Lessons In Extreme Collaboration From Occupy Wall Street And “99%”

The filmmakers behind 99% explain how to make an Occupy Wall Street documentary in the spirit of Occupy Wall Street. Step One: embrace the chaos.

Lessons In Extreme Collaboration From Occupy Wall Street And “99%”

They scream for revolution, these marching, milling men and women who spark to life at Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17, 2011 and steadily spill throughout New York City and across the U.S. and around the world.


They say they want change, the Wall Street Occupiers, inspiring armies of followers with cries for financial equality during a lingering recession that’s seen everyday people all over the country suffering.

Taking inspiration are directors Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites, Lucian Read and Nina Kristic, who pick up movie equipment instead of protest signs. In an unprecedented film collaboration, the four lead directors gather 107 filmmakers across America to make 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film. They aim to tell the Occupy story without bias and dig into its big picture issues as organizers, pundits and participants explain how the largest political movement of our times happened and why.

In an era when more and more artists are using crowdfunding platforms to help launch their projects, the 99% filmmakers push crowdsourcing beyond the financial startup stage. By implementing the crowdsource model from beginning to end, they join the Occupy vanguard and perhaps help ignite a filmmaking revolution of their own.

Here, the directors take us through the process of making a film using a process that reflects the collective ethos of its subject.


Ewell and Aites start the project with an industry press release and a call to filmmaker friends. Thirty people sign up in the first week; 60 commit by week two with more than 100 eventually joining their movie.


The size of the 99% army makes sense once Aites explains the three basic rules governing the movie. “Anybody who wanted to take part in it would be allowed to,” Aites tells us. “Two, we were not going to make propaganda and finally, more experienced filmmakers would guide the process.”

The crowdsourcing model keeps funding in check with each filmmaker providing their equipment (sometimes something as simple as an iPhone) and footage. The upshot is that building a large community of advocates from step one also builds brand awareness and the publicity necessary for a successful release.

In fact, when it comes to community building, they may be the 99% filmmakers but they have inclusion goals that even go above 99%.

“The whole idea behind the 99% was being a movement for everybody except for those 1% of people but even they would be welcome to join our movie,” adds Ewell with a slight laugh. “We were inspired by the inclusiveness and thought how interesting it would be to make a film as inclusive and allowing for many voices.”

Roll Camera

First of all, 99% is not a playful experiment like the 2006 Beastie Boys concert movie Awesome I Fuckin’ Shot That, made with 50 attendees supplying camcorder footage to fictional director Nathaniel Hörnblowér (Adam Yauch). Ewell, who took on additional duties as 99% film coordinator, says the team crowdsourced because gathering as many subjective perspectives as possible looked to be the most interesting way to make an Occupy documentary.


With all the 99% filmmakers going back and forth via the production’s mail server, their constant chatter quickly matched the cacophony of the Zuccotti Park crowd. The good news is that the 99% filmmakers provided strong national coverage with footage coming from all major U.S. cities without any one director having to travel great distances.

Back in New York City, the key 99% filmmakers pull apart and reassemble the pre-footage for contant work-in-progress screenings always with the mandate of maintaining the integrity of the directors in the field.

As far as the bad news goes, well, let’s just say the 99% shoot was anything but streamlined. “There were too many people who didn’t know enough about film who only wanted to talk about which bands would be in the movie,” Aites points out. “Some people got frustrated and left too many emails. Other filmmakers said, ‘Sorry guys, I can’t do this. There are too many people who don’t know what they’re doing working on this film.’”

Rough Cuts

One phrase the key 99% directors keep repeating is “invited chaos,” emphasizing that they wanted a more experimental movie and expected all the challenges that occurred throughout the multiple, Austin-to-Boston shoots.

They namedrop Jean-Luc Godard and his French New Wave peers to emphasize the grand tradition of cinema experimentation and collaboration. It’s a lofty comparison on their part but the 99% and its massive scale is impressive to watch. The key characteristic that speaks to the film’s crowdsourcing model is its impressive variety of footage with each 99% director bringing his or her own style to the documentary.


The variety of footage quality means the 99% does not flow like a traditional documentary despite early attempts by lead editor Jeffrey K. Miller to fix the footage. “I was like, no, no, no, that’s not a problem,” continues Ewell. “We had to override some traditional ideas of filmmaking and what things should look like as part of a patchwork. But there are touchstones throughout the movie; characters that we keep seeing and constant return to New York in order for the timeline of the film to follow the timeline of the movement.”

There’s another way the frontline 99% directors like to describe their movie; a label first expressed by Read who provided the film with its footage of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans facing unemployment at home. “It’s hotlinking,” Aites says, referring to the look and content of the movie. “It’s the movie equivalent of hotlinking websites and that’s what allows us to cover all the things we wanted to cover.”

There you have it. The 99% is the first “hotlink” documentary.

The Finishing Touches

Tears of exhaustion and frantic finishes to meet the fall deadline for entry to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival are a distant memory.

It’s time for 99% to reach mainstream audiences just as Occupy faces sustainability issues. Movements have shelf lives, even Occupy and Zuccotti Park is quiet as some 100 activists plan their return for second anniversary events on Sept. 17.


Perhaps, the journeys of the movie and the movement will crisscross and the creative agenda of the 99% filmmakers will re-spark Occupy.

It’s worth noting that as the 99% prepare for its September release, other crowdsource media projects are also coming to life.

Veteran director Jehane Noujaim leads a group of seven filmmakers for the Egyptian democratic revolution doc The Square.

The Montreal-based media company Akufen continues to build its Journal of Insomnia, a place-based installation as well as a digital community of insomniacs providing footage about their sleep issues from all over the world.

Rachel Falcone, Laura Gottesdiener and Michael Premo (both Gottesdiener and Premo were Occupy participants) crowdsource media and participants in order to tell a fluid account of Hurricane Sandy for their transmedia project titled Sandy Storyline.


Standing at the front of the pack, ready to provide advice about trusting your fellow collaborators and lessons regarding decision making are the 99% filmmakers.

Yet, despite all the talk of “invited chaos” and embracing the experimental nature of crowdsource moviemaking, one final lesson stands out as the most surprising. Occupy may be a “leaderless” movement but that’s not the case with the Occupy movie.

“Oh, we dropped consensus,” Ewell says, laughing. “That was the first thing to go from our film. You can’t make a film by committee. That doesn’t happen. You can make it collaboratively but there has to be a hierarchy in place. I’ve said the word hierarchy so many times I don’t think I can say it anymore.”

There’s another gem of advice from the 99% team. Choose wisely. Don’t blindly follow in their artistic footsteps. Crowdsourcing may not be for you.

“I think this was an interesting experiment but I’m not going to say rush out and say this is the new and best way for making films,” Ewell adds. “This was the best way for making this film. Unless you have a really good reason for doing a collaborative film, it has to serve the film. But I think of our experiment is a successful one. Whether anyone else does is for them to decide.”