How Did Spike Lee Convince Michael Jordan to Help Fund His Malcolm X Film?
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
Malcolm X, the masterpiece biographical film about the African-American activist -- which in my opinion) should've won the Academy Award for Best Picture after it was released in 1992 -- was almost never made because its director and co-writer Spike Lee ran out of money months before he could complete production.
"It was a very rough time," Lee told Bill Simmons in a recent podcast discussion. "I got paid $1 million to make the film and I put that entire salary into the movie. I just didn't have any more money."
The studio, Warner Brothers, had cut off funding and Lee was being forced to make cuts to staff, expenditures and the overall running time of the film, all of which was a huge problem for the artist, who had his vision of what the product should be and didn't want to change what he was doing.
But then an idea came to him: he would reach out to prominent African-Americans and ask them to contribute money -- as a gift -- so that he could complete his beloved project. So hat in hand, Lee began calling people, and one by one they stepped up. Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Tracey Chapman, Janet Jackson, Prince and many others at the time wrote him generous checks. He was almost at his funding goal but he still had two more very important people on the list to call: basketball players Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
“I called Magic and he just said "Spike, what do you need?" Lee recounted."
That left one remaining call.
Michael Jordan would win MVP honors that year and lead the Chicago Bulls to a championship. Johnson had announced his retirement earlier that year. Both were already ranked as two of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game. Lee, an admirer and ardent fan, also knew something else about the way these players think, even when they’re not on the court: these people were competitors, and Jordan was as competitive as you can get.
"Michael doesn't like to lose tiddlywinks!" Lee recounted to Simmons. So what was the director’s funding approach to the NBA star? Simple. He not only asked Jordan to contribute to his film, but he made sure to tell Jordan exactly how much Magic Johnson gave.
"Johnson gave how much?" Lee remember Jordan yelling. Once he heard the amount his archrival contributed the star made sure to top it. Lee, and his film, was back in business.
Thanks to the generosity – and the competitiveness - of Jordan and others, Lee was able to make the film the way he wanted. "Not the bond company's version, not Warner Brothers, “ he was reported to have said. “I will do the film the way it ought to be, and it will be over three hours."
As business owners, we will likely face a time where we need to raise money, not from Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson but from bankers, venture capitalists or investors. Like any entrepreneur, Spike Lee had passion for his project. But to raise the money he needed he was smart enough to use a tactic that oftentimes gets overlooked by any business person looking for financing: competitive people, regardless of their profession, are competitive about everything. Even when it comes to spending or investing their own money. They don’t like to see their rivals do better and they’ll pay extra for that advantage.