Spike’s Gotta Kickstart It

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by Darryl Wharton-Rigby
July 26, 2013 11:28 AM
22 Comments
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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.

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22 Comments

  • Donella | July 27, 2013 1:18 PMReply

    Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes made a crowdfunding pitch. In that pitch, they shared specific details of the zombie movie they hoped to get off the ground. Not only did they cut a trailer, they also revealed the source material of that movie--short story and a full-length novel. They also shared specific goals and targets with a degree of sincerity that is reassuring. The viewer has some indication of intent and can make an evaluation for potential success.

    Spike Lee has accumulated a body of work, yes. What we know is when Spike works with pre-existing material for features--Malcolm X, Inside Man, Oldboy--wonderful things happen. In fact, I predict Oldboy will be an even greater success than Inside Man, and that's just based on the trailer. And no one can touch Spike on documentaries. But left to his own devices to write and labor in secret on features with no outside vetting on scripts--She Hate Me, Red Hook Summer--a tendency to wander off-topic and crowd too many themes into one movie that leaves the audience confused.

    I truly hope Spike changes his mind and gets something down on paper (script or treatment), gets that reviewed for trouble spots, and then cuts a trailer just to give the potential audience something to root for and look forward to.

    There has to be someone at 40 Acres and a Mule or within the industry who can provide him assistance in constructing a thoughtful launch for his next project.

  • Darryl Wharton-Rigby | July 26, 2013 7:45 PMReply

    Hi Carey Carey,

    First I would like to thank everyone for their comments. I am addressing you because you cherry picked my essay without offering any real facts. Expressing an opinion and submitting a critique is not hating. I have no disdain or ill-will towards Spike Lee.

    "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. " Darryl Wharton-Rigby

    As someone who has had some experience crowd funding I simply wished that he had made a better pitch in use of a 21st century funding model as opposed to going with his usual song and dance.

    Asking for specifics is not hating. Do you know what his project is about, except that its a thriller about blood addiction and has lots of sex? In his pitch he talks more about his past then his vision for his project. That's not hating. That stating a fact. Essentially, in the crowd funding business model, it is best to talk about the project you want to sell. Spike doesn't do that saying he wants to keep his project a mystery.

    And saying that Spike has never taken the traditional route is disingenuous. Quite a few of his films were with Hollywood studios. "Inside Man," "Clockers," "Do The Right Thing," and "Jungle Fever" were with Universal Pictures, "Summer of Sam" and "He Got Game" were with Touchstone, "Malcolm X" was with Warner Bros. A filmmaker who hasn't taken the traditional route as of yet, is Ava DuVernay, who started her own distribition vehicle.

    As someone who has been involved with crowd funding professionally and personally, the intent of my essay, is not wanting other young filmmakers to think they can be vague and "mysterious" and expect to get funded. I can guarantee you were his name Tom Johnson, he would never be able to get much funding based on his that pitch, on the merit of the project.

    You tell me to take a walk on the wild side. How do you know I haven't? I made my feature film in 12 days on 12K shot on 16mm film. I came up in Baltimore on some of the same streets as "The Wire" and I am still here. I picked up and moved to Japan. I am making a documentary about about a taiko group evacuated from the Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion in Japan. I travelled back to Japan a week after the 3/11 disaster. I lived in that region of Japan until earlier this year. If none of that qualfies as talking a walk on the wild side, then I guess you're simply insatiable.

    Create an excellent day.

  • CC | July 28, 2013 6:52 PM

    Bluto, why you gotta talk so nasty...

  • BluTopaz | July 28, 2013 4:29 PM

    Meant to add to uncle ruckus: unless you intend to contribute to this campaign you can really have several seats. The only people who use the word "hater" as their only retort are morons who lack critical thinking skills.

  • BluTopaz | July 28, 2013 4:12 PM

    Darryl has already explained his opinion as 1) an accomplished filmmaker and 2) someone who has run crowdfunding campaigns. The only thing you know how to run is your hillbilly mouth.

    So stfu, sit back, and you might learn something. This post is primarily for filmmakers, not a contrarian old geezer who shows up with verbal diarrhea talking shit. A professional does not need to explain their viewpoint nor opinion to you.

  • CareyCarey | July 28, 2013 2:03 PM

    Good morning to you too, Blutopaz.

    What happened... what got you here so early in the morning? Did your broom break down?

    Anyway, noooooo, I do not believe Tyler Perry deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. However, when closet haters (those who sometimes hide behind the trite phrases "It's just my opinion" and "this is a simple analysis that every filmmaker needs to hear) and the angriest black woman in the world *coughBlutopazcough* goes out of their way to unjustly vilify another black man, I will do my best to present an apposing view.

    Don't get me wrong, some filmmakers may have gained a wee bit of incite from Darryl's essay, but at what cost to Spike Lee? That's my concern. And Blutopaz, we've read your opinions on Spike (it's obvious that you hold no love for this man) so you are excused.

  • BluTopaz | July 28, 2013 6:43 AM

    Darryl, don't waste your time and energy here explaining your objectives for this piece. You are talking to someone who believes Tyler Perry deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. You have provided detailed examples of successful and failed crowdfunding campaigns which is informative for any indie filmmaker. Looking forward to updates re: your upcoming projects and I have one question: what was your motivation for your documentary about the Japanese drummers?

  • CareyCarey | July 27, 2013 12:49 PM

    Okay Darryl, now that you've stated your position it's time I do the same.

    Let's start at "walking on the wild side". You said, "I made my feature film in 12 days on 12K shot on 16mm film. I came up in Baltimore on some of the same streets as "The Wire" and I am still here. I picked up and moved to Japan"

    Well, I've been on the streets in Washington D.C. and Baltimore and Chicago and Dallas and East St Louis Ill. I've also moved around in Pilly (Germantown) and Detroit and Atlanta and Harlem NY. Gary Indiana has seen my face as has Minneapolis Mn. And, I've been in Japan (wouldn't suggest a black person live there) and I've drank wine in the jungles of Thialand. In essense, I too have lived on the wild side.

    In that walk, there were wonderful times. I was given the opportunity to meet a vast array of "characters", rich and poor, black and white. Some of which had great intentions, but we all know the saying about the streets of hell and what they're paved with.

    Then of course there were usurpers and "gamers". The slick ones (professionals and street slicks) had game-game-game and could talk that thang to a degree that would make the best debaters proud.

    Now Darryl, our major differences are coming on the floor. You desired a "proper debate". You also accused me of a personal attack. Well, in my experience "proper debates" are, by and large, useless banter which is frequently used to appease and subdue an apposing voice.

    Consequently, having seen the good and bad (depending on one's position) of "proper debate", in this stage in my life, I tend to favor the "no holds barred", if you will, rules of engagement. Again, through my experinces; from what I've seen and experienced, that rule inspires controversy which in turn inspires real change, not just TALK. Granted, "controversy" is a slippery slope which can create divides and bring out the worst in many, I welcome the challenge.

    Now here we are having a "debate" on Spike Lee, a person I respect and admire. In your essay (although with good intentions) you used unflattering words about the man to embellish your point. Also, throughout your essay, you saw it fit to continually remind us that you were not a hater. From my perspective those statements were akin to "I am not a racist because I have black friends". So I hope you understand my "pushback".

    In short, although you believe your essay was rooted in "good intention" (giving advice to young filmmakers), I read it as a continuing attack (dogs piling on the rabbit) of a black filmmaker who deserves better. Therefore, I had to do my thang, in my voice, in an attempt to have you back up your train and take a look at the residue you're leaving on the floor.

    Question: Do you believe your essay speaks favorably of Mr. Lee?

  • Darryl Wharton-Rigby | July 27, 2013 8:37 AM

    It is not a case of sensitivity and it takes a lot for me to lose my cool. I made a critique of Spike's pitch. I stand by that. Your comments warranted a response as you came at me beyond the subject matter at hand. I have no problem with a good vigorous debate. I had hoped on some level this essay would invite debate. But, a personal attack is unwarranted in the framework of a proper debate.

    Yes, there are young filmmaker's who would follow Spike's example and try and vague pitch for their project. Having taught young filmmakers on the university level, I am speaking from experience as to what young filmmaker's will do. As a professor, I would challenge students to be as specific as possible with their projects, because everyone thinks they have the next great blockbuster. Yet, it is imperative for them to hone a set of skills when presenting their projects. My simple question for Spike's campaign is, what's the story? Any investor and/or backer deserves to know that information before parting with their money. That's basic Business 101.

    That said, I respectfully yeild the floor. If you would like to know more about my documentary project, here's a link - http://kck.st/KvQ1cC

    If you ever have a crowd funding campaign for a film project, please let me know. I would love to check it out. You never know, I might become one of your backers. Create an excellent day. Keep rising.

  • CareyCarey | July 26, 2013 10:46 PM

    OH MY, sensitive much?

    Look Darryl, I think we should look at the fine details before losing our cool.

    In reference to Spike "never taking the traditional route" I wasn't referring to a funding model. Oh no, I was referring to the subject matter/genre of his films and the man's outspoken nature. In other words, he is different, which has served him well. To that point, I have to drop my favorite quote on you. And then, maybe, you'll understand were I'm coming from:

    "Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. Not a few men who cherish lofty and noble ideals hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different." ~ MLK

    Again Darryl, as I said, Spike is different, he frequently takes the road less traveled, that non-traditional route.

    On the other hand, you've taken a traditional route of.... excuse me and no disrespect intended ....but your piece is an example of dogs piling on a rabbit. But the intent of your essay was what, again?

    "the intent of my essay, is not wanting other young filmmakers to think they can be vague and "mysterious" and expect to get funded. I can guarantee you were his name Tom Johnson, he would never be able to get much funding based on his that pitch, on the merit of the project." ~ DARRYL WHARTON-RIGBY

    Really Darryl? Please, spare me. Any young film-maker, Tom Jones or Harry Bo Scary with half a brain would know they are NOT a Spike Lee, and therefore it would be a fool's errand to duplicate his path. So your excuses and rationalizations are falling on deft ears.

    In short, you may have walked on the wild side, but what you're doing today (with this essay) speaks so loudly I can't hear what you're saying.

    Good luck with your doc on the nuclear power plant explosion in Japan.

  • reko | July 26, 2013 5:00 PMReply

    We currently have a campaign up and running on Indiegogo, after watching "The Body" pitch video, we also decided to try something new and different. Would love to get your input on our campaign if possible. We've been featured on Scoop.it and Crowdcrux. We realized the pitch video is and art form, you have to entertain, show passion, while giving details about the project all in under 5 minutes. Tough!
    You can simply Google "Newlywed and Broke" to see the video.

  • Darryl Wharton-Rigby | July 27, 2013 8:52 AM

    Great campaign. Amusing and informative. Nice work. I drop a link on my FB page and sent out Tweet. Will try to drop in something before you guys are done. Keep rising.

  • Monique a Williams | July 26, 2013 6:01 PM

    Love the pitch video! Good luck with your project!

  • Black Sun Tzu | July 26, 2013 3:17 PMReply

    Yep. Felt the same way. Was originally excited about donating and then saw the pitch and had to rethink. There's nothing there that makes me care about the project except the fact that it's made by Spike Lee, one of the most (if not the most) acclaimed black filmmakers in history, and the idea of supporting black filmmaking. And when Spike spoke about his body of work I remembered that Red Hook Summer which was a bit of an excruciating experience except for the outstanding performance of Clark Peters. Then I decided to let this one slide. I wish him luck though, and I hope the end result is a Spike Lee Joint with capital letters, the kind that made us feel proud of his filmmaking and elect him a representative of black filmmaking.
    Maybe I'll change my mind if more on the project comes to light.
    Peace!

  • Sterling Cooper | July 26, 2013 2:07 PMReply

    When millionaires support millionaires on Kickstarter, the grassroots system is broken.

    Spike Lee is no longer that "voice of the disenfranchised" he once proudly claimed to be.

    He is no longer "part of the solution"; he has officially crossed the line to "part of the problem".

  • Kevin Sorrell | July 29, 2013 8:03 PM

    Agreed. What really annoys me is why hasn't someone just come out and asked Spike, "According to internet sources, your estimated net worth is somewhere around $40 million. Why aren't you funding this move yourself?"

    I really want to know the answer to that one. Maybe it's just the "struggling, independent artist" in me, but if I had that type of money, and wanted to make a movie that only cost $1.25 million, there's no way I'd be asking anyone else for money. If I believed enough in my project, I'd pony up.

  • CareyCarey | July 26, 2013 1:47 PMReply

    I am far from a hater ~ Darryl Wharton-Rigby

    ...And the colored girls go "Doo do doo do doo do do doo ..."

    I read and watched Spike’s pitch and to be frank (and I am far from a hater) he breaks the first rule of crowd funding – BE SPECIFIC ~Darryl Wharton-Rigby

    ...And the colored girls go "Doo do doo do doo do do doo ..."

    Reading Spike's Kickstarter rationale for his campaign, he has delivered nothing but cinematic mumbo jumbo ~ Darryl Wharton-Rigby

    ...And the colored girls go "Doo do doo do doo do do doo ..."

    "Spike is merely saying "support my next project because I'm Spike Lee and I made all these films in the past". He's primarily pitching his filmography."

    And Mr. Wharton-Rigby, I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, you obviously have a bit of disdain for Spike's approach (even though you went out of your way to suggest you're not a hater) so what's up with that? I mean, what did you hope to achieve by writing this piece?

    Damn man, we're talking about Spike Lee, the greatest black film-maker of all time, who has never taken the traditional route, so why were you compelled to throw salt on HIS kickstarter campaign?

    I'd suggest that you take a clue from "Walk On The Wild Side"

    Little Joe never once gave it away, everybody had to pay and pay. A hussle here and a hussle there. New York City's the place where they said, "Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side"
    I said, "Hey, Darryl take a walk on the wild side"

  • FactChecker | July 26, 2013 1:39 PMReply

    I have to agree with Darryl, who makes many great points, and wrote a very well-thought out mini business plan article, yesterday, for filmmakers to follow on how to kickstart properly.

    I, too, am beginning to think, as Darryl mentions, that perhaps kickstarter has jumped the shark. I've never contributed to a crowdfunding project, and have no intentions of ever doing so.

    I don't gamble, and that's what kickstarter is. Hell, that's what the stock market is. And there are no guarantees. V. Mars was clearly an anomaly, involving a freakish group of diehard fans who, for whatever reason, really dug that show.

    And while lots of filmmakers, actors, directors, have their fans, perhaps, we're at a time, and place, in our economy where there are so many places for consumers to spend their dollars that they're wiser than ever before. So people are REALLY choosing to invest wisely, and a project must be VERY compelling for an audience to buy in to it. "The Lone Ranger" flopping at the box office proves that.

    Also, it's different to support or enjoy someone's talent, like Shemar, who is a decent actor and enjoyable to watch, but is unproven as a producer of a TV show or film. Me thinks he was a little TOO full of himself to believe that he could raise the money he originally allotted for his movie when it was on kickstarter. Which brings us to his former onscreen co-star, Victoria Rowell. Who also announced a kickstart campaign, earlier this week, on the Essence website.

    While Rowell is also a decent, enjoyable, actress to watch, she, like Spike, is relying a little too much on her resume as opposed to project vision, and SHOWING the audience what they will get for their hard earned dollar. So far Rowell, who is trying to raise $50,000 for what is being touted as a TV series -- but more accurately, I believe, her plan is for a web series [because on what planet can one produce a scripted TV series for $50,000?] -- so far has 12 backers and has raised $470. Her campaign has 33 days to go.

    Please someone correct me, if I am wrong, but aside from that Pebble watch band, about a year ago, in which millions of people invested, I've not read, in the press, about any unknown artist/entrepreneur whose been as successful as the V. Mars group, in garnering a crowd to fund their project.

    While the idea, on its face, sounds remotely interesting, in my estimation, it doesn't seem
    to be working as intended. It's not bringing about opportunities for bold, creative, storytellers
    to be seen by investors, or Hollywood, for that matter, that might, in turn lead to them making a larger investment in said filmmaker's next project.

    It's not leading to attention being paid to new voices. In fact it seems to have set a bad precedent, as it aided and abetted two established artists (Brach and the V. Mars group) who, arguably, didn't need the financial assistance. And now, others who, arguably, don't need the financial backing, are also coming forward, which seems to be turning potential funders off.

  • Sterling Cooper | July 26, 2013 2:14 PM

    @Factchecker-- a thoughtful and deserving post. It compliments Mr. Rigby's piece.

  • DJ | July 26, 2013 1:24 PMReply

    I think many of Spike's missteps on this campaign has maybe less to do with his entitlement/presumption and more to do with him just being behind the times. Spike sounds like he's just woken up to the crowdsourcing game (maybe he has), which has been around for some years. In tech terms, that's an entire life cycle. Then again, he admits to being a luddite --- he's said in the past that he literally pens all his scripts on legal pad, won't ever touch Final Draft, and has had some of his early works literally saved from disaster by Ernest Dickerson.

  • JEFTCG | July 26, 2013 12:49 PMReply

    Darryl, reading between the lines, here: my interpretation of this is that you are man who is slowly coming to realize Spike for who he really is. Spike's recent Kickstarter behavior is merely standard Spike: hollow and self-serving, wrapped within the guise of black positivity. YOU, however, sound like a man struggling with this realization of one of your "idols". It's a fascinating read, for those recognizing this slant. Nonetheless, I appreciate you and the work you do, my brother. My best to you.

  • miktal | July 26, 2013 12:36 PMReply

    More excellent points. Spike is a very intelligent man, but not a clever one, and there is an ocean of difference. I`m just wondering if he stopped to consider the effects of him not making his target, after basically selling himself to "his" audience.

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