World Happy Day was cold and a bit snowy in Newport, RI, when we attended the screening of Happy, Roko Belic’s documentary on the science and practice of being happy.
Didn’t know Feb. 11 was World Happy Day? That’s because Belic made it up, a la Festivus of “Seinfeld” fame. But whereas Festivus included “the airing of grievances” as its holiday tradition, the day and the documentary Belic conceived was about unburdening from the same.
The screening I attended at the Jane Pickens Theater drew 80 people, and I went because I have had the fortune of seeing Belic’s previous documentary, the 1999 Academy Award nominee Genghis Blues. While Belic’s chops as a filmmaker are obvious, Happy‘s savvy way of approaching its audience was likewise notable. The film screened at 600 locations worldwide, including not only dozens of theatrical screenings, but also events in homes and other venues.
Many filmmakers would love to have their premiere become an event, but most don’t. Belic got Happy into dozens of theaters in a variety of countries by creating excitement and a sense of event around the documentary and a holiday that doesn’t exist. Filmmakers have certainly attempted to piggyback on existing events, organizations and movements, while advocacy organizations have become adept at creating “days,” “weeks” and “months” — see my previous post about Black History Month — that heighten awareness (or sales). Belic seems to have nicely combined those two routes. (More February holidays you’ve never heard of are in this list, with today among other things being National Get A Different Name Day.)
Happy is a prescriptive documentary. Not caring to simply sit back and tell its stories, it advocates. It’s an array of tales of people who have found happiness (including an impoverished Indian rickshaw driver and a former debutante scarred by a horrible accident), combined with a panel of scholars who have studied and pondered the question of happiness in human existence.
Happy played an assortment of film festivals, winning laurels at several that include Amsterdam Film Festival, the Arizona International Film Festival and the Mexico International Film Festival. Belic crowdfunded successfully last year on Kickstarter, raising more than $36,000 for shooting that took him to Denmark, India, Japan and Bhutan.
It’s a really nice film, and a Google search of Sunday’s news showed that World Happy Day may have gotten a foothold, with an amount of media coverage that surprised me, including hits with Forbes and local news. With its smart work from funding, to production, to release, Happy is a smile-inducing effort by a resourceful documentary filmmaker.
One of the skills that have always been required of documentary filmmakers is fundraising, and in this digital landscape that’s become both easier and harder: Technology allows documentaries to be made well and significantly lower expense; the documentary filmmaker, however, competes against far more other documentary filmmakers to gather support. And as part of that, crowdfunding is a tool that evolves by the day.
Marilu O’lyaryz, a Miami-based filmmaker, dropped me a line to tell me about her efforts currently to run a Kickstarter campaign to fund her film, “The Cheetah Conservation Project,” which aims to document the efforts of the The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre in South Africa to breed cheetahs and regenerate a population decimated by poachers.
She and her husband, cinematographer Brian O’lyaryz, have set a crowdfunding goal of $8,000. In that goes the nature of this particular fundraising beast. Marilu, 28, has been into film since she was a teen in Florida Film Institute’s Children’s Film program. She’s worked on various films for such places as Warner Brothers and MTV.
“I began working with Zoo Miami on various education programs,” says Marilu. “I decided that 2012 was the year I wanted to make a film, and so I reached out to (Hoedspruit).” They work primarily from fundraising. They are a nonprofit accepting donations from outside sources, but much of it was funded out-of-pocket.”
Crowdfunding as a business model turns the typical transaction on its head: Rather than purchasing a completed product, the funder works on some faith, some risk, and generally a belief in the larger cause the project entails. Saving cheetahs would certainly seem something to get behind.
“I heard about Kickstarter through my husband, who was shooting a web series they were looking to fund with Kickstarter. They had completed the first episode and were looking to fund additional episodes. I can see how a project like mine is riskier to support, because I haven’t shot the documentary yet.” But, she says, “I think the Kickstarter terms and conditions also protect patrons a little better than some of the other funding mechanisms.”
“I think people who believe in the cause will see we aren’t people who just picked up the camera.”
The fact that the filmmakers already have had two HD cameras (EOS 60Ds) donated, and have an editor who will donate time, means the donations would be more focused on time at the Centre. Having endorsements of one sort or another helps as well: “We just got the African Conservation Foundation on board,” she says.
I’ve seen a share of Kickstarter efforts throw out wild figures – $50,000, $60,000 – and fall far short. I’ve also seen more-established filmmakers jump in and use Kickstarter. Gary Hustwit (“Helvetica”)surprised me when he went the crowdfundng route for his new film “Urbanized,” and came back with $118,000. I’d have thought he’d have gotten more traditional funding, but there you go. Nonetheless, Kickstarter seems firmly a tool for the aspirational, and need to show their project is a labor of love. It looks as if filmmakers are seeing that setting a fund goal of “just enough, but not too much,” is their best bet.
“I do think this is the future of filmmaking for the independents,” Marilu says. “Social networking has been really interesting in this. Word of mouth is the missing item in the recipe to get you funded on Kickstarter.”