He’s Gotta Have It: Spike Lee, Kickstarter and An Emerging New Trend

It seems Kickstarter is quickly becoming the SOS of many a filmmaker in 2013.

A few weeks ago Spike Lee was the latest filmmaker to enter the fray as he announced he was raising money to fund his current project, a vampire themed flick that he so far has been hesitant to go into much detail about. Spike isn’t the first well known member of the film community to make his pitch for funds on Kickstarter, but the latest in what is an interesting trend.

Earlier this year it came out that Kristen Bell had made a pitch on Kickstarter for a Veronica Mars movie. She ended up raising $5 million. What was most interesting to me at least is that the Veronica Mars movie is being backed by Warner Brothers, who are one of the major players in Hollywood. Ultimately this begs the question of why go to a site like Kickstarter for funding if a major studio is going to be backing the project anyway? Zach Braff (from NBC “Scrubs” fame) also took to Kickstarter and raised more than $3 million for his own project.

I’m assuming Spike Lee heard about the success of these two projects and decided that it was time to throw his hat in the ring. Spike Lee is a very decorated director and his work has often made me think about cinema, specifically as it relates to people of color. “Do The Right Thing” is a classic in my book. “School Daze” was informative and “Malcolm X” was not only educational, but illuminating. “He Got Game” and “25th Hour” with Ed Norton, are also among my favorites.

With each passing project, Spike Lee gained more fame, and with it, a larger access to studio funds. That’s not to suggest that the studios are all the sudden welcoming him with open arms, but he’s no longer the outsider he once was when he filmed “She’s Gotta Have It” in 1985. For example, the 2006 thriller “Inside Man,” with Denzel Washington, was backed by Universal Pictures.

So this all brings us back to Spike’s latest film. He has yet to give it a name and when asked what it’s about, he states it involves blood, vampires and lots of naked people. Sounds like either a summertime horror film or a weekend in Vegas gone terribly wrong. What’s troubling though is that not only does he not go into much detail about the film, but he expects people to donate based on his previous work. While I did mention a number of Spike’s films I’m a fan of, I won’t exactly be waving a towel for “She Hate Me” or “Girl 6.”

Yes, Spike is still hustling to get his movies made, but he also has access to far more capital than many of the filmmakers who hitch their financial wagons to Kickstarter do. This is a man with an estimated wealth of nearly $40 million. It also should be noted that Spike has been teaching at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, one of the most prestigious film programs in the country (along with one of the most expensive) since 2002. So I must ask why exactly does a man with his previous film credits, along with teaching at one of the country’s most renown film schools, need my money to finance one of his projects?

I have much respect for Spike Lee. I just think in this instance, he’s reachin’ to ask people to donate to a project they barely know anything about. Yes, he’s agreed to take a person out to sit courtside with him at a Knicks game if they donate $10,000 (which is an interesting case when you realize your donating to a man who can afford to pay for his own courtside seats) and that he has other goodies in store for people who give, depending upon the amount. That’s all well and good, but what happens if this movie is a smashing success? Will any of these people see any of the profits? What about if they have a project and need help with funding? Will Spike lend his name on Kickstarter to help their projects? Granted, this isn’t to attack Spike, but you have to wonder if the studios will begin to ask for producers/directors to raise a certain % of a movie’s budget through crowd-funding before they put their weight behind it. Things to think about…

Remembering Roger Ebert

Last week the world — not just the film world — lost an icon in Roger Ebert.

Though Ebert’s official title was that of film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, he was much more than that to the movie going American public. “Two thumbs up” was a phrase that originated with Ebert and his former film critic Gene Siskel, that became synonymous with a positive review of a new film. How esteemed was Roger Ebert in the movie industry? He’s the only film critic with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

When it came to race and the social dynamics of the Hollywood studio system, Ebert didn’t shy away from those subjects either. During the 1990s, two of his choices for movie of the year centered around protagonists of color: “Malcolm X” in 1992 and “Hoop Dreams” in 1994. Lauren Williams of The Root does an excellent job of compiling Ebert’s reviews on some well known black films at the time. Ebert goes beyond the characters and main story of the films and asks larger hard hitting questions about the impact of these films within cinema.

On “Love Jones” Ebert writes:

   “As the characters move from record stores to restaurants to the Sanctuary, we realize how painfully limited the media vision of black life is. Why do the movies give us so many homeboys and gangstas and druggies and so few photographers, poets and teachers? …”

On “Glory” Ebert writes:

   “Watching ‘Glory,’ I had one reoccurring problem. I didn’t understand why it had to be told so often from the point of view of the 54th’s commanding white officer? Why did we see the black troops through his eyes — instead of seeing him through theirs? To put it another way, why does the top billing in this movie go to a white actor? I ask, not to be perverse, but because I consider this primarily a story about the black experience and do not know why it has to be seen largely through white eyes…

‘Glory’ is a strong and valuable film, no matter whose eyes it is seen through. But there is still, I suspect, another and quite different film to be made from this same material.”

Things to think about. Roger Ebert, you will be missed.

48 Years After His Death, Malcolm’s Legacy Lives On in Media

When we talk about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, there are a few names that stand above the rest. Dr. Martin Luther King. Rosa Parks. Jesse Jackson. All very important and influential people. However, it could be said that the legacy of Malcolm X — perhaps not as clean cut as those other Civil Rights icons — is no less important and should not be treated as such. Fortunately for Malcolm, on this day 48 years after his assassination, his legacy is more than just a man known as a fire-and-brimstone orator, but as a man whose rise and conversion later in life was nothing short of remarkable.

In 1992, the biographical film “Malcolm X” was released starring Denzel Washington as Malcolm X and directed by Spike Lee. The film portrayed a man far deeper than just the angry dude pointing his finger in most textbooks. In the film we see a young Malcolm terrified as the Ku Klux Klan burns a cross on his lawn at his home in Nebraska. We see Malcolm’s maturation from a young hustler, to an educated prisoner, and eventually into one of the key leaders for the nation of Islam. Along the way we watch Malcolm become transformed with a pilgrimage to Mecca. Finally, there’s the dramatic scene of Malcolm’s death.

Personally, I thought the film was well done. Denzel was of course excellent, and I felt Spike did a good job of showing the audience the different moods and complexities of Malcolm X. Too often it becomes easy to label people –especially historical figures– through the narrow prism of good, bad, or insignificant. “Malcolm X” doesn’t allow for such easy assertions.

It’s worth noting that while filming “Malcolm X” Spike Lee went over the initial budget set by the studio and hence was fighting to secure more money to get the film released. Warner Brothers refused to pony up more cash and that’s when some well known African Americans stepped up and contributed to the project. Micheal Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Cosby, Janet Jackson, and Prince, were just some of the people who contributed to making this movie a reality.

“Malcolm X” was critically acclaimed upon release and opened many people’s eyes (including mine) to who he was and the legacy he left behind. 48 years later after his death, people continue to be educated.