CASE STUDY: ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT
Writer/Director: Lisa Leeman
Writer: Cristina Colissimo
Producers: Cristina Colissimo, Jordana Glick-Franzheim
Co-Producer: Miriam Cutler
Executive Producer: Greg Little, Elizabeth Zox Friedman
Budget: Mid six-figures
Financing: Filmmakers; Equity Financiers; Donations; Grants
Shooting Format: BETA SP; Mini DV, HD, VHS (archival footage)
Screening Format: HD Cam, 35mm for theatrical
World Premiere: 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival
Awards: James Lyons Best Editing Award, Woodstock Film Festival; ACE Grant Award (Humane Society of the United States Animal Content in Entertainment Grant Award Winner 2011), International Wildlife Film Festival Merit Award for Theatrical Presentation and Best Educational Value
Official Synopsis: One Lucky Elephant begins with circus producer David Balding’s realization that Flora, the orphaned African elephant he adopted and made the star of his circus, is tired of performing. What unfolds is a nine-year odyssey to find Flora a good home.
Caught between the human and animal world, Flora epitomizes the harsh reality elephants face in our expanding man-made world. Through Flora and David’s story, the film raises questions about our complex relationships with animals, for which there are no easy answers. One thing is certain: after watching this film, you will never look at an elephant in a zoo or a circus in the same way again.
Development & Financing
Producers Cristina Colissimo, Jordana Glick-Franzheim and director Lisa Leeman were first introduced to Flora the circus elephant by co-producer Miriam Cutler, a film composer and longtime resident composer for St. Louis-based Circus Flora, who saw dramatic potential in Flora’s impending retirement and uncertain future after 16 years of performing.
As the daughter of Miami Metro Zoo’s founder, producer Cristina Colissimo had always had a love for wild and exotic animals, and she and partner Jordana Glick-Franzheim pounced on the opportunity to share the story of Flora’s repatriation to Africa. Miriam suggested her friend Lisa Leeman to direct and Leeman joined the team. The producers used a $5,000 gift from a close friend to kick-start filming. But soon after capturing Flora’s last performance, the team watched as plans for her future in Africa fell apart, and suddenly the story they planned to tell took on unexpected proportions.
When funding fell through, the project seemed to fall apart, and Leeman was compelled to focus on other projects. Facing “the eternal documentary catch-22”—shooting takes money, and grant applications require footage—from 2001-2007, Colissimo and Glick-Franzheim combined personal financing with their company’s development funds to buy a Canon XL-1 and shoot as much of Flora’s journey as they could in hopes of raising more. Over the seven years that followed, Colissimo and Glick-Franzheim followed Flora’s owner, David Balding, in his desperate attempts to find the right home for the elephant.
In the fall of 2007, with Flora’s story taking shape once again, Leeman cut a 17-minute sample tape from the footage they’d acquired so far, and the producers attracted an investment from Sandbar Pictures’ Greg Little and Lizzie Friedman. Sandbar eventually provided roughly 70% of the overall budget and negotiated what the filmmakers call a “very fair split” when it came to profit participation.
Grants from the Humane Society of the United States, and the Pegasus Foundation eventually helped to round out the budget, as did the support of local individuals, business leaders, and corporate foundations in St. Louis, where Flora remains a beloved character.
“The hardship of fundraising for docs is that it takes forever, but that’s also the strength, because it allows for this incredible unfolding story,” Leeman says.
One Lucky Elephant shot primarily in Missouri, Florida, and Tennessee, and the uncertain nature of the developing story created tremendous difficulty in budgeting. Sandbar gave the team “a lot of latitude” when it came to expanding the intended schedule, and Colissimo lobbied for additional time filming and editing.
By late 2009, the film was relatively complete but a surprise turn of events provided the right ending in early 2010 and shooting officially wrapped—more than 10 years after it had begun.
With this sort of process, Colissimo advises, “Be prepared to be completely unprepared.” The need for unexpected travel and filming will undoubtedly arise, she cautions: “squirrel away a little pot of gold somewhere that allows you to make those quick transitions and split-second decisions without feeling a financial bite.”
Festival Preparation and Strategy
With Sundance on the horizon, the team sought advice from Peter Broderick at Paradigm Consulting, and hoped for the best. They call festival applications a “total test of nerves,” balancing offers and deadlines and “playing chicken when you don’t have answers.”
The film wasn’t accepted to Sundance, but the filmmakers were faced with a difficult decision between an existing premiere offer from one festival and their pending application to the Los Angeles Film Festival. A call to LA Film Fest’s programmer Doug Jones played into the decision-making process. While he couldn’t disclose the festival’s verdict at the time, his advice and “some deep soul-searching” helped Leeman to conclude that she wasn’t entirely comfortable rushing to complete the film in time for their earlier premiere offer. They turned down the other festival without an offer from LA Film Fest, and brought on a third editor.
When their LA Film Fest premiere offer came through, the filmmakers hired publicist Carol Marshall at a “friend rate” of well under $10,000, but chose not to work with a producers’ rep. Marshall arranged interviews surrounding the festival, and “quite deftly” managed to keep the Los Angeles Times from reviewing the film when it premiered, preserving the possibility of coverage to coincide with a theatrical release. But glowing reviews in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety stirred up interest in a sale, as did the festival premiere event co-sponsored by the Humane Society.
The film went on to play at IDFA, Woodstock, Starz Denver, and the Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival plus many others, to great popular and critical response. It has gone on to multiple festivals, including Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival where it screened simultaneously in 5 cities across Greece (the first film to do this ever).
Josh Braun at Submarine Entertainment had developed an interest in the film even before its LAFF premiere. It took some time to negotiate a deal with which the filmmakers were happy, but their relationship with Braun was positive from the beginning. He repped the film for a commission in the ballpark of 8-15%, but collected no up-front fee, and agreed to take second position on theatrical, for which they’d already had interest on a fictionalized remake. (Though the filmmakers object to the idea of a live action version using real elephants, there is ongoing discussion of an animated retelling.)
Interest from buyers directly followed the Los Angeles Film Festival. Sue Turley at Ro*co Films contacted Colissimo and connected her to OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, though Braun also fielded an offer from HBO that developed out of a relationship the filmmakers had with the network. The film ultimately sold to OWN in the fall of 2010, in part because the network offered DVD partnership, and because the filmmakers wanted to reach a broader audience with the film’s message.
OWN’s multi-platform promotional potential was also a huge consideration, as was the fact that HBO has a paid subscriber base, while OWN would make the film available for free to its broadcast audience. Braun sealed the sale price and major deal points, and the filmmakers’ lawyers Todd Stern and Carolyn Conrad at Weissman-Wolff negotiated directly on finer points, like the filmmakers’ right to sell the DVD through their website.
Because One Lucky Elephant was among the first five films acquired by OWN, the field was relatively open when it came to options like VOD. Connecting with the other filmmakers who’d sold their projects to OWN (christened the “OWN babies” by the network itself) was incredibly helpful, and Turley helped to lobby the network on their behalf. For Leeman, it was a great reminder of the power of relationships with colleagues. “Knowledge is power and we need to share the info.”
OWN purchased North American broadcast rights, VOD and DVD rights for three years for a price in the low six fugures with a 50/50 split on VOD and DVD, and no costs off the top. The filmmakers retained theatrical rights.
The One Lucky Elephant team only learned their OWN airdate during the summer of 2011, making it difficult to plan theatrical release, though the network gave a contractual window to explore theatrical during which they committed not to air. The film will premiere December 1, 2011 on OWN.
Braun was involved in attempting to sell theatrical, but having already sold VOD and DVD rights the theatrical possibilities were less promising, as most distributors buying theatricals rights usually want the ancillary rights bundled with the deal too; as a result, the team decided to self-distribute. They hired publicist Sasha Berman for under $10,000 and, according to Colissimo, it was “some of the best money spent.” Berman helped to get significant coverage in the New York Times to coincide with the film’s first theatrical release at Film Forum in mid-June of 2011.
Other offers followed, and here again Berman was of tremendous help, even getting the film placed in Laemmle Theatres. One Lucky Elephant has now played in New York, LA, and Chicago, and will continue to play in select theaters. But it’s the audience response that’s pleased Colissimo most. “Theatrical is not where you’re going to make money. For us, it is really an opportunity to educate audiences.”
Foreign sales agent Jan Rofekamp at Films Transit is representing the film internationally, and has already aired on UK’s Channel 4 on October 4, 2011—World Animal Day in a 9:00pm slot and earned 410,100 viewers, double the rating the broadcaster usually gets. At this time, the team cut the film from 82-minutes down to 1-hour, an often challenging yet very necessary process to secure international sales.
The film is also playing internationally at U.S. Embassies around the world as part of the State Department’s American Documentary Showcase and ‘documentary diplomacy.’
Their mission to educate the public about captive and wild elephants has been a huge motivating factor for all involved throughout this process, and the filmmakers are currently finalizing a partnership with non-profit educational partner Born Free USA through their Zoocheck program.
Plans are currently in the works to launch an educational campaign alongside the OWN broadcast premiere, which should also drive DVD sales. Ro*co Films Educational is the educational distributor and has made the film available to schools as a full-length educational DVD, prior to the broadcast. The cost of the educational DVD is roughly $300, and the company shares a 50/50 split, but it’s the idea of sharing Flora’s story with a new generation that excites the filmmakers the most.
Advice from the filmmakers
Leeman emphasizes the importance of connecting with colleagues. “It’s really important to stay abreast of the field because it’s changing so fast. Go to conferences. Go to film festivals. Personal relationships are really important, especially with other filmmakers, collegially.”
“Find out who’s walked the road before you and talk to them,” Colissimo adds.
“Be willing to share,” Leeman concludes, “and give back.”