Lucy Jenkins's story could not be denied.
Five years ago, 44-year-old animator and storyteller Everett Downing had dreamed up a world he just couldn't let go of. The idea in his mind painted an alternate universe where gangs deal magic in addition to drugs, and a mysterious seven-foot-tall clay golem falls from the sky to save a runaway foster kid named Lucy. After Lucy is caught practicing magic, a street gang called The Demon Lords tries to extort her secrets. Mojo, the clay construct, falls from the sky and rescues her, but doesn't remember who he is or where he came from. The first issue of the comic ends with Lucy and Mojo unsure what to do or where to go.
After spending 15 years as a story artist, Downing, who had worked on projects like Brave and Toy Story 3, just needed a way to finance his own vision. But how? In 2010, he put pen to paper, creating the comic book version of "The Book of Mojo" and an accompanying Kickstarter campaign for an animated short that ended up pulling back the curtain a little on the nature of crowdfunding, diversity in media, and the animation industry.
So, tell me about The Book of Mojo. What was the central idea?
This is actually something I've been kicking around in my head for a long time. I love urban fantasy, the idea of magic being in the world. How would we [as a society] deal with issues like [magic returning to the world]? When I started writing it back in 2008 or 2009, I was watching The Wire when I came up with the idea - how would magic work in [The Wire universe?] How would it be used? The idea fascinated me, so I started developing the story, and it slowly became what it now. I had this visual of the statue and the jewel first, and tried to figure out the story behind [the character of the clay construct Mojo.] When I was writing, I thought it would be interesting to contrast this big guy with a young girl. Her story became more and more interesting to me and their relationship as well.
I decided to make Mojo a comic book. I created two issues, and as I was working on the third, I thought it would be great to do a teaser for it, to promote the comic. Back then, I was animating at Pixar, and I asked a few friends to help out. It took a year and a half to [create the animated teaser] because we were doing it on the side, but I really got bitten by the bug. I realized I wanted to keep animating it and working on it as a project.
You’ve worked with major studios like Pixar and Dreamworks and worked on projects like Up, Toy Story 3, and Brave. With those kind of credentials, why did you chose to go the indie funding route?
The idea itself is a very different idea.
People were really excited about it, but it’s not something people wanted to jump in on right away. There are other projects people would feel have more mass appeal. And me personally, I have a little experience pitching animated ideas - I know what they are looking for. When you want to do something that’s really different [from what's on the market], sometimes you have to take the risk and do it on your own. It’s a hard sell to go from “I’m kind of interested in this” to “I’m going to invest actual dollars in this.”
Quite a few people didn’t know [what studio] would greenlight a feature film like THIS. I didn’t feel like this would make it through the development process. I also wanted to distinguish myself as a director, of my own individual voice. I think of something like Steven Spielberg's Jaws, for example - at that time, would you have found someone to really see that idea? Sometimes, you have to step “outside the system” to push an idea that you believe in - and it distinguishes you more. It is very risky, but I feel like the way crowdfunding is going is really amazing. There's Canon Busters, and James Lopez and what he's doing with Hullabaloo.
If people seem to like new ideas, and new heroines like the protagonists in Brave, Frozen, and the Princess and the Frog are well received, why does Hollywood invest so much money into remaking old cartoons? I mean, how many more Transformers movies do we need?
Right now, our childhood is selling. It’s safe and familiar and we know there's an audience for it. A lot of [funders] are banking on the fact that the art form [of animation] is more polished so it will be a better experience in the reboot. It's easier to bank on. I mean, if I’m an executive and you come to my office with an idea, I can fund [a story] about a little girl who is a runaway witch who does magic that is walking around with an enchanted statue…or I can do Star Wars. Star Wars is going to make a lot of money. This [other] idea - I don’t know if I will get my money back.
My personal view on it is that now is the time to do something original. But it is a risk. Feature films, right now, are like high stakes poker. You go in and bet a lot of money, and you hope that things will go well, but you never know. The movie I’m thinking about right now Tomorrowland - to me, I read [the synopsis] and it looks like a no-brainer: great director, a Disney property - but they’re looking to take a big writeoff on that and it’s shocking. If I was that executive, I would be wringing my hands too. And a big part of [investing in new stories] is going to be how much money it [costs]. If the project is $150 million, you can’t afford for it to fail. This is why projects skew toward the median - you try to find as wide of an audience as possible. You [either] have to shave down the edges or give it the widest appeal as possible. And for whatever reason, right now, getting a mid-range film done is really difficult. Hollywood is slowly becoming more risk adverse.
Your first Kickstarter campaign wasn’t successful - but that tends to happen a lot with Kickstarter projects. What did you learn from that experience?
I learned a ton.
The biggest thing is find your audience first. I mean, we had a modest following, but if I could do it again, I would do about six months of finding people, blasting media, getting the word out. It’s literally a numbers game. We had the interest - we just didn’t reach a wide enough base to get what we needed. The first time around, we had like 500 supporters with an average contribution of about $150 dollars. It was just numbers. I looked at other successful ones, and at the low end there are 2,000 supporters and the high end was 10,000 supporters. You have to saturate your base and to make sure people know. If the work is good and the people working on it is solid, and the audience can see it, they will support it. We hit a lot of the points, we had a good pedigree, but it’s just getting out to the right people.
People, they’re not just going [to invest in the Kickstarter because they] like the product - they want the experience of helping to build something.
Getting the message out [is vital], so having a campaign manager makes a huge difference. (First time around, it was hard because it was just me.) It was nice to have that separation and the person who will run the campaign each day. And you need someone who is good with social media - each of those things takes a lot of time and attention. If [the effort is] not there, it's gonna show.
And you’re not done when you put [the Kickstarter] up - you need to have a few events that you can feature. Have video updates, where you can connect with the fan, have Hangouts. People are working really hard behind the scenes and it helps to let people know you are working. Show that this [project] is something that is happening.
A media exec recently commented that Kickstarter is really for people who are locked out the usual funding systems - do you agree with that statement?
A lot of these themes - like mass appeal, and audience size, and looking to get your return on investment, and diversity - are related, and whenever issues of people of color come into the equation it means that [the project] automatically becomes a 'specialty' thing. When [studio executives] see a show get pitched with a person of color in the lead role, you see their mind switch - oh, we have comedy, drama, and people of color. It's [considered] a specialty thing, it's own genre. [Pitching is like:] No, no it’s still a sci-fi show, it's still in the vein of Star Trek, it’s just that the main character is Latino!
I went to Kickstarter because I think that [idea is] changing - I can prove that you can do something with a person of color [in the lead], and it’s not whatever label you place on it in your mind.
It’s possible. If you make something like this, and it takes off, you see more [films like this.] People know it can be profitable, it’s just a slow thing. And for me, animation is also a tricky industry and that’s what is happening. I'm not going to wait for someone else to decide do it - we have the means right now, we have crowdfunding, you just have to have the ability to do it.
Why was it important for The Book of Mojo to have a diverse team? There are so many women and so many different ethnicities represented on the project team.
It was really important to me. I want to put something that’s more representative of what I see when I work outside, like outside of my home [in Los Angeles]. I want to connect with people, not just connect with one particular demographic. There's a need for this series out there, a lot of people want to be inspired.
I have two daughters, both are multiracial (I’m African-American, my wife is Thai), and when they see the princesses and stuff, they don’t see themselves represented at all. My oldest is six right now, and she was really feeling [the lack of media representation] when she was younger. She started asking questions like “how come I’m not blonde?” We work really hard to make sure she feels good about who she is. I think about Home a lot, because both my daughters saw the trailer for that. Just seeing the light come on in their eyes, we need more of that. My wife feels the same way, she said she hardly ever sees Asian characters in the media. It’s just so timely, it feels more like a more truly American experience - representation shouldn’t be an issue. I have this belief that visuals, what you see has a profound effect on your psyche. I really want to put out positive imagery with people of color. I want people to aspire to being something great, which has been missing [from the media landscape] for a long time.
My goal is to do my part to combat stereotypes, to change that image.