Photo © Brett Culp Films.
Brett Culp is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has parlayed his gift for storytelling into a global initiative to inspire hope, heroism, and what he terms “everyday leadership.” Through films, public speaking engagements, and The Rising Heroes Project – the nonprofit organization he co-founded – Brett uplifts audiences with unwavering optimism and a message of personal empowerment. His work is on Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms, and he has been featured in USA Today, Entertainment Tonight, WIRED, The LA Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Lifetime, WEtv, and many more.
Photo © Brett Culp Films.
Tell me about yourself and your background. What did you want to be when you were a kid and how did you end up where you are now?
When I was a little kid, I can remember my dad bringing home a video camera for the first time. It was his intention for that camera to be used to capture memories of our family, but I put it to work for much bigger things. I started taking my action figures and creating little stop-motion animation movies, where I played all the voices. When my friends and I would get together, they thought we were going to play football in the backyard, but I knew we were going to be making movies that I had scripted and planned out, and they were going to be characters in my little film.
When I was in college, I needed to find a way to make some money. The only job I could find was at Target at 3 a.m., but I didn’t want to keep doing that. I put fliers all over the college campus advertising video services and ended up getting calls to do weddings. The first wedding that I filmed for $150 – which was absolutely terrible quality – turned into a 15-year business that I started and ran, focused on weddings and special events. At one point, I had 10 people working full-time and we were very focused on the luxury market. We were filming weddings with million-dollar budgets all over the world and were very much on the cutting edge of that industry.
The clients I had would pull me into other projects. Someone on the board of directors for a charity in Haiti needed a 10-minute video to fundraise for that, so they would send me to Haiti for a week. I learned through that process how to create moving, touching, heartwarming little documentary films. After a while, I realized that I was skilled at not just doing this work for hire, but that I really had the skills, the heart and the vision to do documentary films.
Photos © Brett Culp Films.
Filmmaker Brett Culp in Haiti.
One of your best-known films is your first film, Legends of the Knight, which has such an interesting backstory. How did that project come about?
I had a vision to do a documentary film about the power of stories – how stories impact us and affect us – and I was looking for a way to communicate that effectively. I’m a lifelong superhero fan – Batman is my favorite – and I realized that Batman was the perfect way to talk about it. By talking to people who had been inspired by Batman when they were little kids – and, through that inspiration, the hero spirit was built into them as grown-ups – we could really talk about the power of heroic stories working in the world and in our lives. That movie became Legends of the Knight.
Most filmmakers make their first movie and no one cares. But, because of the experience I had over so many years, I was not only working on my craft, but learning how to market, how to sell and network; and, because of some luck and some blessings on the project, that movie was a viral low-budget hit. There was a lot of interest in it and I got a ton of press coverage because of it.
We decided it was an opportunity – if I wanted it – to break into the bigger Hollywood scene in the movie industry. But, instead of focusing on monetizing it, we decided to go in a very different direction. We said, “How can we do the most good with this movie? How can we make the biggest impact? How can the method of distributing this film match the message of the film?”
We launched an initiative that allowed anyone in the world to request a screening of Legends of the Knight in their local movie theater, with the proceeds of those screenings going to whatever charity they chose. The proceeds that would have come to my company got donated instead. We didn’t know if anyone would do that. We had no marketing budget, no PR budget, no promotional budget, no paid staff managing it. Yet, it became a wonderful movement where people all over the world requested screenings, and Legends of the Knight ended up screening in 110 cities with more than $100,000 donated to charity.
How did that experience affect your career going forward?
That experience really changed my life. It changed the way I saw my work and my career, and what I could do in the world when I opened my heart up to it. I saw the capacity all of us have to use our work to make a difference, and the capacity that every single person we ever meet has to do something extraordinary, even if they’ve never done it before. We all have this ability to do something wonderful – to be that kind of hero.
Watching that first movie of mine come to life – not only to be a film that I was very proud of, but to watch that movement happen around it – was really beautiful and inspiring. It changed everything about what I did. It really launched me in a brand-new direction for my work.
It’s quite a remarkable story. A few times you mentioned “we” – was there someone else involved in the decision making?
The “we” is me and my wife Tricia. At the time, she was more of an advisor, but now she is much more a part of these projects and she is a producer on every single one of them.
Photo © Brett Culp Films.
Talking to an audience during a keynote presentation with a photo of Brett and his family at the premiere of his documentary film Legends of the Knight in the background.
What you described with Legends of the Knight was a radical idea requiring a leap of faith, especially with no guarantee that it would work out for you financially. What was it within you that allowed you to take that risk?
The fortunate thing was that we had run two crowdfunding campaigns to make the project happen, and those two campaigns raised about $80,000. Those funds covered the hard costs of making the film, so I wasn’t coming to the distribution process with any debt. I didn’t owe anybody any money. I hadn’t put any money on my credit card, nor had I taken any financing from anyone else. So, I had the full freedom to make the decision.
The risk was that here I was with this film – the trailer had gone viral and we had already gotten a lot of press coverage – so here was an opportunity for this to be my breakthrough into a Hollywood career. The risk was, do I go down that route, or do I go with the heart that I had that launched the project, which was more about wanting to do something good in the world and wanting to share my voice as an artist. Because the trailer had done so well, the question was, how do we want to spend that good will that we have with the world?
There were people in the film industry that I talked to about this who told me it was a silly idea; a crazy idea. One of the primary risks was that, if the initiative had flopped, it could have tanked the whole project. If you sit down with a platform like Netflix or Hulu, one of the questions they’re going to ask is, “How did the actual go?” If you have to say to them, “Well, we had this weird idea, but it was a total bomb, and because we were focused on the charity initiative, we didn’t do any film festivals,” that is going to flavor the way they look at your movie before they ever watch it.
The real risk wasn’t so much financial. It was that I could have had this wonderful moment that would’ve led to nothing. But I was willing to take the risk. It was not so much a question of whether it was the right thing to do; it was the right thing for me to do. I knew that this was what I was supposed to do, and I couldn’t violate that. I couldn’t not do what I had been called to do with this movie.
I had to trust that it was going to work out, even though I didn’t know how it was going to work out. But something good was going to come from this that was beyond something I could have planned or strategized. What I really feel about it – if you’ll allow me – is that God had a plan for this.
Photo © Brett Culp Films.
Taking a minute to get centered before speaking to an inspiring group of people in Miami, Florida.
(End, Part 1)
Brett Culp's work has inspired audiences around the world. He has been the personal cinematographer for Hollywood stars, music icons, beloved authors, hall of fame athletes, and royal families. With his uplifting documentary film Legends of the Knight, Brett pioneered a ground-breaking approach to community building and relationship-driven engagement. For Brett, his experience with Legends of the Knight re-framed leadership for him as an art form that invites people to connect with a noble vision and make a difference together. His film projects are collaborative efforts, pulling diverse groups of people into dialogue and ultimately leading to stronger communities and greater impact. Brett has developed an expertise for creating 'mini-movements' that inspire the heroic spirit in everyone. His work as a filmmaker empowers people to find their own path to leadership. Brett is co-founder of The Rising Heroes Project, a 501c3 that supports charitable organizations. Visit his website www.BrettCulp.com and Facebook page.
Legends of the Knight is a documentary film that tells the true stories of individuals who were inspired to become real-life heroes because of their childhood love of Batman. The film expresses the power all of us have to be heroic and has inspired viewers of all ages to embrace their inner superhero. The film has screened in cities, with proceeds benefiting charities and the families they serve. Each screening has become an evening of inspiration and heroic possibilities for families - with superhero costumes & capes - while raising awareness and funds for charity. Over 60 charities have benefited, including Ronald McDonald House, Make-A-Wish, St Jude's, Boys & Girls Club, MDA, Special Olympics, children's hospitals, and more. If you are interested in learning more about Legends of the Knight, click here.
Look to the Sky is a documentary film that explores the uplifting true stories of 10 young people who have demonstrated the spirit of Superman. Weaving together their stories, Look to the Sky is a touching journey into what is possible for the world and for our own lives. This feature-length documentary from filmmaker Brett Culp explores the power of hope and the importance of positive ideas while encouraging viewers to find the superhero within themselves. The film is screened around the world, with proceeds benefiting charitable efforts.
Learn more about the film at: www.RisingHero.org.
The journey to make this film was so inspiring for Brett as a filmmaker that at the end of the process he found there was so much more to say. So he poured all of those things into this companion book for Look to the Sky. This first book by Brett is an encouraging and insightful adventure behind the concepts and stories in the film. Watch the documentary film Look to the Sky, and then read the companion book to get a behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking journey with these real-life heroes. Discover the power and depth of their stories, and uncover a renewed sense of possibility for yourself and the world around you. To learn more about the companion book for Look to the Sky, click here.
About Brett Culp: A filmmaker, keynote speaker, social entrepreneur, Brett is co-founder of the not-for-profit, The Rising Heroes Project, which produces films and other creative projects that inspire viewers to overcome personal adversity and engage with the world in a positive way. Brett believes that uplifting, real-life stories with messages of hope, courage, and commitment have the power to create lasting change. He is known for the films Legends of the Knight and Look to the Sky, both of which explore the power of heroic stories and heroic individuals to inspire us to believe in a better tomorrow. Brett's forthcoming film, A Voice That Carries, is a documentary film inspiring dads to have a positive impact on their daughters' lives! As a keynote speaker, Brett is passionate and energetic. He encourages audiences to find the superhero within and their own path to "everyday leadership." His insights on connecting individuals to an organization's mission and goals resonate, help us realize our greatest personal and business potential, and renew our collective sense of hope for the future and belief that our efforts can make an impact.