Nina Metz | January 12, 2017 | Chicago Tribune


When the Sundance Film Festival kicks off next week, one of the films getting a high-profile opening night slot is "Whose Streets?" — a nonfiction account of the grass-roots protests in Ferguson that emerged after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in August 2014.

Also at the fest: "Trophy" (examining the business behind big game hunting and poaching) and "Icarus" (an investigation into Russia's Olympic doping scheme).

All three documentaries (plus four more) owe their existence, in part, to a local group established a couple years ago with the goal of helping non-fiction films get made — and be seen. The organization has two separate arms and they function independently of each other.

The Chicago Media Project is strictly nonprofit. It pools money from its membership — mostly high-net-worth individuals, as well as those with less cash at their disposal but an interest in supporting documentary films that can affect social change — and offers grants to filmmakers (anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000) that are essentially no-strings donations. It's a relatively small group, with just 52 members.

Paula Froehle founded the group with Steve Cohen, and it includes people who Froehle said come from a variety of professions — politics, law, startups — who have the ability to get these films in front of the right people, i.e., decision-makers in the public or private sector. So it's not just about donating money to a worthy film. It's not just a faceless transaction. Members form an emotional connection with the projects they back, often bringing filmmakers to Chicago for intimate dinners.

(It's worth noting that the group does not restrict their work to Chicago projects, and the majority of filmmakers and their subjects are not local.)

The Chicago Media Project Invest/Impact is the sister organization and works a little differently. Funding is treated not as a donation but an equity investment. "The average return that we look for is 115 percent of what we put in," said Froehle. They invest between $10,000 and $450,000 per project. Rather than pocketing that (hoped for) 15 percent profit, the money is then funneled back into a fund to support yet more films in the coming year.

This is a radical idea, to an extent. Independent films — let alone documentaries — rarely break even. Turning a profit is even harder. With that in mind, the group specifically looks to invest in movies that have a good shot at getting theatrical distribution. Or bought by a television network or streaming service.

"The thing with equity investing in docs is, no one is going to get rich off of them," Froehle said. "Even though the films can make money, usually they can't make lots of money. This isn't like equity investing in entrepreneurial stuff. And like any other investment, it's still speculation. But we heavily vet each project ahead of time, from the experience of the film team to the subject matter."

(Last year, the investment group put in $814,000 across numerous projects.)

Phillip Glass appears in Trophy by Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, an official selection of the U.S. Doucmentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. 

(Christina Clusiau / Sundance)

Both "Trophy" and "Icarus" were funded with equity investments, which makes sense. Big game hunting and Russian Olympic doping are the kind of issues that are easy to grasp and marketable.

The investment in "Trophy" came fairly late in the process and was primarily used for post-production costs. "We turned around that investment commitment in a weekend," said Froehle. The film had already been accepted into Sundance by that point.

"The film looks at the issues of big game hunting, poaching and extinction from an alternative angle," she said, "so it's a film that's going to be talked about a lot.

"It's not preaching to the converted, which is oftentimes a concern when you look at documentaries: Are we just talking to ourselves? Are we just making ourselves feel better about our own perspective in the world? A film that can take a subject as potent as big game hunting and poaching and put a different lens on it, not only will it get a lot of press and get talked about, but it's a film people will want to see. So you could see cable channels like CNN or Discovery or Animal Planet being interested because of the subject matter."

One of the people profiled in "Trophy," she said, is a guy who runs a South African sanctuary for rhinos whose "whole perspective is, a rhino can regenerate its horn every two years. So rather than killing the animal for the horn, you can carve the horn and allow the animal to stay alive — and you can demonstrate to poachers that killing animals isn't viable anymore and there are better ways to manage that demand. Because there is a centuries-old belief in the medicinal powers of rhino horn and the idea of just saying, 'The trade is illegal,' that's not going to stop the black market, which is causing these animal to go extinct. Just saying it shouldn't happen isn't stopping anything and the film looks at the problem from a different angle."

Last year, the Chicago Media Project helped coordinate a festival of films it help fund called DOC10 at the Music Box, which will be returning with an all-new lineup this spring.

As for Sundance, Froehle and Cohen will be there with the films their group helped back, and plan to use their time in Park City, Utah, to meet with new filmmakers seeking a budget infusion.