By embracing the 'why' and dedicating himself to story Alex Widmer signed a contract for double a non-profit's original budget and built a film that's motivated an entire city to collective action.
They’re two very different stories but they both start with the power of putting story first - the power of ‘Why?’.
In 2014 Alex Widmer, a Knoxville-based filmmaker, quit his job in the food industry to follow his passion for making movies. With no formal training but a serious case of entrepreneurial itch he set out to film weddings thinking, “If I can get 10 weddings I think I can do it; I think I can do this for myself.”
He filmed 30 weddings that year.
“I've had to learn everything on my own,” he said. “I still don’t consider myself a full-on creative. I like the business way more than the actual creative. I love developing the processes. I'd rather be able to design a vision for a story and let other people create it with that vision in mind,” he said.
His love for process led him to Muse where he was able to redefine “process” and get to the core of what, for him, always drives a story - the ‘why?’.
“The best question [my business partner and I] can ask each other is ‘why?’,” Alex said. “It’s not just a video, you’re buying into the journey.”
Wears Valley Ranch is a home, school, and counseling center that works with children in crisis situations - abusive relationships, drug problems or parents with drug problems, neglect, behavior issues - and provides a Christian-faith-based safe space and education at the base of the Smokey Mountains. They came to Alex with a $3,000 budget and the desire to create a recruitment video for the organization.
“They said ‘we would rather focus on recruiting than a fundraiser film,’ and I'm like ‘well, if you can go through this process I swear you'll be able to use it for both. You're going to get to the heart of it and people are going to want to invest in the ‘why’-- why you guys are doing it,’” he said.
Adam signed a contract with Wears Valley Ranch for $7,000, more than twice their original budget, in March.
“They said yes because of the ‘why’!’,” he said. “They’re buying into the journey. Ninety percent of our time with them is going to be without a camera. They said yes to that. They bought into the why.”
“I wouldn't have gotten that contract signed if it wasn't for Muse,” Alex said.
They story Alex is going tell for Wears Valley Ranch will going be both a recruiting video to educate parents and children who may benefit from the organization’s services and a fundraising message for philanthropists looking to make donations to a cause that speaks to them.
By understanding the importance of story and having an accessible vocabulary to discuss the journey and the ‘why’, Alex and his partner were able to prove the impact of a story-driven commercial film.
“I can say no [to a lower budget], because I know the process has been proven,” Alex said.
“I know that story is worth it.”
In Alex’s latest success story, the impact of embracing the why and the journey goes way beyond using story to connect people to an organization’s mission - it is literally building connections out of chaos.
On December 17, 2015, Zaevion Dobson, a black 15-year-old Knoxville resident and student at Fulton High School, was shot and killed when he threw himself on top of three of his classmates to shield them from bullets spraying out the windows of a passing car.
“Ninety percent of homicides in our community involve young, black men killing young, black men,” said Knoxville police chief David Rausch. Zaevion’s death was the final straw for Knoxville residents, black and white alike. Something had to change.
“If the culture doesn’t change, my sons can be shot - or be the shooter,” Pastor Daryl Arnold, senior pastor at Overcoming Believers Church, says in the film.
So what to do?
Local legislators, law enforcement officers, church officials, residents and community activists put their heads together and landed on: rollerskating.
Rollerskating is not going to decrease violence or build bonds across historically gang-run neighborhoods, but when the various brainstorming local bodies asked the local high schoolers, the young people whose lives this violence most affects, what they want they said it simply: they want a place they can hang out and do things. And the young people in downtown Knoxville fucking love to rollerskate.
“The reason I stay out of trouble is I’ve got money,” Alex said. “I can go out to eat, I can go to the movies, downtown and see my friends. If you draw 1.5 mile radius around downtown Knoxville there's not one sit down restaurant other than fast food joints. Not one. There's nothing to do. What do you do when you're bored in middle school and high school? You do dumb shit,” he said.
In April, 2016, Knoxville’s mayor, Madeline Rogero, announced she was donating half a million dollars to fund what will be known as the Change Center, a safe space for teens and young adults to meet, play, create, talk, collaborate and build community.
If fully funded the Change Center will house a skating rink, an entrepreneur center, a climbing wall, a movie wall, concert stage, video game and activity center, Hard Knox Pizza Cafe, employee training center, birthday party and social event center, a recording and mixing studio, basketball hoops and a general meeting space.
And Alex’s film is helping make it happen.
“This is a huge opportunity to tell a phenomenal story,” Alex said. “I have the opportunity and privilege to jump into people’s lives, and not just their video campaigns, but the core of who they are,” he said.
When approached about filming the fundraising video for the Change Center, Alex knew it was going to be epic, but also that it would be difficult. How do you show a place that doesn’t exist yet? Who is your heart when what prompted development of the Change Center was a young man losing his life? Where do you begin?
“We started all over with the Muse process,” Alex said. “We fleshed out people- who's going to be the heart, you know who's going to help us. We needed to figure out how we can get the community on board to watch this film and act on it, get people to say ‘I want to volunteer,’; ‘I want to give money’; ‘I want to help,’” he said.
They found their heart, Beano Miller, a former gang member who’s lived the violence and wants to break the cycle, and their experts, police chief David Rausch and pastor Daryl Arnold, and before they knew it Alex and Trey had a fundraising video being broadcast on the local news.
“The power of story goes well beyond just the film piece you can show somebody,” Alex said. “It's the frickin’ journey.”
The Change Center is due to open fall, 2017.