Documentary films often capture issues that extend beyond the big screen. “Weed the People,” a film by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, investigates the science behind medical marijuana, while echoing the question of personal freedom to choose medical treatment in America. The film focuses on children diagnosed with cancer whose parents, having exhausted all other options, pursue medical marijuana as a pediatric treatment option.
Mainstream media coverage of medical marijuana has included specials with Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN and Harry Smith on CNBC, among others. These specials bring medical marijuana to the forefront, but only offer a glimpse into a medical treatment that deserves a feature length examination. “Weed the People” is poised to increase public awareness of marijuana’s legitimacy as medicine and aid in the removal of marijuana’s stigma, while also indirectly opening minds to the legal marijuana market.
When Ricki Lake was on ABC’s “Dancing with Stars” in 2011, a young fan reached out to her on social media. The fan was undergoing chemotherapy for an incurable condition. “I immediately fell in love with this little child and wanted to help her and that kind of got my curiosity going about marijuana from a medicinal standpoint,” Lake said in an interview with MJINews.
While Lake’s young fan doesn’t appear in “Weed the People,” Lake was inspired by the experience with her. “I was telling Abby about this little girl, and she’s like, ‘Wait a minute, this could be our next movie.’”
Lake and Epstein were getting the film underway when Tracy and Josh Ryan reached out to them on social media regarding their 7-month-old daughter Sophie who had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. According to Epstein, the Ryans “were fans of the ‘Business of Being Born,’ our first film, and when their daughter got sick they had reached out on Facebook.”
Beyond the connection on social media, Epstein detailed another unexpected link—Tracy Ryan, Sophie’s mother, “she’d actually come to the screening of the ‘Business of Being Born’ when she was pregnant with Sophie, the little girl in the film.”
It’s as if the Ryans were meant for this documentary. Not only did they let Lake and Epstein document Sophie’s treatment with medical marijuana oil, they also introduced the filmmakers to another patient who would later become a focus for the film.
“Tracy Ryan formed a group called Cannakids and so she started to meet other parents of kids with cancer and that’s how we came to the Ryder Family,” Epstein said. The Ryder’s son Chico was suffering from rhabdomyosarcoma. As is expected with such an emotional account, the Ryders are more than just subjects in the film, “they’re also an amazing family,” Lake added.
“It’s been two years now; we’re still making the film. We’ve met these unbelievable families and incredible stories, and it’s fascinating. It’s such an honor to be able to learn as we go, and be able to educate so many others,” Lake said. Even though they have completed storylines on the Ryans and the Ryders, Lake and Epstein have more stories to capture.
Epstein predicts the film will expand its examination to an additional two or three more families. Doing so will allow viewers to witness multiple scenarios in which medical marijuana is used as a legitimate treatment option. An increased number of scenarios should encourage greater contemplation on the part of viewers.
According to Lake, the filmmakers also have plans for their conversation of medical marijuana to cross into another country. “We’re trying to go to Israel. We have an opportunity to shoot there and do some extraordinary stuff over there, but it’s raising the money to have the money to go over there. It’s just a slow process. The movie takes so much longer because of the funding.”
Funding the Film
Documentary films are not traditional investment opportunities, making it difficult to attract investors to fund such projects. Lake and Epstein have experienced this firsthand. “The funding is the hardest part. If we had the money, nothing would hold us back,” Lake said.
In addition to the typical difficulties of funding a documentary, Epstein noted that the film’s focus on marijuana has given it an extra hurdle to clear with potential backers. “There is some backlash with the stigma. We’ve definitely had a few funders that have said, ‘Well, I don’t want to be on public record funding something about marijuana,’ but they’ll give more of a general donation to our production company.”
While the film’s genre and the topic’s stigma may not have initially attracted investors, the filmmakers ran a successful campaign on Indiegogo from May 20, 2014 – June 29, 2014, raising $114,347. In the process, the filmmakers made a connection within the marijuana industry. “O.penVAPE became a partner of ours during our Indiegogo campaign and they gave us products to give away to people who donated,” Lake said.
Donors to the film’s Indiegogo campaign had the opportunity to earn benefits such as joining the filmmakers on a shoot, receiving tickets to attend the premiere, earning assistant producer credit or co-producer credit on the film. While the Indiegogo campaign has ended, the terms of the donation levels and benefits still apply to those wishing to help the film complete funding.
Lake and Epstein also engaged with the legal marijuana industry this past November at the ArcView Investor Forum in Las Vegas to help the film reach its full potential. “One of the reasons we wanted to go to ArcView was to reach out to different cannabis investors and cannabis companies because we see that the film is really almost like an indirect marketing investment for them,” Epstein said.
While more states seem to be considering legalization, a Gallup Poll released on November 6, 2014, revealed that 47 percent of Americans do not support marijuana legalization. When almost half of the country opposes legal marijuana, the industry stands to benefit from a film that will invite mainstream society to reconsider marijuana as medicine.
If making a documentary to change people’s minds seems like an impossible task, that is not what Lake and Epstein are trying to do. “I don’t look at it as trying to change people’s minds, I look at it as opening their minds,” Lake said. This vantage point will prevent the film from proselytizing to its viewers, encouraging the conversation to continue after the film has ended.
In order for this conversation to prosper, the film needs to secure its last round of funding. “We’re getting closer. I would say we’re within $150,000 of our goal so it’s really the last $150,000 that we’re looking for,” Epstein explained. She noted that while they are still accepting donations via the film’s website, they are also hoping that a few larger donations will help propel the film to its completion:
“We’re trying more now to look at where we can maybe get some marketing money for some sponsorships and branding opportunities for companies or the pocketed individuals that are really supportive of this movement that would want to write a check in exchange for producer credit.”
If you have capital ready to commit to the legal marijuana industry’s future, then investing in “Weed the People” is an opportunity to make an ancillary investment that will bolster the industry’s potential for success.
Documentary films are known for converging art, anthropology, exposition and reflection. By using these elements, “Weed the People” will frame specific observable realities vital to the progression of integrative medicine.
And while opponents may continue to ignore marijuana’s medical potential, the filmmakers are ready to showcase legitimate developments in the scientific community. “People think it’s about a feel good thing, that it’s all about a high that masks pain, but we’re talking about things that are beyond symptom alleviation and palliative care,” Epstein said.
Epstein continued to illuminate the big picture in a way that paraphrasing cannot capture:
“All of the research that we see that’s being done with the cannabis plant is the most exciting, groundbreaking research on some of the most insidious diseases that we’re facing—cancer, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune—these are diseases that affect every single person you know and their extended family. When people see the film and understand the science, they will understand this isn’t a marginalized issue for this tiny subset of severe epileptics; this is the potential of an important tool in the arsenal of health that is really being overlooked right now. Everybody should have some sort of interest in this because down the line you may be needing this medication.”
Lake and Epstein hope to have the film completed by the end of 2015. “There are so many parents that are just at their wits’ end trying to get this information about something that could save their child’s life,” Lake said. Upon the release of “Weed the People,” these parents will have a new place to start.