Ben Goldhirsh and Barack Obama
Ben Goldhirsh is an entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist. He co-founded GOOD, Mighty and Matter Neuroscience. He is an LP in several funds including Collaborative, Lowercarbon, among others, and is a direct early investor in over a dozen startups, including Kickstarter and Everytable. In addition, he is Chairman of the Goldhirsh Foundation which launched LA2050 — an initiative driving progress toward a shared vision for the future of Los Angeles.
One little known fact is that Ben helped finance and produce a documentary film about Barack Obama which debuted in 2009. Below is a fun journey learning about that experience.
1. Ben, you invested in making a documentary about Barack Obama well before he announced his run for Presidency. Can you tell me how this came together? Did you have any sense he would run when you committed?
We were financing movies that were relevant to society and Edward Norton reached out to me about this project. He and some colleagues had a strong feeling that he was going to run. This was 2006, Obama was a freshman Senator from Illinois, but he was on a lot of people’s mind/shortlist post his 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention. Edward said to me, he’s going to run I think. And even if it’s not now, he will someday. He’s going to Kenya this summer and we should get started and have cameras there and just start documenting this.
2. Did Obama negotiate and decide on working with you directly or how did this work?
I did not lead these negotiations. I think he really liked the directors of the project, Amy Rice and Alicia Sams. I think he trusted them and Edward. I think he knew there was history in the making and he believed this team with true access could reflect it honestly.
3. Similar to venture investments where you have a “lead investor” and a syndicate of co-investors — is that how this worked? If so, were you the “lead”? And who were the co-investors?
Yes. There was a range of folks who got involved – it was a fun group and most important was that everyone was excited about the team, specifically the directors, leading the project.
4. How much did you buy the rights for? And how did you arrive at this amount?
The campaign was not looking to monetize its effort, in turn the production did not buy the rights but rather earned access through the credibility of prior work.
5. What were some of the milestones where you started to realize the content was going to be a lot more valuable?
Before Iowa most political insiders assumed this was a great story that would fall under the might of the Clinton campaign.
Once people showed up the way they did in Iowa, it gave a sense to the historical nature of not just the candidacy but the candidate and the people getting behind him.
6. Ultimately, you successfully sold the film to HBO and Sony Pictures. I’m curious if you would have done anything differently retrospectively?
For HBO, the team had to cut the film down to 2 hours. The 4 hour cut was better in my mind. It punched you in the brain and the heart. But it was too long for TV. I wasn’t running point on the decision, but if I had a wand, and with hindsight, I might have made a different choice.
Chad Hurley from YouTube wanted to distribute it. That would have been a curveball at that time. But if we could have worked out a deal with him, I think that platform could have facilitated a wider audience and also provided us the ability to create a relationship with that audience for future projects.
When you sell to a distributor like HBO they control the relationship with the audience and it’s rare that anyone pays any mind or develops any loyalty to the production companies behind even their favorite projects.