James Ronald Whitney is something of an anomaly among feature doc producers – he isn’t constantly worried about money. A stockbroker by day and filmmaker by night, the New York-based producer/director is in the process of wrapping his second feature documentary project, TheWorkingGirl.com (Fire Island Films). As with his first film Just, Melvin, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Whitney didn’t seek finishing funds or pre-sales. ‘The market has treated us very well,’ he explains.
From 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Whitney happily maneuvers the money markets as vice president of Wall Street firm Tucker Anthony. ‘During market hours, it’s the most exciting way I could imagine spending a day,’ he says. ‘[But] once 4 p.m. comes, nothing excites me more than filming or editing or composing music or writing, and going into the film spectrum.’
The idea for TheWorkingGirl.com, a documentary about his friend Sharon Alt’s foray into the cybersex industry, came after she sought Whitney’s financial advice. He explains: ‘[Sharon] had started an adult entertainment site that features her and her boyfriend and the problem was that she wasn’t getting enough hits on the site.’ Whitney became intrigued by the people of the porn industry while researching ways to make Sharon’s internet venture more successful and decided to make the film. (He will also launch a companion website.)
Whitney has teamed with Julie Cooper, a producer with u.s. broadcaster ABC (who is also working on the project independently of her day job), to finance the feature doc. He estimates the budget will come in under us$500,000.
Working Girl is a significant departure from the filmmaker’s first doc project. For Just, Melvin, Whitney turned the camera on his own family to explore the painful legacy of sexual abuse at the hands of his maternal grandfather, Melvin Just. His directorial debut was well received at Sundance and went on to win first prize at several u.s. film festivals including Santa Barbara, Newport Beach and South Beach. It also caught the attention of HBO execs Nancy Abraham and Sheila Nevins.
Whitney entered into talks with HBO in early February and concluded the deal in May. He adds, ‘I was in the black after this deal,’ though he refuses to elaborate. Whitney describes the deal as equitable, but says money wasn’t the key factor. ‘This was a hugely personal story for me,’ he says. ‘Reaching the widest audience possible was my primary objective.’
Whitney was also pleased with the terms the cablecaster offered. ‘The HBO rights are simply u.s. broadcast, video and other media, but not theatrical. I’m looking at offers theatrically in the u.s. and the rest of the world, and I also have the rights for broadcast and video [outside the u.s.].’ As part of the agreement, Whitney adds, HBO is responsible for ensuring Just, Melvin qualifies for Oscar consideration. This entails a theatrical run of at least seven days in New York and Los Angeles, followed by a six-month delay of the TV broadcast.
When time allows, Whitney continues to work on a documentary about the other side of his family, called Dad (w/t). Whitney was nine when his father left to become a Hell’s Angel. Later, his father married Melvin Just’s sister. Whitney saw his dad for the first time in 23 years when he interviewed him for Just, Melvin. ‘It’s all on film – the reunion, the questions I asked him. It was quite an experience.’