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The Power of Community: Steve Cohen and Paula Froehle on the Chicago Media Project’s A Decade of Docs Fundraiser on October 28th

The Chicago Media Project (CMP), the non-profit organization with the stated mission of helping social impact documentaries reach the finish line, will host its largest fundraising event to date, “A Decade of Docs”, on Saturday, October 28th, at Resolution Digital Studios in Chicago. It was in 2013 when CMP co-founders Steve Cohen and Paula Froehle hosted the first-ever documentary crowd-funding event in Chicago, which raised over $400,000. Since then, Cohen and Froehle say CMP has provided over $7.5 million in funding for 156 films, many of which have gone on to receive the industry’s highest accolades. 

CMP's yearly program highlights include the Great Chicago Pitch, a live crowdfunding event in support of documentaries in the early stages of production; the Shifting Voices Film Fund designed to distribute power and resources to underrepresented filmmakers; and Doc10, Chicago’s all-documentary film festival showcasing various acclaimed nonfiction titles of the year, many of which are destined for awards consideration. These programs pair financial support with skill-building workshops and mentorship opportunities, guided by the organization's stated belief that storytelling cultivates empathy and enables action.

Among the essential films supported thus far by CMP are Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s “Athlete A,” Dava Whisenant’s “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” Robert Greene’s “Bisbee ’17,” Bryan Fogel’s “Icarus,” Laura Greenfield’s “The Kingmaker,” Nanfu Wang’s “One Child Nation,” Samantha Sanders’ “Swimming Through,” Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ “Whose Streets?” and Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Two-time Academy Award-winning actor, author and advocate Geena Davis will deliver the keynote address at the celebration on October 28th, while three-time Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan will also give a special performance at the event. Cohen and Froehle took time to speak with RogerEbert.com about the extraordinary legacy of CMP and their plans for the future. 

In what profound ways would you say that the Chicago Media Project has evolved since its inception?

Paula Froehle (PF): When we started CMP, it was because of a very simple idea that Steve and I had. We knew people who loved and were interested in understanding how to become involved in helping support documentary films. We also knew filmmakers who were making great films, and I, as a filmmaker, understood deeply the schism between those two groups. I felt that if you put them in the same room together, they will immediately understand that they have this shared common goal, which is that they are emotionally moved by great storytelling and they loved seeing audiences be moved by them as well. Once that happens, they will want to bring whatever resources they can to help the film get out into the world and make an impact. Yet our initial idea was to bring these people together and see where it might go. We have always sought to create ways in which people will want to be in these rooms learning about films and connecting with each other.

It was also imperative that we stayed open to hearing feedback from our members and filmmakers, while seeing how the landscape was shifting. When we look at our platforms that have endured, we see this ecosystem that provides support in so many different ways, and it really does define the notion of community, which is where all of this started. It starts with developing a community, which is a word that nonprofits and insurance companies use all of the time. But the truth is that in order to be about it, you really have to put in the work to ensure and convince people that it’s worth coming into the room, that an invigorating connection will be made and it will deepen how they feel about the world as well as others who are different from them. 

SC: I’d say that one way we didn’t change over the past ten years is we intended to and did stay small and nimble—as we like to say, “tiny but mighty.” It was all driven by us looking to see what was needed and then reacting to it. When we started CMP, Netflix was not buying documentaries. Instead you could sell the films to POV or occasionally HBO, but people couldn’t see the movies that we were supporting unless we created platforms for them to be seen. Once streamers and distribution channels opened up, they needed documentaries, but now, we’re back in the same sort of situation where those streamers who were our saviors are now the gateways. So we are now back to figuring out how to make sure that not just the big movies that we get involved in will be seen and have the opportunity to be Oscar contenders. How do we make sure that all the movies, big and small, get seen and used?

PF: In some ways, the current landscape only further underscores how important some of our platforms are like Doc10 and its traveling little sister Doc5, along with the community activation screenings where we are bringing organizations together with films to try to connect the two in order to amplify both of their efforts. Since the gatekeepers have narrowed the channel by which you can get onto streaming platforms, it just makes our platforms that much more important because they are becoming one of the only ways that people can see these great films.

SC: We started out thinking that we were going to be the only documentary support organization whose focus was on the donors, philanthropists and underwriters. We felt it would create a new layer of funding for these films so that they wouldn’t have to feed from the trough of the big foundations that were driving the ways that movies were being made. Although we continue to do that, we also now focus on helping to change who the storytellers are. As we’ve matured, we’ve been able to open up platforms where we can support efforts to bring on and nurture the new filmmakers, helping to give them visibility through our platforms and mentorship.

PF: Those gates were still closed to them in many ways. Even though there had been a recent golden age of documentaries, it really was only that way for a select group of people. From the beginning, our goal was to support a wide range and a diverse array of stories and storytellers. Yet it was about halfway through our first decade where we finally cracked the nut and developed our grant-funding portals in such a way that it could channel our resources toward those underrepresented films and filmmakers.

SC: As we move into the next decade, that’s going to be even more of an emphasis. We’re about to relaunch the second version of what we’re calling our Young Filmmakers Initiative to give high school and college-age students the chance to express their voices through documentary. One of the reasons that we got to this place where we felt we could really do it in a way that nobody else could is because the reputation we had developed for CMP resulted in us no longer having to scratch and claw to get connected with a good movie. They came to us. The best and the brightest filmmakers, producers and editors were coming to us with the movies that they wanted CMP to be involved in, so now we can make those connections even stronger between emerging filmmakers and established filmmakers, some of whom we helped to establish, crazily enough.

Your goal of championing diversity in filmmaking makes the selection of Geena Davis to deliver the keynote speech at “A Decade of Docs” all the more fitting. 

PF: She’s really an icon for going against the grain. Her non-profit, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, requires the town and the industry she works in to take a deep look at itself and acknowledge that it’s not representing women in media or dealing with issues of gender. For someone in her position who is so highly successful to decide that she’s going to devote a good amount of her energy toward building this institute is a level of risk-taking that I find absolutely remarkable, commendable and also inspirational, particularly for women. That, in and of itself, made her our top choice. It’s just great that she agreed to be a part of this and to come and speak about the history of her fame and how it morphed into this broader recognition for work that, in many ways, she feels will be even more long-lasting.

Tell me about how Sarah McLachlan became involved in the event as well.

SC: What Paula was saying about Geena is true for Sarah as well. One of the reasons why we were able to bring her on is because we’re involved in a movie about her traveling music festival, Lilith Fair. Sarah is producing it as well as Dan Levy from “Schitt’s Creek,” and we’ve taken a big role in helping to get the movie produced. Sarah saw this problem in the music industry where women were just not being given their due, so she decided to do what we did—she took control and changed the landscape by organizing the Lilith Fair concert tours, and that, to us, really spoke to what we are really all about.

PF: Both of these women really used the power of community to demonstrate that they have power equal to or beyond that of the industry that they were going up against. I love that idea that in both cases, it’s about collecting people together in order to attack a problem that is much bigger than any one individual can tackle. That, to me, reflects exactly what we set out to do from the beginning.

SC: Sarah also took her recognition and notoriety and she started a school in Canada for young musicians that is not only seen as prestigious in producing some of the great young musicians, but it is a community that she created. From our standpoint, we felt that one of the reasons why the movie was so important to us was because recapturing that moment in time that people don’t even think about now is part of speaking truth to history.

PF: Part of why people don’t think about Lilith Fair is because critics in the music industry really squashed it at the time when it was touring. By its second year, it was bigger than Lollapalooza, and nobody knows that because it doesn’t serve the folks in power. We love how the film is going to unearth this piece of history and give a more truthful look at it. It’s also the kind of thing that’s really important for young women to see now. There is always going to be a backlash against any kind of progress that is made with regard to women’s empowerment, and so the more we can look back at these women’s stories, it can spark what the next generation of that might be.

I was in the Oscar press room when “Icarus,” about the international doping scandal, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

SC: We got involved in “Icarus” when it was a movie about a bicyclist who wanted to show that he could easily dope himself as his hero Lance Armstrong did in the semi-professional biking world. That sparked our interest, so we got involved. Then we got a call one day from Dan Cogan of Impact Partners, who we financed with, and he said, “You better sit down, I think we have a different movie going on here. And by the way, I’m on burner phone, so don’t call me back.” What happened was Paula and I flew out to Santa Monica and we were given an address to a dental office. We entered the building through the back stairs and into an isolated room where we sat and watched a cut of the film that was very close to what was ultimately released. When it got to the scene where the whistleblower blew the whistle, Paula and I knew that what we were watching was special. Throughout the entire production of that movie, we had code names and could not use our own cell phones.

PF: We actually attended the Elton John Oscar viewing party that he does every year to raise money for AIDS research. The documentary category was the second or third announcement of the evening, so in the room, we were the first winners, and everybody came over to us with In-N-Out Burgers. That was a really great moment. Afterwards, we were involved in the campaign to support Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of the Russian anti-doping laboratory, who was in witness protection and now living underground in exile. 

SC: We became involved in creating a defense fund to protect Grigory after we were told that Soviet agents in the United States were looking for him. Through the efforts of some of the other producers of the movie, an organization has been created that supports and protects whistleblowers in sports, and there has been an effort now to try and get federal legislation codifying those kinds of productions. That’s an example of how even an Oscar-winning movie like “Icarus” has an impact campaign around it, and that’s something we do with just about everything. 

When “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” screened at Ebertfest, I was able to read onstage the letter that I wrote to Fred Rogers at age five [at the 16:45 mark here] as well as the lengthy and thoughtful response he wrote back. Chaz Ebert thought its ideas were so important, she gave the film’s director, Morgan Neville, one of the rare Ebert Humanitarian awards. What has it been like to support projects, including your upcoming “Shari & Lamb Chop,” that explore the lives of those who helped form so much of us during our youth?

When we talk about impact movies, people think of documentaries like “Icarus,” but from our standpoint, movies that explore the human condition and change our sensibilities about the nature of kindness and how we should be in the world are just as impactful. We got involved with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” because we saw that Fred Rogers is an icon of kindness, generosity and empathy, and those qualities are vitally important in this world of impact. Then we were given the opportunity to hear about Lisa D’Apolito’s “Shari & Lamb Chop” documentary, which is actually going to be premiering at DOC NYC on November 11th. The movie is about how Shari created puppets like Lamb Chop to speak to kids about empathy at a time when she was being completely squeezed out because women in the entertainment industry were not being given their due. 

The movie shows that Shari was actually one of the most versatile performers in that era. She was not only a puppeteer—she danced, she sang, she was an amazing comedian, but she couldn’t break through except as her alter ego of Lamb Chop. So the movie follows her career after she “ages out” as a children’s TV show host and where she went from there, always keeping that incredible view of the world. Another of our upcoming films is a documentary on Billy Preston, who was considered by icons like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and the Beatles as the greatest performer they had ever seen. But he was kept in the shadows in part because he was a closeted gay Black man during a period when that was just not possible, and partly because of his own personal demons. In fact, during “A Decade of Docs,” we are going to be spotlighting those films and others that we’ve been involved in and will be coming out in 2024. We are very excited about all of them.

For more information on CMP membership opportunities, tickets for “A Decade of Docs” and to hear first-hand testimonials from CMP supported filmmakers, please visit WeAreCMP.org/10-year.  

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 


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