Sonoma County filmmaker Jake Viramontez giving good works away: ‘Storytelling moves people’
Jake Viramontez calls what he does “storytelling for social good.”
And it’s good storytelling.
Viramontez, 33, is a commercial filmmaker. His client list has included Chevrolet, Pepsi and Panda Express.
His job put him on a plane a lot so he and his wife decided that because he could fly out of any airport, they could move north from Los Angeles to Graton. They have been in Sonoma County a little more than a year.
And it’s from here that Viramontez has launched Free Exposure — a nonprofit venture created to craft documentary films about other nonprofit organizations at zero cost to the groups.
“At the beginning of this year I was walking my dog on the Joe Rodota Trail and I’m thinking ‘I miss being around those people, I miss being around something bigger than myself,” he said. “So I decided to give the films away.”
‘This isn’t where I want to be’
Viramontez’s interest in filmmaking started in high school. He volunteered his time and honed his talents doing film work for nonprofits in the far reaches of the world. But a guy’s gotta make a buck, so he started doing commercial work.
“If you want to make money, you have to be a commercial director,” he said. “That was cool, that was fun and I grew a lot. I guess you could say I leveled up professionally. I learned a lot of cinematography. But this isn’t where I want to be.”
His mind kept returning to the kind of film work that truly moved him. He wanted to help tell the stories of people and groups doing good works, whatever that may look like.
He launched Free Exposure.
He figured he could afford to do four free films in a year. But for which organizations?
He decided to ask for proposals: Tell me about your organization. Who do you serve? What makes you unique?
In exchange he asked for time and access but no money. He’d do it all for free.
Turns out all of that commercial work gave him skills to be a one-man-band when he needed to.
“I can gift these films free of charge because I didn’t need to bring anybody with me,” he said. “My whole life basically led me to this.”
‘It’s a huge boon for us’
The first short film featured Our Own, an LA-based nonprofit that offers kids from underserved neighborhoods access to college preparation and business internships. The second? Ceres Community Project in Sebastopol.
Viramontez highlighted the story of Ceres volunteer Hannah Ricioli.
Local sports fans will remember Ricioli as a powerhouse wrestler for El Molino High School, where she took second in the CIF Championships as a junior in 2020, a two-time folkstyle wrestling All-American and a Junior Folkstyle National Champion.
But she was also, before graduating high school last spring and heading to Stanford University this fall, a Ceres volunteer. And before that, she was a Ceres recipient.
In his 6-minute documentary about Ceres Community Project, Viramontez tells the story of how when Ricioli was 8, she watched her mom, Mindy, battle cancer. Ceres provided their family healthy meals and a human connection during a rough time.
Ricioli’s mom beat the cancer. On Hannah’s 16th birthday, the newly minted driver didn’t take the family car out for a cruise, she drove to a Ceres volunteer meeting. Viramontez told that story too.
“It’s a huge boon for us,” said Deborah Ramelli, communications director for Ceres. “It tells a story, a very personal story, this is very moving, that so many people can relate to in a way that we haven’t been able to do in that in-depth (way) before.”
Ceres officials, who have seen demand for organic, healthy, food-as-medicine meals skyrocket during the coronavirus pandemic, screened the film at a recent fundraiser. They have since sent it out to media outlets and posted it on social media.
“It will endure for a while,” Ramelli said.
‘Let’s give instead’
The timing for Free Exposure is painfully perfect.
Fundraisers, in the age of the coronavirus, are not what they used to be. It’s been almost two years since gala dinners were a regular thing, or wine tasting events dotted calendars or there were crowded meet-and-greets every weekend. Making money with social events is now incredibly tricky.
At the same time, most nonprofits are seeing demand for their services soar as people grapple with the fallout, financial and otherwise, from a pandemic.
So Viramontez’s plan fits neatly into a new reality where there are fewer extravagant fundraising dinners with live auctions and more low-key funding requests. A short, moving film can help nonprofit groups tell their story and gin up financial support, he said.
“A story can raise so much money in just a single email blast,” Viramontez said. “People who can’t come to a fundraiser or a gathering, they can watch a film. They can click ‘Play.’ People are moved by it and, ideally, they are crying six minutes into it, thinking ‘Here I am crying’ and thinking about going to my bank account and taking $500 out.’”