1 Minute Meal is asking for viewer donations. Here’s why.

TL;DR = The third season of 1 Minute Meal has delivered an inclusive, uplifting portrait of diversity at a time when diversity as an American value is at risk. Having reached over 100,000 people with its stories and with the potential for distribution to many more people in the US and abroad, this season is still about $10,000 away from breaking even on its costs. If you believe in the value of these 30 stories, then please click here to donate whatever you think they’re worth.

Your contribution will help these stories reach a broader audience by helping me screen and market the series at web series festivals and distribution fairs (some of which I’ve already had to turn down because I can’t afford to attend). Your contribution will also enable my ongoing work as an independent filmmaker devoted to making a social impact.

When you donate, your name will be added to the list of “Absolutely Wonderful Series Donors” on Facebook, on the 1 Minute Meal Web Site and at festival screening credits. If you donate $50 or more, I’ll personally write you a haiku including a word of your choice.

Here’s why I’m asking:

  1. This series has already made a difference.
  2. Your donation will empower my work to make media more inclusive.
  3. This kind of storytelling depends on financial support from viewers.
  4. Developing more innovative ways to make money is a sixth job I can’t take on yet.
  5. Emotional costs are harder to absorb when you’re bleeding money.

If you’re not satisfied by the short story, then scroll down for the details :)

Reason #1: This series has already made a difference.

Cover photo by Donnelly Marks.

1 Minute Meal set out to create a more inclusive and dignified media portrayal of the American dream, and season 3 achieved this goal with (pun intended) flying colors. Here’s how the work was received by some of the people who participated in it and covered it:

  • “…a compelling and humanizing portrait of the people behind New York’s sprawling food world.” — Grub Street NY
  • “…explore the essential roles food plays in our lives: building communities, rebuilding lost homes in new places, and strengthening connections to the past — all with plenty of real talk of the endless challenges of running a small business and remotely creative enterprise in today’s New York.” — Saveur
  • “Consumption is an important part of food, but we like to get beyond that as well. Who are the people behind the food? What are the cultural stories behind the food? How does it relate to the city? And when you look at James’ work, it’s pretty amazing in how it peels back the layers.” — Peter Kim, Executive Director of MOFAD, speaking on Sinovision
  • “He chose to not focus on the spices but rather our efforts and challenges as entrepreneurs and mothers. Between the two of us we have 7 kids — ages 12 and under! Every day is a new adventure and a new challenge!!” -Freda and Doaa, owners of Spice Tree Organics
  • “Every day find something that brings you great joy. For me, it’s telling stories to young people, and empowering them to be proud of who they are so that they can be great and positively change the world.” -Cindy S. Johnson, Haitian American author
  • “Thank you very much James Boo and MOFAD team…it was great event. To meeting with amazing people listening their real life story reminding me where i am standing. Passion is everything. I felt like discover a whole new world. It moves me next level i want to be more active and organized and listen to all my supporters and family, business partners, people who surrounding me.” -Byamba Darinchuluun, Mongolian cultural ambassador in NYC

Reason #2: Your donation will empower my work to make media more inclusive.

I don’t have the wherewithal to write a think piece about representation in media, but I can offer my go-to example of what 1 Minute Meal does not do:

Speaking as a producer of stories, the phrase “There was no attempt to exclude _____” is laziness at best. A journalist’s purpose is to identify and build the story that’s hiding in plain sight. Inclusion is the logical result of going outside your social structure, to present perspectives different from your own.

Doing this work can certainly go against maximizing revenue. That’s a valid business concern for Time Magazine, but it’s not why I make films. For comparison, here’s my production dashboard:

43% of stories in 1 Minute Meal present the voices of women (53% of stories in Season 3). 74% of women featured in the series are people of color. Throughout the series I’ve tried to track and counteract my biases. I’ve never hit a moment where I wasn’t telling the best story possible and fulfilling the series’ social mission. We live in a big world, and my main concern is having the time to cover it well.

If you agree, and want to keep my approach to storytelling in the mix, then please donate for the cause. If you want to know more about how much the cause costs, then keep reading.

Reason #3: This kind of storytelling depends on financial support from viewers.

While there is plenty of short video content on social media, seeing the economics behind 1 Minute Meal might help you understand why I’m asking for donations. There’s a lot of detail in this section, so to simplify, think of 1 Minute Meal like your favorite podcast:

While some of their budget comes from grants and advertising, every great program does ask for listener support in some way. But if you’ve read this far, you probably want to get into the weeds, so let’s do that.

Part 1: What it takes

1 Minute Meal is an independent series, mostly funded out of pocket by me. This is possible because over the past 20 years the barriers to entry for digital video production, post-production, and distribution have gone down immensely.

That said, making high-quality video is still costly. It’s much more costly than, say, reporting and writing a long form article or documenting a story in photographs. In addition to the cost of equipment to capture video and audio, there are the costs of storage, backup, editing, scoring, and all of the other steps that go into creating a little film studio.

Note: This chart doesn’t include the ~$7,000 I’ve spent on video and audio equipment over the past five years.

Labor is the greatest contributor to cost. To keep that cost down while keeping quality high, I quit my day job and did the following jobs myself, at the rate of roughly $9.50 per hour:

  1. Director: Give the work a purpose and channel the team’s creative skills towards fulfilling that purpose. Decide what each story should be, and lead the filming and editing processes to ensure that the final product will reflect that decision.
  2. Producer: Manage the budget, timeline, team, and every twist that will inevitably pop up to make the work difficult. Make sure that the director’s vision will become a reality by planning and supervising every step towards the final product.
  3. Cinematographer: Draw on technical camera skills, artistic experience, and collaboration to capture all visuals in alignment with the director’s vision.
  4. Sound Engineer: Draw on technical recording skills to ensure that audio from the events filmed will be of high quality and available for use by the editor.
  5. Editor: Given raw video and audio, build the concrete narrative that will realize the director’s vision as effectively as possible. Ensure that the events filmed will actually become a story that people besides the director will watch and enjoy.

To fulfill the social mission of this season, I also competed with 50+ other storytellers to win 1 of 4 JustFilms fellowships sponsored by the Ford Foundation, which gave me a workspace for me to pursue my goals. I applied for and won grants from the NY Media Center and The Awesome Foundation to pay for an assistant editor, a composer, and an opening night screening at the Museum of Food and Drink that would actually be affordable to the public ($15 a head).

The remaining cost of labor in Season 3 (as seen in the chart above) was my personal cost of living for four months. I was happy to pay those costs out of my savings and work without any additional pay for between 55–85 hours per week, because I believe in the social impact of the series and have faith that this impact will create new opportunities for me as a storyteller. I would, however, love to make some of my rent and food money back, so I have the time to find and cultivate these opportunities. Your donation will help buy that time.

Part 2: What it makes (and doesn’t make)

Here are the numbers for Season 3 (30 stories):

  • 108,867 Facebook Video plays over 1.5 months
  • -$18,032 in expenses
  • +$2,325 in licensing fees
  • +$6,000 in grants
  • Loss of $9,707

Here’s how those numbers compare to Seasons 1+2 (37 stories):

  • 48,127 Vimeo plays over 15 months
  • -$9,737 in expenses
  • +$3,000 in licensing fees
  • Loss of $6,737

I’ve spent $600 per episode of this season. I’ve made back around $225 per episode, leaving $375 per episode to recoup.

That said, the social return on investment was immense: Season 3 delivered 119% more views than Seasons 1 and 2 at 44% greater loss… in 10% of the time. Please note that I’m being conservative with these metrics, focusing on views because I don’t believe that measuring “impressions” or “Facebook reach” are valid measures of success.

I attribute this season’s success to the straight-to-web collaboration that I established with my arts and media partners (MOFAD, Edible Manhattan, Edible Brooklyn, Edible Bronx, Edible Queens, and SI Live). By working together, taking advantage of the Facebook video platform, and creating a community-driven media event, we broke new ground in how local publishers can deliver meaningful stories to people where they need it the most.

All that said, we’re very far from a sustainable new media model. This season would not have succeeded if I had (a) not been able to do five jobs at once, (b) not had the cash savings to pay my bills for four months, or (c) been injured or ill at any time during those four months. Given that I was working up to 85 hours a week, it was kind of a miracle that the whole thing didn’t go off the rails (also a shorthand for all of life in New York City, which I’m sure y’all appreciate).

Part 3: What doesn’t work… yet

OK, but what about existing models? Why didn’t I produce this season “the old-fashioned way”?

This diagram is one way to think about how an indie film earns revenue:

The key thing to take away here is that the income that independent films can earn is tied to an outdated structure of how media is actually distributed, marketed, and consumed today. The mismatch is even worse for 1 Minute Meal. Consider the following questions:

  • Could you imagine watching 1 Minute Meal in a movie theatre?
  • Do collections of 60-second documentaries have any place on television?
  • Do Netflix or HBO Go have channels for 60-second stories made by no-name directors? And how much would they pay for such a thing?
  • Does a distributor like Edible Queens (a locally owned magazine) have enough money to fund a series in the way that Netflix or Amazon would at the national scale?
  • Do the most successful Youtube channels (i.e. the ones with enough followers and output to sell ads and sponsorships) look anything like 1 Minute Meal? Could 1 Minute Meal keep up with a Youtube star whose production takes place inside their home?
  • Have any of the new media video apps and brands that have licensed 1 Minute Meal’s stories from Season 1 and Season 2 ever returned any kind of profit to the series?
  • Once most of these opportunities for recouping revenue are take off the table for 1 Minute Meal, will its 105,000 Facebook Video views and 750 Facebook followers attract a serious amount of advertising revenue?

These are the kinds of questions I ask myself all the time, and the answer to almost every one is “no” or “nothing.” The reason I do the work anyway is because I believe the answer to some of these questions (and perhaps the questions themselves) will change. I want to be a part of that change. I think the best way for me to do that is to produce more good work.

Filmmakers and artists are no stranger to this feeling. It’s understood in the film industry that documentaries make little to no money. For a more nimble production like 1 Minute Meal, creating the work is easier, but achieving paid distribution is harder.

That’s why, at this point in time, it makes more sense for me to ask you for a donation than to swim against a waterfall.

Reason #4: Developing more innovative ways to make money is a sixth job that I can’t take on yet.

I’m sure that there has always been a better way to fund the production of 1 Minute Meal. I’m also sure that I’ve never had the time to figure out what that way is. I’ve spent the past five years becoming a competent filmmaker and team leader. Before that I spent ten years of nights and weekends becoming a competent writer, editor, and photographer.

Developing all of these skills to a point where I can deliver something like 1 Minute Meal has already taken more time and energy than is healthy for anyone. Adding the very challenging work of fundraising and marketing would probably kill me, and my work along with it.

I’ve tried delegating or outsourcing this role, and I’m still on the lookout for a long-term producing partner to create more opportunities for my films to be made; however, if I had made the revenue model a priority, then you would not be reading this letter and would not have seen a third season of 1 Minute Meal. My talent and privilege and work ethic only go so far, so this year I decided to spend all of it on making the work (something I definitely can do), not re-inventing the new media landscape (something I probably can’t do).

Moving forward, I hope that the success of this series (along with your donation) will give me more time and space to find funding partners, build out a more stable team, and really hack away at the future of documentary.

Reason #5: Emotional costs are harder to absorb when you’re bleeding money.

When I’m producing a film (which has been almost all the time for the past three years), here are some things I tend to not have time or energy to do:

  • Exercise
  • Enjoy my weeknights and weekends
  • Take a vacation where I’m not working every day of it
  • See my roommates
  • Contribute my time to local organizing groups
  • Meet other filmmakers and build relationships with them
  • Find a life partner
  • Feel my feelings

This is my personal choice, and it absolutely isn’t up to viewers to change or reconcile what I put myself through. I’d just like you to imagine (or more realistically, to think of your own experience with) what it’s like to give this much of yourself to something that you know is your calling and that you know moves people when they see it… then wake up to the fact that you’re still $10,000 in the hole.

That feeling of not being sustainable — not anything else about my work, my skill, my shortcomings, my mistakes, my mission, or my impact — is the only thing that makes me doubt what I do. I know it’s my responsibility to make this work. I’ve got a ways to go, and your donation will give me the time and the positivity to get there.

Here’s the list of 1 Minute Meal’s absolutely wonderful series donors:

  • Alex Roussos
  • Alexander Thebez
  • Anne Mitchell
  • Anne Thomas
  • Ariel Mitnick
  • Charles Bibilos
  • Charles Harrington
  • Chris Rosenbaum
  • Christian Moscardi
  • David Boyk and Michele Jonas
  • David Yourdon
  • Donnelly Marks
  • Doug Frey
  • Erin Case
  • Gizem Küçükoğlu
  • George Davis
  • Grace Jung and Bobby Lin
  • Jeff Orlick
  • Jesse St. Charles
  • Josh Robinson
  • Mackenzie Smith and Jason Kelley
  • Malcolm Nicholson
  • Max Livingston
  • Mia Chubarova
  • Michelle Kamerath
  • Nicholas Kiswanto
  • Rafi Shamim
  • Robyn Lee
  • Sally Holland
  • Sam Braun
  • Sravan Bhamidipati
  • [Donate to see your name here]

Thanks for reading, watching, and supporting an independent filmmaker.

If nothing else, I hope you found this informative! Regardless of whether or how much you choose to donate, I appreciate your time and attention.

I’d also like to thank my Season 3 team (assistant editor Emily Weeks and composer Dorian Love), who worked extremely hard for meager pay, and will share in the donations if we somehow end up exceeding the series’ break-even point:

You can support them directly by going to dorianlove.com and emilyaweeks.com, respectively. You can also support season 3’s set photographer, Donnelly Marks, by visiting her web site or following her on Instagram.

Of course, I’d like to say thanks one more time to the production funders and media partners who helped 1 Minute Meal fulfill its potential: The Ford Foundation, the Made in NY Media Center by IFP, the NYC Awesome Foundation, the Museum of Food and Drink, Edible Manhattan, Edible Brooklyn, Edible Bronx, Edible Queens, and SILive. Please support these organizations and brands by following their work.

Finally, I’d like to say thanks to all of the cooks, entrepreneurs, and community leaders who opened their doors to become the story. Your voices are important, your work matters, and your presence is a gift to the world.

Thank you all.

James Boo, Director