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INTERVIEW WITH JIM BUTTERWORTH of NAKED EDGE FILMS (Gone, Donor Unknown at Tribeca 2011 Festival)

Fest 21 (Suzanne Lynch) sat down with Jim Butterworth, the president and co-founder of Naked Edge Films, a documentary film production company based in New York City and Boulder, Colorado, to discuss the two documentaries his company has at the 2011 Tribeca festival -- GONE and DONOR UNKNOWN.


Jim, you have a background in technology as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. How does this background translate to what you are doing with Naked Edge Films?

I’d say there is a direct translation. First and foremost, it’s about evaluating talent and the market. In most business cases the best solutions are driven by market needs, so that’s what’s tough about our business: a film doesn’t necessarily address a specific market need, other than to inform and/or entertain. So, part of our job is to think about what people would like to experience. It’s very akin to evaluating social media businesses, but without the return potential!

How did you get into film?

Back in 2003 I attended a talk about a particular human rights crisis in North Korea and China. On one hand, I was pretty upset that this crisis wasn’t being documented, and on the other hand I guess I was up for a challenge. I didn’t know much about making a film at the time, but jumped right into it. That film, “Seoul Train,” went on to play on TV all over the world and win numerous awards, and have a real impact on that crisis.

That’s when I really appreciated the power this medium can have on people, and the bang-for-the-buck it can have.

How did NEF get started?

In 2005 I was touring with “Seoul Train” and met Daniel Chalfen, who was touring with his film “Pulled from the Rubble.” Daniel had been a producer in non-fiction programming for many years, producing independent documentaries and TV series. We started talking about the documentary world, and it was apparent that we had very similar ideas and a shared vision for how to make films. Then in 2008, we got serious about collaborating and came up with the idea for Naked Edge Films. We saw a real need in the documentary world for experienced producers and for a source of critical funding.

Where does the name Naked Edge Films come from?

The name comes from a rock climb called “The Naked Edge” near where I live in Boulder. It’s known for being super-exposed and being a real test piece. We thought it would be appropriate given that we like to do films that are also exposed and on the edge.

So, you look for “edgy” films?

We like to back up creative risk when it makes sense for the story and for the film. For example, before we got involved with “War Don Don” the director, Rebecca Richman Cohen, felt pressure from potential investors to tell the story in a more straightforward way. When we first saw an early cut, we jumped at the opportunity to help her tell the more complex, nuanced story she really wanted to tell, where villains could be heroes and vice versa. We ended up selling “War Don Don” to HBO right after its premiere at SXSW.

What else do you look for in a film project?

The first thing we look at is the filmmaker. There’s an adage in the venture capital business: “bet on the jockey, not the horse.” This is especially true in documentary filmmaking since you often have very little control over the story, so the filmmaker must be very entrepreneurial about seeing the film through to completion. The next thing we look at is the story itself: are there great characters, do they develop, is the story compelling and relevant, and is there complexity and depth to the story. We’re not looking for polemic films. And lastly, it needs to be a film that we believe has commercial prospects.

At what stage do you get involved in films, and how do you get involved?

We’ll get involved at any stage. I would say our sweet spot, however, is when a filmmaker has already begun to shoot and really begins to need the kind of help we can provide, such as critical funding and help getting the film to completion and in the market. I’d say we’re really good at maximizing the resources of world class editors and other professionals to make the best possible film at the least possible cost. We also take advantage of talent nationwide — if not worldwide — in order to do this. As a film nears completion, we really kick into high gear and help do everything from web presence, festival strategy, sales and distribution, marketing…you name it, everything it takes to make the film a success. We work with maybe 4-5 new films each year, that way we can really devote the needed time and attention to each one.

Tell me about your two films playing at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Yes, we are very excited about the two films we have playing at Tribeca. This is the world premiere of “GONE,” which is a story of a single mom, a retired 20-year police officer that goes in search of her son who went missing while living in Vienna. It’s a very powerful film and the filmmakers, Gretchen and John Morning, and the editor, Joel Plotch, took creative risks that really took the film to another level. It’s told very much in the style of Errol Morris as the mother struggles to find the truth about her son. By contrast, “Donor Unknown” is a much more uplifting film. It’s the story of the coming of age of several children of a sperm donor as they start to ask about their biological father and half-siblings. It’s also the story of the donor, who is quite the character…he’s a very doting adoptive father to four stray dogs and a pigeon. I love the questions this film raises, including those about who we are and where we come from, and what constitutes being a parent.

What does NEF have in the works?

We’ve got some great films in the hopper. One is an untitled Haiti project that follows an unexpected, guerilla-style group of people that choose to work in disaster zones, and the unconventional methods they use to bring relief. It’s right up our alley, as it’s filled with what we term “moral ambiguity.” Another film is “The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest,” which really shows what can go wrong when our justice system fails. Both these films have strong, character-driven stories, and are really captivating.

How can filmmakers get in touch with you about their projects?

They can go to and there they will find our contact info.



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About Suzanne Lynch

Lynch Suzanne

Suzanne Lynch is a New-York based PR/Marketing consultant and actress who enjoys teaching private French lessons ( in her spare time.

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