives, and all for the better.
MacQuarrie: And that’s just because you took a few minutes to play with a kid’s game because, why not?
Mullick: Always buy the Fun Pass, that’s all I can tell you.
Since I spoke with Nirvan, Caine has gone to France, where he was the youngest speaker ever to appear at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Other speakers at the conference included Bill Clinton. It appears that Caine’s adventures are just beginning. You can follow the progress of Caine’s Arcade and the Caine’s Arcade Imagination Foundation on Facebook.
All photos by Jim MacQuarrie.