On March 9, Agency Spy ran a piece announcing that I was undertaking a charity/documentary project called, “Free Throw.” The comment in the thread below the article which had the most “likes,” (11) started with the words, “How utterly horrendous.” Four months later, on Monday, July 11, I appeared on CNN with one of the eight students in our event, capping a week of PR that included appearances on ESPN, Fox and the Los Angeles Times.
Here’s a personal account of what happened in between.
Those who have worked alongside me have seen the word I taped on my laptop years ago: “Positive.” I did this to help myself through moments of frustration and insecurity when I’m not writing particularly well. But I also did it because it’s probably the guiding principle of my creative life. Whether I’m producing my own work or leading the department, I always strive to focus on the positive and the upside, rather than dwelling on the obstacles and shortcomings of any situation. This is not due to any sort of morale principle. It’s simply because I believe cynicism and negativity, while often glorified in our business, are the death of creativity.
But that doesn’t mean the comments didn’t get to me. So, as I sat waiting for a client meeting to start in Orange County, I typed a message saying something to the effect of, “I understand your skepticism, but here’s what I’m trying to do, here’s why it’s not ultimately going to be about basketball, and here’s why I’m hoping you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt for just a few months before you publicly slam the idea and my motivation for developing it.” But each time, I erased the message, fearing any comment would just fuel the firestorm of negativity.
Buoyed only by a wink I got from the president following our presentation to the Compton Board of Trustees, and the feeling I had every time I visited Compton High School, I pushed on. I was convinced that if I followed my heart, somehow it would all work out, even though we had no producer, no DP, no soundman, no editor and Laura Shute, the account person who had helped me get the whole thing off the ground, was leaving the agency to go start her own spice retail store. Oh yeah, and despite the fact that we only had two student releases signed, filming was scheduled to commence in two weeks.
Breathing rather erratically, I turned to the two people I knew could help get me through this — my partner, Ben Wiener and our head of account services, Skyler Mattson. Ben unflinchingly dedicated agency resources and staff to the project while Skyler took it upon herself to deal with the Compton school board, the Compton High principal, all the students who had met our 3.0 GPA requirement and the ever-increasing band of lawyers.
This is where the, “Build it and they will come,” part of the story really begins. Attracted by nothing more than the positive nature of our grossly underfunded project, people started to appear. First, Andrew Silver, a freelance producer who had worked on many of the Obama For President spots, but had some free time on his hands due to the slow economy. Then Ané Vecchione, our in-house editor and filmmaker, joined. Followed by our DP, Daron Keet, cameraman, Tyler Emmett, soundman, Caleb Mosse and a host of PA’s. Within two days, Brianne Burrowes from our social media department and Chad Kukahiko, from our studio and a filmmaker in his own right, had not only built a Facebook page to promote the event, but a Kickstarter page to help fund it. The list grew from there. Sean Harner, a guy I hadn’t spoken with in fifteen years, offered his services as AD. The list kept growing even though the budget didn’t. As the number of people participating in the endeavor grew, so did the sense of obligation — an obligation not to the film, but to these kids. So, every night, when we got home, each of us set about fundraising. Some were more successful than others, but everyone did their damndest to raise as much money as possible.
Looking back, I can conclusively say that my obsession with fundraising, at the expense of concentrating on my job as director, affected the quality of the film more profoundly than any other decision I would make. And in the best possible way. There’s no question that some were poorly composed as a result and others were lost altogether. But in return, we were able to deliver the first big twist in the film. When Principal Jones said to our runner-up, “Omar, you will not receive the one thousand dollars you were promised. Instead, you will get one year’s tuition at San Diego State University,” both Omar and I started to cry. Principal Jones then uttered a similar refrain to each of the other six contestants.
As the Compton High School choir streamed onto the hardwood floor to serenade our contestants, I smiled to myself, figuring our work was done. However small, we had made a difference. Not just for the winner of the competition or the seven other contestants, but for every kid who filled those bleachers in the gymnasium and saw that someone saw the good in them. There were three different news vans broadcasting from the school that day. I imagine it was the first time they had ever been on campus to cover something positive.
The next couple weeks were pretty quiet as I focused on our clients, my family and regaining a few of the hours of sleep that had been lost. Then, something happened that changed everything. Allan Guei, the boy who won the competition, got a full scholarship to Cal State Northridge to play basketball. We started talking about things. Crazy things. On the morning of his graduation from Compton High School, he did the unthinkable. He told me he was ready to give the scholarship he won to the other seven contestants. So we filmed him doing that and there were hugs and smiles. A couple of hours later, the Principal would call him on stage during the graduation ceremony at the Home Depot Center to applaud him for his charity. I will forever remember his words, “It’s not just whether you’ve been blessed, it’s who have you blessed. Who have you blessed?”
Allan blessed the other seven students, our project and everyone who believes that if you do good things, good things will happen.