By Emily Gagne: Special to realscreen
Crowdfunding sites such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter do not just offer financial insurance. For socially conscious documentary filmmakers like Toby Oppenheimer and Dana Flor, it can offer creative assurance as well.
On March 5, directors and producers Toby Oppenheimer and Dana Flor (HBO’s Nine Lives of Marion Barry) started their first Indiegogo campaign in support of Check It, their upcoming documentary following a gang of the same name based in Washington, D.C. and founded by bullied gay and transgender African American youths. The Macro Pictures founders are looking for US$60,000 from willing public funders, but Oppenheimer says the campaign is less about making that money, and more about protecting the project, especially its subjects.
“We’ve gotten this far with pretty much us based on our own funding,” Oppenheimer tells realscreen. “At this point, we just thought that Indiegogo was the best way to go to redeem our independent vision.”
Work on the project began three years ago. The pair initially got to know the gang, made up of men aged 14 to 22, while shooting Nine Lives of Marion Barry in D.C. They built a personal relationship with the group through a local connection, a gang counsellor and mentor named Mo, and then approached the gang about documenting its story.
“We were instantly fascinated,” Oppenheimer says. “We met them and spent many, many months of hanging out with them without cameras, just being with them and trying to prove that we wanted to get their story out there. Finally, they said, ‘Okay, you can bring your cameras around.’”
He adds, “We’ve all become a part of each other’s lives and we’re just hoping to tell the story truthfully and honestly.”
Before coming to Indiegogo, Oppenheimer and Flor received assorted grants, including funds from the IDA Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund and the 2014 Influence Award from the Tribeca Film Institute. Through these grants and some assistance from prodco Radical Media, they were able to hire an editor, but had little money left over for much else, including one of their biggest aims: financially assisting the young men who got them to this point with their own business goals. That’s when they decided to call in crowdfunding consultancy Vann Alexandra to help them start the Indiegogo campaign.
Actor and producer Steve Buscemi is also on board as an executive producer for the project. Indeed, a donation of $1,500 to the project can score you lunch with Buscemi and the filmmakers at one of his “favorite NYC eateries” (travel and accommodation costs not included).
Oppenheimer says Buscemi and his producing partner Wren Arthur have “been along on this ride with us from the beginning,” adding that both Buscemi and Arthur have been very hands-on: “They closely watch every single cut with us and give super-thoughtful notes.”
At press time, the film’s Indiegogo campaign had totalled $47,080, or 78 per cent of the desired total. But even if Oppenheimer and Flor don’t reach $60,000 by April 4, the campaign’s end date, they will be able to give the doc’s central characters some monetary support. They chose what Indiegogo calls a “Flexible Funding” option, meaning they will receive all of the proceeds they end up making, whether over or under their projected amount.
“A portion of what we’re getting – 10 per cent – is going to go directly to the kids to help buy the starting [material] needed to get their fashion start-up company up and running,” Oppenheimer says. “We weren’t going to bring in private equity to help with that.”
As for a plan B, in case they don’t hit the final goal, Oppenheimer says: “We’re going to have to go with what we get, what we’re able to raise.
“If we’re able to get to $50,000, that would be incredible. We’d have to work around those limitations, but it’s nice to know that you can get that far and still have as much as you possibly can to at least help the kids.”
With fundraising still to be completed, there is much work left to do before the story is told, whether in theatres or on television (the team hasn’t finalized the distribution strategy at present). But Oppenheimer tells realscreen that crowdfunding, and the freedom it offers creatively and financially, can be worth the extra work.
“It reminds me a lot of the scene in Fitzcarraldo where they’re trying to lift the boat over the mountain,” he says. “It becomes a full-time job for a dozen people a month before the campaign even kicks off.
“It certainly seems like a wonderful thing to do for documentary filmmakers. They just have to know what they’re up against.”