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Have an Idea for a Doc? Producers of Oscar-Winning 'Undefeated' are Looking to Crowdsource Doc Production

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire September 23, 2013 at 1:34PM

Can crowdsourcing become a viable means for producing quality documentary films? Crowdsourcing site Tongal, which usually works for brands but is now working for Oscar-winning production company Spitfire Pictures, is giving it a go.
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Tongal + Spitfire

Can crowdsourcing become a viable means for producing quality documentary films?  Crowdsourcing site Tongal, which usually works for brands but is now working for Oscar-winning production company Spitfire Pictures, is giving it a go.

A few films have made a splash by crowdsourcing film content, calling out for footage and then constructing a film out of the footage.  Kevin Macdonald's "Life in a Day," a look at people all over the world on a single day, debuted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and indie exec Jeff Deutchman's film debut,"11/4/08," a compilation of video taken the night of the 2008 presidential election, was a selection for the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.  The wildly inventive "Star Wars Uncut" was a part of this year's Tribeca Film Festival Storyscapes.

Crowdsourcing creative talent for brands' ads and marketing content has been happening for some time now, to mixed results.  We've recently seen rent-others'-places-while-they're-out-of-town service Airbnb jump on the crowdsourcing bandwagon with a video commercial made completely out of users' Vine videos.  The Airbnb "Hollywood & Vine" project was an example of the worst in crowdsourcing:  the concept was thin, the payment for participation was paltry ($100 per six-second vine, paid in Airbnb), and the result was…zzzzz…

So far in documentary production, crowdsourcing only comes up in compilation documentaries.  But one site may have figured out how to do crowdsourced production right.  Tongal has already created a number of campaigns for participating brands; they even had an ad show up on the Super Bowl.  

Unlike most crowdsourcing campaigns, which typically ask for projects to be submitted basically completed, without any feedback from the client and therefore no knowledge of whether they're on-brand or not, Tongal breaks up the creative process into parts of the process, paying people for ideas they want to take to the next level as well as paying creatives to compete against each other until one creative has, hopefully, hit the bulls-eye.  Tongal co-founder James De Julio tells stories of stay-at-home moms and young people sending in ideas and taking home some cool cash for their ideas or stop-motion animation talents.

Here's an explanation of what Tongal's all about, from the perspective of its creators:


Tongal is taking its winning strategy and bringing it to the world of documentary production, sponsoring a contest with Spitfire Pictures, the production company behind 2012's Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, "Undefeated."  The team is also behind a slew of highly regarded music documentaries, Grammy-winning "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth" and two from Martin Scorsese:  "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" and the Emmy-winning "George Harrison: Living in the Material World."

With Tongal's Spitfire Documentary Project (click here for the project page), Spitfire's looking for ideas for stories in their wheelhouse, which if you're looking for some dough, probably means your mind should be turning to music stories now.

Here's how it will work:  Anyone with a Tongal account who fits the eligibility requirements may submit an idea for a subject for a documentary.  The five best ideas will get $1,000 for pitching the concept (phase ends October 17, 2013) and for securing the life rights of those involved with the story.  Those who submit at this phase invite others to pitch using their subject.  (In other words, until Spitfire passes, the life rights get signed over to Tongal.  Proposers of a winning idea will be eligible to receive 5% net profits if the film makes money.)

Starting November 7, 2013, directors can pitch an idea for the doc using those subjects.   They can use one of the five winning subjects or they can pitch an idea of their own.  Either way, the life rights stay with Tongal.  The best 8 pitches get $2,500.  When asked what kinds of stories would be appropriate, Alex Brunner, Spitfire's head of documentary productions and the Deputy COO of Spitfire owner Exclusive Media, referred to the company's project "The Last Play at Shea," which was not only a story of the end of a venue many had a sentimental attachment to (Shea Stadium), it was also a chance to see the site eulogized by a legend, Billy Joel.  Another example of the kind of thing they'd be looking for was the doc "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," the doc about the Funk Brothers, who were the backing band for dozens of Motown artists.

From there, starting January 7, 2014, the filmmakers make sizzle reels and the best two get the greenlight and $35,000.  From there at least one, but maybe both finalists, will get $15,000 to finish the film.  

"Making documentaries is already an insurrectionist activity [within filmmaking].  Documentary filmmakers already don't conform to the norm.  Often they finish without finishing funds and don't pay themselves.  Unlike in advertising, where this crowdsourcing idea is a disruptive event, this is helping documentary filmmakers," Nigel Sinclair, CEO of Exclusive Media told Indiewire.

He continued, "This eliminates the barriers to entry, providing ordinary folks the ability to take their talent and become an artist."

De Julio explained why this process will benefit everyone on the site. "The advantage here is that Alex and Nigel would probably not get as much value in this if they were shut out of the process.  We've intentionally refined this process for the clients' needs.  We want the winning project to be on message on brand.  It's that co-creation that everyone craves," he said.

Please note, there are some rights being handed off here, so make sure this method is right for you and the project you want to work on.  For the official rules on the Tongal Spitfire Documentary Project, click here

If you're confused about the process, the project FAQ page is helpful

This article is related to: Documentary, Undefeated, Crowdsourcing , Star Wars Uncut