Blood, sweat and crowdfunding for 'Life Itself'

Indiegogo effort for Ebert doc builds community but means a lot of work

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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)

Late Monday afternoon, the lobby of the Gene Siskel Film Center was thick with expectations. The money guys hovered. They were about to see the result of their investments — they were about to see "Life Itself," the new Steve James documentary about movie critic Roger Ebert. And, frankly, the money guys expected a return, a little something something. Still, they were polite about it: Jonathan Boehle, 23, unemployed, from Cornell, 100 miles southwest of Chicago, said matter-of-factly: "I heard the film needed money. I knew I should donate."

Asked if he thought his donation made a difference between this movie's existing or not, he smiled serenely:

"Oh … no, no."

Ron Lazzeretti, a Chicago filmmaker (with some connections to James but not Ebert), said: "Roger occupied such a place in my imagination, it was a film I was happy to help tell and a story I wanted to see."

He paused. "But to be honest: I do wonder why people donate to these things. I wonder how filmmakers can even ask. It's hard enough for me to ask people I know for money, let alone strangers. But I also saw on Kickstarter that Rickie Lee Jones needed money for a project. So maybe it's just hard out there for everyone."

Lazzeretti, like Boehle — like roughly two-thirds of the 196 moviegoers at the screening — donated $100 each to "Life Itself." And their modest return was the screening itself. (The film will get a wider release this summer.) They donated to the film through the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, which is similar to Kickstarter, with one crucial difference: Unlike Kickstarter, a project on Indiegogo can keep whatever is donated, even if the project never reaches its stated goal. James' goal was $150,000. He posted the project Nov. 20, and by Jan.14 he had pulled in $153,875 from more than 1,600 donors.

Which makes "Hoop Dreams" director James the latest in a line of established, acclaimed filmmakers — Spike Lee, Zach Braff — to turn to crowdfunding for cash.

Which means that eventually those filmmakers, who offer gift incentives for donations, must ante up.

Hence, this donor screening at the Siskel Film Center, attended by James. Also, last week, a donor screening in New York , attended by James. And next week, a donor screening in Los Angeles, attended by James. And Sunday, a screening in South Dakota, attended by James. And last week a screening in Georgia. Then later this spring, a screening at Glenbrook South High School.

Yes, the life of the crowdfunded filmmaker — "Life Itself" provides a nice snapshot of a case study.

After the lights went down, James walked through the Siskel and sat in the theater's cafe. He looked surprisingly awake for a man whose Indiegogo-fed commitments are exhausting just to recount.

"Let me tell you, these crowdfunded films are a lot of work," he sighed. "People have no idea. I've done two of them now. ... And I now have certain duties to fulfill. People have this impression that crowdfunding is just people giving you money, but really it's a sweat equity thing."

He looked at Gordon Quinn, co-founder of Chicago's Kartemquin Films, the 48-year-old nonprofit James has been associated with for decades, and he asked, "Gordon, whose idea was this?"

"We were talking about it big time when we had lunch at that yacht club," Quinn said.

"Yeah, but collectively at Kartemquin, considering where we needed to be to complete the film, we saw crowdfunding as modest help," James said. "We knew we wouldn't (unlike Lee or Braff) raise the whole budget this way. So we went the usual routes. And got turned down by a lot of potential broadcast partners too. The best reason to do the crowdfunding thing was building a community for the film — you do it because you need money, but the greater value is in the emotional investment it brings out in people."

In other words: "Life Itself," which was made on a reported budget of $1million, was mostly paid for, according to James, by a collection of real money guys, including CNN, the Sun-Times Foundation and several private-equity investors. Martin Scorsese, an executive producer on the documentary, did not lend financial support, James said, only his name, his interview for the film and promotional backing.

"Someone once told me," James said, "that with famous people, ask for their time or their money, but never ask for both."The $153,875 raised on Indiegogo went toward post-production costs. But, as with many large crowdfunding campaigns these days, the money brought in is often less important than the marketing generated by the campaign. Tim Horsburgh, Kartemquin's director of communications, ran the campaign. In fact, Horsburgh offered himself as an incentive: For $500, you could have shadowed him at Sundance.

Someone did.

Essentially, the perfect donor to "Life Itself" is an Ebert fan like Zachary Upstone, a 31-year-old steel salesman from Chicago who donated to three separate incentive packages, for a total of $450.

"More than anything else, the urge to do this came mostly from knowing that I've become part of something," he said. Indeed, $250 of his donation bought him a "thank you" in the end credits.

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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