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Playboy Cartoonist Doc Heads to Kickstarter for Oscar-Qualifying Funds

Director Steven-Charles Jaffe got Steven Colbert, Guillermo del Toro and Hugh Hefner to appear in his doc on Gahan Wilson, but now he needs money to meet Academy qualifying rules


Like many filmmakers who once worked within the studio system, producer Steven-Charles Jaffe has turned to crowdsourcing to raise money for his new film, a documentary on macabre cartoonist Gahan Wilson.

But the producer of “Ghost” and four Kathryn Bigelow movies, including “Strange Days,” isn’t using the website to help shoot “Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird,” or to finish its post-production. 

Poster art by Gahan WilsonInstead, he’s appealing to the Kickstarter community to help him launch an Academy Awards qualifying run and an Oscar campaign.

“There’s an undeclared revolution going on in Hollywood with crowdsourcing and new ways of distribution,” Jaffe (at left above, with Wilson) said in an exclusive interview with TheWrap. “And it’s crazy wonderful that there are people out there who believe in people’s dreams and endorse them with pledges.”

In this case, it was Jaffe’s dream to make a documentary about the 83-year-old cartoonist whose work in the New Yorker, Playboy, the National Lampoon and others injected a sense of glee into creepy, horrifying and apocalyptic scenarios. 

Jaffe sunk his own money into producing the film, which includes appearances by Wilson fans Guillermo del Toro, Steven Colbert, Randy Newman, Bill Maher and others, but found that distributors in a tough market didn’t know what to make of it.

“I’m short the amount of money it takes to raise a conservative Academy campaign for a documentary, and some filmmaker friends encouraged me to try Kickstarter,” said Jaffe. “I figured this is a good test to see how well I can sell something and to see what Gahan’s appeal is.”

This isn't the first time Kickstarter has been used to fund an Oscar-qualifying run and awards campaign: The 2011 documentary "Dying to Do Letterman" raised more than $55,000 to pay the entry fee and launch a marketing campaign for the now-defunct Oscar-qualifying showcase DocuWeeks, while the short doc "Incident in New Baghdad" raised $12,000 for a qualifying run and ended up with an Oscar nomination.

Jaffe has set a goal of $49,999 to cover the cost of booking two theaters for the one-week qualifying runs in Los Angeles and New York required by Academy rules, and to fund an additional marketing and publicity campaign. With 10 days to go in his Kickstarter campaign, he has raised slightly more than $20,000.

“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘It’s going to work, because the last four days get really intense,'” he said. “I have a Plan B, which would involve a digital platform, but right now I’m focused on making Plan A succeed.”

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For Jaffe, Wilson has been an obsession since he was a teenager and encountered the cartoonist’s work in the first issue of Playboy he ever saw. “He made the worst days brighter with his sense of levity in the face of doom,” said Jaffe, who later hunted down Wilson (left) and tried to get an animated feature based on his work off the ground.

The closest they got, he said, came when IMAX wanted to get into the original-content business and agreed to back a Wilson feature that Jaffe co-wrote with writer-director Nicholas Meyer ("Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution"). But the money never came through, and Jaffee found that he couldn’t interest Hollywood studios in a Wilson film.

“There’s such a bankruptcy of original ideas in Hollywood,” he said. “I’m not surprised by it — and it’s sort of similar to Gahan’s career, where so many editors rejected his work over the years.”

Jaffe began filming conversations with Gahan for a documentary about six years ago, and continued work on the film at the urging of his friend, editor Walter Murch. He then reached out to Colbert, Maher, del Toro, Newman, Neil Gaiman, Hugh Hefner, Stan Lee and other who eagerly talked about the cartoonist and his work.

When he had assembled an early cut, he showed it to his former boss, Mel Brooks, whose first rule had always been, “Never put your own money into a project.”

After launching into an obscenity-laced tirade about how foolish Jaffe was to fund the film himself, Brooks watched the doc. “He saw it, called me and said, ‘There are exceptions to my rule. It’s great, but you couldn’t have convinced anybody to put money into this doc until you made it.'”

The film won the documentary award at Comic-Con in July, 2011 — an honor that would seemingly disqualify it from this year’s Oscars, since the rules specify that a doc must complete its qualifying run “within two years of the motion picture’s completion date.” But Jaffe said that he has continued to work on and re-edit the film since then and just recently completed and copyrighted it.

“I’ve been editing and re-editing this film for six years, and turned town a lot of nice lucrative producing jobs because I really wanted to do this,” he said. “At a certain point you have to say, ‘Am I taking my next job for money, or am I doing something that I care about?

“I haven’t been paid, but I feel like I’m close to bringing Gahan to the forefront of popular culture, where he should be.”