I've been a Spike Lee fan since seeing She's Gotta Have It in a little theatre in Ithaca, NY, way back in 1986. I've seen his thesis film Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. I interviewed him when I was at Ithaca College and he was visiting Cornell University. A few years later he gave me some of the best advice as a burgeoning young filmmaker, which was two words, “Shoot film.” I took those words to heart when I made my award-winning feature, Detention. (I am far from a hater.) And yet even I have to admit … Lee's recent Kickstarter campaign for his project The Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint is a hollow shell, empty and leaving a lot of questions, trading more on Spike’s cult of personality and not giving any real details into what it’s actually all about.
I love crowd funding. I have personally run two crowd funding campaigns, one on Kickstarter (successful) and another on Indiegogo (not as successful). I think the process is a great way for artists to raise money for projects that would otherwise stall out at the idea phase. And nowhere is this truer than for filmmakers. But in a matter of a few short years, crowd funding may have already “jumped the shark”, case in point the high-profile campaigns for Veronica Mars and Zach Braff’s Wish I was Here (which Spike mentions in his pitch video, actually.) Oddly enough, I had predicted that Spike might be one of the first major directors to jump onto the crowd-funding bandwagon after the success of those other “celebrity” projects. (Check out my friend Dan Mirvish’s satirical Huff Post take on crowd funding with his article, “Spike Lee to Spielberg: A-List Directors Try Kickstarter.”)
I once wrote a list of tips for filmmakers about starting crowd-funding campaigns, and having done it myself, I admire those who take that 30 – 45 day plunge. It is not an easy process. I read and watched Spike’s pitch and to be frank and even though I admire and greatly respect him as a filmmaker, if his pitch were one of his films it would be closer to She Hate Me and not Do The Right Thing. He breaks the first rule of crowd funding – BE SPECIFIC. He talks about everything, but the project. I know he wants an air of mystery, and that’s cool, but realistically when it comes to crowd-funding you gotta bring your A game. Details, please. Spike barely mentions anything about his new project, not even later in his first update to his Kickstarter campaign. We’re being sold on his career instead of his vision for the film he wants to make. This is all well and good if you’re Spike Lee, but my hope is that some young filmmaker doesn’t think he can get away with being mysterious and then bitch about crowd-funding because no one donated to his/her project.
By contrast, Aaron MacGruder's failed Uncle Ruckus Movie Kickstarter campaign was more specific and I’d speculate failed for the exact opposite reason. MacGruder showed us Uncle Ruckus, (the talented Gary Anthony Williams as a live action version of the character) but there was no real narrative as to why we should have supported the film, and we had no reason to care. Spike, on the other hand, is selling Spike. And that’s it.
Another tepid campaign is the Shemar Moore project, The Bounce Back, which actually jumped from Kickstarter to Indiegogo. Initially, Shemar tried to raise more than a million dollars via Kickstarter, but when he realized he was not going to reach his goal, he pulled the plug on that campaign (since he gets zero funding if the campaign doesn’t succeed) and switched to Indiegogo where he can keep any money raised whether or not the goal is met. I don’t deny Shemar Moore’s passion for his project and wanting to raise enough to make his film. It was a deft and smart strategy that would have actually served The Lone Ranger well.
One of one of first big celebrity campaigns that did well and was very much in the spirit of crowd-funding was from Whoopi Goldberg. She did a pitch for her documentary on Moms Mabley, “I Got Something’ To Tell You.” Whoopi was specific, personal, and actually had a vision her project. She set a modest fundraising goal of 65K and raised more than 73K. It was a well-done campaign that in a lot of ways embodied the spirit of its subject matter. Or … if Spike wanted to get really creative, he could have taken a page from one of the best Kickstarter campaign videos I’ve seen – The Body, by talented filmmaker Kenny Gee. This kid actually elevated the idea and concept of a pitch video.
Reading Spike’s Kickstarter rationale for his campaign, he has delivered nothing but cinematic mumbo jumbo. He hasn't pitched a project he seems passionate about. He's primarily pitching his filmography (which would be great) – if only he were pitching a specific project. The big thing that Zach Braff did correctly was that he made his fans care about what he was doing and let them in on the actual project every step of the way. Spike is merely saying “support my next project because I'm Spike Lee and I made all these films in the past.“ All he’ll let slip about this crowd project is that it’s about “blood addiction and sex” and that it will be a psychological thriller. Hell, I see that weekly on Game of Thrones. It's a vague pitch that any film professor would make a student re-write for being non-specific. I wonder if Spike would let his students get away with being that vague in class.
I have no doubt that Spike will be able to raise the funds for his newest film. Heck, I wish Steven Soderberg to give me 10K when I was running my Kickstarter campaign! And Spike knows a lot of people who respect and admire his work … I’m one of them. He’s Spike Lee and he has a cinematic history that will stand the test of time. But now he’s venturing into 21st century financing model which makes me wish he were selling less of the past and more of what he’s wanted to do all along, minus financing shackles. We, as potential backers and supporters, deserve that. Also not knowing anything, at all, regarding the subject or topic is not necessarily the best way to push crowd funding strategy for Spike … simply because the same cat who made Malcolm X, Do The Right Thing, and Inside Man also made She Hate Me, Girl 6, and Red Hook Summer.
The question is not who is making the film, because we all know Spike Lee has got the skills. The real question is - what is he going to make and why should we care?
Darryl Wharton-Rigby is an advisor, screenwriter, playwright, director, and professor. He taught film at Morgan State University and has written for NBC, BET, and MTV. He wrote and directed the award-winning feature film Detention. He is working on two books, “Suspicious,” an anthology of stories about racial profiling and “The Lazy Filmmakers Guide: Creating Cinematic Capital,” which discusses independent filmmaking strategies with personal anecdotes. He currently lives in Japan and now working on a documentary, Don Doko Don: The Yamakiya Taiko Club Story, about a group of young drummers displaced due to high levels of radiation in their community from the failed nuclear plant. You can follow him on Twitter and Instgram @whartonrigby.