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by Steve James
August 7, 2012 12:30 PM
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To Crowdfund or Not to Crowdfund: 20 Years After Making 'Hoop Dreams,' Filmmaker Steve James Braves the New Financing World With 'Generation Food'

Steve James is the director and producer of the documentaries “Hoop Dreams,” “Stevie,” “Reel Paradise,” “At the Death House Door,” “The Interrupters” and “Head Games,” which is awaiting release. He also co-wrote and directed the narrative feature “Prefontaine.”

“Generation Food” is a collaboration between myself and author/activist Raj Patel that will tell stories about efforts around the world to try to solve the food crisis — through a documentary, a book, a website and mobile apps. On July 8, we launched a crowdfunding campaign to try to raise funds for the very first research trips we need to make on the film, to locations such as Peru and Malawi. So far, we’ve raised half our goal, with a little less then half the time left.

I’ve never done this kind of fundraising before. But for some time I’ve been intrigued to see that people have had success with it and excited that filmmakers now have a way to raise some money for their films that bypasses traditional funding sources. It opens the opportunity to attract private individuals to support their work.

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This is a different process for me in a number of ways. Generally, I don’t like publicity on docs in progress, much less ones that are only in development; I’ve always tried to stay under the radar in terms of any press, especially with regard to the subjects of the film. I don’t want them to be thinking about the film or funding or what the public reaction is going to be. I just want them ”living their lives,” with us simply documenting it all. But for “Generation Food,” we don’t think this will be a problem in part because we have yet to settle on specific stories or characters. So being more public with our crowdfunding campaign is fine for now, though we will likely go “more silent” once we start filming in order to protect our subjects.

Another difference is that unlike any of my other films, “Generation Food” really needs development funding now so we can find the right stories around the world to cover. Aside from “The New Americans” (a seven-hour PBS series on immigration), the projects I’ve made haven’t required that kind of development to go out and find those stories. Rather, the ideas for the films started with me knowing the story I wanted to capture.

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Ask any filmmaker: Films that follow stories of “ordinary people” (read: not famous) over long periods of time often have a hard time attracting early funding, even if the filmmaker has a good track record. For most of my films, I’ve had to go out and start shooting before I could get the rest of the funding. That was the case with “Hoop Dreams,” “Stevie” and “The Interrupters”: We started them quietly out of Kartemquin Films, only really going to funders once we had something to show and a firm idea of what the film might be. And then much further down the road, we went public when the film was set for some kind of premiere.

So that’s another difference with “Generation Food.” With this campaign, we’re building early awareness among people who are truly invested, beyond dollars, in the film. We’re already seeing on the “Generation Food” Facebook page that going public early can lead to a real groundswell of support. I love the idea of sharing some of what we find in the research phase with a select community of people early on as a perk for their donating, and then gauging their feedback. We’ve also received some really great thematic questions to ponder from people who care passionately about this issue. That’s all new and exciting to me.

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