Budgets for ‘prestige’ films dried up. So Ava DuVernay found a new way.

The filmmaker couldn’t get traditional financing to film “Origin” — but the Ford Foundation, Melinda Gates and other philanthropists were willing to help. It might be cinema’s new business model.

Ava DuVernay photographed in Los Angeles in September. “I’d say 99 percent of folks would not get this film greenlit because it’s unruly," she said. (Erik Carter for The Washington Post)
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NICASIO, Calif. —

The doubts started as soon as director Ava DuVernay optioned the critically acclaimed 2020 nonfiction bestseller “Caste” for the big screen.

Some said that Isabel Wilkerson’s revelatory cultural history of racism was unfilmable. That Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, cast in the central role, was not a big enough star to anchor a $38 million movie. And that multiplex audiences would shrink from a gut-wrenching drama that forces them to confront Trayvon Martin, the Holocaust, slavery and the mistreatment of the Dalits in India.

But DuVernay believed her movie needed to be made. Now. Before the 2024 elections. And she wasn’t about to let money alter her vision. That meant finding a new way to finance the movie. And she did.

“Origin,” as the film that will open in New York and Los Angeles on Friday and nationwide in January has been titled, was backed by an unlikely source: philanthropists. The foundations and donors who wrote the checks to produce it — including the Ford Foundation, nonprofits funded by Melinda French Gates, Laurene Powell Jobs and 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki, and some public-spirited NBA stars — aren’t expecting a financial return on their investments. They’re hoping for a social impact.

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“It’s like the market’s telling us this stuff doesn’t really work right now,” DuVernay said in an interview with The Washington Post, publicly discussing her unusual strategy for the first time. “So if the market tells us that this is not a value proposition for studios … it might be a value proposition for another entity.”

It’s a patronage model reminiscent of the charity bestowed on art museums or opera companies — high-cultural institutions that couldn’t survive without deep-pocketed benefactors.

No one ever imagined that would be the case for the crowd-pleasing, cheap-seat-filling dream factories of Hollywood. But an array of forces — from the rise of streaming to global demand for superhero fare — have all but squeezed out the kind of mainstream grown-up dramas that once won Oscars, stirred national conversations and advanced the art of cinema.

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In the past, DuVernay followed traditional funding paths, from the $250,000 she patched together from investors for her 2012 indie breakout “Middle of Nowhere,” to the $100 million the Disney studio assigned for her 2018 special-effects-laden adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time.” This time, as she found herself struggling to get her project rolling, she approached Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and a longtime ally.

He did not flinch when she asked for $10 million.

“I said to Ava, you are a genius and you need to be untethered and unfettered by the system that will probably constrain you,” recalled Walker, who directs the foundation’s $16 billion endowment.

From there, DuVernay began to recruit other foundations entirely new to the world of feature film. She garnered social impact investments and grants from basketball stars Chris Paul, Karl-Anthony Towns, Malcolm Brogdon and Kevin Love; and won support from the MacArthur and Robert Wood Johnson foundations, which had previously underwritten some documentary films. Another investor is Agnes Gund, the philanthropist and art collector best known for her generous contributions to the Museum of Modern Art and other fine-arts institutions.

“I’d say 99 percent of folks would not get this film greenlit because it’s unruly,” said DuVernay, who also directed the Oscar-nominated civil rights drama “Selma” in 2014. “It’s adapting a book people call an unadaptable book, about a very tough, dense, unattractive subject. Then the main character is surviving grief. This doesn’t sound like a Marvel movie. How am I going to get people through the door for it?”

With a cast that includes Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash, and Nick Offerman as well as Ellis-Taylor (an Oscar nominee last year for “King Richard”), “Origin” has garnered strong reactions on the festival circuit. DuVernay received a nine-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival in September.

“I’m getting goose bumps now just talking about it,” said Paul, the 12-time NBA all-star point guard, now with the Golden State Warriors, who invested with his wife, Jada. “It’s amazing. It stays with you and lights a fire under you. … I want my team to see this.”

Powell Jobs, whose Emerson Collective foundation underwrote the film, expects “Origin” will spark conversations about the systems that drive inequities in society.

“I found that I needed to talk to people about it and to interrogate it,” she said, “and, in order to process it, have other people around and listen to how they were interpreting it and how they were making sense of it.”

Until recently, “prestige movies” and other serious grown-up fare had far less trouble finding their way to big screens and packed theaters. Films like “A Beautiful Mind,” “Chicago” and “Million Dollar Baby” didn’t just win best picture Oscars in the 2000s; they were among the year’s top box-office draws.

But the rise of lavish home-entertainment options made it harder to lure fans out of the house to see socially conscious dramas and sensitive biopics they’d be able to rent or stream soon enough. Meanwhile, an increasingly global market helped Hollywood refine the formula for the moviemaking that would guarantee the highest return on investment, heavy on action-adventure and kid-friendly animation. In 2023, the prestige audiences still haven’t rebounded — as noted in the disappointing box office for well-reviewed highbrow films like Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” last winter — making such projects seem even riskier for financiers.

Paul Garnes, DuVernay’s producing partner on “Origin” and a longtime friend, remembers joining her in a pitch meeting for a modest $1 million project she wanted to make, after winning the best director prize at Sundance Film Festival for “Middle of Nowhere.”

One of the film executives asked: Can you get Halle Berry for it?

Garnes was staggered. “It just blew me away that we’re picking the number one Black woman star who had won an Academy Award, and I can’t get $1 million to make a movie without her.”

There was no Halle Berry in the picture this time either. And Wilkerson’s “Caste” had other issues.

As a book, it had been picked for both Oprah Winfrey’s book club and Barack Obama’s favorites-of-the-year list. But the 496-page study was no easy read. DuVernay had to be nudged a few times by Winfrey to crack it.

When she finally looked into acquiring the rights, she was shocked they were still available. But Wilkerson had written from an almost academic approach, a central thesis rigorously presented with historical context and complex analogies. Little in the book was character-driven or scene-based.

“When I read the book, it felt unadaptable as a film,” said actor David Oyelowo, a longtime friend of DuVernay’s who played the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.”

Then DuVernay learned of the serious losses that Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, experienced in her own life during the process of researching “Caste.” After conversations with the author, she decided that the script, unlike the book, would turn Wilkerson into the protagonist.

In a recent private viewing at the Skywalker Ranch sound mixing studio here, 30 miles northwest of San Francisco, the director shared a nearly finished cut. The film follows Wilkerson (Ellis-Taylor) as she develops her thesis for the book that would become “Caste,” linking the Nazis’ persecution of Jews with the slave trade and with India’s caste system. Along the way, she contends with a skeptical book editor and other naysayers, as well as the sudden death of her husband, Brett, played by Bernthal.

Gates, whose Pivotal Ventures has supported Array, the nonprofit film collective started by DuVernay, was impressed by her approach.

“Most of the people who read ‘Caste’ put it down at least once before they came back to it, because it’s heavy,” she said. “A movie brings something to the screen that can captivate an audience that might not otherwise have read the book.”

Gates added: “Growing up, I watched ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ That’s a difficult movie to watch, but by God, did it make me think deeply.”

DuVernay had previously worked with Netflix on four successful projects, including the Oscar-nominated documentary “13th,” a 2016 exploration of the prison-industrial complex, and the 2019 limited-series drama “When They See Us” about the wrongly accused teens in the Central Park jogger case. But when Netflix seemed to move slowly on “Origin,” DuVernay realized that she needed to do something drastic to get the film out by her early 2024 goal.

Oyelowo encouraged her to fight for her film and reminded her of the time a high-powered film distributor offered a tantalizing offer for “Middle of Nowhere” — if she made certain changes.

“I remember we stood in a snowy doorway with her basically saying, ‘These films are like my children and I don’t make them to just give them away,’” he said. “And I said, ‘Well, if that’s how you feel, you simply mustn’t. You’ll never forgive yourself.’ And she didn’t pursue that deal.”

Guillermo del Toro, the Oscar-winning director of “The Shape of Water,” advised that if she wanted to move fast, she had to go the indie route. DuVernay asked Netflix to let her take back “Origin.” She said she remains grateful they said yes and harbors no bad feelings.

“At worst, Hollywood is the land of the slow no,” del Toro said. “And at best, it’s the land of the slow yes. It takes you convincing everybody on board a ship that you need to sail now.”

What she ultimately accomplished was “a high-wire act with no net,” he said. “You’re not putting some skin in the game, you’re betting the entire skin in the game: That the movie will be done in time, the way it needs to be done, and that it will play to an audience.”

Shot in just 37 days, “Origin” was an ambitious undertaking. DuVernay restaged a Nazi book-burning rally in Berlin’s Bebelplatz. She captured a horrific sequence portraying the middle passage of enslaved people from Africa. In India, she re-created a scene of a Dalit man, a non-actor, submerging himself in a public toilet trench to clean it. Before the cameras rolled, DuVernay explained that the substance he would be swimming in was made largely of oatmeal. Heartbreakingly, the Dalit man offered to do it in real human waste. His regular task, after all.

But DuVernay found this film shoot easier than most, to the extent that she had fewer bosses to heed. The studio execs or independent financiers who bankroll most movies typically demand some creative oversight. While DuVernay gave her backers updates on her progress, they did not sit in editing sessions, scribbling notes on how to make “Origin” more box office-friendly. They deferred to her instincts and waited until she was done.

While Walker wants the Ford Foundation to make back its money, he’s more concerned that the movie makes an impact. (Ford was the only philanthropic funder willing to publicly divulge the exact amount it contributed to “Origin,” though their contributions together make up the majority of the film’s $38 million budget.)

“This film is the most important contribution to truth-telling of American history that has ever been created,” he said.

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DuVernay, though, has not taken her benefactors for granted. As they made final edits at Skywalker Ranch, she and Garnes haggled on the phone with a copyright-holder over a few thousand dollars to use the 1959 Bobby Darin song “Splish Splash” in a scene. They worked that deal out but had to cut another song, by the 1970s soul group Maze.

Why not just call her investors and ask for another $20,000 for the licensing fee?

“That’s not a good partner,” DuVernay explained. “I’m trying to create a model in which organizations and nonprofits support films like this. So could I call the people and nitpick for something here or there? Sure. But I want to stay within what I committed to.”

When “Origin” hits theaters, her supporters won’t just be applauding from their seats. Gates said she is eager to see how the film is reviewed; Powell Jobs said her foundation has a “dashboard of metrics” it will use to analyze “Origin’s” success and reach.

“And of course, we will consider doing this again if it’s successful and it spurs the type of thoughtful conversation that we hope for,” Powell Jobs said.

DuVernay wants to spark more than discussion. She hopes “Origin” will motivate people to push for a better society — her goals with both “Selma,” released just after the Ferguson, Mo., unrest sparked by the police shooting of Michael Brown, as well as “When They See Us.” She notes that Gund, after seeing “13th,” sold a Roy Lichtenstein painting for $165 million and started the nonprofit Art for Justice to support artists in prison and advocate for criminal justice reform.

“What’s important to me is that the film reached people and gets them ignited,” she says. “Yes, ‘Origin’ is coming at a time when the market is telling studios this isn’t going to be successful for their goals. But we have another goal and could it be successful toward that?”

correction

A previous version of this story incorrectly described Melinda French Gates's Pivotal Ventures fund as a foundation. The story has been updated.