In 2004, at the age of 40, I ran away with the circus. Or rather, I was carried away by it after I first met The Flying Wallendas highwire family while casting for another film. For the next 7 years I followed them through many small towns in this country, shooting what would become The Show Must Go On, an intimate portrait of this unique American family.
There were many things I learned from following them: I discovered the strong sense of community inherent in the circus world, I witnessed the Wallendas’ respect for their heritage and I felt their moral imperative to keep that history alive. They are compelled by this in the face of diminishing audiences and low pay. I was driven to tell their story at any cost.
I completed the film in January 2012, and it will have its premiere in Sarasota, the home of traditional circus, on April 20th, 2012.
But first, I had one last hurdle to overcome: I had to acquire the rights to the historical footage I’d included in the story. And while I’d absorbed much of the production costs spread over 7 years, I was suddenly faced with one last, but significant, item: the cost of archival footage. And that’s where Kickstarter came in.
While I had received many requests from fellow filmmakers to back their Kickstarter campaigns (and had backed many of them), I was reluctant to stick my neck out and do the same. I had to overcome my own ego and sense of “self-sufficiency” to put my project out there and ask for support.
Of course, much of this reluctance was also rooted in a fear of rejection. But faced with the prospect of not being able to premiere this labor of love in the city it was made for, I launched the campaign—and truthfully, hid out of embarrassment (it’s a Midwestern thing).
The response was almost immediate. I was very surprised — and quite moved — by it. What felt at first like begging very quickly became an opportunity for friends, family, and others to express in a very direct and meaningful way their support, that they’re rooting for you.
I discovered what I’d really launched wasn’t a fundraiser so much as an “awareness campaign.” I was letting people know about my film, and telling them my story. And in telling them why I was compelled to make the film, risking vulnerability by expressing what I felt was important about The Wallendas story, my community grew.
And alongside that, my support grew. That support came in many forms — financial, verbal, visual — and as the pledges started coming in, I found myself reconnecting with people from my past, having exchanges with donors who had personal connections to my subject, and sometimes just exchanging with others about their passing fantasy of running away with the circus!
Karl Wallenda is known for saying, “Being on the wire is living, everything else is just waiting.” I think this resonates deeply with all of us because we all have that wire, that thing we will do for love, not money. It is perhaps the deepest demonstration of our uniqueness or individual perspective. For me, this film, and documentary filmmaking in general, is my wire. It is the thing I am compelled to do, regardless of expense of energy, resources, or time.
Moving forward, I’ve made a vow to fund at least one project a month on Kickstarter — to give a little “boost” to anyone who’s willing to say “this is my wire.” To reinforce that taking that risk is worthwhile and rewarding. Kickstarter (and sites like IndieGoGo, CrowdRise and others) presents the opportunity for all of us to give just a little as a means of saying on a personal level “keep going” — because your voice is important in the world. You have an audience, and we’re here to make sure you can continue.