Joint Financing: Spike Lee Has Never Had an Easy Time Funding His Films

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"White boys get real money, f*ck up, lose millions of dollars, and still get chance after chance," Spike Lee mused in his journals kept during the making of "Do The Right Thing." "Not so with us. You f*ck up one time, that's it." Following the launch of a Kickstarter for a new project this week, Lee's been on the receiving end of intense skepticism about this latest mode of funding. Regardless of the merits of his approach, it's true that Lee's career has been persistently dogged by financing difficulties in a variety of different forms. Here's an overview of his often-difficult first decade's money problems.

"She's Gotta Have It" (1986)

In a prophecy of things to come, Lee's proposed first feature ("Messenger," about a bike messenger) came to nothing when the Screen Actors Guild refused to let Lee pay his actors experimental rates. Then came "She's Gotta Have It," his reputation-establishing second feature (after his 1983 master's thesis "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads"). "When I was writing the script, I knew this film would be a hit," Lee told "Jet" magazine at the time of the film's release, but that wasn't obvious to everyone from the get-go. The 12-shooting-days production began with $18,000 from the New York State Council of the Arts, a $10,000 grant from the Jerome Foundation, $500 from the Brooklyn Arts and Cultural Association, assists from Lee's family (a score from dad Bill, still photos from brother David, an acting turn from sister Joie, brothers Chad and Cinque acting as production assistants), and a cast working for deferred payments.

That wasn't enough to get the movie through post-production, so a rough cut screening happened at NYU. "I'm Spike Lee and I hope that you liked the film," Lee said afterwards. "I'll be calling you soon about becoming financially involved in helping us complete it." The final budget was $175,000, and the resulting release was profitable ($7.1 million domestically).

"School Daze" (1988)

Lee got a two-picture contract with "She's Gotta Have It" distributor Island Pictures and a budget of $4 million for his follow-up "School Daze." While preparing to shoot that musical, Lee made a $65,000 music video for Miles Davis but remained pessimistic about financing more films by black directors. "I just hope that Black entrepreneurs will start backing Black films," he told "Ebony" in 1987. By the time production started, the budget had risen to $6 million, Island had dropped out and Lee had arranged a negative pick-up loan with Columbia pictures, which effectively allowed him to (as "Jet" explained) "hire many talented Blacks to work in front of and behind the camera [...] and get around predominantly White unions."

But his working relationship with the studio cooled considerably two weeks before the film's release, since Columbia declined to pay for TV ads. Their east coast VP of publicity contended that "Spike already had high media recognition" from outlets like BET and no further expenditure was necessary. "They don't like me or my films," Lee flatly asserted, and the director put up New York City posters for the film himself.

"Do The Right Thing" (1989)

Defying studio expectations, "School Daze" made more than double its budget back, but Lee was done with Columbia. In his "Do The Right Thing" journal, he wondered about where to go next: "Touchstone, Orion, Universal? In a way all these motherf*ckers are the same." He ended up at the latter, which posed no significant troubles during the shoot or release, not that Lee was very impressed. "Universal Pictures did not fund this movie because they are in love with me," he told "Ebony." "They did it to make money." And so "Do The Right Thing" did.

"Mo' Better Blues" (1990)

"Mo' Better Blues" was released in August of 1990, five months after "House Party"'s phenomenally successful release. The new narrative (summed up by "Ebony," among others) was that between Eddie Murphy (who was estimated to have made a billion dollars for Paramount by that point), Keenan Ivory Wayans (whose "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" and "In Living Color" were still fresh) and Robert Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle," change was in the Hollywood air for black directors. "I can see the headlines now: SPIKE LEE GOING SOFT" star Denzel Washington fretted, but the movie did fine.

"Jungle Fever" (1991)

Lee's interracial-love drama "Jungle Fever" did even better, though production was tough; a florist who rented his space for shooting received death threats from anonymous racists. At this point, Lee's commercial place seemed secure; he'd even gone so far as to open "Spike's Joint," a store in Brooklyn's Fort Greene devoted to retailing merchandise related solely to his work (it closed in 1997). In a 1991 "Newsweek" profile, Lee summed up his current position: "If they like the script, and I agree with the amount of money that they're going to give me, then it's my film. It's not like they're saying: 'Spike, do whatever you want with this $50 million movie.'"

"Malcolm X" (1992)

"Malcolm X" was an immensely contentious production for many reasons (some background from 1991 can be found here), with money trouble being only part of the negative hype. The short version of the financial problems: when Warner Bros. settled on a $20 million budget, Lee pre-sold the film overseas to raise another $8.5 million. When production went over budget, putting the film in the hands of the Completion Bond company. Lee got a group of black celebrities to (as he said) "bail me out" and help complete the film at 220 minutes and $33 million. "This is not a loan. They are investing in the film," he stressed. "As a result, this film will be my version. Not the bond company's version, not Warner Brothers'."

"Get On The Bus" (1996)

After "Crooklyn," "Clockers" and "Game 6," Lee went the private investor route for 1996's Million Man March drama "Get On The Bus." The financing was detailed in an exhaustive report in "Black Enterprise" magazine. Stinging from his inability to raise financing for a Jackie Robinson biopic, Lee concluded that "there are projects that Hollywood just doesn't want to make, but just because they don't want to make them doesn't mean that those films shouldn't be made."

The film began with the subject: producers Bill Borden and Barry Rosenbush came up with the idea and got in touch with Merrill Lynch's then vice president Lem Daniels, who then called Lee. "I just looked at the numbers," Daniels explained. "It was difficult to lose money on this movie based on its budget. Statistics on minority films with budgets in the $2 million range say they seem to consistently bring in returns of $6 million." With that figure in mind, 15 investors — including Lee himself, Will Smith, BET CEO Robert Johnson and Wesley Snipes — kicked in for a $2.4 million budget. With the film then sold to Columbia for $3.5 million, the production was in the financial clear before it started.

After "Get On The Bus," Lee would keep alt-tabbing between increasingly rare studio financing and esoteric indies, adapting as the landscape of both kept shifting under his feet.

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