Ever since discovering the documentary Teenland: In Teenagers’ Bedrooms back in 2007, it’s been a joy to witness director Jeanie Finlay’s filmmaking ascent as she’s delivered one impressive feature after another. Her latest endeavour, ORION: The Man Who Would Be King, has been waiting in the wings for several years but is now ready to take centre stage as Jeanie and her team reach out to the community they’ve served so well with a crowdfunding campaign to help them complete the film. We invited Jeanie to provide an insight into the journey of ORION and her knowledgeable perspective on running a crowdfunding campaign.
Looking through the DN archive you first mentioned ORION to us back in late 2009. What’s been the film’s journey since then?
You never know which film is going to find traction first. I started The Great Hip Hop Hoax hit delays so made Sound It Out in the interim. ORION was kind of weaved around the two projects with Pantomime coming in on the end of Hip Hop Hoax! It used to be, long ago that you could get a commission from a broadcaster from a good idea pitched well or a killer one pager. In our interesting financial times and with greater competition for the same few funds I knew that I needed to just start making the film before pursuing real finance, I had to be able to show people how great ORION is rather than just talk about it.
I started to film about four or five years ago, the development supported by Creative England and by the blood sweat and tears that fuel many independent productions. Each time I visited the States for Sound It Out screenings I made sure that I filmed more for ORION. I now have about 90 hours as well as countless hours of archive and photographs under my belt. This approach means that I have interviewed a number of people close to Orion’s story that have now sadly passed away and I am very close to finishing my film.
I’ve been filming some dreamy reconstruction material which is a bit of a departure for me but feels very right for ORION. I’m looking forward to doing more soon. It’s emotional and evocative material much more than reconstruction of actuality. It’s going to be a core part of setting tone and atmosphere.
During those intervening years you’ve attended numerous filmmaker workshops, panels, pitches, and festivals. As an experienced filmmaker with several well received features under your belt already, what do you feel participation in such events continues to bring to the development of your projects/career?
Holding a camera is (unfortunately) such a small part of the job of a filmmaker. It’s all about finding which stories to tell, discovering how to tell each story and finding partners to help bring them to life. Festivals and industry events can be very useful in making those things happen. I’m based at a busy cinema, my husband is a writer/director and I have an amazing producer but I really don’t see that many documentary makers that often. Going to festivals makes me feel part of the documentary community – meeting up with people and finding out how they’re getting on with projects and seeing new work. Some industry events like Sheffield Doc/Fest and their MeetMarket are invaluable, I really love HotDocs, Big Sky and SXSW and I’ve enjoyed taking part in the React Future documentary sandbox.
Sometimes schemes are more about the people you meet rather than what you do but you never know the impact something has or will have until much further down the line. For example I took part in Interdoc, a Scottish documentary Institute development scheme with ORION a few years ago. It was way too early for the project – I didn’t have a fully formed pitch trailer, treatment or a rough cut in place but I pitched the project over fifty times to people in the industry. They all pretty much said – “sounds interesting, get in touch when you have more to show”. I think you have to be careful not to over pitch things – people can only see something for the first time once. However, it meant that when Sound It Out was playing at a lot of big festivals I’d already met most of the industry people and it made the ride so much easier. This year I vowed I wouldn’t go to any festivals (apart from Sheffield Doc Fest) and I’d just get on with actually making films so I’m aiming to finish Pantomime and ORION. I did break my rule and snuck in a trip in to the Beat Festival showcase in Moscow – so interesting to meet and talk to Russian filmmakers at such a politically volatile time. I also got to see how The Great Hip Hop Hoax and Sound It Out connected with a Russian audience.
We spoke at length and you wrote a great piece for us about your crowdfunding experience for Sound It Out, which I’m sure means the ORION crowdfunding preparation has been a breeze right? But seriously, have you been able to build on those earlier campaigns for ORION – have you found changes in the crowdfunding scene since then?
It has been such an interesting and exciting ride. My last two films used very different methods for production. Sound It Out was one of the very first films to be crowdfunded in the UK and was a BFI case study in audience engagement following our independent theatrical release to fifty cinemas. The Great Hip Hop Hoax was a traditional broadcaster and film fund financing with a larger distributor – commissioned for BBC Storyville, BBC Scotland and Creative Scotland.
There were things I liked about both routes so I knew for ORION I wanted to take a hybrid approach that drew on the best of both worlds. We are combining broadcaster and agency funding along with asking the audience to support the film. They say if you’re crowdfunding just for the money then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. The experience I’d had on Sound It Out, getting to know our audience prior to the film being finished was incredibly rewarding. It meant we knew there was an audience for the film and we asked them where to show the film. It helped inform everything. On demand and popup screenings meant we never had to say no to a screening request and it led to the cinemas being full, the boutique DVD selling out and an overwhelming reception when it broadcast on BBC4. Without crowdfunding the film wouldn’t have been made and I’m convinced wouldn’t have had the presence it did and continues to have.
With such deep audience engagement on ORION coupled with detailed audience research it made complete sense to crowdfund a portion of the ORION production fund. We currently have just 12 days left on our crowdfunding campaign for ORION on Indiegogo so do take a look and consider backing us to finish the film. Every $ counts!
One of the biggest crowdfunding changes has been Facebook. Back in the halcyon days [drifts off in a cloud of nostalgia] Facebook was somewhere that an independent production could find its audience and engage with it, for free. The change in the Facebook algorithm means that anything I post on the Orion Facebook page only has an organic share of around 1 – 2% unless I pay for it. The fans you spend months amassing aren’t seeing the content you’re posting – it’s incredibly frustrating. This video summaries brilliantly why I won’t be throwing money at the conundrum.
All the lessons I learnt last time still apply. I still write a personal thank you email and send a little extra something to every single person who backs us. I have been asked in the past about how to go about automating that process which seems to be missing the point. The main reason for crowdfunding, aside from the cash, is audience, audience, audience. I’ve asked them to tell me why they have funded the film. It’s fascinating:
“I can’t wait for this journey into the deep dark heart of Elvisiana. I love to see Jeanie’s films – great stories of the world of music and the misfits who inhabit it.”
– Morgan Neville, Oscar winning director of Twenty Feet from Stardom
“I’m very hopeful about this project. It’s my desire that the music and talent of Orion / Jimmy Ellis will be heard and enjoyed by future generations.”
– Debbie Faye Brown, friend of ORION.
This time around we chose to go with Indiegogo again as our crowdfunding platform, mainly out of loyalty but I am left in part wishing we’d tried Kickstarter to see how different they are. I love the Indiegogo guys but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked – “Is this a Kickstarter type thing?” – they’ve got that “Google” and “Hoover” brand recognition.
A huge challenge has been trying to convince an engaged and excited audience of ORION fans that really want to see the film to commit their money to it! There has been a huge fear – both of the logistics of making a donation technological and of spending money online. I have addressed this in part by talking to people one at a time and explaining the process and I’ve also made a short instructional guide to making a donation.
I’ve also learned to not fear tweaking your campaign or perks half way through. We’ve been doing a lot of tinkering – responding to audience demand – People asked for a digital version of the film so we have now provided it. Even though it’s not all or nothing on nothing on Indiegogo – there are still huge stakes. If we don’t meet target we pay 9% fees rather than 4% if we’re successful. There’s also the added pressure that we have applications pending with film funds and I know they are tracking the ORION campaign to see if it’s successful. No pressure! We also want to give something back to our audience so we will be giving Sound It Out away over the Record Store Day weekend.
Some promotion that’s definitely new from your previous campaigns (& I haven’t seen before) is the 12 ORION wallpaper placements on WeTransfer. How did that come about?
I use WeTransfer all of the time – sending huge video files to my producer in London or Wales (I am steadfastly based in Nottingham) so I inevitably have the WeTransfer screen open for long periods of time..
The best WeTransfer screens work well with mystery – the images are intriguing, have little text and invite you to click and find more. What’s more intriguing that a mysterious man in a mask? It seemed such a good fit for ORION I am so happy we were able to work with WeTransfer on it. We are also working with Broadway Cinema where I’m based. The ORION trailer is showing before every film in the cinema in April. We also did a Cinebar screening of Elvis: That’s the Way It Is to show a sneak peek. The trailer is also being played once an hour, every hour on an Elvis only radio station in the US!
You’ve always included interesting, collectable incentives for backers such as the limited edition 7″ gatefold version of the Sound It Out DVD which has pride of place at DN Towers. How did you get the likes of Tatty Devine onboard for the ORION perks?
I think making good perks that people actually want to own is really important. I think very carefully about every single element of the project and they all have to fit – so our DVDs are limited edition and our 8 Tracks and vinyl have come all the way from Nashville. I love the idea of people owning a little bit of Orion history for themselves. I didn’t want the same old boring perks… a shout out, a t-shirt or a tote bag. Tatty Devine have always been brilliant supporters of ours, I think we share a sensibility of independent production. When I told them I was making a new film they were keen to get involved and support production. I LOVE the limited edition necklaces they made for us. So special.
What’s the deal with the ORION online memory bank? How can people contribute to that aspect of the project – or any other aspect you’d like them to get involved with?
ORION was awarded a future documentary award from REACT. I AM ORION is a wraparound project to ORION, that harnesses web technologies to explore mystery, tribute, identity and fandom. Developing new forms of audience and fan engagement, I AM ORION is gathering memories and eliciting participation in the telling and sharing of this rich and fascinating story. We have reached out to fans to gather and record their memories of Jimmy “Orion” Ellis, using new tech Tint to collate them in an online memory bank. It aims to provide a place for fans to share their content and memories engaged by the #MyOrion hashtag across a range of social media. The tribute element of I AM ORION poses the question: “Would you wear the mask?” inviting audiences to wear the item that transformed Jimmy Ellis into Orion.
There are options to print, cut out an keep or customise masks and upload masked tributes, allowing audiences to embody the Orion story their own way. Digital and analogue masks coming soon to www.orionthemovie.com. The project looks at the value of community interaction, the impact on audience engagement and the data which emerges from a combination of digital actions and crowdfunding campaigns, etc. This is an opportunity to quantify, articulate and assign value to digital resources in a way that has much deeper impact on project development and delivery than marketing alone.
Now that crowdfunding is being co-opted by the likes of Zach Braff, Spike Lee & Veronica Mars do you feel that signals a positive or a negative for indie crowdfunded films?
I don’t think it’s a bad thing as it has brought the concept of crowdfunding into a wider public consciousness. The only myth that I’d like to dispel is that crowdfunding is easy or free money – it’s an enormous amount of work. But the rewards are more than worth it if you have a project that you are truly passionate about. It’s incredibly exciting – every dollar pledged takes us one step closer.
“We need your help to get this movie finished. So, let’s Git-R-Done!! The reason I’m funding ‘Orion the Movie’ is that I want people who missed out on Jimmy Ellis’ talent to hear him for the first time and enjoy the music he loved so much. Jimmy had a good heart and would give you anything he had if you needed help. That’s just how he was. I miss him a lot.”
– Bobby Dillard, Friend and colleague of Jimmy “Orion” Ellis