How Colin Hanks Crowd-Sourced His Doc on Tower Records

Shunned by normal financiers, Hanks quickly raises $60,000 on Kickstarter for his look at historic music retailer

Colin Hanks wasn't born when the giant music retailer Tower Records was founded in 1960; at the age of 33, Hanks is closer to the iTunes generation than the buying-vinyl-at-the-record-store crowd.

Colin HanksBut Hanks, an actor and the son of Tom Hanks, is fond enough of Tower that he's in the midst of directing a documentary feature about the music chain, which went out of business in 2006 – and he's crowd-funding it via the internet in an attempt to, as he says, use "the tools of his new era to help celebrate the old one."

Tower began in Sacramento with Russ Solomon selling 45s out of the back of his father's drugstore, and expanded into a dominant music retailer in the '70s and '80s, with huge and influential outlets in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, London and Tokyo. The stores were exhaustively stocked, and became meeting grounds and social centers for a wide spectrum of music fans and music professionals.

"I'm normally not one to celebrate big corporate retailers," Hanks told TheWrap this week, "but Tower was always very independent. And growing up in Sacramento, I always felt a great source of local pride that something as big as that could have come from my hometown."

Hanks approached Solomon, who is now in his 80s and who agreed to be interviewed and to open his storage vaults to the filmmakers.

Initial filming was done in 2008 – but when Hanks tried to raise money to continue work on the documentary, he was stymied by a rocky economy and by a common attitude from potential financiers: "There are a lot of companies going bankrupt right now. Why do you want to tell the story of one that went under two years ago?"

His answer: "The collapse of Russ Solomon's dream became an example of a cultural shift, not only in the music industry but in the way people interacted with each other."

When traditional sources of financing looked closed to him – "it's almost impossible to finance a documentary these days unless you have a grant from some foundation" – Hanks turned to the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to raise enough money to complete his film.

On his Kickstarter page, users are invited to donate amounts ranging from $1 to $2,000 in return for merchandise, mentions in the film's credits, special vinyl recordings of Hanks' interviews, invitations to screenings and more. 

His pitch:

The campaign, which began with a goal of $50,000, has been more successful than he imagined. "All Things Must Pass" hit its goal in just five days, which is crucial because Kickstarter rules specify that projects don't receive any of the money pledged unless they reach their goals. The film is now past the $62,000 mark, mostly in small donations, with almost a full month remaining.

"We've found that so many people have stories about how much Tower meant to them," he said. "People have a deep personal connection to music, and Tower was a conduit for that."

One surprise: when he recently appeared on Broadway with Jane Fonda in the Moises Kaufman play "33 Variations," which deals with Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, the playwright told him that he'd originally found out about the Beethoven work from a Tower clerk.

Now that he's met his Kickstarter goal, said Hanks, the key is to persuade potential donors to keep giving.

"We need people to understand that just because we've reached our goal doesn’t mean we don't still need money," he said. "The more money we raise, the better movie we'll make."

And even if they don't get more contributions, he added, the crowd-funding campaign has had another significant impact on the project: "One of the amazing offshoots of Kickstarter is that thousands of people are now aware of this film that wouldn’t have been otherwise."

Those people, Hanks figures, are the beginning of the answer to another question he hears regularly from the businessmen.

"People say, who's the audience for this?" he said. "And I say, pretty much anyone who bought music from 1970 through 1990."