In the cynical climate of today's world, most people would probably assume a New York plastic surgeon and his lawyer brother would be happier yachting or playing golf than they would be doing anything to help humanity. But film producers Todd and Jedd Wider are doing just that, and they've turned their love for film into a business with the perfect combination of profit, critical acclaim and altruism.
Their film "Taxi to the Dark Side," the story of an Afghani taxi driver beaten to death at Guantanamo Bay, won this year's Oscar for best documentary feature. This month, "Kicking It," their inspirational film about the Homeless World Cup, will be released in New York and Los Angeles after being optioned by ESPN in what was one of the largest acquisitions at January's Sundance Film Festival. They share their thoughts about the sometimes difficult but always rewarding task of creating and marketing socially redeeming art.
Entrepreneur: How would you define your filmmaking ventures in terms of the ratio of art to entrepreneurship?
Jedd Wider: What's important to us is marrying a business perspective with an artistic perspective. Todd and I come at each new project from our own artistic backgrounds, but we also bring a very important attention to the economics--the structural elements of each new project--and attack each new project from that perspective. My background is a legal, structural background. I've spent the last 15 years basically structuring complicated private investment funds around the world. It's very important to us that we take a very professional approach. We don't go out on an artistic lark unless there's really an appropriate business or economic justification. That allows us to make informed decisions. It allows us to work very productively together and work very efficiently. Ultimately, it enables us to work with the types of directors that we've worked with and that we intend on working in the future with.
Todd Wider: In terms of the business perspective, documentary filmmaking is a very interesting area of filmmaking. It is an area that is often overlooked by people, both in the theater and also in the investment circle. [Former AOL executive] Ted Leonsis has a term he coined called "filmanthropy," which is essentially the marriage of documentary filmmaking and philanthropy. In this particular sector, it is useful to add in a philanthropic addition to the process of trying to get these films made if you feel it's necessary. Film is a very powerful medium to affect social change. This has been shown many times in the past 100 years. The moving image is a very powerful medium, be it feature or documentary.
Entrepreneur: Your films have a strong element of social entrepreneurship. How does focusing on social issues ultimately lead to greater profits as well?
Jedd Wider: That's been the primary driver for our desire to make film. For us, sitting in the theater and watching people react was unbelievably moving for us. It was eye-opening at the same time. What Todd said is very true. The power of film and the ability to affect social change is really tremendous. You really can't appreciate it as much as you can when you're sitting inside a dark theater and listening to the reactions of people and listening to what they have to say.
Todd Wider: That is definitely our primary goal, which is to make films that have social resonance. If you make that the payoff, and you structure the deals financially in such a way that the investors don't get hurt, it's a success for everyone all around. We flew some of our investors to Sundance for the premiere of "Kicking It," and they couldn't have been happier. They were also happy the second day when the film sold for a record amount of money to ESPN for a sports documentary. It was just a very positive experience. Colin Ferrell ended up narrating the film. He loved the topic. His father was a soccer player, and he believed very much in the charity. U2 actually donated the music to the film. So it was a very positive experience for everyone. It was very positive for our investors, too. The last thing you want to do is lose an investor's money. You have the responsibility to try the best that you can to at least recoup their investment and hopefully give a return that is positive emotionally that makes them feel like they participated in something that did some good, but also a financial return as well. That's a good business model if you can do that. That's what's made this a lot of fun.
Entrepreneur: Your films definitely don't shy away from sensitive subjects. Where does the balance lie when it comes to navigating those types of topics effectively while still creating something that can be marketable to investors and consumers?
Todd Wider: You want to bring people into the theater. You want people watching the screen. The documentary crowd is, by nature, drawn to documentaries to have a more serious exploration of an issue that concerns us. It may be on the front page of the newspaper, but it may not be. It may be buried on page 30 or something. But if you start looking at that issue closely, it is interesting and it does merit attention and it may very well be controversial. That draws people in. That's not bad. We try to be objective. We feel that you ought not ram your ideology down the audience's throat. You should present the viewpoints to the audience and let the audience decide what they want to believe. Your role is really to educate or to document what's occurred. You may have a viewpoint. It may just seep through in the filmmaking of the piece, but in general we prefer types of films that are not so heavy slanted. We really think that all the different viewpoints deserve to be presented and that the audience could look at the screen and say, "That's interesting. I'm stimulated, and I think now. Maybe I believed this, and maybe I've changed my mind."
Jedd Wider: For us, selecting a topic is actually a very detailed process. We see a lot of projects. A lot of projects, we originate on our own, but we have a lot of folks come to us at the initial stages of their projects looking for producers to join and take over the project and work together with a director on a specific topic. Choosing a topic for us is really a balance. It's a balance of, on one hand, finding the right issue that resonates from a social perspective or an economic perspective or a political perspective, and marrying that sort of factor with the potential viewership of the film. That viewership may equate into great marketability. It may equate into simply securing the best type of distribution for the film, where the topic we choose is very socially motivated and has very important social resonance for us and we feel will have to an audience. For us, the success of that type of project may be actually not necessarily securing the best financial deal, where we're really involved in that project from a moral perspective and less so from an economic perspective in selecting the best distribution that's going to guarantee the most amount of people seeing that particular film. That, for us, may be as important, depending upon the project, as securing the best economics. There are many projects we do that are pure investments, where the equity for the film is provided by investors looking for a return and analyzing that type of investment as they would any other type of investment. But there are also projects that we do where the finding is primarily from grants, and in those types of films that we're involved in, securing the best viewership really becomes the primary objective.
Todd Wider: We feel we have an obligation to at least make some films that have tremendous social relevance. You get paid back in more than just dollars. That doesn't have to be the be-all and end-all of everything. If you raise social awareness and people are aware of an issue and you change something and people are helped, that in itself is a payoff. At the end of the day that really is what everything is about. If you can actually do some good, that's what we're here for.
Jedd Wider: If you are personally connected on a social level, on an emotional level, to what it is you're doing, whether it be film, whether it be anything else, ultimately the end product is going to reap the benefits of that emotional attachment and that emotional investment.
Todd Wider: When we look at a budget, no one's going to pull the wool over our eyes. The investors who invest with us are protected as much as you possibly can be. We go through these things with a fine-toothed comb. We know what these things should cost. We had a proposal the other night for a documentary where the budget was something like $5 million, and I just sort of started laughing. It was ridiculous. You're going to lose $4.5 million on this. I can make this film for $500,000, and there's no reason to spend that much money on that. It doesn't make any sense. You're not making a giant Hollywood film where you throw money all over the place and you have trailers for the talent and they get driven around in limousines. This is the documentary business. That's not the kind of business we're in. It's not to say that we lack fiscal responsibility. That's not true at all. If anything, we're on top of that as much as anyone in this field. You have to have responsibility to your investors. They also come foremost. But you can do things responsibly, conserve resources, deploy capital well, make the right choices, do things economically and beautifully and make a product that can be sold to at least recoup and also get a decent return on investment. That can be done in this business for sure.
Entrepreneur: What lessons have you learned from your filmmaking projects that could be used by anyone looking to be a successful entrepreneur?
Jedd Wider: If you can find something that you are absolutely passionate about and inject your time and commit yourself to that endeavor, whatever it may be, and pursue that with a great understanding of what it is you're doing, if the seed of that endeavor is your passion, that's really the best thing you can do toward achieving success. That really applies across the board. We meet hundreds of filmmakers and we're amazed by the enthusiasm that young filmmakers have, and I think it's important to always inject a sense of realism and a sense of economics and marketability into that passion. However you benchmark success, if you can marry that with realistic expectations from a marketing perspective or an economic perspective, you are a step or two ahead of the rest of the pack.
Todd Wider: At this moment in the history of the United States, there is an opportunity to capitalize on the desire for social change. There is unrest in the United States. People are not happy with certain aspects of our society. And I'm not just talking about leadership. I'm talking about things in general. There is a way to capitalize on that desire for change in a productive, but also economically successful, manner. Just look at the success of the whole green industry. There is a sense that Americans are not happy. Americans are by nature idealists at heart, and they are very entrepreneurial and they're very creative. This country is filled with extremely creative and entrepreneurial people, and it has been since Day 1. If there's a feeling of unrest here, there's a way to capitalize on that in an interesting manner. If you follow your heart in this area and you say to yourself, "I'm going to make a business out of my desire to make a change," that's a great marriage there. This is a good time for that.
Justin Petruccelli is an associate editor for Entrepreneur.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.