SXSW panel: SEC updates change the crowdfunding scene

Thousands of actors, producers, and filmmakers assembled for this year’s South by Southwest Film Conference & Festival to attend screenings, keynotes, and workshops. At the Austin Convention Center, attorney Dan Satorius was on hand to offer advice to independent filmmakers hoping to raise money in support of their projects.

During his panel “Other People’s Money: Investors and Crowdfunding,” Satorius, who practices entertainment law in Minneapolis, Minnesota, walked through the details of finance rules and answered questions on how to avoid legal pitfalls when funding a film.

While Satorius touched on the history of Blue Sky Laws and the felonies, fines, and suits that can come from not complying with investing regulations, he also devoted time to talking about safe harbor regulations and the 2012 JOBS Act, which has changed the way filmmakers can receive investments.

In 2013, in compliance with the Act, the Securities and Exchange Commission adopted an amendment to Rule 506 of Regulation D under the Securities Act of 1933. Among other details, the change allows general solicitation for offerings if investors can be verified as accredited. Prior to the update, companies were not allowed to engage in advertising in connection with offerings, including announcements in newspaper or online spaces.

While the amendment comes with some fine print, such as a list of verification methods for determining who is considered an “accredited investor,” it seems to be a game-changer for filmmakers.

The panel wrapped up with a Q&A.

SXSW documentaries focus on legal issues

Two films with vastly different themes highlighted legal matters during the South by Southwest Film tract this year.

In A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story,audiences were introduced to Lizzie, a 25-year-old Texan with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight. Lizzie’s appearance made her a victim of bullying throughout school and the hurtful behavior peaked at age 17, when she discovered a YouTube video of herself, uploaded by a stranger, titled “World’s Ugliest Woman.” It had millions of views and thousands of hateful comments.

Lizzie decided to take action by creating her own positive YouTube channel and working against bullying. Since making waves with an inspirational TEDx talk in 2013, she has presented her story on stages around the world and she is now taking her cause to Capitol Hill.

In A Brave Heart, Lizzie meets with lawmakers to discuss the federal Safe Schools Improvement Act, which, among other policies, would prohibit bullying and harassment in educational environments. Lizzie joined the crew of A Brave Heart at Monday’s showing, answered questions from the audience, and explained her plans to meet with additional legislators.

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Producers took audiences under the hood of the Internet in Deep Web, which had three showings during SXSW. The film centers on the story of Austin native Ross Ulbricht and his connection to Silk Road, a now-defunct but often replicated anonymous online market for drugs and other illegal goods.

In 2013, Ulbricht was arrested and charged with narcotics trafficking and computer hacking, among other offenses, performed under the alias of Dread Pirate Roberts. While Ulbricht was found guilty in February, the film addressed some of the questions surrounding the case, including Ulbricht’s Fourth Amendment rights, the evidence that was allowed during trial, and the possibility of multiple users with the D.P.R. moniker.

Additionally, interviews with everyone from professors and cybercrime investigators to open-source programmers and digital drug vendors offered a glimpse into the philosophy and intricacies behind the Silk Road itself, including the use of Bitcoins during transactions, the reiterations of the site since it was shut down, and arguments against the War on Drugs.

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Michael Morton film, 'a great human story,' now available on DVD

By now, the basic narrative of the Michael Morton story is well known. A Texas man serves nearly 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder, only to be set free after DNA tests exonerate him. 

But to know the facts is different from feeling their emotional weight. In An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, now available on DVD, director Al Reinert takes viewers on a gut-wrenching journey through the case, from the 1986 crime scene to courtrooms and prison cells and, finally, to the moment in 2011 when Morton exited the Williamson County Courthouse a free man. Along the way, we hear from Morton what it felt like to be labeled a monster, to lose his freedom and his son, and to find no relief in the justice system for years until a team of dedicated attorneys came to his aid.

Although the story ends in punishment for the district attorney who tried Morton’s case, the focus here is not revenge. Morton’s pursuit of justice is tempered with mercy, as shown when he urges a judge to “be gentle” with Ken Anderson, the former prosecutor who served five days in jail and surrendered his law license after pleading guilty in November to criminal contempt for withholding exculpatory evidence during Morton’s 1987 trial. Grace, as the Austin American-Statesman noted in its review, is the film’s guiding energy.


An Unreal Dream premiered at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival, winning the Audience Award in the Documentary Spotlight category, and was featured on CNN in December. It is now available to stream or download on iTunes, or on DVD from Amazon and First Run Features.

DVD extras include highlights from Anderson’s court of inquiry and plea deal hearings, footage from the SXSW premiere, and an audience Q&A from the Houston Cinema Arts Festival featuring Morton, Reinert, and Houston attorney John Raley, who worked pro bono with the New York-based Innocence Project to free Morton.

“Stories are what matter in human communication,” Reinert says during the Q&A. “And this was always and continues to be a great human story.”


Dallas lawyer takes top prize at film festival

The Beacon posterThe Beacon, a supernatural thriller produced by Dallas lawyer Sally Helppie, took top honors at the Paranoia Horror Film Festival in California on March 15. The festival's goal is to find "the next great thing in horror each and every year." Helppie, of counsel to Tipton Jones, is co-founder and president of Sabbatical Pictures, a Dallas-based independent film production company. The Beacon, which won the Best Feature Film prize, was shot in Waxahachie and Dallas using Texas crews and several local actors. The second movie produced by Helppie, The Beacon stars Teri Polo (of Meet the Parents fame) as a grieving mother who becomes obsessed with delivering a message to her dead son. Helppie's first film, Exit Speed, an action picture starring Lea Thompson and Fred Ward, also was filmed in Dallas and is now available on DVD. Helppie is currently fielding offers to distribute The Beacon. Go here to view the trailer.

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