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‘Step’: How the Sundance Documentary Is Emulating ‘Hidden Figures’ to Inspire Underprivileged Kids

Amanda Lipitz's Sundance winner is hitting limited release, and the film's team is eager for everyone to see it — even if they can't afford their own ticket.

“Step”

Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.

Like any filmmaker, Amanda Lipitz is eager for audiences to turn out for her latest project, the Sundance award-winning documentaryStep.” But Lipitz isn’t eyeing big box office bucks or pushing to topple a rival feature; she just wants the inspirational film to get in front of the people who will be most moved by it, even if they can’t afford the price of admission.

Bolstered by similar campaigns — including a popular push for last year’s “Hidden Figures” — Lipitz and her team think they’ve figured out a way to do just that.

The film, Lipitz’s first, centers on a girls-only step team from inner city Baltimore, and chronicles their senior year as they attempt to win one last big competition, prepare for their future, and face personal hurdles. Even in January, it was clear that the film was poised to be one of the year’s biggest crowdpleasers. Lipitz wants that crowd.

“One of the big things that I really wanted to do is make sure that every student and school group, college counselors, churches Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, whatever, could see the film,” Lipitz said in a recent interview. “But I wanted them to see it in a movie theater. I really, really want to make sure that kids saw the movie in movie theaters. They got popcorn, it was like actually seeing someone on the big screen.”

It’s an ambitious idea, but it’s also one that Lipitz and her team are dedicated to making happen any way they can. Aided by the Utah Film Center — which was a fiscal sponsor of the documentary — the “Step” team has devised a program to help sponsor eager movie-goers who might not otherwise be able to see the film, matching them with donors who generously provided funding for the initiative.

“We set up a program where you can sponsor a group and make a donation and get a tax write-off,” she explained. “And then if you are a group, we have funds for you to come see it. We have been actively raising funds for people who really believe in the message of this film and want to make sure the right people can see it.”

“Step” debuted at Sundance in January, where its moving, female-centric storyline quickly turned heads. Lipitz was joined by many of her subjects, and the “Lethal Ladies of BLSYW” — the girls all attended the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women — were all over Sundance, attending packed screenings and even performing at the Women’s March on Main.

Amanda Lipitz - director of "Step"

Amanda Lipitz, director of “Step”

Daniel Bergeron

This weekend alone, 700 Baltimore school kids are slated to see the film for free, thanks to a donation from producer Paul G. Allen and his Vulcan Productions. Interested parties — either those who want to donate or groups that are seeking sponsorship — can reach out through the film’s group sales email address to get connected with the correct people.

Last year, a similar campaign sprouted up around Ted Melfi’s “Hidden Figures.” Initially a grassroots movement that saw both regular people and charitable organizations buying out theaters in order to screen the film to needy audiences, the film’s own cast and crew soon got in on the action. Many of the film’s cast members bought out entire theatrical screenings for audiences, and eager benefactors found ways to finance screenings through community initiatives and social media outreach.

Fox Searchlight has been active in this arena before, too. In 2014, the studio petitioned to have their “12 Years a Slave” instituted as part of the curriculum in American high schools. That dedication and interest was a big part of what pushed Lipsitz to sign with Searchlight at Sundance, where the specialty label picked up the film for a reported $4 million.

“It was the only thing I cared about when I was at Sundance, trying to figure out where it would go,” she said. “That was all I ever cared about. I just wanted to put it in as many kids’ hands as possible. It’s a great way to get kids to see films of substance and content and inspiration that they might not otherwise get to see.”

The film is opening in limited release this week, with an ambitious expansion plan that will see it available in an upwards of 200 theaters by the end of August, a rare feat for an intimate doc that doesn’t boast any big stars or splashy revelations. What’s most exciting to Lipitz about that number, however, is how it opens up the possibility that bigger audiences, the exact kind they are hoping to inspire, will be able to see it. Bolstered by their sponsorship campaign, that dream doesn’t seem far off.

“We’re just trying to break box office records this weekend, with a documentary about 19 girls from Baltimore, that has an opportunity that very few documentaries with no stars and no big names and nothing to go on gets,” Lipitz said. “We are extremely hopeful, and grateful, and humbled, and truly praying that the world comes out and says, ‘These are the stories we want to see.'”

If you would like to sponsor a group to see “Step” or you’re hoping to receive sponsorship for your own group, reach out to the film’s group sales email address.

“Step” will open in limited release today, August 4, with further expansion to come in the following weeks. 

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