Blood, sweat and crowdfunding for 'Life Itself'

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'Life Itself'

Roger Ebert in a photo from the Steve James documentary "Life Itself." (Kevin Horan/Kartemquin Films / February 12, 2014)

To keep the length of the closing credits in check, Horsburgh said the end-credit incentive was capped at 150.

"Oh, OK, and I had wondered where all those names at the end came from," James said flatly, wryly.

Indeed, donations came largely from random fans of the late movie critic, Horsburgh explained. But also, as with many crowdfunding campaigns, friends ponied up cash too: particularly, FORs (Friends of Roger), FOKs (Friends of Kartemquin), film critics (Nathan Rabin, former head writer of A.V. Club, for example) and filmmakers (such as Alex Gibney, who won the best documentary Oscar for 2007's "Taxi to the Dark Side").

For $500 each, five donors were offered the opportunity to spend a night drinking with James at Old Town Ale House: The five who bought in include directors Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive") and Morgan Spurlock ("Supersize Me"). But that sounds fun. For $300, James would spend an hour talking to you over Skype; three people took him up on the offer. And for the relatively low price of $67, James would talk to you in a one-hour conference call, once a month for six months; 22 donors bought into that donor incentive. For $5,000, you could buy a screening of the film (plus a Q-and-A with James) at the Lake Street screening room where bona fide Chicago film critics go; and for $10,000, James and Ebert's widow, Chaz, would take you and 10 friends to dinner, screen the film and answer questions.

Both of those incentives were bought.

"But there were some ideas we didn't do," James laughed.

"I pitched a 'Hoop Dreams' and 'Life Itself' double feature at the Chicago Theater," Horsburgh said.

"But that's a long night," said James, rolling his eyes at the thought of a five-hour-plus screening.

Scorsese, on the other hand, agreed to sign a "Goodfellas" DVD for $75, or — for $150 — to offer signed DVDs and posters of "Hugo," "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull."

"That was too cheap," James said. So he was asked by a reporter: How much would it cost for Steve James to read some amateur poetry?

"A lot. You don't want me to read your poetry," he replied.

And yet, for $1,000, James would spend up to an hour with an amateur filmmaker, watching his or her work and suggesting edits.

"That's a commitment," he said. The twist is, the person who bought the incentive only had a screenplay. "Which I now have on my computer. And yes, I plan to read their screenplay," James said.

Spike Lee, on Kickstarter, once offered to take a $10,000 donor to a New York Knicks game, plus courtside seats and dinner. Said James: "Well, see, I don't have Bulls seats. But I will read your screenplay."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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