Jim Gilliam: building a people-powered movie distributor and financier with Robert Greenwald
If you can't raise finance for your feature, and cinema chains don't want to touch your film, what can you do? Until recently that could have meant the end of the project, but the web offers some interesting ways of changing this.
"This was not like putting a blog post up and all of a sudden everybody comes and knocks our door down. We'd carefully cultivated an audience and put a lot of effort into the technology to pull them all together so that we could email them all at the same time."
Jim Gilliam, producer of Brave New Films, was unable to raise funding for Robert Greenwald's latest project. So he sent few emails to everyone who had previously bought a DVD from the company. Within 10 days, they had raised $220,000. And when it came to distribution, a network of activists and documentary fans have been mobilised around the Brave New Theaters website to organise their own mini and local screenings. The site, now open for any filmmaker looking to (or needing to) bypass traditional exhibition and connect with fans, allows people to communicate without any distribution or exhibition chain at all.
Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, directed by Robert Greenwald, is the most prominent feature film yet to successfully 'crowd-source' the finance of film, in a piece which explores the area of private contractors and mercenaries in Iraq. Gilliam has been working with Greenwald ever since - after 9/11 - he rethought his life and left a high-paid executive career on the web to work on stuff he believed in.
Through documentaries such as Outfoxed, Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, Uncovered, Wall Mart and Iraq for Sale - Greenwald, with Gilliam as producer - has kept the spotlight on modern America. Through Brave New Theaters, and the groudnbreaking financing of Iraq for Sale, Gilliam is rewriting the rules of the industry, breaking down the traditional barriers between filmmaker and audience.
When I interviewed him last winter, Jim was awaiting a lung transplant and - despite being bed-ridden and struggling to speak clearly - showed remarkable energy, drive and optimism. The transplant took place earlier this year, and thankfully was a complete success. Like speaking with Mohammed Al Daradji, who risked personal safety to get his Iraq film Ahlaam completed, I was left humbled and inspired after the interview - and I hope you do too.
How did you come into producing?
My whole professional background is on the internet. Until about three and a half years ago I was doing dotcom stuff, I was the CTO (Chief Technology Officer) of business.com, I'd done some things with Ecompanies, which is an incubator like Idealab. Then I decided that I didn't want to do that with my life and so I ditched it a little after 9-11, and eventually decided I wanted to do more political things, which by happenstance led me to doing documentary films, because of what Bush was doing with Iraq.
And there was a story which no-one was paying any attention to, which was that the intelligence [for going to Iraq] was all completely bogus. You had all these CIA people saying it was totally bogus, and no-one was paying any attention to them. And we had to get that story out there, so that became Uncovered, which we started in July 03 shortly after the war was "over". And we got it out in about October of that same year. And since then I've worked on all these films. That one totally took off and we've done Outfoxed and Walmart and now Iraq for Sale.
A lot of people I'm sure would like to make the leap from a desk job into making films that they believe in, how did you find that transition?
It worked out really well for me, because I hooked up with Robert Greenwald, who is a really respected director; he'd made many many films. But he didn't know much about technology and I did, so I was able to provide a whole lot of insight and skills for the project that helped us get it done much much faster than we would have before. Even things like being able to download video from the White House website so we could start cutting them straight away - we wouldn't have to wait for screeners to come in. It was amazing how helpful things like that were, like being able to do research online. It was a great opportunity for me to learn the filmmaking stuff from a great filmmaker, and he got a lot out of it, because I was this tech guy, so it was cool.
Were you involved in fundraising for his earlier films?
Fundraising was always a case of us having no idea where the money was coming from. Robert would take out loans, he would try to scramble, we got some money from MoveOn.org, we got a little money from this group or that group. But basically we couldn't raise any money, that is what it boiled down to. Nobody really wanted to touch it. And he took out a lot of loans and we ended up doing alright from DVD sales so that we could keep going.
Can you talk me through what happened with the funding for Iraq for Sale?
"what if we can go to these folks to raise money. What if if we can solve our big fundraising problem and make any film we like if we can convince them that it is a good idea?"I was involved in the funding for that one. That was one of my big dreams. We basically put a lot of effort after Outfoxed into collecting all of the emails and contact information for all the folks who had bought Uncovered and Outfoxed, all the folks who had bought those DVDs and we were going to try to do something similar to what MoveOn.org does and really try to engage with folks, and build that email list and get them involved and continue to make more films.
So the very first thing you think right off is OK, we can get them to organise screenings. But then we were like, what if we can go to these folks to raise money. What if if we can solve our big fundraising problem and make any film we like if we can convince them that it is a good idea? So that was the idea from the get go, but we thought it would be a long while before we could get to that.
And, to do Iraq for Sale, we basically got desperate. We were like, it's a great story, we've got some great great research, we really want to do it, we're at the end time wise we've got to make a call whether to do the project or not, lets just go for it. And so we did, we went for it, and we went back and forth in the meeting internally about how much to ask for and I was basically like, well how much do we need?
And basically we figured it out we needed $300,000. Well we had a commitment for $100,000 and none of us thought we could raise more than $100,000 online. I was the most optimistic, I thought we could do $100k, everybody else thought it was more like $50k. But we pulled it off , we asked for the whole thing and we raised $220,000, basically through our email list. Which was incredible. They really believed in the project and what we'd done.
How many names was in the email list?
At the time it was like 170,000
It worked partly because you had built up a relationship with these people over a number of films?
Oh yeah there was a lot of work that had gone into putting that together, and a lot of these were folks we'd come into contact with because of Walmart. This was not like putting a blog post up and all of a sudden everybody comes and knocks our door down. We'd carefully cultivated an audience and put a lot of effort into the technology to pull them all together so that we could email them all at the same time.
"It's a great opportunity for filmmakers these days to be able to build an audience themselves and interact with them directly, because then you can make whatever kind of movie you want to make because they'll be with you. If you've got faith in them they'll be with you, to support you"
And did you offer them anything?
We did, we offered them a credit. We told them we could offer them their name at the end of the film which we thought was the coolest thing we could do. We thought about offering a copy of the film, but thought it was obvious. But we thought the credit thing would be cool, and of course it would be cheap. It didn't really cost us anything and people did a lot of things with it too, they put in the names of soldiers, loved ones, even their website names, names of their peace groups, stuff like that.
Presumably it also meant that by the time the film was finished there was a huge audience who were really into the film and wanted to see it succeed?
It seems that part of the web that the old school hasn't woken up to - once you build a relationship with the audience there is no need for any mediation other than producer and audience.. do you see this kind of model being used more and more?
Oh yeah. I mean, that was the reason we really wanted to engage the audience with Walmart, we wanted them to be invested, just emotionally in the project overall. The sooner they were engaged, the more they would care about it being a success.
That was definitely a goal. It's a great opportunity for filmmakers these days to be able to build an audience themselves and interact with them directly, because then you can make whatever kind of movie you want to make because they'll be with you. If you've got faith in them they'll be with you, to support you.
"And we'll can keep building out that functionality over time to create a fully fledged people-powered movie distributor." Can I ask you a little bit about Brave New Theaters, because this seems another similar idea, mobilising people to do something that previously a big film organisation needed to do
So the idea is to take the distribution model - people call them house parties, we just call them screenings - and make it available to all filmmakers. And seeding it with all of the folks who have screened our own films, the 1000s of folks that we've already been engaged with. It's basically just a place where we match up filmmakers with screening hosts. And so both sides want to reach more people for their cause or whatever reason - for fundraising or just to have fun. And by hooking them up with the right films, and the right activists or the right screening hosts both sides can win, and we provide tools for everybody to reach a bigger and bigger audience.
So you can invite people to the screening, you can put buttons on your website, send out an email, various RSVP tools.
And we'll can keep building out that functionality over time to create a fully fledged people-powered movie distributor. And really engage the audience to reach more people. The hope is that it becomes this virtuous circle, where the films are both being marketed and distributed by the people that are really engaged and care about your films, so that no matter what size, or no matter how small the niche might be there is someone out there who cares about it and will want to screen it and show it to people. Stuff like that.
It's a very convincing model - do people organise screenings just in the US, or around the world?
Around the world, it works everywhere. In fact if you come to this site it tries to guess which country you've come from. While everything is in English it will figure out you're in the UK and show you UK screenings first.
How many screenings or films have been listed on the services?
So we've had (checks computer) 8400 screenings, I think we're up to about 60 films. We haven't really put a lot of effort into reaching out to the filmmaking community yet, we have raised some money to hire someone to do some outreach, and work with filmmakers, as of now it's just a few people have found our films.
I just stumbled across it
We haven't really done a push for it, but we will. And try to build the community and engage the screening hosts and try to build it up as a central tool for the filmmaking community. If we all pool all of our resources, all the folks that have screened our films, we can give it back to them, it should be really great.
"It requires a big network to really make it work. It would be folly to go out there and suggest to folks that they can just put something up and raise money for it without having some kind of an audience."Presumably over time you can build a big community about this site itself
Right, it'll be like a place you can go. It'll be like an alternative to the traditional theatre chains. So Hollywood has their release, it might be Batman 7, it's the big release that weekend. Right, but then you have the Brave New Theatre release which is some indie thing, and there's maybe 3 or 4 things which are screening throughout the world, you can go to your local pub and check it out. Alongside the big mainstream films. Just regular people getting involved in just showing these films.
Am I right in thinking these screenings are free, in that the filmmaker sends out a DVD or, can people sell tickets for these events?
Over time I think we're going to offer the gamut of that so that filmmakers can decide. I have a hunch that some screening hosts will become like all-stars, and filmmakers will almost compete to get hooked up with the best screening hosts. Because who is screening it will become an arbiter of how good it is.
So I kind of speculate as how that will play out. They may offer some folks free DVDs like you would in Hollywood for executives, almost.
And then, other folks can just buy DVD. Other folks can charge hundreds of dollars to host a screening, we don't really encourage that at this point, but I imagine there's gonna be the kinds of the films that will need to do that because there's such a small audience and not a lot of money.
We'll be building in the functionality to do that, and building in the fan-base functionality to do ticket sales which could offer a split between the screen hosts, and their organisations, some folks may want to do it as a fundraiser for their local ACLU chapter, and split the proceed with the filmmaker.
In the longer term, are there other plans to move into the funding side of things?
I think it will be a natural extension out of this, because if the audience and the screening hosts are getting involved, it makes sense that they would want to have some say in the kind of films being made. So I do think that is the kind of thing that will emerge, the ability to throw ideas out there and try to raise money for them.
It requires a big network to really make it work. It would be folly to go out there and suggest to folks that they can just put something up and raise money for it without having some kind of an audience. But there are some folks, like these guys, the Ask A Ninja guys, who have built some kind of a notoriety online, and a fan-base, maybe they could. Maybe they could raise $100,000 to do a film. I don't know. That kind of a thing, anything that democratises the filmmaking process, that takes what we've been doing on Brave New Films, and offers it to other filmmakers, as we go through this process ourselves, we can try and incorporate it into this offering, this Brave New Theaters.
In terms of general use of the internet - are there other area you find valuable in your day to day filmmaking process? Some don't use it at all.
I read some of the blogs, I read Cinematech blog a little bit, I guess it's really useful for research. I do documentaries right - so it's a little bit different. I'm not into the whole indie film scene so much, So I don't know all the movie sources out there, I'm mostly on the documentary side, I'm very politically focussed. I don't think Ill have a lot to offer on the traditional filmmaking stuff.
"You don't want to distribute this? We'll just go and do this ourselves. People want to know what's going on. I think the documentary thing is about telling these true stories that the mainstream just won't touch. "
In terms of documentary, it seems like in the last five to ten years it's really exploded, particularly from DV. Is there an increase in interest from the audience to match that would you say?
I think there's been an increase in people finding out what's going on and it's only been because the mainstream media hasn't been covering this stuff that filmmakers have gotten so frustrated and said look, we're just doing to do this ourselves. You don't want to distribute this? We'll just go and do this ourselves. People want to know what's going on. I think the documentary thing is about telling these true stories that the mainstream just won't touch. And if they had then they wouldn't have been getting this threat - it wouldn't have become so powerful.
It has to be the most terrifying aspect of the Internet for them.
For every industry. And it's only now that the big movie industry is starting to feel the heat and the threat to their fundamental business. It's exciting, it's good, because they deserve to be overthrown.
"We saw Dreamworks cut a special short from Madagascar (the animated movie), they cut a special short, just to be aired at the Walmart stockholders meeting and their CEO came to introduce it. That's how in bed Hollywood is with Wal-Mart." Have you had much threat from them? The movies you're making are very bold and honest in their issues, have you had any threats from the industry?
Well not in a traditional sense, like being physically threatened, but we've been shunned, We reach a lot of folks - Robert's not like some unknown filmmaker, he should be able to get some fundraising from some of these big places. But they're afraid to touch us.
Especially because of the Wal-Mart film. We were in some long discussions with some big folks, but they broke, because Hollywood is fundamentally dependent on Wal-Mart. Something like 35-40% of DVD sales come from Wal-Mart. We saw Dreamworks cut a special short from Madagascar (the animated movie), they cut a special short, just to be aired at the Walmart stockholders meeting and their CEO came to introduce it. That's how in bed Hollywood is with Wal-Mart. And you know, you can't - there's not a whole lot else to say I guess.S
o we've been struggling with that, and to maintain the integrity in telling these stories. People talk about the liberal holywood left. The people with the money are the ones that run the business and they all have an interest in keeping things the way there are.
"Hollywood is fundamentally dependent on Wal-Mart. Something like 35-40% of DVD sales come from Wal-Mart." Have you had any support from Hollywood? There must be a lot of people sympathetic to the issues in Iraq for sale?
Some of the traditional liberals - Arianna Huffington, she is a big supporter, and her and Robert are great friends. Some of the folks like that. But those aren't the folks who can generally donate money, they can give a celebrity name. When it comes to people with actual money, forget about it pretty much. But that's OK, because we're building an audience
It's kind of rewritten the rules, singlehandedly. What's next?
We're not planning on doing a documentary right away. We're gonna be working on some short form stuff to be released online, and doing sort of similar concepts to what we've done with the films but faster, quicker, much much faster, and putting it online, playing with that. and then put a lot of effort into Brave New Theaters, working with other filmmakers.
Production company site - Brave New Films
Distribution and screenings through - Brave New Theaters