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From Louisiana To Versailles, Funding 'Vital Stories, Artfully Told'

Cinereach aims to support films that tell stories from underrepresented perspectives. The Oscar-nominated <em>Beasts of the Southern Wild</em> was one of those films.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Cinereach aims to support films that tell stories from underrepresented perspectives. The Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild was one of those films.

The movie Beasts of the Southern Wild is a fairy tale of a film. It might not seem to have much in common with documentaries about evangelical Christians in Uganda or the billionaire Koch brothers. But these films were all funded by a not-for-profit group called Cinereach. It was started by a couple of film school graduates who are still in their 20s. And now, with Beasts, it has a nomination for Best Picture at this year's Oscars.

Cinereach funded almost all of the $1.5 million budget for Beasts of the Southern Wild, the immersive art-house film about a child who's figuratively and literally adrift in Louisiana swamp country. Named Hushpuppy, and played by youngest-ever Best Actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis, she vows to survive: "They think we're all gonna drown," she says. "But we ain't going nowhere."

The movie has earned more than $12 million, along with multiple awards and Oscar nominations.

Michael Raisler, at 27 years old, is one of the Best Picture nominee's producers and the creative director of Cinereach, which he founded with Philipp Engelhorn when the two were classmates at New York University's film school. They found that they shared a love for movies and a passion for social change. "Our key goal is to support what we call 'vital stories artfully told,' " he says.

As they learned about the film business, Raisler and Engelhorn learned that the money didn't go to the good movies; it went to the movies that would make more money. Engelhorn decided he wanted his film production company to be separate and apart from worries about commercial viability: "We're not protecting a potential upside or profit potential; we're protecting the vision."

A major hit at the Sundance Film Festival, first-time director Ryan Coogler's <em>Fruitvale</em> also benefited from Cinereach exposure. (Pictured: Michael B. Jordan as Oscar).
/ Sundance Film Festival
Sundance Film Festival
A major hit at the Sundance Film Festival, first-time director Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale also benefited from Cinereach exposure. (Pictured: Michael B. Jordan as Oscar).

Cinereach gives out about a million dollars a year, mostly in $30,000 chunks, to projects in various stages of completion. So far, it has helped support more than 100 movies — not blockbusters, but the Sundance types that get great reviews and small audiences. Cinereach helped fund Pariah, a story about a black lesbian teenager, and the documentary The Queen of Versailles, which followed a wealthy couple trying to build the biggest house in the United States.

Engelhorn is cagey about where Cinereach's money comes from: "It is crucial that the support remains anonymous, is the best answer I can give." Raisler jumps in: "It's effectively a small group of private donors, primarily, who are major stakeholders in the organization — not just financially but also conceptually."

Engelhorn himself comes from a wealthy German family and got into philanthropy young. That's how he learned to value conversations about social issues with audiences who might not expect to relate.

"One of the first films we got involved with was called A Jihad for Love," Raisler notes. He says the movie looks at gay Muslims who are steadfast in their faith. "That was a major stepping stone of us defining part of our interest space and what kind of stories we want to start telling."

These are stories, often, that are too idiosyncratic for Hollywood, says Cinereach producer-in-residence Paul Mezey — films like Beasts of the Southern Wild,with fantastical images like the little girl heroine facing down monstrous wild pigs in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

"We didn't know how long it would take to make the film," Mezey says. "We didn't know how to solve all the logistical solutions, but we knew there was a spirit to that film that somehow that film couldn't fail."

Just by chance, Benh Zeitlin, the Oscar-nominated director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, was having beers with two documentary filmmakers, David Redmond and Ashley Sabin, a few years ago in New Orleans. He mentioned Cinereach and told them he'd gotten money from the organization.

Sabin and Redmond wanted money for their documentary, Girl Model, about rural Russian teenagers exploited by shady modeling agencies. It's now available on demand. Sabin says Cinereach gave Girl Model two grants totaling about $35,000.

But however welcome its money is, Cinereach does more than just write checks. It connected Sabin with the people who made another documentary it supported about kids in trouble, the widely praised Bully, for advice. Cinereach helps with legal problems and social media outreach, and it even has editing booths and a swanky screening room at its downtown Manhattan headquarters. Its offices may be hip and luxurious, but creative director Raisler says that hardly defines the films Cinereach funds.

"Hard to make," he says. "Easy is not something that inspires us to do what we want to do." And just as Cinereach films are hard to make, the money is hard to get. In Cinereach's first year, 2006, it considered 30 proposals. This year, it considered 2,500. And all of those filmmakers are hopeful that, like Beasts of the Southern Wild, theirs might be the offbeat, intelligent, somehow-can't-fail film that heads to the Oscars.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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