Letterman Doc Funds Oscar-Qualifying Run Through Web Plea

The crowd-funding campaign for “Dying to Do Letterman” reveals the costs of competing for an Academy Award at DocuWeeks

Last Updated: July 20, 2011 @ 11:30 AM

For an independent documentary, qualifying for the Academy Awards isn't easy, or cheap.

But one of this year's hopefuls has found a new way to raise money: a crowd-funding campaign based on the simple plea, "Help us qualify for an Academy Award."

The producers of “Dying to Do Letterman” raised more than enough money through the Kickstarter crowd-sourcing website to do just that. The documentary, about a standup comic Steve Mazan's quest to land a spot on "Late Night With David Letterman," will screen at the International Documentary Assn.'s upcoming DocuWeeks, a three-week event designed specifically to qualify films for the Oscar.

Director/producers Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina originally set out to raise $37,000 – enough to pay for DocuWeeks and a publicist to make the most of the showcase — and reached that goal in less than a week. They now have pledges exceeding $44,000 from more than 450 backers.

IDA executive director Michael Lumpkin suggested other filmmakers could learn from their example.   

“The ‘DTDL’ team’s success with their campaign is tremendous news,” he said in an email, “and shows the filmmaking community how to successfully use some of these new online tools to raise money for documentary films.”

The Oscar rules change frequently, but at the moment the Academy requires certain technical specifications, plus advertised one-week runs in both Los Angeles and New York, with a minimum of two showings per day. (Sorry, Sarah Palin doc: Grapevine, Texas, and Kennesaw, Georgia, don't qualify.)

DocuWeeks is a handy showcase for docs that don't have a distributor in their corner — or HBO, which has perfected a stealthy way of making its made-for-TV docs Oscar eligible. 

DocuWeeks chooses a number of films – this year's lineup consists of 17 features and seven shorts – and screens them not in a festival-style format, but in three separate one-week runs that fulfill all the Academy requirements. (This year's showcases begin on Aug. 12 in New York and Aug. 19 in L.A.)

When the film was chosen by DocuWeeks, Fincioen and Messina immediately launched the Kickstarter campaign. The documentary gets its title because comic Mazan was told he had liver cancer and might only have five years to live.

Although the filmmakers set a $37,000 goal, DocuWeeks actually charges features between $14,000 and $20,000 for inclusion, depending on the format and length. (In this case, according to Lumpkin, the cost is $17,000.) Additional monies will be spent on a publicist and travel. Backers will receive special rewards from the filmmakers, from buttons, mp3s and DVDs to private screenings and special performances from Mazan.

While the filmmakers are anxious to raise more and expand their release strategy, reaching the target also allowed them to relax.

On Kickstarter, after all, participants  don't get any of the money pledged unless they meet their goals.