Film Courage: [I’m] wondering with the $25,000 initial grant [for THE MILLIONAIRES’ UNIT], when did you realize you needed more and then how did you end up getting more funding? What was your process?
Darroch Greer: Well, we knew we needed more and we got to know two grandsons of the First Yale Unit Members (Harry Davison in Manhattan and Mike Davison in Atlanta) they are cousins and share a grandfather Trubee Davison and we asked them to be on our fundraising committee. I think for three and a half years every Thursday morning at 6:00 a.m. (West Coast time) we would talk to them about people they knew, foundations they might be aware of to raise money and we wrote a lot of letters.
And Ron and I we’d go these coasts to interview people and do production and film planes or whatever we’d do. Then we’d go to New York and show whatever we had at the Dolby Screening Room there and try to get people to write checks for us there. And we’d get $100 here and a $100 there and it wasn’t really doing it.
But Ron started writing a quarterly newsletter and we started collecting email addresses and sending this out and letting them know it was going and gradually it got out to more and more foundations. We learned that there was a level of foundations and money that you don’t really hear about that wealthy families have to give away X amount of money every year for tax purposes. So there were people who had some relation to the story whether it was through Yale, whether it was through the Navy or whether they just wanted to see a patriotic story being told.
And we kept trying for a corporate sponsor. We worked on JPMorgan for over two years because originally Trubee Davison, the young guy who had founded the unit’s father, was JPMorgan’s business partner. And JPMorgan had given the first Yale Unit $100,000 to get started and buy airplanes and so we knew some people working at Morgan and said “We’d like the same amount of money, adjusted for inflation and we were asking for $200,000.”
All the time we were working on it, every week in the news there would just be horrible reports about corporate behavior and Jamie Dimon and they’ve done this and they’ve done that. We still wanted the money and in the end it fell through and I think sort of out of embarrassment and kindness they gave us $25,000, which helped.
In the end our corporate sponsor was FedEx and we had wanted to go to them for a long time because Fred Smith (the founder) went to Yale, he started the the Yale Aero Club and I think he was a Marine? Or he flew with the Navy (I think in Vietnam) or at least during Vietnam.
And so we were sure he’d be at all aware of the story and indeed it was a story that really meant something to him. He was also a member of Skull and Bones the way probably 5 of these First Unit Yale guys were, as well. And so in the end, yeah they came through with the last $150,000 that we need to help finish the film.
Ron King: In terms of the other little bit on fundraising that I’ll mention is that our fundraising was always driven by necessity. It wasn’t like we were trying to raise money randomly to say “Oh we would like to raise $250,000.” Nothing was it like that. It was always based on necessity. So as we were developing the script and we started editing, we’d realize there was a big chunk that we needed to do somewhere to film or a group of people we need to interview and then we’d budget for those particular parts of the film. So yes we had an overall budget for the film, but as we went along over those 7 years, we kind of did mini-budgets where we said “Oh we need to do that particular shoot. How much is that particular shoot going to cost? It’s going to cost…” And we’d break it all down, travel, whatever else was involved. And then our fundraising efforts would drive toward fulfilling that particular chunk.
Darroch Greer: So in the newsletter we’d say, we need $25,000 to film a Sopwith Camel or we need $20,000 for our composer, those were two things that we really put out there saying “This is the next big thing we need.” And we would be out of money at each of these stages.
Film Courage: And this was a quarterly newsletter you said that you made?
Ron King: It was intended to be a quarterly newsletter and most of the time it was quarterly, a couple times it was off-schedule but generally it was quarterly.
Film Courage: I find that fascinating, so you would weave in different things or stories [into the newsletter] and then you would have what was next for the final part of the film?
Ron King: As a matter of fact, the first thing we did before we even started fundraising seriously was that we actually put our website together first. Which was kind of a little weird way of doing it. And what we did as part of our website, we put up the imagery that we already had and we started to create kind of a historical, online museum as it were and the website that we put up is actually still up there today.
But that gave us kind of somewhere where our potential contributors, followers could go and see what we were about and what we were trying to do over time and as people got on the email list, there was the added reach (outreach) with the newsletter.
Darroch Greer: Actually the very first thing we did after we put together the non-profit organization and got our board together (which were friends of ours) is Ron and I put together a PowerPoint presentation of what the story was and they all fell asleep.
Film Courage: Oh no! Was this at some kind of a mixer or something?
Darroch Greer: No it was at my house and here’s the story and I applied them with wine…
Film Courage: That was the problem.
Darroch Greer: And they all fell asleep.
About the film:
Seven years in the making and filmed on three continents, The Millionaires’ Unit documentary tells the dramatic story of a group of Yale students who were the first to fly for America in WW1, some of them making the ultimate sacrifice.
WATCH THE MILLIONAIRES UNIT
CONNECT WITH DARROCH GREER
CONNECT WITH RON KING