26 Jun 2014

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Interview: Daniel Thornton – Filmmaking with Communities, Crowdfunding and Passion

Seattle artist, teacher, and independent filmmaker Daniel Thornton has lots of reasons to be excited these days.  His 2011 film, “Welcome to Doe Bay,” about the annual Doe Bay music festival on Orcas Island, WA, recently wrapped a successful three-year run of festival screenings, rave reviews, and accolades, including including Best of SIFF 2012, and an Emmy nomination this year following a  TV broadcast run on KCTS 9.

Along with his production company, Creative Differences, he also just wrapped shooting on a new comedy, Worst Laid Plans,” recently released a series of short films for social justice advocacy law firm Columbia Legal Services, and is currently working on a new documentary, “Walking With Keith,” about renowned, and legally blind, Scottish painter Keith Salmon, for broadcast in early 2015. A graduate of the UW MCDM program – now the Communication Leadership program – he also made the time this year to be an Alumni Fellow with the Comm Lead program, offering guidance and skills training to students in tandem with the program throughout the year.

With the 2013-2014 school year wrapping up and Welcome to Doe Bay’s Emmy nomination, the time was right to check-in with Thornton on Doe Bay and insights from his recent projects. True to artistically restless form, Thornton was finishing up some pro-bono photography for a local ceramic artist when I arrived at his spacious Belltown studio. Over a sprawling 45-minute conversation we discussed Welcome to Doe Bay’s successful run in the spotlight, the complexities of crowd-funding, and the importance of investing in artistic communities.

“Welcome to Doe Bay” has had a pretty amazing run, capping off with the Emmy nomination this year.  Tell me a bit about what that ride has been like for you.

We shot the film in 2011, and finished it in 2012, the year it premiered at SIFF. And it ended up being one of five films awarded best of SIFF, which was really nice. It was also reviewed, or submitted as a part of the Reel Northwest awards program, and it came in second.

Then, out of that KCTS made us an offer to be broadcast partner and distributor for it, and after initially being hesitant, I decided that KCTS was a great place for the film, because there are so many northwest artists and musicians, and it’s such a great story – and they ended up being great broadcast partners for the film. And then from there, it started airing in January of 2013, so that’s why it was nominated this year [for the Emmy award], three years after we shot the film and a couple years after it debuted.

So it kind of feels a bit like old news for me. But it’s great, because it keeps garnering accolades, which I think is really great and really great for all the musicians in the film.

What do you think resonated with people about the film, in particular?

It’s a really good feel-good sort of film, a very happy film. The story, in some ways, was kind of inspired by things I had been studying through the MCDM.  And a lot of that is how artists, who, 20-25 years ago in order to find an audience would have had to find a record deal, even an indie record deal, can now sort of cultivate their own audiences through their own channels, and distribute through their own channels.

This is a music festival that has a really strong DIY ethic to it and we wanted to chronicle that.  Here’s some people that were basically like “We’ve got the space” – you know – “Let’s rent some sound equipment, it’d be an awesome place to put on a show; we’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show.”  I wanted to tell a story about these musicians, and how you if you pay attention to quality, you can create an experience that has sustainability to it, and you don’t have to be backed by big breweries or a tobacco company or whatever.  And I think we were pretty effective in telling that story.

Welcome to Doe Bay - image credit Creative Differences

Welcome to Doe Bay Image: Creative Differences

You mentioned the DIY experience of the artists in the film, but that also applies to the movie in many ways.  Tell me about the DIY aspects of making this film.

It’s a crowd-sourced film in a number of ways. One of the ways is that when we were doing this, a lot of local crew said “We want to be a part of this, we’ll do it for nothing. We just want go to the festival, and also to document the festival.” We had a bunch of shooters who came out, and we paid them all, and they got to go to the festival too. So, in that sense, it was crowd-sourced because people just wanted to be a part of the production, they came out of the woodwork. And then we had the Kickstarter, and one of the Kickstarter donors, who has to be anonymous, paid for all the post-production.

Was it a challenge to get all the funds together for the project?  There were a lot of different prizes on your Kickstarter campaign, how much work went into that?

A lot, and it was still pretty new in the Kickstarter life-cycle. We asked for $7,000, and we got $8,000 but pretty much everything had been paid for by that point. We white knuckled it. We worked really hard to reach our goal, and even though it was a lot of extra overhead and time, if you really do the numbers on it, it’s not like Kickstarter was profitable.  It covered a lot of expenses we’d already paid for, but it added a lot of expenses too, like mailings, pressing special DVD’s.  Then there’s complicated tax ramifications if you get anything over $10,000. And that’s something I didn’t want to face, so we didn’t ask for $10,000, so it was like, let’s ask for $7,000.

I think there’s a tendency to idealize Kickstarter a bit – people read about amazing stories like the Reading Rainbow campaign and dream big.  What’s your take on how viable a funding source it is for smaller projects?

For documentary filmmaking, I just don’t know if I want to go back to Kickstarter – I don’t know if I want to go back to that well. It has its benefits as a pre-distribution strategy, so you’re cultivating an audience – but – you’re not getting a product like the Pono music player, or a wearable device, or something you invest in. You’re getting the opportunity to see a film, and I don’t know what the value proposition is in that for unknown people.

So where would you, if you’re talking to a young, aspiring documentary filmmaker, where should that filmmaker look for funding for their film?

Well, Kickstarter, but you really need a multitude of funding factors. Some of it is donations, and there’s no shame or harm in doing traditional fundraisers as well. We did some of those. You really need a coalition of funding.

Daniel Thornton - Photo by Cindy Apple

Daniel Thornton Image: Cindy Apple

You mentioned you were just finishing some photography work for free when I got here.  I’m curious if you consider that sort of work an investment in your community.  If so, how important is that sort of investment to you?

Very. I feel passionately about creative communities, and the Northwest and Seattle in particular.  Seattle is a popular destination, even though most of the recent growth is Amazon, and Google, but people find the community appealing, at least in part because it produces a lot of art for a city its size – it punches above its weight. I feel really strongly about artists in Seattle, and I think the next iteration of my professional life is that I’d really like to get into policy work. I’d like artists to see themselves more as workers. I think there’s a tradition in America of them seeing themselves outside or on the margins, but we’re all just workers, and it’s really important that artists see themselves as any other workers. There’s a way of looking at cities as being cultural factories, and we’re factory workers in a sense, but instead of building widgets, we’re building culture, and not getting paid particularly well for it sometimes.

You’re upfront about the difficulties in being an independent filmmaker – it’s hard to fund, doesn’t necessarily pay all that well – so what keeps you going at it?

I love motion picture storytelling. And you try iteratively. Documentary filmmaking just doesn’t pay, but with Doe Bay, I knew that was a calculated risk, and I don’t mind that, because I got an Emmy nomination out of it, it got best of SIFF.

Out of the work from Doe Bay, the following year we did a documentary production for Lemolo and edited that down into a beautiful document, it’s called A Beautiful Night,” which they’ve been selling on the road. And that went completely outside any distribution. So Doe Bay paid off in a lot of different ways.

We’ll finish off with a straightforward question: If you had three things to say to young independent filmmakers in our digital, DIY world, what would they be?

Do it because you love it, not because you think you’re going to make any money on it. And, how do I encapsulate this in to something that’s going to make sense? Work collaboratively…which means, don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice, and also means don’t pretend you know everything.   But in the same vein, have a strong technical understanding and background in at least one part of the process. It’ll save you a lot of work, but it’ll also give you a lot of respect for others in the process. You can’t just kind of jump into it and expect to be good at it. Really give it 1000 hours of practice.

You can keep up with all of Daniel Thornton’s latest film work at creativedmedia.com, and check out his photography work at alibipictures.com.

This interview was edited and condensed.

 

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Interview: Daniel Thornton – Filmmaking with Communities, Crowdfunding and Passion