James is already editing the film, which he shot over the past year. The director, whose 1994 “Hoop Dreams” documentary received crucial support from Ebert and fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel, will use some of the money to finish the film. However, the campaign’s primary purpose is building a supportive community around the film before it opens in theaters.
Anyone who contributes $25 to Indiegogo will get to see see the documentary before anyone else via a private stream. The movie will bow theatrically next year and air on CNN, but the movie’s initial fans will get a peek before that happens.
They will also receive exclusive rewards akin to the normal swag and thanks offered by other crowdfunding campaigns.
“We had in our minds that at some point later in the process we’d like to do a crowdfunding campaign to help with finishing costs, but, more importantly, to tap into the community out there of people who love Roger,” James told TheWrap.
“One of the distinctive things about Roger was that when he entered that space of blogging and social media, he really engaged with his readers very directly. It was extraordinary for a person of his stature and fame.”
James began working on the film after Steve Zaillian’s producing partner Garrett Basch approached him with Ebert’s best-selling memoir, “Life Itself.” Basch produced the film with Kartemquin Film’s Zak Piper while Zaillian and Scorsese are both executive producers (along with Justine Nagan, Gordon Quinn, Kat White and Mark Mitten).
Though James was familiar with Ebert, thanks to his support for “Hoop Dreams,” the director had long believed in the “firewall between critics and filmmakers.”
After reading Ebert’s book and doing some other research, the allure was irresistible. He began filming last December, interviewing Ebert, his family, friends, colleagues, fellow critics and several filmmakers he touched.
“We interviewed over two dozen people,” James said. “I started out with the idea I’d interview eight people and be strategic about it, but I discovered quickly I could have interviewed 100 people and gotten more aspects and features of who he was.”
The list of interviewees includes Scorsese, Errol Morris, Ava DuVernay and Gregory Nava. James also scored a rare interview with the wife of Siskel, Ebert’s long-time TV sparring partner.
“She’s been a very private person her whole life, and after Gene died she turned down many requests to be interviewed,” James said. “She consented to be in the film and she’s great.”
An even greater hurdle for James came midway through the production when Ebert’s health problems worsened. The award-winning critic and author died in April.
James vowed to finish the documentary anyways, and the elegiac, reverential response to Ebert’s death reminded everyone that he was a critic nonpareil. No other critic had the same following online or the same connection with every day Americans.
That’s why John Sloss, whose Cinetic Media represents distribution rights for the film, thought this was an ideal time to experiment with a different approach to crowdfunding. The movie will seek to raise $150,000 in 30 days, and if the campaign reaches a certain point much of the money will go to charities selected by Ebert’s widow, Chaz Ebert.
“The smartest thing anyone ever told me about crowdfunding is it is primarily about creating and enhancing a community,” Sloss told TheWrap. “It also serves the function of raising money, but that’s almost a byproduct. This is a way of bringing fans and supporters in early.”
Sloss first wanted to experiment with his client Kevin Smith, who boasts more than two million followers on Twitter. Yet Smith was not interested, and Sloss sensed another chance with the Ebert documentary.
“We are defining our core community — the people who are most interested and support Roger Ebert,” Sloss said. “We are giving the something nobody else will get first.”