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His Fans Greenlight the Project

To make his latest documentary,
To make his latest documentary, "Iraq for Sale," Robert Greenwald e-mailed those likely to be sympathetic to the project. Thousands responded, providing $267,892 in 10 days. (By Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)

They got $267,892 in 10 days.

"Dear activists, colleagues and friends," Greenwald e-mailed in early May. "We are stunned."

A billionaire philanthropist was the anonymous $100,000 donor. Beverly Hills investor Erika Glazer and medical equipment entrepreneur Dick Mazess kicked in $82,000, according to Greenwald. The rest, $185,000, came from 3,000 small donors giving an average of $62 each.

Regarding the list of supporters: "It'll be longer than the credits at the end of 'Lord of the Rings,' " Gilliam promises.

Typically, Hollywood producers raise capital from the studios and outside investors -- hedge funds and investment banks like Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs -- and with loans.

Small-scale independent filmmakers, the kind who bring their documentaries to the Sundance Film Festival, put together funding however they can -- with art grants, money from educational or journalism foundations or from relatives and friends -- and in many cases by racking up hefty balances on their credit cards.

Gilliam and Greenwald say they know of no one who has ever raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Internet to make a movie. (Though this year at Cannes, a do-it-yourself director named Melissa Balin attempted to auction her finished movie -- "FreezerBurn" -- on eBay. It sold in one market: Lithuania.)

"For all practical purposes, this is the first time I've heard of raising money for a film this way. I've got to hand it to them. I'm very impressed. It's clever," says Lawrence Turman, a veteran Hollywood producer of over 40 films (from "The Graduate" to "American History X") and author of the how-to book "So You Want to Be a Producer."

Turman says the Internet funding seems well suited for "political and in your face films" like Greenwald's documentaries. "You're not going to raise $40 million, but you might raise $1 million," he says.

"I think this is the future," Gilliam says. Not for standard Hollywood fare, he admits. But for niche product, for indie stuff. "It is my dream to pull this off," Gilliam says. "To figure out how to fund movies out of the control of corporations. Our goal is to fund and distribute any movie we want to make completely outside of the system."

This is the Howard Dean School of Film Funding, very Net-rooty, very social-networky, very now. It promises Hollywood dreams beyond the reach of the Man.

You have an idea. You have an affinity group. You have e-mail addresses. You ask for money.

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